The cookie monster

February 1, 2006

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

I attend a lot of conferences, lectures, workshops and seminars. In my dual role as print professional and industry commentator, I hear many great minds opine on many interesting topics.

Some of the most enlightening moments come at events outside our industry. When the rest of the world begins talking about the things printers are discussing, I know I’m onto something.

Such was the case one morning last month. After the usual introduction, the speaker took the microphone and broached the topic of personalization.

The view from outside

I was the only printer in the room. Industry vendors and academics also were conspicuously absent. How would this industry outsider treat a topic that print pundits have beaten nearly to death?

He said consumers expect their buying experiences to be personalized, explaining that targeted marketing is more than desirable. Technology is responding, giving buyers purchasing experiences tailored to their needs and preferences.

His example was “cookies,” those little files planted on your computer by Web sites. They might simply note that you visited the site. More complex cookies keep detailed records of your browsing and buying habits.

The speaker correctly noted that some consider cookies an invasion of privacy. For many, however, cookies invisibly perform a convenience by filling in user names, highlighting new items based on previous interest, and directing consumers to Web content that is customized for them.

Some people believe old-fashioned behaviors are obsolete, as the speaker observed.Why should people actually go somewhere to interact with others when they can have everything custom-tailored to their preferences at home?

The meat of the presenter’s thesis insisted old-fashioned human interaction still has a place and is, in fact, desirable. Virtual storefronts can’t replace the face-to-face interaction of humans, he contended.

Was the audience receptive? The fact that we were all sitting together in a room (instead of staring at a Webinar in our pajamas) meant, to some degree, that we accepted his position.

Community communications

This wasn’t VuePoint, Variables, PRINT or GRAPH EXPO. It was church. When the minister mentioned personalization, I stifled my urge to borrow a pen from a pewmate so I could take notes. Had I done so, I might have been credited with a degree of piety heretofore unrecognized.

Southminster Presbyterian Church is far from the storied halls of printing knowledge. When Sunday sermons make reference to variable information and personalized marketing, you can bet these topics are now mainstream.

The first point that struck me is that we can stop debating whether the future of print, and of all communication, lies in the one-to-one transaction. It is here, happening now, and is simply a fact of life. Ignore this fact and you haven’t got a prayer.

The challenge for print

My second point concerns what our pastor had to say about the role of print. He said...nothing. He didn’t mention VDX, PPML or VIPP. Okay, I’m being sarcastic, but in fact, the preacher did not mention print once. It obviously wasn’t on his radar screen. Main Street, USA, does not connect the medium of print with variable information or 1:1 communications.

What can we conclude from this? For years we’ve heard that variable data is the future of print. It will catch on any day now, and when it does, we’d better be ready, preferably by buying a digital press right away.

When variable printing didn’t take the world by storm, we were told that folks just didn’t understand this revolutionary new concept yet. Revolutions take time, and we needed to educate the public.

When a minister preaches about Web cookies, it’s apparent the public is very well educated about personalization—more informed, perhaps, than those lecturing us about variable print. The public is using personalization extensively in daily life. Savvy marketers are employing personalization techniques to service clients, and there isn’t anything magical about it. Print isn’t automatically a part of the personalized communication mix, and it never will be.

Don’t misinterpret the above statement! The key word is automatically. Variable printing is a powerful tool, as are all forms of print. Put to work for our customers, it can work miracles. Note this key word: work. As with everything else, variable print won’t sell itself. Buying presses and software won’t create automatic sales. Ah, but hard work, old-fashioned elbow grease and sales persistence will assure success for the printer who enters the variable market.

Of course, hard work, old-fashioned elbow grease and sales persistence will assure success for printers in any market!

See you in July!

Steve Johnson discussed personalization strategies at AMERICAN PRINTER’S 2005 Variables conference. This year’s event is slated for July 2425 in Chicago. See