Five years ago digital print seemed set to conquer the direct marketing world with its unique combination of speed, flexibility and cost-effectiveness.
Its ability to address communications to individuals, it was thought, would quickly make it supreme.
But the new process never quite took off, and many companies remain wedded to the conventional methods they know and understand. But the qualities of digital print are increasingly being recognised, especially by business-to-business marketers addressing small groups of prospects and customers.
One is speed: Kall Kwik's Digital Business Centre in the City of London reports that almost all of its work is now handled on short notice. "Clients want us to deliver the same day, or maybe one to two days later if there is artwork to be done," says managing director Richard Adler. "It's fast and the quality is good now, and over the past year particularly, litho has become secondary."
Adler says digital is especially suited for direct marketers, who are often under pressure to turn round campaigns quickly. For one recent business-to-business project the firm was given a five-hour deadline to deliver 75 brochures in full colour.
Mason Zimbler is one of several agencies that has seen the demand for digital print rocket recently. "Often clients want to use it to save time, or because the print run is too low to justify litho set-up costs," says production manager James Kerr.
But the different kind of creativity provided by the technology is also appreciated. "As concept writers and designers become more familiar with the levels of personalisation that digital print offers it becomes part of their thinking," Kerr says.
As a result, many are losing their inhibitions, and using digital wherever there is a clear advantage. New-media agency Red Square uses a mix of digital and conventional print for all its clients according to the demands of each individual job, to optimise the use of marketing budgets. "Quality has improved to the point where it is often difficult to tell one from the other," says creative managing partner Peter Smith.
The agency digitally prints a colour newsletter to showcase its own recent work to important customers. Even with print runs of only 50 copies it can produce several editions each year economically. "Quality is excellent, especially the reproduction of flat colour panels and reversed-out text," Smith says.
Conventional wisdom has it that digital print suffers from some serious limitations, such as the limited range of paper stock that it can use.
"The range of paper that can be run through a digital machine is improving, but limited compared to traditional print, in terms of paper size and thickness of stock," notes Kall Kwik's Adler.
It is also inadvisable to re-laser a digitally printed piece of material, he adds. The natural state of digital print is not as durable as traditional print and materials could do with some finishing. However some techniques can be problematic, notably lamination and sealing. Metallic finishes are also not possible with digital printing.
But marketers should not be put off by the technical limits, especially where there is a price advantage. Campaigns can end up costing more, but the opportunity to offer an individually personalised message can be worth the extra.
"The test is how it affects the return," says Graham Cooper, divisional managing director at Mail Marketing International. "If it costs you 25 per cent more to go to digital colour, but your response rate rises disproportionately, then it is worth doing."
Another perceived drawback is that digital is expensive for long runs, where traditional print becomes more cost-effective. However, this is disputed by Paul Foley, managing director of print.uk.com and an enthusiastic advocate. "Recently, Air Miles and Thomson Holiday have undertaken digital colour mailings to millions of consumers. If the cost of promotions of this size can be justified then so can a business-to-business mailing of up to 50,000," he insists.
Other assumptions are becoming outdated, Foley maintains. For instance the use of different materials such as embossed card no longer presents a challenge. "Foil or holographic laminates and different shapes create a real 'touch-me-read-me' feel to the card mailing, and most good digital colour printers can handle up to 300gsm card stock," he says.
Digital print can also be used in a variety of formats, Foley points out. Print.uk.com has patented a combined business card and mini product brochure, which can be personalised for membership organisations.
Postcards have traditionally been favoured by business-to-business marketers, and the combination of digital colour, personalisation and new finishing techniques make mailings commercially viable for up to 50,000 A6 or 25,000 A5 cards, Foley, says. Envelopes too can be digitally printed with colour images that include both the stamp and the recipient's name and address, to striking effect.
An extension of this approach was adopted by WWAV Rapp Collins Scotland with an inventive mailing to brand managers in support of a business pitch.
A message was enclosed in a box personalised to each recipient's name and job title, avoiding the need for a separate printed label. This was straightforward to achieve by having the box wrapped in a sheet printed by colour laser.
The campaign demonstrated that the use of digital print can be just as creative as litho, argues group production director Chris Wilkins.
"I have never seen a truly personalised box before, but we lasered the whole sheet, so there was no unsightly label."
Wilkins confirms that the limits on the use of textured paper are by no means as severe as is often sup-posed. "Reel-fed printers have to use smooth paper, but the sheet-fed ones can use some quite textured stocks, and we have had some good experiences with those," he says.
However direct marketers need to remember that digital involves a somewhat different mindset from conventional printing. "There is a massive learning curve, and you should especially not underestimate the first stages," warns Mail Marketing International's Cooper.
Data is an integral part of digital print and this has to be got right from the outset, or time and stock will end up being wasted. Cooper also emphasises the importance of ensuring that designers know what they want to achieve and how much can be done with the equipment, exploiting its flexibility to adapt shape, colour and imagery to specific needs.
"It's not a case of just putting a bit of red or green in the letter heading," he says. "Instead of reproducing on a colour laser, as you would do conventionally, you need to think what you can do with the data."
One pitfall to avoid is getting too carried away by the possibilities for personalisation. For one campaign Brann Direct was asked to target individual buyers in 50 companies on a range of different products. The possible permutations numbered in tens of thousands, and the project foundered because of its sheer complexity.
"One of the attractions of digital print is to speed things up, but the opposite happened in this case," says director Kevin Pembroke. A further defect was that individual sales personnel would have been able to tailor each letter, weakening marketers' control over the project and possibly damaging the brand.
Marketers need to do some homework before using any new technology, and digital print is clearly no exception. But for those who need regularly to address small groups of business buyers its attractions are obvious, and all the more so now that its earlier limitations are being overcome.
CASE STUDY: LITHOCRAFT
Lithocraft recently carried out a promotion of its scanning services to printers, designers and agencies. This required a creative and colourful brochure that showcased print quality. However since a limited number of companies was known to be in the market for this service, only 60 copies were required. A brochure was produced in which the cover image of a seascape opened up into a single panorama across five pages, emphasising the technical capability of the service. The mailing was highly successful, obtaining a 30 per cent response rate.
CASE STUDY: WWAV RAPP COLLINS SCOTLAND
As part of a business pitch, WWAV Rapp Collins Scotland mailed 30 brand managers to draw attention to its creative abilities. It sent them an invitation to a conference where one of its own directors was to speak on the subject of "butterfly consumers". The agency created a mailer in the form of a butterfly contained within a box. The outside of the box, the butterfly and a personalised reply coupon were all covered with paper cut from two digitally lasered A3 sheets. The project was relatively expensive in terms of unit cost, but the total of £250 was negligible compared with the potential reward of a business win.
CASE STUDY: MASON ZIMBLER/BROADVISION
Mason Zimbler used digital print for a mailing to promote BroadVision as a developer of e-commerce websites. A key theme was the power of personalisation to increase effectiveness and profitability. To highlight this, a creative approach was chosen to attract the attention of 100 senior decision makers in the travel, telecoms and financial services sectors. Each individual was sent a car number place personalised to their initials, either as a 3D replica or digitally printed. The campaign resulted in a 25 per cent click-through rate, giving the sales teams an excellent prospect list to work from.