Why Some State Health Exchanges Failed

October 05, 2013
Posted by John Fager at 9:59 AM


With the launch of the Affordable Care Act’s online exchanges, some states are celebrating huge successes while others completely failed.  We’ll explain why and how to avoid these mistakes when selecting a web development company.

Maryland was at the forefront of implementing the ACA. Gov. O’Malley established six policy workgroups and trained over 5,000 people to help consumers enroll.  Their exchange site failed miserably with fewer than 100 people able to enroll before the site was taken offline.

Kentucky, meanwhile, had a cake with the number 100,000 written on it to celebrate passing that number of people who had prescreened for enrollment by Wednesday.

Colorado’s exchange, where we are located, has had problems with users experiencing outages and downtime, but nothing as severe as Maryland’s flat-faced failure.  Still, it’s hard to imagine why the Colorado exchange’s homepage loads 1.1 MB of files and data!

The federal exchange is being mocked on Redit for its terrible coding and caching, noting that it loads 11 CSS files, 62 JavaScript files and that HTML is inexplicably nested inside of script tags.  None of the code is compressed and none of the files contain expiration headers allowing for local caching to work.

All of these mistakes are amateur issues that a decision maker hiring a firm would never spot without addressing the issues covered in this post.

The Challenge of Selecting a Competent Tech Company

The recent launch of the federal and state exchanges has provided a phenomenal case study about the difficulty in selecting a truly competent web development firm.

Organizations looking to develop excellent web applications will benefit from understanding a few important concepts when vetting a development firm.

First, I’ll highlight three key points about web applications that are often overlooked.  Then I’ll go into some recommendations about how you can address these points to ensure a better outcome.

Key Items for Application Development

  1. The visual appearance of a web page tells you nothing about how well the page is coded.  Two pages could look identical to the human eye on screen, but one may be far lower quality.  This can affect the expense of upgrading content and appearance in future versions, cross browser support issues, and most importantly performance and organic search.
  2. Examining the front-end code of a web application tells you nothing about how the backend software will perform under stress that comes with high volume use.
  3. Examining the back-end performance of a web application tells you nothing about how easy or difficult it will be to maintain and upgrade in the future.

Looking Beyond Basic Vetting

Every website project decision maker looks at basic qualifiers for a development vendor.  The firm must be capable of designing an attractive, clean and functional website that looks professional and is easy to use.  Then there is the importance of an established track record of successfully completing projects on time and on budget.

Once these two basic requirements are met, decision makers often start looking at the proposal costs.  This is a huge mistake.  Here’s why: An initial proposal from multiple firms is almost never apples to apples.  There is no real map or formalized architecture at the time of an initial proposal. 

Proposals often estimate radically different levels of application performance or features.

To use a car analogy, many firms attract business by quoting the site like they are building a Nissan Versa sedan, which costs under $13,000.  The problem is that almost no one buys the cheapest cars.  They simply don’t do what is needed.  What’s more, web applications generate the big costs down the line in maintenance and future development.

What is the answer to this dilemma then?  Never select a firm based on costs and content of an initial proposal.  Instead, vet the firm based on communication skills, level of service and responsiveness, ability to deliver on time and on budget, a proper hourly billing rate, and most importantly a complete knowledge set about front end design (UI/UX) as well as back end engineering (code, databases and business intelligence).

Beyond the Basics: Addressing the Three Key Points

Ask your development firm about all of these issues during the vetting process.  If their people can speak clearly, knowledgably and succinctly about these points, that is a good clue as to their skill and value.  If they stumble and don’t provide specific examples of how they have worked with and addressed these types of challenges in past projects, it is a big red flag. 

