Your new business requires more sophisticated technology to connect print, online, and retail worlds

Saying that technology drives catalog marketing is an understatement. In spite of some fits and starts, technology – especially digital technology – continues to have an impact on catalog marketing from beginning to end, serving as the catalyst for many of the innovations that help maintain the industry’s competitiveness in a dynamic marketing environment.

Technology applications have brought and continue to bring a number of potential benefits, including increased speed, higher quality, lower costs, and even improved worker satisfaction as mundane tasks are reduced or eliminated. But when you’re talking about digital technologies, the common denominator today is greater speed. The prime reason to adopt any digital technology is to accomplish a task more quickly.

And speed is more important that ever, as catalogers address the challenges of an evolving multichannel marketplace that increasingly operates in real time. With this in mind, let’s look at how digital technologies are affecting every aspect of your new business.

Content management

The ability to harness the volume and variety of media generated today is central to a catalog marketer’s success, whether communicating in print, in a bricks-and-mortar setting, or on the Web.

Moreover, the trend toward greater targeting makes it critical that catalogers are able to link content databases with existing knowledge about the demographics and purchasing habits of their customers.

With this in mind, digital content management systems, which enable storage and retrieval of complex file types, such as images, audio, video, and text files, are essential to the future of your new business. They provide centralized access to these files and associated information, allowing their use across multiple media. As such, the key component of a digital content management system is a database or central repository. Value lies in the ability to locate an asset within the database according to specific search criteria. Database technology choices range from powerful relational databases to simple image libraries.

There are two basic categories of digital asset management systems: media catalogs and asset repositories.

– Media catalogs: These digital asset management systems use proxies (such as thumbnails) in an indexed database that can be searched by keyword. The actual source files are stored offline (requiring a manual process to find, load, and search a CD or other storage media), or near-line (in a conventional storage media like a CD, retrievable via a database-controlled robotic jukebox). Benefits include ease of installation and administration, and scalability.

Media catalog systems are best suited for low-security applications. They are popular with small- to medium-sized companies focused on desktop users through entire workgroups with direct client-server architecture. Typically, the simplest forms of digital content management systems are marketed as desktop solutions with a provision for scalability.

– Asset repositories: These systems store content inside a secure database. This centralization of assets into a single or distributed warehouse for safekeeping requires significantly higher-performance hardware, such as high-end UNIX servers. High-speed networks, generous online storage capacity, and a much healthier capital investment are required by the cataloger to support such a system.

Benefits are also far greater and include disaster recovery, full hierarchical storage management, centralized data management, full support of a workgroup environment, check-in/check-out, version control, open prepress interface (OPI) substitution, automatic color correction using International Color Consortium (ICC) profiles, conversion of documents into HTML, tiered security levels, and migration of least-used files to offline storage. The systems support the high-end user and are based on robust client-server architecture and enterprise server networks.

Enterprise-level asset repositories are built with integration in mind. They allow catalogers to manage a wider range of content (such as legacy database systems) and to automate the production and delivery of their print and electronic communications. Robust back-end features for management and storage, along with customizable front-ends, provide an industrial strength end-to-end system.

Enterprise content management systems also provide catalogers with the product information and marketing content hub that connects traditional business systems functions – order processing, customer service, sales tracking and merchandising – to the production of print and electronic publications. In short, the systems can automate and streamline the creation, management and distribution of product marketing information through a collaborative, distributed production and content management environment.

Of course, not every cataloger will necessarily be able to make the investment needed for either types of these content management systems. But one recommended strategy is to invest in a solution that will integrate with current systems and scale upwards in power and functionality for future use.

Beyond the cost issue, some marketers may also not want to be saddled learning about this new technology or housing it. Thus, their content management strategy might be to hand this function over to a third party, known as an application service provider (ASP). The ASP (a large prepress house or service bureau, for example) gives small- to mid-sized catalogers access to sophisticated content management solutions previously affordable only to larger companies.

Regardless of the strategy selected, the benefits to a catalog company trying to enhance its future in an increasingly digitally based realm can be substantial. Content management offers the potential to increase profits by accelerated cycle times and maximization of output equipment and labor. Employees can generate more work per person, and the quality of work is improved through efficient content creation with planned reuse of content across different platforms.

