How do I create a data file for variable print?

In several of my past posts I’ve discussed the value of using direct mail, or using variable data printing to grab a targeted audience’s attention. But after spending last week in training on actually CREATING variable data files, I realized that giving tips on how to create the data would be a great topic for this blog.


233Simple data can be an address list, saved out as an Microsoft Excel file, or Microsoft .csv file (for Comma Separate Values), or even a text file that has the tabbing as the primary means of separating data. Regardless of which file type you create, keeping the data simple and in columns is key. For example, here is how you would create the columns:

  • First name
  • Last name (keep first and last name separate in case you have instances where there’s a salutation or some personalized element that uses their first name only)
  • Address 1 – keep the street address here
  • Address 2 – this column is where you’d apply a suite number, if applicable, or floor number. It CAN be text or a number
  • City
  • State
  • ZIP – and you CAN make it zip+4, but some systems are sophisticated enough that you can have the “+4” as its own column

Any other data, like emails, phone numbers, etc., should stay in their own column.


BIGpage8_15The BEST way is to get a template file from your print services provider, since it is most likely exported out of their system, and will have the required fields. However, if you’re creating this from scratch, create a simple Excel file, naming the columns from left to right as you see them above. However, ANY DATA that is not needed, like birthdays or login passwords, should be deleted from the sheet, and any columns that do not contain data in any field, should be deleted. You can also create a .csv file in Excel, or create a text file with tabs being used to sort the data. Just make sure that the first row in the text file is your “field” row, such as 1st name, last name, etc. TIP: data works best if there are not a lot of characters or spaces, so for the column “Address 1”, set the header to be Address1 or Addr1.  


Apartment-Mailing-List-SampleComplex data is where you’re going to create pURLs and you need to provide the URL, or you’re going to provide images that need to swap out, and you’ll have a column indicating which image to use on what record. You may also find that you need to tell it to do multiple image swaps per version, or image swaps based on specific data, such as a real estate agent, or vacation destination. However, the concept is the same here: add columns for that data, so that it can be mapped out by the print services provider.

Finally, when the job hits the print services provider, make sure you ask for and get a PDF proof of select records, or (if the job is not large) all records.  This is your final chance to insure that the data is mapped correctly from your file to the final product.

Creating a data file is easy, as long as you know to keep it simple, consistent, and you provide ONLY the data needed for the project.

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About John Prothero

John Prothero is a print professional with over 30 years experience in the print industry. Starting out as a driver delivering jobs, he worked in bindery, proofing, plating, traditional prepress (camera and stripping), scheduling, job planning, job management, account management and digital job production. His skills also run in the area of blog authorship, social media management, and lead generation and qualification of prospective clients. John is also a contributor to Rhode Island Creative Magazine, a digital publication that highlights the creative spirit of the state of Rhode Island. You can read their online issues at
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