Point 1: Go Beyond the Visual Appearance

  • Review the page to make sure that there are no <table> elements used unless the design actually calls for a data table (i.e. for pricing or product information).
  • How many kilobytes are loading in the page code?  Is the design overly complex with too many elements or is the source code clean, consistent and easy to read?
  • How many elements are loading on the page?  Are there too many style sheets?  Too many JavaScript files? Are the images optimized for web performance?
  • Does the site use the most modern standards from HTML5 and CSS3?  It should!  But it should also still look good on older browsers too.
  • Google, Bing and other search engines will read the code.  More modern, well-designed, cleaner code will perform better for organic search rankings.
  • Poorly architected code will be hard to maintain and update.  It is difficult for a content manager to work with.  Poorly architected code also makes it hard for universal CSS changes that keep the site looking fresh and modern.

Point 2: Stress Test a Serious Site & Be Ready to Scale Up

If designing a small business “mom and pop” application, stress testing doesn’t matter.  But if you are designing a shopping cart that will end up with high volume in the future or high stress periods such as during sales or holiday shopping periods, stress testing is critical during development before the big launch.

  • What is the strategy for stress testing the site and discovering bottlenecks before “go live”?
  • Is the firm going to use third party software to simulate a range of expected traffic?
  • Will the load testing account for hacker attacks such as DDOS attacks (distributes denial of service attacks)?
  • What is the strategy for adding more support as volume increases?
  • What will the costs be to expand capacity?
  • How rapidly can these resources be added?
  • Can the resources be reduced during slow periods and increased elastically during high volume periods to save costs?

Point 3: How Architecturally Sound Is Your App?

Ask the question: If and when changes and upgrades are needed, how easy will it be to implement them?  A well-architected application is modular so that different components can be upgraded without impacting other areas.  A poorly architected application has code that is deeply entwined and makes it difficult to change.

  • Determine how the firm will trap, record and report on exceptions and errors.
  • Ask how the various elements of the application will be separated to ensure that other developers can work independently on different areas.
  • Will the firm use interface based design practices?
  • Will late model binding and inversion of control (IOC) methods be employed so that business logic and data management components can be re-optimized or redeveloped later to upgrade or enhance performance and capacity?
  • Most importantly, does the firm know these terms and understand why or why not to implement these development patterns for a specific project?

Great Social Media Infographic - Perfect Posts

September 19, 2013
Posted by JFM Concepts at 12:15 PM

This infographic has been making the rounds on the internet and I really found it to be a helpful summary.


Thanks to My Clever Agency for putting this together.

Easy to avoid email blunder

September 11, 2013
Posted by JFM Concepts at 8:38 AM

The following email arrived in my inbox today and reminds me of the juicy goofs that Heidi Tolliver-Negro frequently uncovers.


Lessons Learned:

  1. Proof on a small mail list before you send and have someone else check it over.  It’s too easy to miss details as the brain often sees what it expects to see, not what is actually there
  2. Use an email client like VDP Web® that allows you to preview your contents as it will go out, so that errors like this one in the merge field are glaringly obvious

On an editorial note, it still amazes me how many firms send spam.  Even if they are not based in the United States and are not subject to the CAN  SPAM Act of 2003, American marketers will get annoyed if you ignore these rules, and that can’t be good for business.

Print 13 / Spectrum 13 Next Week in Chicago!

September 04, 2013
Posted by JFM Concepts at 11:29 AM

After an explosive debut at GRAPHEXPO 12, The Printerverse returns as a Show Floor Feature for PRINT13.  In addition to his keynote at the concurrent Spectrum 13 conference, James Michelson of VDP Web will be on the show floor as part of the Industry Pro’s Panel for a spirited free for all of questions and answers.  Anything goes so come and ask all the tough questions.

A 2800 sq foot space in BOOTH 5440 will once again be an educational and networking zone for printers, integrated marketers, print and digital producers, print and media buyers, designers, creatives, agencies—and everyone interested in today’s evolution of print and marketing. It will feature a variety of ways to interact with print, including some the latest innovative technologies and applications, and serve as the social media hub for the show.

