Digital Printing White Paper

Client: Zehno, a full-service marketing firm for universities and other educational institutions.

Challenge: The firm wished to explain how advances in digital printing technologies could further their clients’ student recruitment efforts.

Result: Cap & Wing created a white paper to present these technological advances in an exciting and compelling way.

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Printing with Personality

Make Every Mailing One-of-a-Kind

It may sound contradictory, but mass mailings have become personal. Advances in digital printing technology mean a university can now directly tailor every piece it sends out to each individual recipient. In other words, if a campaign calls for 1,000 pieces to be mailed, a single print run will create 1,000 unique variations. For universities, this new capacity for print personalization is opening up entirely new ways for them to connect with both students and alumni.

What exactly can a university personalize in a print campaign? The most obvious starting point is each recipient’s name. Of course, if a campaign personalized by name looked no better than a stuck-on mailing label, there would be no cause for excitement about digital printing, which allows an individual’s name to be integrated into each print piece’s overall design. When used creatively, it can make a striking impression.

In addition, universities are able do so much more with digital printing than just change out recipients’ names. They can choose which photos and even entire sections of content they want to show each individual depending on that person’s gender, age, declared major, extracurricular interests, and other variables. The digital printer uses a database to generate each unique piece as it is being printed.

In the end, the capacity for personalization greatly improves response rates in a university print campaign, or for any campaign. Printing industry statistics bear out that, no matter the business or topic, highly personalized pieces are more likely to compel recipients to follow through on calls to action. (See sidebars.) In general, the more a campaign drills down to refined levels of personalization, the better the printed piece will hit its target.

The Plusses of Digital Printing

Digital printing is often more formally called on-demand digital printing, because it efficiently and affordably lets printers turn out small-print runs just when clients need them. Within the world of digital printing, the term variable-data printing refers to the detailed levels of personalization.

In 2006, 10 years after it first appeared, commercial digital printing in all its forms represented 10% of the worldwide market, according to market research firm InfoTrends; over roughly the same time period, digital printing costs dropped 58%. Clearly, digital printing is on the march against its rival, offset printing. Quality keeps improving while costs continue to go down. Analysts expect the digital segment to continue to encroach into the territory long dominated by traditional offset printing and to eventually become the leading printing method.

The principle advantage offset continues to hold over digital is that it’s better suited for very large print jobs. Meanwhile, the benefits of digital printing are that it:

  • Reduces waste – Offset printing orders frequently need to be run in large quantities to be cost-effective, and as a result, clients often end up stockpiling boxes of outdated materials. On-demand printing lets customers call in just the right quantity of pieces before a mailing, recruitment event, or job fair. Outdated information of course can be updated before each digital run.
  • Allows for faster turnaround – With proper planning, a printer can execute an on-demand digital printing job in roughly two days. Because of inks needing time to dry and other factors, offset jobs typically require two weeks.
  • Improves personalization quality – In offset, about the only personalization possible is when a direct mail house inkjets a name into a blank space just before a printed piece is distributed. The quality is poor, as the inserted name always looks like a mismatched afterthought. With digital, all aspects of a print job are transferred to paper at exactly the same time. A printed name is integrated into the overall piece, and fonts and colors can be perfectly matched.
  • Increases personalization options – Variable-data printing allows marketers to switch out images, headlines, and copy depending on what they know about each individual recipient.
  • Improves returns – As mentioned above, variable-data print campaigns that strategically employ detailed levels of personalization tend to raise overall response rates.
  • Meets high environmental standards – Digital printing is greener than traditional offset printing. In addition to reducing waste through smaller runs, digital printers use non-toxic dry inks, and the ink-transfer rate is almost 100%. By comparison, offset machines use hazardous chemicals and varnishes that have a lower transfer rate. Digital toner cartridges are recyclable, and certain high-end digital printers are made up almost entirely recyclable parts while at the same time generating lower emissions than offset printers.

Personalization for Higher Education

The jump-off point for any university marketing campaign begins with answering questions of purpose and audience. If the campaign’s purpose is to attract new students, the university first needs to identify the audience’s demographic characteristics, where the prospective students currently are in their educations, their career goals, and so on. So, a logical place for personalization might be later in the traditional “funnel,” after an institution has had a chance to collect data for which they can offer personalized information.

With digital printing, the university can design a broadly targeted campaign and then use personalization capabilities to hone in on specific populations or those with specific interests. As people generally respond well to pictures of others like themselves, one strategy is for the campaign to use pictures that appeal to the targeted demographic.

For example, if a university wishes to boost enrollment among women, each piece mailed to a female recipient can include photographs of women professors or current women students instead of, say, scenic pictures of campus. Or if the university is seeking to reach out to a particular minority group, the marketing campaign may wish to include photos of members of that group in order to let the recipient know that he or she will find a supportive community at the university. Pictures of currently enrolled older students can reassure prospective students who are above the typical college age that they won’t feel out of place in a campus of relative youngsters.

