2005 Mar 01
Exstream Software Dialogue
David M. Raab
DM News
March, 2005

When direct marketing gurus chant their mantra of “right message right customer right time”, they are usually meditating on how to find the correct messages, not how to deliver them. But message delivery is a major stumbling block on the path to marketing Nirvana. Printing personalized messages has traditionally required a time-consuming set-up process, making it difficult to accommodate multiple variations, small quantities, or frequent changes. Moreover, each job could accept only one set of inputs and frequently was tied to a specific output device, making it impossible to combine marketing campaigns or delivery channels in a single process. Web and call center personalization, although based on different technologies, were subject to similar constraints. This made it nearly impossible to coordinate all messages with long-term customer management strategies.

Modern document production systems remove many of these barriers. Vendors including Group 1, Cincom, Sefas, DocuCorp, StreamServe, PrintSoft and Document Sciences offer products that let users design templates, import data to generate individual documents, and export those documents directly to printers or Web servers. Most feature graphical user interfaces that simplify creation of complex documents, embedded rules to guide personalization within each document, and drivers to generate files for different printers and electronic devices. Some products were originally designed to add marketing messages to high volume documents such as financial statements, while others were aimed primarily at complex customized documents such as insurance policies. But these applications require many similar capabilities and most systems now can do both.

Dialogue (Exstream Software, 859-296-0600, www.exstream.com) is a personalized document production system with a particular focus on marketing. Most clients use the system to add messages to operational documents such as financial statements, but it can support customized individual documents as well.

Dialogue jobs are built by combining documents and data into an “application”. The data can include imported files, real-time messages from middleware, and direct connections to external sources. An ingenious “print mining” feature can even extract values from existing print files. Documents can combine inputs from multiple sources, without these being merged in advance. This makes it easier to draw on existing customer databases. It also lets the system accept lists of recommended messages from different sources and apply its own rules to decide which will actually be given priority and delivered.

Rules for combining and displaying data are built into Dialogue documents. The system provides a powerful graphical design tool that lets users combine standard elements including tables, images, text boxes and shapes. Contents are drawn from a database of messages according to user-defined rules. Rule logic can incorporate customer data; message attributes such as type, expiration date, or jurisdiction; and document constraints such as maximum number of pages or weight classes for postage. Rules can be stored independently and used in multiple documents. Documents can generate interactive Web forms that capture information and react accordingly. These can be used to capture names and addresses for fulfillment or to let customer service agents customize standard responses.

Dialogue can integrate with existing resources by importing documents built in other tools including Quark and OGL, and by referencing messages stored in external content management systems. The system includes extensive administrative functions to distribute draft documents, gather approvals, store previous versions, specify valid date and geographic ranges, search for existing documents, and track where each document is used.

Applications are independent of the output device that produces them. During job execution, the system uses drivers to generate files in the correct formats for different printers and electronic media. Rules within an application can direct the same document to different output devices under different conditions.

Although these capabilities are important, other document generation systems offer similar functions. What sets Dialogue apart is campaign management.

In Dialogue terms, a campaign is a collection of messages. It includes campaign-level rules to determine when the campaign applies, as well as message-level rules to govern message selection. The same campaign can be applied to multiple documents and multiple campaigns can be used in one document. Combined with Dialogue’s ability to combine data from multiple sources, this allows the beginning of independent customer strategy management.

But a true campaign management system can store and access the history of messages sent to each customer. Dialogue provides this in the form of an internally-maintained “knowledgebase” of messages sent to each customer plus responses received. This is quite unusual for document generation software.

In practical terms, the knowledgebase lets Dialogue select messages based on messages a customer has already received. This means the system can limit the number of times a customer sees a message, wait a specified period before a message is repeated, and even deliver a sequence of messages over time. Sequential messages can be selected by rules within a single document, or by embedding the same rule within multiple documents and letting the system determine which one is due to be sent.

Responses can be captured directly from an interactive Dialogue document such as a Web form or be imported from an external source such as an order processing or customer service system. Standard reports show numbers of messages sent and responses, meeting another key campaign management system requirement for response reporting.

Dialogue can also use the message history in its knowledgebase at an aggregate level, to limit the total number of times a message is sent or to stop sending messages after a specified number of responses are received. Again, these are capabilities more commonly associated with campaign management than document generation.

Dialogue was introduced in 1999 and now has about 250 customers. The system runs on a Windows workstation on Windows, Unix or Linux servers. Special Web-only interfaces are available for end-user campaign development and document customization. Users can pay for a software license, monthly subscription, or for each document generated. License fees can be as low as $60,000, although most small customers would purchase on a subscription basis. A license for a small commercial printer would cost around $200,000.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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