As the market for personalised direct mail grows, the sector has had to sharpen up its act in order to meet increasingly tough data protection requirements, as Barney Cox discovers
In politics, the ongoing furore over MPs’ expenses suggests a distinct lack of integrity. Meanwhile in print, integrity is an issue that’s becoming more and more prominent. While in this instance it doesn’t refer to sneaking some personal receipts into your expenses envelope, it does relate to stuffing envelopes. When transactional printers, and increasingly direct mail producers, talk about integrity they mean the systems and procedures in place to make sure that any mailing contains the documents for the addressee: no more, no less.
“The primary driver, and the strategic issue, is compliance,” explains Pitney Bowes DMT general manager Gareth Stoten. “Meeting the requirements of the FSA and the data protection act puts a lot of emphasis on doing things right. If you do it badly, there are potentially unlimited fines depending on the level of the complaint.”
Historically, compliance (and therefore the importance of integrity) has always been seen as an issue in the transactional market, but it’s now becoming more of an issue in the direct mail (DM) market too.
“As there is an increased use of transpromo and of more personalisation, DM becomes more like transactional mail, and so has the need for higher integrity than before,” says Stoten. “Customers are asking for an audit trail. As more cases of non-compliance come to light, there’s more awareness, and it’s a pain point that goes to a very senior level within the supplier’s customer.”
Others agree that what was once the preserve of the transactional market is now moving into DM, but they ascribe it to more than just the much-vaunted transpromo space.
“It’s a new era for direct mail,” says Integra product manager Richard Brown. “Ten years ago DM was about mailing everyone. Today, the databases and profiling systems are more accurate, so it’s much more important that all the pieces are received. Targeting means it’s more important that they’re all delivered.”
That brings in the economic argument; as you would expect adding extra equipment and procedures to check everything is correct adds significant costs to the process.
“Integrity has always been in the transactional arena; if you’re sending out utility bills you have to have the equipment,” says GI Direct sales director Patrick Headley “You’ve always paid a premium.”
It’s not always been the case with high-volume direct mail though, where it’s accepted that some mailings – around 1%-2% – will go by the wayside as part of the production process.
“At the end of the day no-one is going to complain if they don’t get an acquisition mail,” says Headley.
However, once you start getting more targeted the rationale changes, and if you’re paying more per piece on the proviso of getting a better response from targeting and personalisation, you want to know the mailer was sent out.
“The volumes of DM are reducing, but the value of each mailing is increasing,” says Buhrs UK managing director John Ricketts. “So clients want to make sure that their mailings are going to the right places.”
Increasingly, according to Ricketts, some form of integrity system will be a pre-requisite for being considered for a job. “Mailing houses will say you don’t get any extra revenue, but you will get the job. It’s become a tick in the box.”
There are different levels of integrity, from the most basic – simple reporting on the volumes sent – through to implementations of what is called the Automated Document Factory (ADF). ADF brings MIS-like functions into mailing, ensuring that the documents were printed and inserted correctly and include a date and time stamp for when it was processed. By tracking the entire process these systems can also reprint any jobs that encounter a problem along the way to help meet the goal of 100% compliance.
Integrity needs to be considered from the beginning of the workflow, starting with the composition software. Although you can do simple stuff on the inserter, the high-level ADF and closed-loop systems need to communicate with the printers and the composition software to be configured to create the marks they use to control and monitor the process.
Older mailing lines used different types of marks for their systems; if it was a Pitney Bowes machine it would be a 1D barcode and if it was Kern it was OMR. That meant that the client had to print knowing what mailing device would be used. The more recent development is to use camera systems, which enable a wide variety of different marks to be read using one system.
One of the leading providers of these products is Lake Image Systems, which began its association with print back in 1994, working on Tesco’s Clubcard launch.
“They needed to match up two disparate production processes – an embossed card and a pre-printed letter – running at the rate of five packs per second for 10m packs,” says Lake Image Systems managing director Martin Keats. “The complicating factor was the agency wanted it to look high value, so they wanted to keep away from barcodes, which they worried would look ugly and dominate the design.”
The firm put together a camera system to match the two items without needing a barcode, which became common practice for direct mail to preserve the appearance of the job.
For transactional work, the overriding importance has been integrity, so it continued to use barcodes and machine-readable marks without too much concern for the appearance of the page. However, as transactional mailers have started to move into transpromo, design has become more important. Conversely, the need to prove the integrity of a mailing has led to a rethink about the use of marks in DM.
“On the DM side, we’ve started to find a demand for more than just how discreet any coding can be, but what can we do to write back to the database to provide date and time stamps and reprint lists,” says Keats. “We’re seeing a convergence of the industry and of the transactional and DM piece.”
He argues that camera systems give you the ability to read any mark anywhere on the page, whereas a barcode scanner needs the barcode to be in the same place on every piece in the same format and in the same data format.
“You can put the codes on different parts of the page, which adds design flexibility. The marketers like that,” he adds.
The latest generation of full-colour digital presses, which are seen as a crucial technology for transpromo, are placing new demands on integrity systems.
“Previously colour would never be personalised, whereas now there’s full colour digital variable data,” says Lake Image Systems business development manager Steve Walmsley. “When it was just black there wasn’t much to go wrong. Now you have the added complexity of multiple colours and duplex, and when the web is travelling at 150m per minute, there’s no way you could see anything.”
Fortunately, integrity systems can keep up with the latest presses – even if the human eye can’t – to ensure that customers only get what they are supposed to.
CASE STUDY: REAL DIGITAL
Real Digital has gone for full-colour variable data, and uses Lake Image Systems kit on its presses, finishing lines and inserters.
We use cameras on two levels, says managing director David Laybourne. Firstly to check the integrity of our production, and secondly at the enclosing stage.
During printing it’s possible to experience problems with the print stream resulting in out-of-sync separations or a front-to-back mismatch. The firm scans the output from its presses to make sure everything is where it needs to be.
We’ve got 14 machines with the kit installed, says Laybourne. Because everything has to be right, we have cameras on our presses and on our stitchers, if we’re putting eight sheets into a booklet they need to be for the same person.
Because of mail sortation it’s likely that any mismatches would be geographically close. You wouldn’t want your neighbours to see your financial details, he adds.
Real can prove 100% integrity through the use of a log file and duplicate PDFs. If there’s a complaint logged at a call centre the assumption is that the printer is the guilty party until proven innocent, so it rigorously checks its processes.
A lot of reporting is on an exception basis or a summary, although some clients do want to see the log files. Others audit on a quarterly basis to meet FSA regulations.
Integrity is a significant investment. It is £40,000-£50,000 per machine and maybe more, it depends on the number of cameras, the complexity of the interface and how many similar units are installed.
We look at it not only as a business advantage but also some of the ROI is as an insurance policy, because it reduces the risk to our business, he says. I don’t think people consider that, they assume that the output from a PC is perfect. But you need a safety net for the rare instances when that isn’t the case.