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the WEB gets personal

Jan 1, 2001 12:00 AM

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Digital printer enhances client marketing campaigns through Internet-enabled, variable data printing

The Internet has altered the way companies conduct direct marketing. It has led to detailed customer profiles, sophisticated data mining and one-to-one marketing solutions. SunAmerica Mutual Funds (New York City), which recently entered the 401(k) business, is using the Internet in a marketing campaign that introduces its Premier Select 401(k) product to prospects and current customers. Key to the campaign is the ability for its sales force to design and order, via the Internet, customized, full-color proposal booklets printed on a Xeikon digital color press.

MORE THAN MAIL MERGE Variable data printing has moved beyond the typical "insert name," mail-merge look of early personalized print. An online ordering system created by digital printer Royal Impressions (New York City) instead allows SunAmerica's sales force to enter information about prospects - such as number of employees, amount of payroll and current 401(k) program - into predetermined data fields on a secured, private website. They can also pick the funds to be profiled in the proposal. Those choices pull up the appropriate fund logos and schedules that calculate the fees paid. The final printed booklet bears about 250 fields of variable data.

Once SunAmerica approves the document through Royal Impressions' Marketing Collateral Order Management system (MCOM), the printer is notified of the order via an automatic e-mail. Data from the website is then merged to a template file, and a set of personalized 16-page booklets is printed on a Xeikon DCP 500 D IntelliStream at up to 6,000 full-color pages per hour. (The digital press was formerly branded the Agfa Chromapress, until Xeikon purchased Agfa's Digital Printing Systems business.) The booklets, in runs from five to 150, are delivered to SunAmerica in 48 hours.

`PIQUED INTEREST' The relationship between SunAmerica and Royal Impressions has been evolving steadily for more than 12 years. The printer caters largely to financial clients and offers a range of digital printing - on Xerox DocuColors and DocuTechs, Heidelberg equipment and Xeikon digital color presses - and other services, including bindery and fulfillment.

Client and printer have worked in the past on more traditional printing applications - Royal Impressions still prints 20,000 monthly fund reference guides for sure, as well as new brochures and other collateral.

The printer "has been progressive in keeping us up to date on the latest technologies," says Todd Barmash, project manager at SunAmerica. "We learned about variable data and Internet-enabled printing through an informational seminar it held. It piqued our interest because the customized printing would focus our marketing efforts.

"We market this 401(k) product exclusively to institutional prospects," Barmash adds, "such as business owners, corporate trustees and professional benefits providers, who require very detailed information. If this information is illustrated in color charts and graphs, and customized to the needs of their company, we increase the odds of a sale."

Such customer feedback prompted Royal Impressions to make, with help from outside IT vendors, a prototype MCOM system. The printer demonstrated the system to its top three clients, and all three signed contracts. One of them is SunAmerica.

But because customized information can reveal database flaws more readily than generic marketing messages, printers and their customers are rightly concerned about database and printing accuracy in these projects. SunAmerica's 401(k) marketing, for example, hinges on exhibiting financial knowledge and gaining trust.

"The record-keeping inherent in these plans can make or break the success of a provider," says Barmash. "The more we're able to prove our dedication to service with accurate customized documents, the greater our chances of earning business."

Xeikon's One Pass duplex technology, the ability to print on both sides of the sheet simultaneously, addresses this concern. "When you have to take paper out of the press and reload it to print on the other side, there's a chance that variable information could be confused," explains Christopher De Santis, principal of Royal Impressions. "This process ensures that the correct variable information appears in the right book. The books are printed duplexed and in collated order, ready for cutting and binding."

PERSONALIZED ORDERING The MCOM websites are also personalized for each client, and as needs for new functionality arise, the digital printer incorporates requests into the system. Royal Impressions has recently added an online store on MCOM, where its financial customers can order promotional products and personalized thank-you cards. Another client asked for the ability to do live sales presentations, where its salespeople could pull up information on multiple funds in real-time during sales calls.

"We have the hands of SunAmerica and our other clients all over the sites," explains De Santis. "You really have to go out and build around what clients want. That's where our strategy lies. We can be developing great ideas, and they may be beautiful... but they're not [always] applicable."

Because Royal Impressions is now getting such high responses from its three MCOM clients, it has brought certain IT functions in-house and now employs five people (out of 50 employees total) to any Cold Fusion, C++ and Java work needed for MCOM. Royal Impressions is also currently working on building administrative features on the front end of these client sites that only a few people can access.

DRAMATIC QUALITY IMPROVEMENT Beyond the MCOM system, the effect of personalization on SunAmerica's sales proposals is enhanced through Royal Impressions' ability to offer high color quality. According to De Santis, the Xeikon digital press enables Royal Impressions to print four-color jobs "reliably, in offset-like quality and at speeds fast enough to accommodate large orders brought on by on-demand applications like these.

"Marketing campaigns require color quality and consistency print after print. With this press, we can deliver that quality and still remain flexible."

Indeed, the quality booklets are a dramatic improvement over those previously employed by SunAmerica. Barmash says the firm originally produced black-and-white bound documents printed directly from desktop computers.

"Color has become essential to marketing today," Barmash notes, "so a solution that combines both flexibility and high-quality color is perfect for us."

USING THE WEB TO ENHANCE PRINTING The SunAmerica 401(k) booklet has been "live" with Royal Impressions for nine months, and De Santis sees a bright future for Internet and digital printing projects like MCOM.

"Far from early predictions, the Internet hasn't eliminated the need for the printed page," the exec says. "On the contrary, digital presses allow commercial printers to use the Internet to enhance the printed page. It is less of a commodity now and more of a valuable, focused marketing tool we can offer clients."

SunAmerica, for its part, plans to develop more Web-based printing applications for future marketing efforts. Barmash reports that the sales force has been happy with both the ability to personalize sales collateral and the ease with which they can now order sales brochures from Royal Impressions.

"Our sales staff is going into meetings with striking color documents, customized to the prospect. That's a powerful tool for them to communicate the benefits of our product during the meeting, and long after they leave the room," Barmash declares.

The mutual fund firm reportedly has seen impressive results from its 401(k) booklets, and plans to expand the use of variable data and Internet-enabled digital printing for other products in the future. Royal Impressions, for its part, is already developing fund "welcome" kits for another well-known financial firm. These kits personalize fund information for every participating employee and incorporate triple the amount of variable fields of the SunAmerica proposal booklets.

And because of the success Royal Impressions has seen from what De Santis calls its variable data and "Web-top" publishing solution, it will soon begin marketing MCOM to all of its clients.

De Santis admits having encountered challenges in developing this solution. He says, for example, that while the estimated printing costs for these personalized projects were fairly accurate, expenses for building the online ordering system were difficult to gauge.

But "we also told our clients, `If you trailblaze with us to market this exciting, dynamic product, there will be lefts and rights along the road as we learn the process,'" De Santis notes. "We've had bumps - but we sold it properly, and our clients have been loyal enough that they understood what the benefits could be."