You might already be a winner

July 1, 2006

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

In the span of our lifetimes, the physical nature of printing has remade itself not once, but twice. Putting ink onto paper has changed from a mechanical (letterpress) process to a chemical (offset) process to an electrophotographic (digital) process. The letterpress-to-offset transition can be analyzed objectively in hindsight, and there is much to learn from this bit of recent history for anyone who takes the time to study it closely.

It is harder to be objective about the offset-to-digital transition. We are living in the middle of it, and we all have a stake in the outcome. We really don’t discuss what we think is happening; we talk about what we hope will happen.

Certain ideas about succeeding in digital printing have been bandied about for so long that some people take them as gospel. And I’m tired of it.

Truth or dare?

Fallacy: Digital print success means variable printing. There are many good reasons to enter the digital arena. There also are many bad reasons. You can do very well in digital without doing variable at all. You can do full variable and fail. Variable and digital can be a potent combination, but we need to uncouple the two in our minds.

Corollary fallacy: Variable printing success means direct mail. If you listen to the “experts,” you’ll hear that the only use for variable-data printing technology is mail marketing. I don’t believe it, so I’m holding a contest to prove my point. This is a contest you can win. You can enter as many times as you like. Contest judging will be done by me, and the winners will appear in this column.

I want to hear about your variable printing projects. Yes, others have asked for success stories before, but this is “Johnson’s World,” where things aren’t always what they seem. Some important restrictions make this contest different than any other, so pay close attention:

I want fresh, creative uses for this new technology. What are you doing that hasn’t been done before? Putting somebody’s address on an envelope isn’t new, and putting their color picture on a letter is just an extension of the personalization that began in the 1950s. So, no mail pieces.

To make up for that restriction, I’ll open this contest wide by eliminating technology as a factor for evaluating entries. It doesn’t matter what devices you used to make the project happen. I’m only interested in results. If you paid six figures for software that you are using to generate form letters, I don’t need to know about it. If you are using Microsoft Word to do something that’s never been done before, that’s fine with me.

In fact, your printing needn’t even be digital. If you’ve found some clever new way to harness numbering wheels on a letterpress, I’ll be happy to consider your project.

Thanks to Don Goedeker of Xerox, who inspired this contest even though he doesn’t know it. It was he who first told me of a school yearbook publisher using variable technology to print each child’s photo front-and-center on the first page of their book.

That example would win this contest. It contains the value-adding elements of variable printing we’ll need to see if variable really is the next big thing. Color, database graphics, one-to-one personalization—in short, everything but mailing.

I asked a panel of experts to judge the entries, but they say I’m crazy for attempting to promote variable printing beyond direct mail. So, instead, judging will be done by me. There will be as many winners as there are qualified entries. If I like your project, you win.

Your prize will be the warm feeling of a job well done, the adulation of your peers (which you’ll receive when your winning entry is featured in an upcoming “Johnson’s World” article), and the enormous profits you are making from your brilliant use of variable data.

Of course, if your entry isn’t making you money, perhaps we need to have a talk about the bigger rules of the bigger game…

Send your success stories to:

Steve Johnson
262 Commonwealth Dr.
Carol Stream, IL 601882449

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