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When Does it Make Sense to Use Digital Printing?

By Drew Wilson

This is a frequent question from our direct response clients.  Through much research and hands-on job management, we have learned when the use of this technology is appropriate.  Here are some guidelines to follow as you think about using digital printing in your next direct marketing campaign:

1) Digital printing is excellent for quick turnarounds on small quantity runs.  We have used it on occasion as an emergency option when running a few hundred pieces short one day before the mail date.

2) Digital printing can be extremely cost-effective on small quantity runs, especially if your piece is personalized.  You can roll the print, setup and lasering costs into one digital print price, because you produce these steps at one time as opposed to taking three separate steps.

3) Digital printing requires four-color process printing.  If you are particular about a specific PMS (spot) color, i.e. your logo color(s), digital printing is not the best technology to use, since it will try to match your PMS color using CMYK.  Many times it will be a close comparison, but not an exact match.

4) Digital printing is not as cost-effective as offset printing at higher quantities unless the piece is highly personalized (see # 6 below).  While offset printing is front-loaded with costs (setup, starting the machine, etc.) and the price per piece drops as the quantity increases, digital does not have the same efficiencies and the price per piece plateaus after a few thousand sheets.

5) Depending on the type of machine, digital printing does have limitations on the sheet size, because it cannot run large format sheets like offset can.  In addition, most machines have limitations on the type of stock.  Though it is common for digital to run a gloss, matte or smooth offset stock, there can be challenges with unique stocks like laid or linen since the inks are much different than those used in offset printing.

6) Most importantly, digital is effective when you are using variable four-color images.  Many mailers are still operating in the world of variable text, choosing to personalize the name, salutation and dollar information (donation request or offer), but not much more.  In order to fully interact with your donor or customer, personalized images will enhance your marketing campaign by speaking directly to the recipient.  If you are only personalizing text that can laser in black, then you are not fully utilizing digital technology.

Commercial examples showing effective use of digital printing:

  • A postcard from your car dealer features an image of your car’s newest model and asks you to stop in for a test drive, with the address of the closest branch next to a map giving you turn-by-turn directions from your house to the showroom floor.
  • The catalog from your favorite retail store features items similar to the ones you purchased a few weeks ago and advertises a sale on those products using a personalized QR code or PURL to order online or by phone.
  • An investment company’s booklet shows images of people around your age doing activities that you might have done the previous weekend.

Nonprofit examples of effective use of digital printing:

  • The four-color process image postcard from an environmental organization shows a park or nature reserve within an hour of your home, with copy tailored to that specific location.
  • An appeal mailing from a local museum you recently visited shows images of your favorite exhibits, with a personalized QR code or PURL offering a discount at the gift shop if you stop by in the next month.

Digital printing does have its advantages over offset, but they mainly reside in low quantity, heavily image-based personalized pieces.  Over the next few years, we will look forward to the opportunity to digitally print cost-effectively at high volumes.  When this innovation occurs, it should open the door to a much larger audience for direct response marketing.


Drew Wilson is the Director of Resource at Production Solutions, a direct response production management firm serving the direct marketing industry since 1990. Contact Drew at 703-734-5700 or