This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Mailing Systems Technology.


For many mailers, envelopes are often little more than an afterthought. As long as they flow through the inserting equipment without jamming and the windows are in the right place, who cares?


In today's hyper-personalized communications environment, the lowly envelope's status is improving. Thanks to technological developments, mailers are no longer locked into a narrow range of choices. They can now create envelopes that contribute to the effectiveness of the mail pieces they encase, offer greater returns for their customers, and generate a new source of revenue for themselves.


Dynamic Envelope Printing

Most mailers continue with traditional pre-printed single window envelopes. For some, the double-window variety allows them to use the same material across many applications. A few, however, have discovered that advances in inkjet technologies and document integrity controls make it possible to offer their customers something different.


High-quality envelope printing solutions are available from many hardware vendors. With varying levels of speed, intelligence, and functionality, envelope printing solutions can allow mailers to reduce their inventories of custom envelopes or even abandon window envelopes entirely.


Customer Interest in Envelope Printing

Full-color inkjet envelope printing makes it possible to create mail that is more valuable to customers. Any organization that helps clients achieve their objectives instead of just providing an easily sourced service creates opportunity. By showing customers how to connect envelope messaging to their marketing goals, service providers can expand business relationships with their clientele.


Customers regard traditional mailing products as commodities. When a service provider generates the same mail delivered in the same envelopes offered by the competition, it drives down the provider’s profits and makes customer loyalty difficult to maintain. With many companies looking to digital delivery as their first choice, mail service providers must sell their customers on the concept that mail offers value worthy of the cost. Variable envelope printing is one way for service providers to make that argument while separating themselves from competitors.


Dynamic envelope print devices image each envelope with messages and graphics connected to recipient-specific offers described in the mail piece, communicate urgency, or raise curiosity. Unlike special orders for pre-printed envelopes, messages printed at production time can be very timely. Is there an extended polar cold front on the way? Heating oil companies may want to recommend customers top off their tanks. Did a local emergency create an urgent need for blood donors of a particular blood type? Print the plea in red, right on the envelope where recipients will see it at once, along with a map to the nearest donation site.


Possibilities for adding prompt, targeted, and personalized elements to a highly visible but generally ignored area of a mail piece are limited only by imagination and data availability. Studies have shown that relevance, personalization, and color affect response rates and order sizes. Customers will appreciate the value these elements add to their campaigns.


Is Envelope Printing Right for You?

The justification for adding full-color envelope printing to a mail production workflow may be different for each company. It depends on the size of the operation, the mix of production jobs, printing platforms, and the competitive environment.


Here are some benefits a print/mail service provider or their customers may enjoy from dynamic envelope printing:

· Less money tied up in custom envelope inventory

· No waste due to obsolescence or expired shelf life

· Increased open and response rates

· Occupy fewer square feet of warehouse space

· Reduced time and resources dedicated to staging and stock movement

· Larger envelope orders, enabling attractive services such as just-in-time delivery and better pricing

· No rush charges when unexpected shortages occur

· Ability to merge small inserting jobs into larger, more efficiently processing units of work

· Avoid material staging errors

· Segmented messaging without degraded postal presort density

· Personalization to alert recipients to important envelope contents, deadlines, or opportunities


Windows Pluses and Minuses

Window envelopes are both a convenience and a pain point for mail producers. I worked in the service provider industry for 20 years and experienced both the advantages and challenges of window envelopes.


ADVANTAGES

· No worries about matching address-bearing envelopes to contents

· Easy quality control, either by camera or humans, to see that an address appears in every window

· Inventory simplicity – use double-window envelopes for multiple applications or multiple customers

CHALLENGES

· Adjusting fold plates for different jobs to align addresses with windows

· Programmatically repositioning document address blocks in customer-supplied print-image files

· Address-creep caused by variable page counts and nested folds

· Long address lines or too many lines to fit in the window

· Little or no available messaging space

· Privacy concerns when confidential data becomes visible

· Undeliverable or rejected mail caused by shifting envelope contents

· Mass production appearance is unsuitable for some applications


With adequate systems to control document integrity, some organizations may decide switching to closed-face envelopes is another way to distinguish themselves from the competition. If so, they may enjoy additional benefits:


· Reclaim areas of the document reserved for the address block, postal barcode, and clear zone

· Improved privacy for mail recipients

· Eliminate window-alignment and address shift problems

· More professional appearance


Inkjet Printing Can Drive Need for Dynamic Envelopes

Dynamic envelope printing may be especially interesting to companies migrating to high- volume inkjet document environments. Manufacturers build their roll-fed inkjet printers to process large print files that keep the devices running for long time periods. One way to generate larger print jobs is to build them by combining documents from several smaller jobs.


Inserting machines allow operators to load only one type of outbound envelope at a time. If inserting jobs feature co-mingled documents from many applications, printing customized text and graphics on the outbound envelopes on the fly is the only alternative to producing a generic mailing product.


What About Envelope Makers?

Inline envelope-making machines and wrappers are another solution for some print/mail operations. They can allow a company to gain all the advantages of dynamically printed envelopes with the bonus of not maintaining envelope inventories at all – not even blank envelopes! Service providers with enough volume and appropriate types of applications can print the main documents and inserts, make an envelope featuring variable elements, and produce a finished mail piece with a single piece of equipment.


Many mailers are uncomfortable with having all the production steps so tightly connected though. They need more flexibility, or their customers don’t like the look of wrapped documents. For them, dynamically printing on blank envelopes with high-quality inkjet heads mounted on the inserting equipment is probably the best approach.


If I were building a service center from the ground up today, dynamic envelope printing would probably be in the plan. The technology has been available for a long time, but the quality, speed, and integrity built into today’s solutions make them an attractive choice and a way to distinguish a print/mail service provider from competitors.


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

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