Big data gets a lot of press, as it should. How organizations acquire and use data affects how they manage customer communications across all channels. Most of the articles about Big Data, however, focus on advanced applications. Many print and mail operations are still struggling with mundane issues like merging data files, deduping, and genderizing. If those tasks aren’t handled adequately, output based on those Big Data processes won’t be effective. Data-handling mistakes in an environment of highly personalized communications can be disastrous.

Print service providers new to highly personalized customer communications may not have the experience with specialized tools necessary to produce customer-specific documents. They often rely on brute force manual editing or general purpose programs like Excel to handle data manipulation tasks. These practices lead to higher project costs and inconsistent results.

Casing and De-duping

Case conversion is a good example. Functions in programs like Excel can convert data to upper and lower case, but they do not handle exceptions well. Excel converts name suffixes like II or IV incorrectly, and mis-cases names with multiple capital letters. Unintelligent capitalization routines have turned acronyms or initials in company names into embarrassing mistakes printed on customer-facing documents.

Deduping is another area where office suite programs can do part of the job, but struggle when records do not match exactly. General purpose programs won’t recognize Robert, Rob, Bob, and Bobby as variations of the same name, leaving needless duplicates in the files that increase costs and detract from the personal customer relationships marketers strive to establish.

A Better Solution – Dedicated Tools

Software solutions tailored to handle typical print provider data challenges already exist, but they are not aggressively marketed. Search for helpful data manipulation software described with terms such as data cleansing, list reformatting, data quality, data enhancement, or merge/purge.

Print service providers must be able to handle a wide variety of customer data and applications. I recommend they have access to software utilities providing the following functions:

· Merge/purge/dedupe/matching

· Parse/standardize/reformat

· Upper/lower case conversion

· Gender identification

· Search and replace

· File type conversion

· Unique ID number generation

· Float/compress name and address fields

· Selection/suppression based on multiple business rules

Postal software companies may offer some of these capabilities, so it pays to check with current vendors; print service providers may already own useful data manipulation utilities they haven’t been using. They may purchase more functions separately or in packages from software vendors. Often the software runs in the cloud. Payment models include unlimited use subscriptions and pre-purchased credits, making it easy for companies of all sizes to use the tools as needs arise.

Personalization places greater burdens on every organization that handles customer data. They must be sure the data is accurate, consistent, and formatted to take advantage of the information in the best possible ways.

The need to manipulate data files before producing documents is not new, but the impact of these manipulations is greater than ever. Digital printing has increased multiple-source data consumption to create large runs of unique documents. If multiple versions are delivered, the data is wrong, or the formatting is unprofessional, personalized communications create negative impressions instead of promoting stronger customer relationships.

Big Data may be great at predicting when marketers should present each offer to targeted customers, but eventually the organization must produce and distribute a message. Presenting laser-targeted messages using correctly formatted data requires data manipulation skills and software tools designed for the job.

Among other things, Mike Porter helps print/mail organizations align their software, hardware, and workflows with the needs of their customers. Contact Mike at or follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter @PMCmike to learn more.