Thousands of attendees joined us last year, and Printerverse buzz brought us visits from industry legends such as Benny Landa, Jeffrey Hayzlett, James Michelson, Frank Romano, and every major print and media organization. Quite simply, there is nothing comparable to our space at the show.

The Importance of Data in On Demand Production

July 26, 2013
Posted by JFM Concepts at 6:24 AM

James Michelson, founder and Chief Marketing Officer of JFM Concepts, the makers of VDP Web®, will present the keynote address on “Cross Media Marketing” at the Spectrum Conference 2013 on Sept. 10 at McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago as part of Print 13.

Traditionally, print and marketing production success has been achieved by expanding efficiency and improving the speed at which content is released to the market. But the tide of history is pulling the world toward “data” to create success. Regardless of the products or services offered, firms that collect, measure, track and analyze data are able to leverage those inputs in a multichannel world.

The future of cross-media, cross-channel or digital marketing depends not on who can come up with the best technologies and a snazzy pitch for a product or service, but on who understands data in order to use new media efficiently, start a two-way conversation with prospects, measure results and effectively respond. The future of all production will come down to what a customer specifies and orders at an individual level, with each unit being custom-produced.

Not only will data continually drive fundamental changes to the content that’s created for a particular audience and device, but also the methods and types of production used will dramatically change. Complex products can always be assembled in a factory, but the methods for producing parts will shift from a specialized supply chain per group of related industries to general manufacturers who possess the correct equipment to fabricate parts. This is more than three-dimensional printing and there is no doubt that the on-demand production on a unit-by-unit basis is the future.

Have doubts? Here is a quick summary of some of the rapid changes in technology over the past 60 years or so.

  • In 1947, a mere one-third of rural areas in the United States had municipal or cooperative electrical power. Twenty-two years later, NASA put a man on the moon.
  • In 1969, the entire computing power of the space program was less than that of a typical smart phone.
  • Those of us old enough to remember will recall the now ludicrous-sounding debate over whether a computer would ever be used beyond niche consumer sales and the subsequent debate about whether there could ever be one in every home. And then, as if the trend was not already clear enough, whether Internet access would ever be universal. Today, virtually every household has a cell phone and most phones sold have Internet capability and require a data plan.

Let us reconsider the question of whether or not the future of production, from print to virtually any manufactured good, is not going to shift from large to small scale. It is not only conceivable, but has become almost a foregone conclusion that production will occur on demand and at a time and place of the consumer’s choosing. That might be at home, at a commercial printer or in a showroom reminiscent of the old Service Merchandise retail stores.

This then, leads us back to data.

The Advantages of Premium Software

July 18, 2013
Posted by John Fager at 1:32 PM

Why should firms use premium software?

It’s no secret that premium software costs more than bargain priced solutions.  Why do companies purchase software that costs more money than other similar products?

This chart shows an example of how more expensive software can reduce the cost of a project on the whole.

Low Cost Software Premium Software
Costs-discount-software Costs-premium-software



  • Software costs on the premium software can be almost twice that of the low cost alternative
  • A larger investment in software can easily reduce total costs by 9-15%

Organizations use software because it is always cheaper to automate processes than to have them completed manually.  Software that is more expensive often does a better job than lower cost competitors. The old adage that you get what you pay for applies.  Premium software packages better support your business and allows the organization to focus on critical revenue-generating work and spend less time pushing around the parts.

Usability, Staff Time & Systemic Error

The value of any software system comes down to how easy it is to learn and then use, and whether it works in such a way that both decreases complexity and the time required to accomplish a set of tasks. A complex software process can require a dedicated, fully trained staff member to operate the system.  Those hours in training as well as the reliance on a single team member to handle the software can be a big disadvantage.  Turnover, sickness, personal time off, maternity leave and other issues can wreak havoc on processes if a software package is too complicated to use.  If others in the organization cannot readily fill in for the absent employee, it reduces the value of the system. 

A poorly programmed software system with bugs adds staff frustration to the mix, often requiring users to redo tasks, work around issues and even spend long, unproductive hours going back and forth with support.

