Defining the “real” quality of variable digital print ads

April 25th, 2018 | by Steve Falk, President of Prime Data |

We just bought a dishwasher. It seems they have a seven-year shelf life, so it’s something we all do with some regularity. But how do you tell the real quality of a dishwasher, anyway?

You can be fooled by a lot of glitter and flash…when all you really want is clean dishes

They’re all silver or white boxes about the same size. Some are quieter; you can see the decibel rating on the tag. They’re defined by sleek finishes, smooth handles, beautiful console layouts, and elegant trays. But in the end, you just want one that is reliable and cleans your dishes well.

Visual communication has a similar conundrum

Take print for example. What we’ve always thought of as the “real” value of print — the sleek finish, the smooth design, beautiful inks, paper and colours — can take a back seat now that we can merge data and print, driving better results. Today, what you see is not as important as what you get.

In the end we just want print to “clean the dishes well”

It’s just got to do the best job possible. And that job is to communicate our message.

Think of paper as a digital screen

I’ve come to appreciate that, when used successfully, variable digital print (VDP) is very similar to the screen of your digital device, whether desktop, tablet, or phone.

We’ve all become familiar with the personalization on our screens. Ads pop up, banners refer to our recent searches and sidebars are full of promos for products we’ve been reading about or activities we tweet or post about.

The power of these messages, the reason they work, is that they’re personalized to each one of us. They’re segmented, targeted and timely… and hopefully with an ethical, secure use of our personal data to deliver these messages. (Ahem, did someone say Facebook?)

The power’s in the personalization

Whether we see them on a tiny phone, a medium-sized HD tablet, a desktop, or a 60-inch TV, the power in the ads comes from personalization.

The message has the same impact on us even though it looks a bit different on each screen. It’s maybe a bit richer blue here, a bit grainier there, more contrasted on the phone with the smudgy screen, and less on that big old TV.  

Colour, hue, contrast, finish and resolution used to define print quality

Hey, I trained in graphics arts at college and we were graded on these very elements when we printed photos and graphics. In the online world, they’ve been superseded because no two devices look the same and we don’t expect them to. But we know that the message gets delivered regardless of that. Yes, the dishes get clean.

So given this change in attitudes to visual communications, how does one define the “real” quality in this print?

The real quality of print now? Its ability to deliver the desired results

The quality of the print is its ability to deliver the desired communication results. So, if you’re a print buyer, a designer of print, or a strategist using print, what should you be focusing on when you choose a vendor, design, or even look at a finished piece of variable print?  

Is it the richness of the red, the beauty of the sharp resolution on the page? Yes, it’s some of that, but most importantly it’s the results you get from your print.

This can mean looking at  a new set of assessment criteria

We used to use a tiny loupe magnifying glass to see dot patterns and sharpness and spectrometers. We used Epson proofs to measure colour balance.

With VDP, we need to look at the data to assess the quality of print

The quality of variable print is no longer only defined by the classic elements. It needs to be assessed by the results it achieves.

Data quality can be too easily overlooked as a determinant of print success.  

The data drives the image quality. Poor data quality hinders communication

The Agitator (a daily charity fundraising newsletter), recently reported that donors’ two top complaints are:

  1. Duplicate data
  2. Misspelled names

In this case, no amount of concern for colour, hue or contrast will outweigh the importance of getting their name spelled correctly and duplicates cleaned up.

I like to call these the “characteristics” of VDP instead of quality. Some of these items may not be on your current checklist when you assess print and your print processes.  

10-point checklist for judging the real quality of print

Download the 10-point checklist

Here’s a list of the kinds of things that can now be included in your planning that might not have been on the traditional print assessment:

  • Is it secure?
    Will your job be successful if your data is used inappropriately? Ask for secure firewalls, facilities, policies, practices, data transfer and staff police checks.
  • Does the printer pay attention to data quality?  
    They should consider not just address correction, but names, duplicates, deceased and moved individuals.
  • How many data analysts are supporting your print?  
    How skilled are they? They’re a bit like the traditional pre-press team. They scan for issues, report, correct and prepare files for merging. It’s hard to think of good quality variable digital print (VDP) without good quality data.
  • Can you economically print full colour text and images on both sides of a sheet?  If so, this probably means using newer inkjet printers instead of toner-based laser. It also means you’re no longer pre-printing offset printed shells and imaging on them.
  • Can the print process be simpler, to save time and plan resources?
    Full-colour VDP can often eliminate the need to pre-print offset shells, ship, store and use them for black-only print. This can save hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in project management time for a frequent mailer.
  • Can the print process be faster?
    Can online activity automatically trigger print? Can it be printed and mailed next-day?
  • Is it always on-time, as promised?
    We’d expect an email to be delivered within small tolerances, why not printed mail?
  • Are there artwork considerations that affect cost?
    Toner printing is often priced by the click, while inkjet inks can be more expensive with high coverage.
  • Are there artwork or paper considerations that affect suitability?
    Digital printers apply ink/toner differently and things like blocks of colour or scores can have different outcomes. There are different considerations depending upon the print media, as there are for the screen size.
  • Can you print lots of versions with very little extra cost?
    This lets you test scenarios, segment and measure results inexpensively. You can measure:
    – Cost to print
    – Cost to produce and manage
    – Click-through and conversation rates (since print can drive online activity)

There’s a good reason this is suspiciously similar to a digital marketer’s online communications assessment.

Data-driven print is a digital strategy, and it was long before the iPhone was conceived

In the proverbial words of Bob Dylan

As the present now

Will later be past

The order is

Rapidly fadin’.

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin’ ’”

Back to my dishwasher. It’s being delivered this weekend. I’ve put some faith in the online reviews instead of the fancy finishes. It will hopefully clean wonderfully… for about seven years.

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