Distributing content

Now that your content is efficiently stored and managed, let’s move downstream to actual distribution. Obviously, the Web is continuing to have a profound impact on catalog marketing. With its seamless global connectivity and information-exchange capabilities, a Website can become a powerful, cost-effective marketing vehicle.

Just a few years ago, many catalogers’ Websites were still primarily informational, aimed at strengthening customer relationships and increasing catalog requests. Full-blown e-commerce was only beginning to evolve. Today, however, your new business requires more sophisticated systems that can effectively connect your print, online, and retail worlds. New software solutions now allow catalogers to go beyond simple online ordering to linking their customer databases, order consolidation databases, production facilities, and fulfillment centers to an online catalog or store. This new technology enables automatic online confirmation that an item is in stock, automatic notification when a product has been shipped, customer tracking, sophisticated user tracking, ad profiling, targeted e-mail capabilities, and gathering of one-to-one marketing data – all in a secure, encrypted environment.

Of course, marketers have many in-between technology solutions, with simple online ordering as the base point, but a good e-commerce system should be modular and scalable. Bare-bones e-commerce sites might start at $20,000, while robust sites can easily exceed $1 million.

Web-to-print solutions

Today, the Web is being combined with on-demand print in ways that will benefit catalogers, especially in business-to-business. New software programs allow for custom catalog building online. A customer or prospect can go to a cataloger’s Website, complete a survey about buying needs, and have a personalized electronic catalog assembled as a portable document file (PDF – see glossary). This file can be viewed online, transmitted as e-mail or sent to a color digital printing press for output and mailing. With distribute-and-print digital printing networks, the document can be produced and mailed from a center near the prospect’s address.

For example, digital imaging and electronic prepress systems manufacturer Agfa uses Web-to-print technology to power its Digital Roadmaps program. Customers and prospects can go to the Agfa Website and complete a survey about their digital workflow needs. The system collects the user responses and generates a 16-page brochure based on predefined business rules. More than 350 slots within the brochure are filled with user-specific text and images. Entire full-color graphical diagrams are assembled on the fly based on user-supplied data. The recipient can then elect to download a PDF version of their custom digital roadmap (which has the steps and equipment needed to build their digital workflow system) or have it digitally printed and mailed.

In praise of PDF

Ironically, with all the new whiz-bang technology out there, the old media – print – remains the cornerstone of most catalog marketing programs. So even as Websites and other methods of electronic distribution rise in popularity, these media increasingly adopt the tools, formats, and stylistic conventions of their venerable counterpart, the printed catalog.

That said, the big push in catalog print production today is to develop fully digital workflow systems from desktop design through plate imposition. Perhaps the biggest news on the digital workflow front is PDF, which is a more dependable alternative to the submission of a marketer’s files created in different applications.

PDF workflows eliminate the enormous pile of digital documents, including page layout files, illustrations prepared in a vector graphics program, digital images retouched in Photoshop, and, of course, fonts, fonts, and more fonts. Up to this point, the alternative to collecting this assortment of digital components has been “printing to disk,” the creation of a single PostScript file that combines all the previous items into one file.

But while more convenient to transport than a collection of application files, PostScript files have their own set of problems. The most significant of these is created by the device-dependent nature of the PostScript language. Thus anyone who creates a PostScript file must first possess a PostScript print driver as well as the appropriate PostScript printer description file. And even when these elements are in place, the printer or service bureau then receives a PostScript file intended for a single, specific output device – eliminating the ability to easily output the same file on a variety of proofing devices, imagesetters or platesetters.

PDF solves these problems by managing all but the final step of the process. It takes PostScript and distills the programming language into PDF, a tightly structured, object-oriented file that is both device- and resolution-independent. That means PDF will display and output the data the same way, whether the user is viewing the file on a PC monitor, printing on a desktop printer attached to a Macintosh, or imaging the file on a high-resolution computer-to-plate system.

Besides helping to prevent last-minute glitches, PDF technology addresses a number of other catalog production-related issues. To begin with, catalog marketing is an iterative process that almost always requires input from several different people and departments. While most designers use special applications running on Macintosh workstations, the PC predominates on the corporate side. PDF facilitates seamless file sharing among everyone using free Acrobat reader.