Many usability issues only become apparent with time and use of a software system.  The experience gained both in setting up different types of campaigns and in having exposure to different systems reveals the weaknesses.  Thankfully, the majority of VDP Web® customers are familiar with competitors’ systems and began looking for alternatives out of frustration with the software, services and support.  This is a great advantage to our sales team because customers understand that the largest single cost of a cross media PURL system is actually the time investment in using the system.  Staff hours and onerous processes are a huge drain on productivity and have a massive impact on the profitability of a project.


Systems that create campaigns quickly and are easy to use reduce the amount of time required for an employee to generate content and also make the process accessible to other staff members when they need to step in.

Staff Time

The more people that can use and contribute to a given system, the faster and easier it is to deploy client campaigns.  This avoids risks with staff turnover, allowing new team members to jump into an ongoing campaign quickly.  It also helps to avoid backups when a specialized member of the team goes on vacation or is overwhelmed with too many jobs at once.

Messing Something Up

It is important to consider the cost of making a mistake that could have hard costs in rework and delays. Some mistakes, if not caught, may damage or destroy a good working relationship with your client.

Poorly designed systems often have confusing interfaces and more steps than are necessary to accomplish the task at hand.  JFM Concepts believes that a self-explanatory system that keeps things simple and efficient produces the best possible results.  A well-designed package reduces the risk of getting something wrong.

VDP Web had the benefit of being created from the needs of our in-house digital agency before it was released into a software package. The system was not just created by developers based on an abstract, untested set of requirements and layouts.  This gave VDP Web the unique advantage of removing stumbling blocks as well as unnecessary and confusing items on the page.  We created processes that add speed, simplicity and flexibility to everyday tasks.

Why do some software solutions cost less?

Lower cost solutions are less expensive for a reason.  To reduce costs, corners must be cut, service levels must be reduced and the amount of resources supporting the business cannot be robust.  There are always tradeoffs for a lower price.

We have had experience with a small handful of printers that decided to go with a lower cost provider when they began the process of adding PURLs, generic landing pages and email to their product mix.  Most of these printers have come back after their first few campaigns in total frustration.

The primary reasons for upgrading to VDP Web were:

  • The software made it very difficult to set up campaigns
  • Clients, content, logins and reporting could not be managed under a unified agency account under a single login
  • Uploading and managing the data was too complex
  • Training and understanding the system was time consuming and difficult
  • The PURLs didn’t work or track reliably with connection issues, slow load times and other problems
  • Technical support was slow, unreliable, frustrating, or all of the above
  • The creative could not be set up to work the way the client expected
  • The system could not handle large, enterprise level data sets (hundreds of thousands or millions of records in a single list)

Make sure that you consider the time and expense of managing a system that does not provide:

  • Easy setup for true agency/reseller functionality
  • A fully hosted system for content, data and reporting (software as a service)
  • Serious, fast support when needed
  • Strong, dependable agency services for design and development

Remember that Email Has Special Deliverability Concerns 

With email, the organization responsible for the send plays a special role.  Many email providers will not allow an agency immediate access to upload large lists.  Questions loom, such as, “Where did the subscribers come from?” and “Can our system handle a sudden increase in bulk sends?”  A true agency system like VDP Web is ready to absorb any volume and understands the agency model of sending out bulk email for your clients.

Custom Templates Save Time

Another huge benefit of the VDP Web software is the ability to develop customized templates that are available directly to all of your sub accounts.  This gives a high speed edge in production, development and testing time when rolling out email services to multiple customers.  This process is something that a basic email system like Constant Contact or Mail Chimp cannot provide.  The number of hours and complications that duplicated production will cause significantly increases costs and decreases profitability.

