Preparing your Variable Printing Project

Marketing Basics

postcard with variable data

With modern variable printing, the text and graphics on each sheet of a press run can change to reflect the characteristics of its intended recipient.

Such personalization has proved that it can generate many times the responses of non-variable printed pieces. To be effective, however, variable printing involves preparation starting from a project’s earliest stages.

Variable information printing is a highly effective marketing tool. It gives you the ability to customize your appeal to each individual receiving your printed piece. Combined with a strong appeal and good design, personalizing your marketing message to reflect an individual’s information in your database can significantly increase response rates.

In preparing your mailing, look at your available data and ask, “What can I offer that this particular customer is likely to want?” Then target your appeal appropriately.

If your data includes information such as which model or color of a product a customer previously purchased, you have an idea of what may appeal to him or her in the future. If a customer always buys red cars, a brochure featuring a photo of a red car will more likely get their attention.

If your data does not include specific information, consider purchasing a list that includes demographic information, buying patterns, or purchase of items related to your product. Begin building your own customer list with precise data for your future marketing efforts. Every time a technical innovation such as variable printing hits the market, many business people react to it with a burst of enthusiasm—often fueled by puffery that hails the new wrinkle as the best thing since sliced bread. What prudent marketers need is evidence that the technique pays off in reality.

According to Personalized & Database Printing, an authoritative book by David Broudy and Professor Frank Romano, variable printing has resulted in an average increase in:




Order Size


Repeat Orders




Speed of Response



Data Collection

Look at your data with a marketing eye. Will the information you collect be useful in targeting your marketing? Consider what other information will help you better understand your customer. Also, what information will help you build a relationship?

Is the data kept in a form that will be useful in personalizing your piece? For example is the name information separated, so a letter can be either formally or informally addressed: “Dear John,” or “Dear Mr. Smith,” rather than “Dear John P. Smith, Jr.?” Sometimes this is accomplished by using separate fields for prefix, first name, middle name, last name, and suffix. Another approach is to include separate fields for formal and informal salutation and also formal and informal mailing name. This method allows decisions to be made at data entry for unusual names.

What about couples?

Is there a way to address the couple together, or to address the wife or the husband separately?

Always keep the zip code in its own field, so you can take advantage of economical presorted postal rates. And if a list includes foreign names, your database needs a country field so foreign addresses can be sorted for mailing.

And finally, careful data entry is essential when a list is going to be used for variable printing. Set up data entry rules and stick to them.

Never put comments into address lines or name fields. Use a woman’s actual first name — “Mrs. Jane Smith” not “Mrs. John Smith.” Otherwise an informally addressed letter might be sent to “Dear John...” rather than “Dear Jane...”

Keep data as accurately and completely as possible. Personalization that is well done enhances an appeal, but sloppy personalization is irritating and detracts from it

Building a Functional Database

A functional database—in which useful information is stored in easily retrievable packets—is the essential foundation of every successful variably printed mailing.

To build a database that is going to do you any good, you must first decide what information you need to know in order to market your product.

At the dawn of variable printing, all some advertisers needed to store in their databases was the names of their sales prospects. This resulted in messages like:

“John Smith, you may have won $1 million!”

When they were still novelties, such messages produced exciting response lifts. Later, when the novelty wore off, their response rates dwindled. Luckily, when properly designed, databases include information on individual buying histories and product preferences—which has proved far more compelling than the recipient’s name alone.

However, a prudently designed database includes only information that will help sell a product and build a good customer relationship.

If you were selling cars, for instance, data on the frequency, dates and price ranges of a person’s earlier car purchases, or on the individual’s preference in vehicle models or colors, probably would be useful. Information on the person’s likes in clothing styles, while useful to a marketer of soft goods, probably would not affect car purchases.

Please note that for ease of information retrieval each field in the following sample database format contains only one piece of information. Your real database probably would not include all the sample fields, and probably would include many others. In any case, build your database so that it will help you sell your product!


It helps to have data available when a piece is being created. The designer can make room for various lengths of data. For example, if a person’s name is to be included in the headline, knowing the average length of the names as well as the longest and shortest names will help in choosing typefaces and font sizes. A piece can be set up to use a larger font for short names and a smaller font for long names.

What information is going to change in the piece? Name-and-address information is the most common variable data. But considering the purpose of your piece, what other information will help you communicate with the individual?

Would it be helpful to have different copy for men and women? Or variations according to location, or previous buying habits? Often non-profit mailings consider a donor’s giving record. Don’t forget that images can be changed as well as text.

The variable information is contained in one layer of the digital file, with the non-variable information as a base image below.