Acrobat PDF files can be catalogued to expedite the search process, and users can attach notes to the file containing comments without altering the document. Adobe’s latest release, Acrobat 4.0, has several new features that further improve collaboration, including underliner, highlighter, and overstrike tools to identify text.

These join a comprehensive “notes” annotation tool that lets each person add his/her comments. Acrobat also supports printing of any background text, such as “confidential,” “draft,” and “final,” so that everyone knows the catalog’s approval status. Finally, there is a digital signature tool that enables all of the users to sign off on documents before they are released for printing and electronic distribution.

Remote digital proofing

In addition to internal proof routing, PDF can be used for remote proof routing between you and your prepress provider. Remote proofing involves the digital delivery and output of final page information from the prepress supplier to a hard copy proofing device located at the cataloger’s facility. This practice is now also opening up to the digital “soft” (onscreen) proofing market, as more catalogers recognize that using PDF for final page information delivered through a simple Internet connection can accelerate print production by weeks.

File size is always an issue in Internet-based proofing strategies, but testing has shown that distilling application PostScript to PDF achieves on average a 10:1 file size reduction, meaning that a 120 MB application PostScript file would distill to a 12 MB PDF. Such size reductions are essential in allowing high-volume page delivery.

Other catalogers are using a combination hard-proof/soft-proof scenario. In these instances, catalogers output hard proofs for the first showing and soft proofs for subsequent rounds that involve noncolor issues.

Using PDF with CTP

Because of its many advantages, virtually all of the major computer-to-plate equipment manufacturers are scrambling to develop software solutions based on PDF. Known as Adobe Extreme, this workflow has all the flexibility and portability of a PostScript-based workflow, with all the consistency and repeatability of a raster-based workflow (in which all data is processed to rasterized or RIP’d files and stored for repurposing at different resolutions for proof and film/plate output).

The recent release of the Prinergy system, a collaboration between manufacturers Heidelberg and Creo, has accelerated movements in this direction. Prinergy digests PostScript data and refines it to PDF, which then serves as the digital master.

As part of this workflow, a trapping solution – technology that traps the PDF itself – was developed as a plug-in to Acrobat. (Trapping is the degree to which overprinting colors overlap to eliminate white lines between colors. All electronic files have to be trapped before being output to film or plate for printing.) The trapped PDF can be remotely hard or soft proofed at the cataloger’s facility. Eventually, designers will be able to refine, trap, and proof the catalog, then deliver the final PDF to the printer for plate imposition and output.

Managing color

Although the term “color management” has meant many different things at various times throughout the years, the current iteration refers to the use of a color management module (CMM) system-level software program that can convert images and graphic content from one mode to another – Web to print, or the RGB color system to CMYK (see glossary) – for viewing and output. Currently, the most widely used CMM is Apple’s ColorSync, based on a previous CMM design by prepress equipment manufacturer Linotype-Hell.

Today’s CMM users are discovering that the old model of converting images from RGB to CMYK format during the scanning process is too limiting in a world in which so much content – specifically that intended for Websites and CD-ROMs – can be delivered in RGB mode. Instead, advanced prepress workflow involves capturing, color-correcting, retouching, and archiving RGB images. These images are then converted to CMYK just before output as images for print, using ColorSync and the appropriate International Color Consortium (ICC) profile.

Pressroom and bindery technology

Perhaps you’re beginning to think that all the new technology affecting your business is aimed at the front end. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Both the pressroom and bindery are vastly different than before, and mainly because of the impact of digital technologies. Though prepress-related, computer-to-plate technology has made a marked improvement in print quality. Registration problems and other print variations are virtually eliminated; CTP also results in a reduction of dot gain (the spreading of a dot when applied to paper) from an industry average of 22% to approximately 11%. (This improvement is due to the fact that dots generated from an electronic file directly to a plate maintain more sharpness because they go through less processing than dots that are first imaged to film and then to plate.)

Electronically driven central consoles now remotely control inking and registration. The most advanced systems provide speed-compensated inking plus pre-inking programs that save time and paper though faster start-up.

Analysis of light energy reflected along the visible spectrum, otherwise known as spectrophotometric analysis – available on some press equipment – assesses colors as they are perceived by the human eye, which is especially helpful in evaluating PMS and special ink colors. The resulting analysis can be translated into colorimetric (the way the eye sees color) or densitometric (the density of color inks on the substrate) data with a few calculations.

