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What is Variable-Data Printing?

By Mona D. Rigdon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The development of digital printing has led to many new advancements in the publishing and printing world. One such advancement known as variable-data printing (VDP) has opened new possibilities for many industries. VDP is a type of on-demand printing that allows certain portions of a document to be personalized without stopping or slowing the process of printing. Variable-data printing has become a staple technique for those in marketing or customer relations, advertisers and some book publishers because of the ease and flexibility that the technique offers.

Many people might not even realize that they are familiar with the concept of VDP, but they have used "mail merge" commands in word processing programs to send personalized form letters to a list of contacts. Even more people have received direct mail pieces personalized with their name and personal information. These instances are examples of variable-data printing.

Variable-data printing, also known as variable-information printing or on-demand printing, encompasses several basic levels. At it's simplest, VDP allows a name or small information change on each copy of a form document, such as a letter. On a more sophisticated level, VDP allows for different levels of customization for different groups. Text or images can change based on ZIP code or target market group. At its most complex, the technique allows for full customization, with different text and graphics for each individual or address.

Each of these levels of variable-data printing begins with a basic template — a layout, design or document. The template is created with indications of which sections can be altered. A database is created that automatically fills in the indicated fields. Many people print address labels, envelopes and other simple VDP documents in word-processor programs, but other high-end software has been developed to adapt the technique to reach a larger market in a more diverse and dynamic way.

There are two main types of software to support the variable-data printing industry. Raster image processors (RIP) and print stream methods both accomplish the same goal but work differently. RIP software combines the document template and the variable information from the database to produce each unique document. Print stream software combines the static elements with the variable data prior to printing, forming a print stream that organizes the data to be printed, processing the static template elements only once. This saves time and processing.

This opportunity for mass customization has produced greater return on investment figures for marketers. Figures have been estimated anywhere from double to the 15 times the average response when different levels of VDP are applied to marketing campaigns. This increase of return might be linked with the relevancy of content and the level of customization.

Marketing moguls are not alone in making use of this technology. Book publishers print books with unique dedications, and some even print books using a child's name and photo throughout the story to personalize it. Webmasters and email marketers also have made use of the technology via the Internet as opposed to physical print media. The variable-data printing industry is likely to continue growing at a rapid rate, according to many predictors.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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