Smaller Providers Have Trouble

Both of our main competitors actually manage and send their own email.  With a smaller client base for email, they are too small for Gmail, Microsoft or Yahoo to pay any significant attention to.  Though this reduces costs, it does a big disservice to their clients. A large, enterprise level sender that handles major airlines, banks and the world’s largest healthcare companies has a professional and safe email reputation.  When their email is blocked, critical things are missing from the recipients’ inbox.  For that reason, the major providers are very careful about blocking email from big, well-established players while quick to block others.  This added level of deliverability and security is why VDP Web partners with ExactTarget to manage outbound bulk email sends.

With the huge investment in building subscribers and generating content, it just makes sense to invest a bit more in the email system to assure a successful deployment and the best deliverability possible.  The actual send costs are the smallest part in the whole pie.  It is a risky call to bet the success of the whole project to shave less than 10% of the cost off the total job.  It is also difficult to measure the amount of damage that occurs when subscribers are not properly engaged because they never received your email.

Assessing a System 

What is the best way to assess a system?  If you can, use an experienced web and email professional who is familiar with data management, content creation, testing, and response analytics.  Make sure you consider all of the hidden costs, including staff hours, rework time, support questions, training, and complexity.  By not tracking costs on the system as a whole, you will miss many opportunities to actually reduce costs and increase productivity through the use of premium software.

Redesign & Consolidation of Brand Websites

June 06, 2013
Posted by John Fager at 11:57 PM

We thought we would share the strategy and technical process on our recent overhaul of our JFM Concepts family of websites. Hopefully this post will give some of our readers inspiration and ideas for working on their own web presence.

We recently upgraded the design and HTML code on our flagship site www.vdpweb.com. Additionally, we migrated www.vdpcomplete.com, www.vdpmail.com and www.profilecomplete.com from regular ASP.NET Webforms sites into our central content repository.

These upgrades have given us the opportunity to review our content strategy, update our fit and feel, eliminate old “internet road kill” and position the sites for ongoing content updates as part of an SEO growth plan.

The Views

Before   After

PVDP Mail afer the redesign

Profile Complete after the redesign

Core Concepts

1. Using a central CMS (content management system)

We implemented a powerful CMS that allows for unified access to our sites in one location to quickly create, update, move and expire content. A good system will allow for fast updates, reduce the chance of errors and duplication, and expedite the approval and publishing of large content sets.

Our CMS is unique in that it manages multiple sites with an infinite number views where the user's experience is selected based on the device being used (desktop, iPhone, Samsung, tablet, mobile, etc). Additionally, the heavier administrative backend is completely decoupled from the very lightweight implementation of each live website.

Any CMS requires a fairly robust, often heavyweight program for the administrative backend. These administrative applications are often entangled with each publically viewable website. JFM’s CMS uses a completely separate public implementation keeping each outward site independent, lightweight and very fast. Changes and additions to the administrative application can be implemented inline without affecting existing live sites.

Having all corporate sites in a single management system also allows for a unified content strategy across all brands. This is far more practical than a "release-by-release" strategy where each site is individually updated in batches with complicated, intensive sessions coordinated with content managers and the web design team.

2. Evolve the website fit and feel for modern standards

During the last year, a clear trend has developed towards wider screens, rounded corners, gradients and simpler color pallets. These trends have been inspired by the consistent increase in monitor size as well as the broad based support for CSS3. Additionally, many sites have begun the process of implementing new HTML5 elements for clearer, more semantic markup in code.

3. Consolidate content and refine each brand site to a narrower focus

With the older sites, as our brands evolved and features were shifted to newer brands, content began to overlap. Some content that was relevant to both brands contained duplicate copy. With the recent algorithms implemented by Google and other search engines, original copy is king. This presented a real incentive to focus content on each site with appropriate cross-linking. This is an ongoing process that can now be implemented gradually through the unified CMS.

The Process

The primary flagship product site www.vdpweb.com was updated some time ago to be in the CMS with more modern standards, colors, fonts and graphics. Several elements were updated for color, fonts, HTML5 and CSS3 features. This resulted in a fairly low cost upgrade to the site.

