Big Data can be a scary proposition for seasoned professionals in the customer communications business. It sounds like something that requires a PhD to figure out. What analysts refer to as Big Data doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective, though. Print/mail service providers can link data from two or three data sources, resulting in messaging that is more finely tuned to individual customer circumstances. If service providers can probe beyond the basic demographics they have been using for decades to create targeted mailing lists, they can make a big difference in how documents perform. Clients can realize a great deal of benefit with help from their service providers to make their communications just a little better.

Even small companies can make use of Big Data, but they may need assistance to understand how data can help them and how to apply it. The conversations between print service providers and clients should focus on client objectives, followed by identifying the data necessary to achieve those objectives more often. This is a different conversation than an old-style sales call that focuses on details like paper choice, ink, coatings, mailing lists, and volume price breaks.

Two Data Points = Big Relevance Difference

Suppose a print/mail client is a family-owned heating and air conditioning service company. They want to get more customers signed up on preventative maintenance programs. The service provider could send identical postcards to every household in a target neighborhood or ZIP Code – that’s an easy and familiar approach. But the client knows how long new air conditioners typically run before they fail, and easily acquired data provides the age of homes in the target area. Using this extra bit of data, the client could approach homeowners with a preventative maintenance offer timed to arrive a month before their unit is statistically prone to breakdown. Personalized marketing material could provide information about each homeowner’s risk, compare emergency repair costs to pre-emptive maintenance, and educate homeowners about warning signs their air conditioner may need servicing. When service providers guide the client, they help create a more attentive audience, allowing the service company to sell more maintenance programs.

This technique uses Big Data tactics — predictive analytics, but on an appropriately simple level. Almost any print/mail service provider can create variable data mailpieces. Document composition software and digital printers make it easy to put the data to work. Applying variables to a mailing transforms an uninspiring “Spring Special AC Tune-Up” postcard (like the one every HVAC contractor has been using for years) into a dynamic, personalized marketing piece.

This example does not require the client to have a state of the art CRM system. It isn’t necessary for clients to monitor social media or track website activity. Many small businesses will never achieve a 360-degree customer view or adopt sophisticated strategies often associated with Big Data. That’s not a reason to ignore the value Big Data techniques can provide to these enterprises.

Helping Clients Find Big Data

Data that helps all organizations communicate more effectively with their customers and prospects exists somewhere. If print and mail service providers can’t help their clients find and use that data, they lock themselves into producing the generic materials they’ve always provided. Inability to add value to printed documents makes service providers prime targets for competitors. The result is a forced choice between cutting profit margins or watching clients walk away.

Big Data may already pass through the print/mail operation. Transactional documents can include data about customer purchases, payment methods, purchase frequency, communication channel preferences, average order size, discounts taken, and more. Print service providers can use document re-engineering tools to extract data from print files as they process the documents. Customer-level data can personalize further communications and aggregate data mined from the documents can predict customer behavior.

Clients probably won’t ask print service providers for features that will make their communications more effective. Smaller companies and organizations may believe data-driven communication is too expensive or will be unaware of current document composition capabilities. Service providers can redirect the sales approach away from the printed pieces and towards a focus on business benefits. This allows them to educate their clients. Service providers can show clients how simple application of Big Data can make their customer communications an integral part of their overall business success strategies.

Proper application can enable local retail shops, restaurants, real estate, medical clinics, landscapers, and more to connect personally with prospects and customers. Just because they are small doesn’t mean they can’t take advantage of Big Data.

Mike Porter writes extensively on topics of interest to companies and individuals working in the customer communications business. Visit to learn more about his writing and consulting services or follow him on Twitter @PMCmike.