Wed, Jul

Delving into the data

Can you improve your data management to better target customers and better service them once you have them? Tony Hodgson from print technology, data management and marketing consultancy Individua guides you to better performance with these top tips.

Data is not visible like paper or TV. You don't see it in vans or trucks on the motorway. But we create it and we consume it like never before. A quiet data explosion is happening all around us that is having a profound impact on the way brands communicate with their customers.


Last year IBM conducted a survey of chief marketing officers. In 1,700 in-depth interviews they were asked what they felt most unprepared for. Top of the list was data - 71% thought that the data explosion was their biggest headache.

An often-remarked cliché is that data is "the new oil". But as the editor of Database Marketing magazine recently pointed out - data is not running out and it is far more ubiquitous than oil. "Why send the same message to everyone", he asked, "when data allows you to send a tailored, relevant message to one, single individual?”. Exactly!

Printers have perfected the art and science of sending "the same message to everyone". The process, the workflow, the skillset and the mindset have all been geared towards that. For many, the opportunity in digital printing has been faster makeready, economical short runs, and a quick turnaround. In wide-format of course, the technology has opened new applications and markets. But there’s a massive opportunity in digital printing to send a tailored, relevant message to one, single individual. And that can be as helpful to you in branding and marketing as it is to your customers.

When you consider the amount of data you store and use, think too of the opportunities open to you if you use it properly and creatively. Here are some pointers to help you.

1 Data is not the new oil but it is the new pre-press

Much of a printer's expertise lies in what you do before you put ink to paper. Just as pre-press is a highly skilled and vital stage of the printing process, data management should be regarded as critically important for achieving results and creating value in digital printing. The range of skills includes database programming, automation, security, cleansing, analytics, research and sourcing data. It is not necessary to cover all these, but at the very minimum, you should have staff that fully understands how to handle data securely and control it for quality and accuracy.

2 Data cleansing - the basics

Data is messy. It deteriorates over time. People and businesses move, change roles, lifestyle and habits. Inaccurate data is simply a waste. The shelf life of customer data is about six-months before it needs pruning and weeding. In any customer data file, it is likely that at least ten percent of the records contain out-of-date addresses, misspelt names or incomplete fields. Before undertaking any variable data printing job for instance, it is important to clean as much of the data as possible. It is easy to do this with an online service such as Experian Intact or with data cleansing and addressing software such as Capscan, HelpIt or Cygnus.

3 Keep your customers’ data securely

It is good practice and a legal requirement. You should be registered under the Data Protection Act and have a company policy towards data, just like for health and safety or IT use. Customer data files should be password protected and only accessed by designated and trained staff. Files should be stored on servers, not desktop computers and definitely not on portable laptops. Use a secure, encrypted file transfer service or SFTP to send and receive data files - not email. Dispose of all printed waste containing personal data through a secure shredding service. Do not keep customer data any longer than you need it for.

4 Essential software to get started

If you’re going to add to your wide-format digital print offering by providing a direct mail service you need some essential software for variable data composition and for processing data. There are many VDP packages and your equipment vendor can often recommend and support these. But you will also need to prepare data files for merging with templates and you can actually do a lot just with Microsoft Excel. It allows you to sort and filter data and with its text and look up formulae you can even do some simple data cleaning. But if you are careful Excel has its foibles - such as assuming strings of digits are numbers and removing leading zeros in telephone numbers or foreign postcodes.

5 Work with partners or bring in extra skills

There are plenty of specialist mailing houses that can handle fulfilment for you. Also, you may need the expertise of a database programmer who can use Microsoft Access or build an SQL database. A specialist IT recruitment agency can source a freelance or contract programmer. When it comes to the point that you need a full-time programmer in-house, any qualified computer science or business information studies graduate should have the essential skills in SQL database programming as well as the technical competence in HTML programming and scripting to support your creative designers.

6 Getting personal

With a digital colour printer you can do so much more than adding a recipient's name and address to a piece of print. The effectiveness of VDP depends upon many things such as so working with the customers to decide how you can use data can help to make the message relevant and tailored is a vital part of the process. For instance, changing the images used in a certain poster depending on their final location can be very effective.

As you begin to master the use of data for VDP you realise that your customers want to communicate using other media and they are probably already doing so using other agencies. Cross-media marketing adds email marketing, personalised websites, mobile and social media to digital printing. But data management will need to be integrated across all the channels and you almost certainly need to operate your own database systems. This can give you a significant competitive advantage and enable you to position your business as a marketing services provider. But take care not to confuse this with being a strategic and creative agency. It takes a lot more than technical competency in data management and campaign execution to become a full-service marketing agency.

9 Analytics and insight is where the smart money is going

In recent years, several large printers like Communisis, Lateral Group and St. Ives have acquired specialist data analytics or market research agencies. They understand the value that data can bring to their print offering. But it is not only large businesses that can do this. The value of data can be considerably enhanced through profiling the data you have against that of a much larger universe of data from say Experian or a B2B data agency like Marketscan. These are more advanced techniques than simple cleansing or segmentation but they help in understanding a customer database and focusing the marketing effort where it will yield better results.

10 Buying data

Usually your client will provide the data you need for a certain job. But there are many data agencies which often specialise in B2C or B2B data and have strengths in particular sectors so this is always something to bear in mind. The Royal Mail's Mail Media Centre is a good source for advice.

11 Make you data work for you

Do not hide your light under a bushel. Use what in-house data you can to better target your own customers. Use the information stored on your databases, MIS systems to full effect by using analytical tools to define buying patterns, the most profitable types of jobs etc – and use that information to do personalised marketing wherever possible. If you have the capability, use it to improve your own business and increase your confidence and credibility in the eyes of your customers. Brag a little!

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