With www.vdpcomplete.com, www.vdpmail.com and www.profilecomplete.com, the three sites were ported from their legacy ASP.NET Webforms versions.  A full-scale redesign of the creative was implemented in the process.

The technical process of migrating the 3 sites included:

  • Automated import of content via business logic rules
  • Programmatic scanning of images and resource files to eliminate old files no longer in use in live page code
  • Automated mapping of 301 redirects mapping old ".aspx" extension pages to new extensionless URLs
  • Redefining of page URLs for greater SEO and better content organization
  • Identification of indexed pages on Google to ensure that no content was “lost”

The design update included:

  • Standard content shells for main and sub pages
  • Unified headers, navigation and footers
  • Widening the site size from 860 pixels to 1032 pixels
  • Updating logos with subtler lowercase and lighter blue font colors
  • Softening and consolidating colors, often opting for grayscale
  • Replacing older image based CSS with modern CSS3 for rounded corners, gradients and other effects


While upgrading our sites seemed like a tremendous commitment of resources and a daunting task, getting everything into a modern system where the system can evolve independently of the content was a huge step forward.

The process helped eliminate old internet road kill, consolidate content, add modern HTML5 and CSS3 and implement sensible SEO-friendly URLs.

Overall the process will make a stronger impression of the brand while triggering search engines that our company and content is dynamic and evolving. These are important signals to send if you want your sites to rank well.

If you have been considering a content or design overhaul, let us know!  We’d love to hear from you.

Marketing & Testing for a Better Response Rate

May 22, 2013
Posted by John Fager at 4:52 PM

This information is designed to help printers, marketing agencies and internal marketing teams understand better strategies for testing direct marketing.

The fact is that direct marketing works. It can turn companies into competitive monsters but it’s important to have realistic expectations. Trying something once and giving up has never worked well in any venture. It takes time and persistence to yield positive results!

The perspective of the client about why they are doing their printing and marketing with your firm is important. As you develop your relationship, make sure your client trusts in a long term strategy and your knowledge of marketing. Don't hook them on a one off trial.

Sell Marketing as a Strategy

More than a few clients have been asking about response rates and results from a campaign. Some have done incredibly well on a very small campaign while others have had extremely low response. This leads to a couple of key questions:

  • What was the cause of good or poor performance?
  • Is the difference between two different response rates significant?

When we talk to clients about marketing strategy, we always make it clear that we are not here to champion our personal preferences. We believe in statistics.

We put clients on a marketing program that will:

  • Isolate different factors (list, design, offer, and web content)
  • Measure the success of each factor
  • Employ the most successful elements tested while continuing to test for even better response rates

There will be two key components to determining success:

  • Measuring each component individually
  • Determining whether the differences in response rates are statistically significant

There are 3 main components that we want to observe.

Testing List Testing the Mail Piece Testing Web Content

Each of these elements of our strategy has the ability to make or tank the campaign. The flip side is that any one of the elements might not have a significant effect on the response rate. This depends on the audience, the product, and the current market.

The List

The biggest and most crucial element is the list. If we are not targeting prospects that are interested in our product, then no amount of design, copywriting or great offers will help us build sales.

It is critical to use data analysis of existing customers with segmentation on how “good” or not that particular customer is. Does the group of customers that orders once differ in demographics, behavior or self-reported information from those that are long term repeat customers?

Based on the existing data for customers and orders, we have access to a tremendous amount of insight on the “ideal” type of prospect that we are looking for. It’s important to use that on our list criteria.

Additionally, it is important to look at the list provider.

  • Who compiled the data?
  • How high is the quality of the members?
  • Are the claims about the data accurate?
  • Are there any other providers?

Testing the Distribution Source

As we test the list source, it is important to ensure that we don’t skew the results by changing anything else on the marketing. The marketing piece and web experience should be the same for all prospects. If we make other changes, we are reducing the population of each factor and it becomes harder to determine if there are significant differences in the response rate.

