Data, Design & Delivery: The Three D’s of Digital Print

posted by Dave Ward in Data Design Direct Mail.

abstract dddWe can be highly creative and innovative with digital print, incorporating both variable text and graphics. This can allow us to connect seamlessly and insightfully with our target audience. However, even with the best creative, these objectives can be undermined very quickly if inappropriate data substitutions and/or the structure of the message turn people off.

Today, more than ever, blog posts and tweets are offering us all sorts of advice on effective personalization, data segmentation and cross-selling opportunities. These are great concepts and I like what I am reading. I also see different articles on data hygiene and the value of accurate data, and I like these too. However, having seen some of the finished product and listened to the heartache stemming from some third-party direct marketing (DM) programs, I wonder why I am not seeing more about the actual delivery of the message. And, “delivery” in this context is not referring to Canada Post, the USPS or Joe’s Delivery Service. It’s referring to how some things are being expressed and, not necessarily just what is being said.

Much of how things are said hinges on the vital correlation between how you choose to deliver your message and the quality of your data. Both of these elements must integrate effectively with the overall design of the DM piece.

My early training was in applications systems design and we were always taught to look at what the system was intended to deliver and work back from there. This allowed us to look at each output field and determine if it was to be derived through a process or if it was static information that we could extract from a file.

Interestingly, digital print is also a systems process. So, if we want the end result to look good, we have to design the end product much the same way, visualizing it and determining which data elements will be used and if they will come to us in a static form or be calculated dynamically. Further, sometimes not all data is readily useable and we must plan for these contingencies by having a Plan B and often even a Plan C, so that we can adjust for all eventualities.

D for Data

It goes without saying that most of our clients design DM pieces with appealing graphics and excellent copy. As many of our contacts are seasoned marketers this is their strength. Yet, when it comes to incorporating variable data, we begin to see challenges. And why not? Databases are not usually their strength and data inconsistencies and misconceptions can often be the biggest source of trouble.

If you are a designer and you feel that a little Database 101 is not for you, I urge you to please read on, because what follows can help to minimize the chances of blowing your brains out over what many may consider nothing but menial tedium. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. If you don’t want to be the one, you can certainly pay someone to do it, but at the end of the day, if it’s not done, you could certainly end up paying for it anyhow.

I recognize that what is acceptable in format and manners has changed over the years. Virtually all business letters used to have formal greetings, such as “Dear Mr. Smith”, whereas today our business emails often start with “Hey Bill”. However, I still cringe when I receive a personalized (and I use the term loosely) letter or email that starts out as “Dear DAVE WARD”. It just looks to me like someone didn’t try or couldn’t be bothered to create a more appropriate greeting. After all there are programs that can split fields and do case conversions. And, I’m pleased to say that I don’t think that this is necessarily an age thing, as a “twenty-something” colleague that I was speaking with just last week expressed disdain for a greeting that she received structured as “Hi C. Smith”.

Sometimes people don’t understand data or fail to ask the right questions. Let me ask you this: if you were sending out a personalized DM piece would you like to use any of the following greetings?

  • Dear Mr. _____
  • Dear D.
  • Dear DAVE
  • Dear DAVE WARD
  • Dear dAVE

I would hope not, and would be pleased to show you how you can avoid these challenges, eliminate “impersonal personalization”, connect effectively and keep your campaign dollars working for you, rather than spiraling down the drain.

First of all, if you are dealing with upper case data, you can have your mailing data converted to mixed case. Right off the bat, this will correct the “Dear DAVE” and “Dear dAVE”. Yes, it will also convert “Dear DAVE WARD” to “Dear Dave Ward”, but that is still less than ideal. So, what we want to do next is to parse the contact string into a first name of “Dave” and a last name of “Ward” so that our greeting simply becomes “Dear Dave”. Again, there are techniques that can be used to parse fields, albeit, in some cases some manual intervention may be required. The case conversions and field parsing should be viewed as one-time investments and you should have a way to either a) update your main system or b) have a corresponding, indexed file that your mail service provider can use to update key fields prior to mailing. These things should be discussed with your service provider at the outset, because you shouldn’t have to incur these costs every time you do a DM campaign.

Sometimes, however, we just can’t create a perfect greeting and it can become a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils. These challenges often stem from how the data fields were set up initially, as well has how the data has been gathered and entered. We have always recommended that the contact information be gathered or entered using a Title field (Mr., Ms. etc.), a First Name field and a Last Name field. This way, if the person enters a First Name of “P” and a Last Name of “Smith”, if we also have the title, we can simply use it together with the Last Name (e.g. Dear Ms. Smith).

Okay, but what can we do about “Dear Mr. ______” and “Dear D.”? Your options here would include:

  • calling the contacts to update the information (not always viable)
  • using a generic greeting (works better in some cases than others)
  • excluding these records from the mailing

In our business, client preference always rules and we have used all of the solutions above at one time or another. For example, we had a very small handful of records where we used a generic greeting of “WHEAT PRODUCER” on the personalized baker cards that we recently tipped into a magazine on top of the advertiser display ad.

Also be cautious of rented listed lists. If you specify that all records must have first and last names, you might still receive some records where there is only a first initial rather than a complete first name. I recall a project where a client had rented a list and assured us that all of the first name fields were valid. However, as we loaded the data, we found several records that contained only a first initial. After discussing different options with the client, they elected to exclude these records rather than sending out greetings such “Dear D. Jones”.

