Asking the Right Questions About Variable Printing


As a savvy marketing director, your goal is to get your variable mailers printed for a competitive price and with a provider that gives you excellent service, right? And the more you know about your printing options, the more you can compare apples to apples on pricing, print time and flexibility from different vendors.

That’s right, you may use a fully digital product (dry toner applied with heat) that takes a blank piece of paper and prints all your variable data and full color graphics in one print pass or you can print a static mailer on an offset press (wet ink on paper) and then come back in a second digital pass to apply your variable offers in specified locations on the mailer.

Which is better, full color digital print or variable laser print on an offset shell? The answer is YES! Both methods create an opportunity for personalization and that is always better in direct mail. Let’s take a look at both options and compare.

Print Quality

Digital Print – Excellent photo-like quality on every piece.

Offset Print – Excellent photo-like quality on every piece.

Cost Comparison

Digital Print – Typically lower in cost at low and mid-range quantities due to fixed cost of clicks at all quantities. The reduction in cost per piece at high quantities may be lost.

Offset Print – Usually lower in cost at higher-range quantities due to overall reduction in cost per piece as quantity goes up with offset print. No fixed click costs to carry throughout a print run.

Flexibility of Variable

Digital Print – Essentially unlimited flexibility inclusive of full color variable graphics and data incorporation all in one run for maximum personalization and postage savings.

Offset Print – Variable limited to text or simple graphics printed in specific areas of the mailer designated for variable. Multiple versions of graphics require multiple versions of shells to be printed and processed as separate runs. Usually results in overall higher services and postage costs, especially at lower quantities.

Production Time

Digital Print – Three-step process; artwork and data prep to digital print to mail preparation. Overall faster process.

Offset Print – Four-step process; artwork and data prep, offset print of shells, setup and laser print of variable elements onto shells to mail preparation. Slower process due to two separate print processes and with multiple mail versions to prepare.

Overall comparison

Digital Print – This is your best option at lower to mid-range quantities. It gives you more flexibility in your variable capabilities, specifically with graphics. Completion times are shorter and postage savings are maximized. Due to fixed cost of clicks, savings may be lost at higher quantities.

Offset Print – This is your best option at higher quantities with no fixed click costs to carry through a print run. But you have less flexibility in variable options, specifically regarding color graphics completion times may be a bit longer and postage savings may be lost with multiple versions. If your mailing requires multiple versions to be printed, there is also a risk of commingling multiple versions in the same stacks or boxes after print which would result in players getting the incorrect offers.

In Summary

Essentially, you have two very good options for cost effective personalized mailers. Each has its pros and cons. Ultimately, it depends what you are looking to accomplish with your mailer and what you have to work with in your budget. Always consult with your mail services provider to check their capabilities, work out the math and review the schedules for the best option. With this knowledge, you can effectively compare different providers.

Tami Jones