Likewise, a campaign can tailor the writing in the brochure to target each recipient. If the university knows a portion of prospective students is interested in the arts, the mailing can include copy that talks up the local arts organizations, theatre groups, and music offerings. If other prospects are known to like sports, the mailing can emphasize that aspect of campus life instead. In sum, marketing departments have the option to mix and match as they see fit. A brochure going out to a young, African-American female who loves science might contain entirely different pictures and copy than one sent to a forty year-old white male interested in literature courses. The best part is that this customization can take place in the budget line for one tool, as opposed to having to print an array of area brochures.

Of course, not all parts of a mailing need to be entirely variable. Many variable-data campaigns contain generic introductions and photos, and then they use targeted copy and carefully selected photos for other sections of the mailing. For universities, because not all desired information about every recipient may be available or because recruiters may personally distribute some pieces on the road, every campaign should also have entirely “static” versions.

Personalization for alumni campaigns can be even more effective, because the university will possess even more useful information to use for a mailing. For example, a brochure aimed at an alumnus who graduated from the Class of 1980 can include pictures of campus from that year or nostalgic photos of events that culturally defined 1980. In the same print run of the same exact campaign, different pictures can be used for an alumnus who graduated in 1983. If the university still has copies on file of alumni’s individual ID or graduation photos, those could conceivably be incorporated into a campaign as well.

Even if a communications department has only the broadest of data about a campaign’s recipients, variable-data printing still allows for a wide range of imaginative options.

Case Study: Tulane MBA Program

In a campaign aimed to attract new students to the graduate MBA program of the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, Zehno produced a series of three personalized mailings integrated with Tulane’s Web site. In addition to the names of about 1,000 prospects who expressed interest in the MBA program, the data also included their genders and class years, and some prospective students had identified the areas of study in which they were most interested.

The front of each of the three mailings included the recipient’s name and “Welcome to the Freeman School of Business.” If the class year was known to be 2008, for example, it would instead read, “Welcome to the Freeman Class of 2008.” For each name, the colors, the font, and the layout were integrated with the rest of the piece’s identity, so that to the recipient it appeared that the mailing was produced just for him or her (which indeed it was). Inside, the copy encouraged each recipient to visit a Tulane Web site by typing in a URL that included his or her own name. These unique URLs provided another personalized aspect to the overall campaign and allowed Tulane to track the mailings’ effectiveness.

A generic version of one of the brochures, entitled “Up Close & Personal” and designed to give an overview of the Freeman School, used a section of facts and data about the school in the middle inside panel. When the recipient was known to be a woman, however, this section was renamed “For Women Only” and employed copy that spoke about the appeal that this MBA program held for women. In addition, a photo of the New Orleans skyline was replaced with the photo of a woman in these brochures.

Another mailing, “Pursue the World with Passion,” switched out copy based upon the prospective students’ chosen fields of study. Personalized content was developed around entrepreneurship and finance, two traditional curricular strengths at Tulane. Students not interested in these areas received a more general description of the academic program. The third brochure, which focused on how New Orleans offers exciting opportunities during the post-Katrina rebuilding process and on the city’s distinctive cultural appeal, was personalized by name and class year.

The Results

The general rule of thumb in the direct mail industry is that average response rate for a typical mailing is 1.75%. In this campaign for Tulane, 5% of recipients typed in their personal URLs—almost three times an average rate. Of course, site traffic wasn’t limited to just this group. Zehno believes another significant portion of those who received a personalized mailing was compelled to take the next step and visit the website, but instead of typing in their personal URLs (and allowing for easy tracking), they found the site through search engines or by navigating from Tulane’s home page. In addition, the website received traffic from prospective students who didn’t receive any mailings at all.

The personalized mailings didn’t just draw a higher than average response rate. They also brought in traffic from higher-quality prospects who took more time to learn about the program. Prospective students who typed in their personal URLs spent 14.6% longer on the site than other visitors.

The mailings took place during the yield period for the MBA program. Subsequent enrollment made large gains over the previous year.

Anecdotally, the prospective students whom Tulane asked about the mailings said they thought the personalized aspects were “cool” and impressive. Meanwhile, Bill Sandefer, Director of Graduate Admissions and Financial Aid for the Freeman School of Business, said, “In marketing, you are always trying to find the message that will strike a chord with the consumer. We have long known that education is a very personal decision—who would have known that people would have responded so enthusiastically to their own name!”

Satisfied with the success of this campaign, Tulane continued to use the personalization strategy as the cornerstone of the next year’s communications campaign.

Digging for Data

In order for a higher education institution to personalize one of its marketing campaigns, it obviously first needs data about the intended recipients. Much useful information is already self-evident. As a starting point, the campaign can incorporate the recipient’s name into the design, and gender can often be determined from the name.

Instead of simply guessing, however, communications departments should start to actively collect and manage data. In a recruitment campaign, data can be collected when prospective students visit a Web site and request more information, when they meet with recruiters in person, or when prospective students fill out third-party forms (such as during standardized test registration) and give their consent to be contacted by universities. Information from these and other sources can be integrated together into a single database.

For this data-collection stage, institutions should think ahead and decide what information about their prospects would be useful to a campaign that markets their specific institution. Of course, the desired information won’t be the same for every college. It’s also important to keep in mind that the point of data collection isn’t to alienate them with intrusive questions. On-demand variable data printing is simply a tool that lets higher education connect with their audiences in a way that’s innovative, direct, and truly personal.