Here is an example workflow for testing a list:

Testing the List

Notice that the campaigns that we measure response under are different, but the creative for the mail piece and the web are the same. This helps reduce production costs and ensures that we are just testing the list.

Testing the Mail (or Email) Piece

Whether distributing via a piece of direct mail or email, we can try different design as well as copy and offer strategies on the card.

There is a “mail moment” on every piece of direct marketing. This is the two seconds of attention that the prospect gives to the piece. It either goes in the trash or the prospect decides to review it more carefully.

We cannot know whether someone looked at the piece in depth, but we can provide a web address that is tracked to measure how many people visit the web to get more information. A PURL (personalized URL) or an email program with good tracking is even better in that we will know who specifically off of our contact list decided to get more information.

The recorded web visit or link click is excellent, but it doesn’t help us determine whether the list or the mail piece were the significant factors as to why we received that response. For this reason, it is critical to measure both the list and the piece independently with proper tracking.

The following example shows how a workflow could handle testing just the direct marketing piece:

Testing the Mail Piece

Notice that the list and web experience remain unchanged so that we can attribute the differences in response rate entirely to the design, offer and copy of the marketing piece. We should be careful to only alter the aspects of the marketing design that we want to test.

  • If testing the offer or copy, leave the design the same and change the offer content.
  • If testing the actual design, work with changes that might be the main colors on the card or the primary photos.
  • Test different call-to-action designs and strategies.

Testing the Web Content

It’s important to remember that with direct marketing, we first have to get a web hit response before we even begin to build our audience for measuring the effect that the web pages are having on response. This smaller audience means that it is harder to measure whether one response rate is really significantly better than another response rate.

Because of the expense of developing web content, we suggest that deploying separate web content to test should be done only after we are certain that the list and marketing piece are effective at driving traffic to the website. After all, the investment is lost if no one sees either web piece.

In situations where we are seeing lots of web hits, but we are not seeing link clicks, survey submissions or purchases, it is reasonable to examine our web content. By creating alternative or modified content and measuring the change in behavior, we can increase our conversion rates and increase ROI.

Here is a workflow for ensuring that we are accurately measuring modifications in web content:

Testing Web Content

As with the tests on design, we can change the main colors, the style of the design itself or the offer and call-to-action portions of the web page. It’s important to isolate these various changes to the degree possible so that we can effectively understand what is working and what is not.

Is the Change in Response Rate Significant?

All too often, we see clients attempting to test or split their creative using variable data printing (VDP) to see which strategy works best with a small population. It’s fine to run tests, but if we are going to invest in design and development, it is important to be aware of these two questions:

  • What is the size of the population of the test?
  • What will constitute “success” where one strategy has been proven to be more effective over another?

These questions really need to be addressed on the front end of a campaign so that it’s clear to the client whether it is worth the investment of running a test in the first place.

A Refresher on Statistics 101

Everybody remembers the grade school days when we were taught about probability. The odds on getting heads on a coin toss are 50/50. The secret is that each coin toss is a new trial, so it’s rare that 100 tosses will yield exactly 50 heads.

Coin Toss Test
Trials 100 5,000
Expected % Heads 50% 50%
Confidence Level 95% 95%
Observed 40.2% - 59.8% 48.6% - 51.4%
Confidence Interval 9.8% 1.4%

This means that if we flip a coin 100 times and get 41 heads during the first trial and 59 heads during the next trial, this fluctuation is due to random chance. The odds didn’t change and the coin didn’t change. It’s just a normal part of how things fluctuate. The second round of 5,000 tests narrows the expected of likely outcomes significantly. As the number of trials increase, we get closer to knowing that what we are seeing is due to true probability and not flukiness.