Moreover, the right values for correction of inking are automatically calculated by comparing the press sheet with the reference values of the proof. The press can then literally correct itself.

And digitally controlled dampening systems – the mechanisms in offset presses that transfer dampening solution (usually a mixture of water and alcohol or an alcohol substitute) to the plate so that non-printing areas repel ink – virtually eliminate “hickies” (those specks or unwanted circular blobs on a printed page). These systems also provide crucial performance feedback to press operators from a network of sensors extending across the entire printing press. All required functions are activated at the right time based on entries made at the central control console.

All this technology relieves press operators of time-consuming, manual chores and lets them concentrate on quality and production.

Likewise, the bindery is more digitally influenced, especially in the area of demographic binding and inkjet imaging. Digital technology drives sophisticated saddle- and perfect-binding lines that can create unique product signatures, covers, inserts, and outserts that customize a catalog based on demographic factors contained in the cataloger’s database. Meanwhile, new inkjet technology not only delivers near-laser quality imaging, but also provides more color and font options with the ability to image an entire page rather than specified areas. The result is a greater ability for even the largest circulation catalog companies to market one-to-one.

Mailing/distribution technology

No catalog mailer or printer could conceive of managing a competitive mailing and distribution program today without the advantage of computerized distribution systems. List processing and management through freight consolidation and real-time performance tracking all depend on digital technology for speed, accuracy and efficiency.

The best catalog distribution systems fully automate the mail pool management process via software that ensures maximum cost savings as well as the achievement of target in-home mailing dates. Here are just a few of the benefits a technologically advanced system will deliver:

– Maximum postal savings

– Complete distribution planning and reporting options

– Inclusion of smaller mailings into the mail pool system

– Utilization of lowest available freight rates

– Analysis of mailing costs

– Monitoring of trailer movement to the postal centers

– Improved accuracy in predicting and targeting the in-home delivery dates

In mail pool management, software simultaneously analyzes the volume of several different catalog titles and their destinations within a drop date window. It then automates the planning process to optimally fill a truck trailer. The system also creates mailing and accounting documentation required by the USPS to qualify catalogs for the best postal discounts available under the destination entry program, which offers lower postage rates for entering the mail closer to the final delivery point.

The software builds the best possible trailer configurations from the printer’s facility on any given day. These configurations are based on three key factors: available mail volume, maximizing loads, and increasing postal discounts. Because the system is computerized, smaller mailings can participate and receive higher postal discounts, provided they meet basic eligibility requirements. Larger mail pools mean larger potential savings, which translate into higher net savings per piece.

Tracking your catalog

Extensive documentation and reporting capabilities are available with high-tech distribution systems. Catalogers can receive all the information needed to analyze their mailing and postal costs, as well as the savings provided. Many systems also incorporate trailer tracking to monitor truck movement until the shipment arrives at the postal destination facility. This lets catalogers know the exact location of their mailings at all times. And because destination entry gives printers complete control of transportation planning and routing, there is more ability to accurately predict in-home catalog delivery dates.

Keeping pace

Technological advancements related to virtually all areas of catalog marketing emerge practically every day. In fact, new technology whirls about in a seemingly endless state of metamorphosis. Consequently, in the race to stay up to date, catalogers must continuously move faster. It’s not surprising to find that even the most technology-driven catalog companies can easily fall behind.

But there is no alternative to staying in the technology race. The future of our companies (let alone our careers) depends on it. We do have choices, however – to be more open with one another about our successes and failures, to partner with our suppliers for better solutions, and to help ensure that your new technology drives the catalog industry not to submission, but to even greater heights.

Enterprise content management systems require lots of computer firepower. In a UNIX server environment, for example, typically a 2-processor Enterprise 450 system is recommended (1-processor 350 Pentium II or equivalent for Windows NT) with 1 GB of RAM (128 MB for Windows NT) and 6 GB disk space for program storage. Those accessing the system from Macintosh computers would generally need a G3 System 8.5 or higher (Pentium II 233 or higher for Windows) with 128 MB RAM (64 MB or Windows), monitors that support 800×600 resolution, and 20 MB of disk space for application software.

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