Sometimes a list can be split, so that the job is run as two versions with different base images. This increases the amount of customized coverage without the added cost of large numbers of variables. For example, in a job in which the list is segmented by gender, the men and women can have entirely different base images, while the variable information might only include their name and address information.

File Preparation

As soon as you know your job will include variable data, feel free to contact Castle Press to discuss the most efficient way to build your files to avoid unnecessary additional cost. Well-built files are just as vital to the success of your variable printing project as clean, organized data.

Files for variable printing can be created in any software that has the ability to create a PDF, or export an EPS file. We prefer files be created in InDesign.

Please provide original files rather than exported EPS or PDF files.

Sample variable information should be included in the file, and then highlighted on a laser print. Note which fields in the data will provide the variable information in the layout.

Also, provide any rules as to how the data is to be manipulated when used.

Data files may be provided in a variety of formats. Rather than sending your entire database, it is best to export the data needed for a particular job. We accept data in tab-delimited, comma-delimited or fixed-field-length text files. You may also provide Excel, Filemaker Pro, Microsoft Access or DBF data.

Our preferred format for exported text data is Tab-Delimited. Usually the data export will have a header on the file that indicates field names and the order in which they appear. Please add such a header to your file if one is not automatically included.

(Tab-delimited text files can be edited in any word processor).

Make sure that all fields necessary to produce the printed piece are in the file, and provide a printed list of fields included. For exported text files, note the platform for the original data source (Macintosh, PC, other).

If you are planning to use variable images, we will need to know which image is to be used with which record. One approach is to include the exact filename of the image as a field in the appropriate record. Another is to set up rules for which image is to be used — such as everyone on the list who has children receives a photo of a family climbing into a van, while seniors receive a photo of a retired couple happily riding in their luxury car.

In addition to your data, be sure to include any files necessary to produce the job on your disk. Include all image files and all fonts used. The preferred format for scanned images is EPS or TIFF at 300 dpi. Use maximum quality JPEG compression for EPS files and LZW compression for TIFF files.

Variable Printing Checklist

  • Design Castle Press designs
  • Customer designs (provide laser print with
  • variable information highlighted)
  • Simple variable data (address, salutation)
  • Complex variable data
    • variable text
    • variable images
    • with versioning: no. of versions ____

Data information

Number of records ______

File format

  • PC
  • Macintosh
  • Tab delimited
  • Excel
  • Filemaker Pro
  • Access
  • Other ___________________________

List fields included or attach list












  • Use informal mailing name
    “John Sample”

Initial first name, preferred substitution:

    • “J. Sample”
    • “Mr. J. Sample”
  • Use formal mailing name
    “Mr. John Sample”
    If no prefix (Mr., Mrs., etc.), informal name will be substituted.
  • Use informal salutation “Dear John,”
    Initial first name, preferred substitution:
    • “Dear Mr. Sample”
    • “Dear J. Sample”
  • Use formal salutation
    “Dear Mr. Sample,”
    If no prefix (Mr., Mrs., etc.), informal name will be substituted.


  • 8.5x11
  • 8.5x14
  • 11x17 other _______________________________


  • Roll fold
  • Z fold
  • Gate fold
    • with return card attached
    • with return card separate
  • Flower fold, straight edge
    • with return card
  • Flower fold, round edge
    • with return card


  • Score and fold
  • Perf
  • Die cut
  • Laminate _________________________________


Date to be mailed ___________________

  • Does not mail
  • DPS mails
  • Customer mails
  • Use CASS address verification
    • Delete unverifiable
    • Mail unverifiable
  • First Class
    • stamp
    • indicia
  • Standard (Bulk Rate)
    • stamp
    • indicia
  • Non Profit
    • stamp
    • indicia
  • Address for Automation
    (best rates, but requires strict adherence
    to Postal Service Design Guidelines)

Standard or non-profit return service:

    • “Return Service Requested”
    • “Address Correction Requested”
    • None

Outgoing envelope

  • None (self mailer)
  • Window envelope
  • Regular envelope
    • #10
    • A-6
    • A-7
    • A-8
  • ___________
  • Variable data addressing (for window
    envelope only)
  • Ink jet addressing
    • Labels
    • Provided
    • DPS prints


  • Business Reply Envelope (postage paid)
    • #9
    • #63/4
    • A-7
    • A-4
    • ___________
  • Courtesy Reply Envelope (requires stamp)
    • #9
    • #63/4
    • A-7
    • A-4
    • ___________
  • Mailable return card (business reply)
  • Mailable return card (courtesy)
  • None

See also:

Variable Data Home Page

Marketing Home Page

Click Here to Print from your Uploaded PDF

Click Here to Print from your Design Created Online