D for Design

There are many different variations on the process of digital print and the variable substitution of data, but they all share two common elements. First, they have place markers where variable data will be inserted and second, the lengths of the fields to be inserted will vary on the finished pieces that are produced. No, it’s not rocket science, but if you don’t analyze the data first to determine your maximum field lengths, you will likely encounter premature line wrapping, which can cause:

  • copy and possibly graphics to float off the page
  • truncated copy within a text box

Does this really happen? Unfortunately, yes, and we have seen it on many pieces that we have received. Of course, some designs are more vulnerable to these types of challenges than others. Certainly some specialty mailers (such as die cut postcards) that are using larger fonts for greetings and other prominent text can be subject to these problems. But, at the same time, so can a personalized letter that has substitutions within a text box, so there is some degree of vulnerability at all levels. However, with a bit of effective data analysis, pieces can almost always be specifically designed to accommodate maximum lengths for all substitutions.

We shouldn’t expect most designers to perform this type of analysis on their own. After all, it’s not necessarily their strength. However, it is something that they must take into account, and requests can be made for third party vendors to provide a detailed analysis. With this critical information in hand, designers can then select the appropriate fonts and font sizes and allocate sufficient space within the design to accommodate all substitutions.

Before departing this subject I want to make one final observation on how the use of upper case can dramatically affect how much space you may require. Please have a look at the following l’s and L’s:

  • 40 l’s: llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll

The foregoing shows the same font at the same font size, but just look at the difference in length when using upper case!

Of course, the other aspect of design is producing something that has appeal, gets read and generates responses. While experienced marketers will already understand these concepts, there may be others out there that can use a couple of tips. If those folks can simply remember “AIDA” when designing their marketing materials, they will be on their way to creating solid marketing pieces. “AIDA” is an acronym that stands for Attention, Interest, Desire and Action and you can read more about it at

D for Delivery of Your Message

Thus far, we have looked at how you can combat the effects of weak data on your campaigns, how field lengths must be taken into account at the design stage and we’ve touched on the important elements of Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. The last item that we want to examine is how some very successful marketers use data to deliver seamless, “touchy-feely” messages that make the reader feel right at home.

If you want to engage your reader this way, first you must be careful not to turn them off with a lot of servile flattery by using their name in every paragraph. Again, looking at the baker card campaign that I mentioned above, the card only uses two pieces of variable information. The contact name is used in the greeting and the community name is used, but once, to mention that the seeds being promoted might be perfect for the recipient’s own area. There is no fawning, just a plain, insightful message that worked.

Depending on the richness of the data that you are using, you can also engage your readers at a personal level without even using their names. Your present data may not be as extensive as what I will discuss here, but this type of data is available and, although it can be pricey, it can also be an excellent resource for building your overall client base.

Let’s assume for a moment that we have purchased a list of consumers that suffer from back pain, headache or both. We might also know what their favourite pain remedies are and whether these consumers are brand loyal or using competitors’ brands. This type of data is powerful medicine when used in the hands of a skilled marketer.

Although I’m sure that most people would not structure a letter this way, let’s look at what we would not want to say to someone suffering from back ache that is currently using a competitor’s brand of acetaminophen:

Dear Dave,

I know that you suffer from back pain and that you are currently using Pain-Whackers acetaminophen for your pain relief.

Dave, we want you to try our. . . .

If you are Dave, are you buying this? Chances are that your reaction would be something along the lines of thinking “Who are these people and where did they get all of this information about me?” as you scrunch up the letter prior to tossing in into “File 13” (the garbage).

Let’s contrast this to the following:

Dear Dave,

We all know that when back pain and headaches strike, it’s great to have fast-acting relief that we can count on.

The dependability of our advanced ibuprofen is unparalleled when it to comes to delivering. . .

Notice that this letter references both back pain and headaches, leading with the more appropriate (in this case, back pain). By mentioning both ailments in this order, it minimizes the likelihood of raising the suspicious question of, “How’d they know I suffer from back pain?”, as might be the case if only the one ailment were mentioned. Of course, if Dave happened to be a headache sufferer, these would be reversed, as follows:

We all know that when headaches and back pain strike, it’s great to have fast-acting relief that we can count on.

This letter also subtly extols the virtues and an alternate analgesic without mentioning the fact that we know that acetaminophen is currently the pain remedy of choice.

These types of letters can be structured in many different ways and I am sure that you can identify opportunities that you could use in your own industry. However, keeping it subtle and engaging the reader in an insightful way are key.

So, by embracing the philosophy of “less is more”, using specific personal information sparingly, and then tailoring your message to connect with your reader without being obvious, you can certainly deliver your message in a powerful way.

Sir Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is Power” and how you use the knowledge that you have at your disposal can certainly affect the power of you message.

As I said at the outset, I like many of the articles that I am reading and agree whole-heartedly with their objectives. But, I have also heard of some avoidable challenges that have arisen on some third-party projects. I would like to be able to tell you that we win every project that our many friends and associates are involved with, but that would not be true. If we did, I truly believe that we could circumvent these types of problems. However, we have helped to orchestrate quite a few successes in these areas and I hope that readers of this post will be able to use some or all of the ideas presented to drive successful personalized DM projects, minimizing or eliminating the various challenges that we have discussed.

For more direct marketing tips and ways to enhance your DM programs visit our Archive of Direct Marketing Tips


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