As you can see, it’s a pretty big spread. Let’s see what happens if we apply this to a marketing campaign:

List Source TestSizeResp RateResult
List Source A 1,000 2.0% NOT SIGNIFICANT
List Source B 1,000 3.0%

A larger population allows us to be confident that smaller changes in response rates are significant:

List Source TestSizeResp RateResult
List Source A 5,000 2.0% SIGNIFICANT
List Source B 5,000 2.5%

It would seem that 3% is far better than 2%, but the difference is not statistically significant with only 1,000 prospects in each test group. The odds are too high that the fluctuation is due to random chance. To be sure that the test is working, we need a larger population on each list or we need to repeat the test multiple times.


  • Educate clients about marketing via strategy and statistics
  • Avoid the single sale that says try it and give up if it doesn’t work
  • Focus on using statistics to increase response
  • Design clear tests to continuously improve response

Providing Professional Email Services for Print Clients

May 02, 2013
Posted by John Fager at 6:51 PM

More and more printer partners are being asked to provide email communications along with their direct mail programs. For printers that are just venturing into this space, we would like to provide some key recommendations.

Many printers think that since sending an email doesn’t take up press time, it can be deployed right away. It’s true that email can go out immediately, but making sure that the content is coded correctly and that all the necessary details are in place takes time.

We recommend a checklist of information needed for an email and a standard client communication delivered in writing that explains the required deliverables and timeline.

  • Have a written timeline
    The timeline should include a trigger point that starts the clock from the point that the client has given you everything needed to create and send the email.
  • Make the client review & approve a live test
    Have a deliverable that includes a live sample email send to your client’s test list. Recommend that the client signup for and provide you with email addresses that use Outlook, Gmail, Hotmail (now Outlook.com) and Yahoo that they can access directly. This involves the client directly and makes them feel comfortable with what is going out.
  • Leave time between the test & the live send
    Make sure to express a standard of at least 2 business days between the test email to your client’s test list and the actual send. This gives plenty of time for revisions.
  • The client should participate in testing & approve the email
    Make sure that the client is responsible for reviewing and approving what was sent.
  • Include a single round of changes for accuracy
    Make sure to be clear that additional changes may have a cost. This keeps the number of changes and tests down to a minimum and ensures that the client takes their time reviewing the test and organizing their feedback.

Design for email can be tricky due to the diverse number of email readers on the market. Here are a few design gotcha’s:

  • Not all email readers display background images
    Background images are nice for layout, but Outlook won’t display them. A fallback background color can help, but generally we recommend avoiding background images in email altogether.
  • Email doesn’t look the same on every device
    Gmail, iPhones, and Yahoo all inject markup into email code that is beyond the control of the sender. As a result, addresses, phone numbers, dates, times and other terms can be turned into hyperlinks. These may be blue, green or some other color. These added colors can make your copy unreadable if you have background colors.
  • CSS code doesn’t work on all email readers
    With web code, we style in DIV tags for width, height, coloring, and other neat design stuff. In the world of email readers, much of the CSS design won’t render.

Check out this video of a presentation that discusses quoting and fulfilling HTML for both the web and email for print providers.

Don't Get Killed by HTML - PSDA Seminar

James is in the top 10% On LinkedIn. Does it matter?

February 14, 2013
Posted by JFM Concepts at 12:44 PM

The email at right came from LinkedIn today.10percent

It shows that even very modest investments in social and cross media marketing can yield results for both brands and individuals. In small and mid-sized firms, the traffic driven by a wide spider web of sources is an effective global salesman who is on the job 24/7.

The creation and maintenance of a social media web presence is time consuming and can be, frankly, a pain. For small cap businesses, it is often the reputation of key employees that drives sales by making the firm easy to find as customers do their initial research or conduct due diligence online.

When it is cost prohibitive to discover where prospects are in the sales cycle, a passive social media strategy can help.

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JFM Concepts is a full service cross media marketing technology firm featuring the VDP Web® PURL and cross media marketing platform. JFM specializes in creating variable data cross media marketing technologies with Personalized URLs for commercial printers, marketing departments and agencies of all sizes.

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