How the catalog has become a multichannel vehicle

Ever since the first order came over the Internet, people have been predicting the eventual death of the print catalog. Yet for many multichannel merchants, especially those brands that began as catalogs, this predictable and proven tactic continues to generate sales. It’s also key to file retention.

In fact, several noncatalog brands are beginning to consider this print medium as a proactive tool for maintaining their customer files.

That’s not to say you can put your catalog on autopilot — you can’t. In an era of new technology and customers’ ability to choose how they interact with brands, marketers must reconsider the old tried-and-true catalog model.

Should you ignore catalog physics that continue to work today, or start from scratch? No and no. But you must absolutely challenge the status quo of the role your catalog plays in the overall customer experience.

Consider the following ideas as a starting place designed to help infuse new thinking as you evolve your own catalog program.

  1. It’s no longer a transactional tactic.

    Too many marketers still think of their catalogs as transactional tools: Mail a catalog and measure its success on direct sales attributed to the scheduled drop. Instead, your catalog team should be thinking of your catalog as a relational tool that not only generates sales but also builds a relationship with consumers at an emotional level.

    According to Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, 85% of our daily decisions are made at a subconscious level, and emotions play a much bigger role than rational thought. If you cannot connect with customers on an emotional level, your brand is at risk.

    Connecting at this level requires methodical research and an intimate understanding of your customer and the emotional need your brand meets. We used to define value as a connection between price and quality. No longer. If brands connect on an emotional level, price should not matter. It’s the reason why women are willing to spend more than $500 for a purse. This is not a rational decision.

    Catalog copy plays a huge role in connecting with consumers and goes way beyond promoting product benefit alone. It’s more than just selling the “sizzle” to the steak; now we must sell the experience of enjoying mouthwatering fare with friends and family or the lasting memory of a compliment. This technique is not just for catalogs, by the way — you should be considering it in your online efforts as well.

  2. Build a relationship with prospects.

    The catalog as a prospect tool has become expensive and, for many, a dying art. Let’s assume you are getting a 1% response rate on your very best list, one that you’ve paid dearly for. What if you could acquire an additional 1% to 2% more names from that same list?

    Even if these additional names didn’t buy anything, would you turn your back on the opportunity to market to them with other techniques, such as email or a subsequent mailed catalog? Of course you wouldn’t! Anyone who interacts with your brand has potential for profits.

    As catalog marketers, we’ve always maintained a “one and done” mentality with prospect lists. We assume that because they didn’t buy from us at that point in time, they never will.

    But what if you presented an offer in your catalog that was so compelling and relevant to prospects that they would leave an electronic trail on your website? Instead of the usual “free shipping” and “dollars off” promotions, consider what’s important and relevant to customers, what aligns with your brand and what you’re uniquely suited to provide.

    What online experience can you offer that will intrigue and engage? Or, what information can you provide that has value to a potential customer? How can you help achieve a consumer’s goal on an emotional level?

    Several catalogers are testing offers using research as a basis. And they’re finding these names are valuable when using subsequent electronic efforts. Best of all, marketers do not have to repurchase these names!

    This idea doesn’t have to be a one-time campaign. It should be part of your ongoing efforts to engage prospects on a longer term.

  3. Your opinion counts.

    For years, we’ve been telling customers that their opinions count. But do they really? With online opinions spreading like wildfire and the success of online customer ratings, you cannot ignore this phenomenon.

    Customers want to be heard, and they listen to what others are saying! Many catalogers are already including the five-star rating system within the pages of their catalogs, but few are taking it to the next level.

    Explain why and how that product earned its five-star rating using the customers’ own words. But don’t stop there.

    Consider using customers’ words to craft headlines and captions, and even to create new merchandise. Be sure to give credit to customers by using quotation marks or recognizing them by name for their ideas and success stories.

    People want to be a part of something special and know that they are being heard. If you are not actively requesting, recording and incorporating customer feedback and comments, you are missing out on a valuable tool that will engage consumers at an emotional level.

  4. Give them a real reason to go online.

    Most catalogers have jumped on the social media bandwagon and are now dedicating space in the print catalogs to the well-known logos of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more. Plenty of mailers also do a great job telling customers to “go online for more.”

    But the efforts are not enough. In this busy world, do you think customers will rush online to follow whatever you have to say that day or to search out the 100 more products you sell?

    First, don’t waste the space if you are just going to include a social media logo without some reason for being or call to action. Why should customers spend even more time with you?

    Again, research is critical in understanding what will motivate your customers. Always offer a “higher order benefit” when asking them to go online.

    For example, when showing a video icon next to a product such as a juicer, you might include a caption stating, “See five recipes that will boost your family’s immune system.”

    Or, if you offer more items online in a particular category, state “More colors, more styles … go online for the latest fashion releases.”

    If your brand is all about cooking, create a relevant activity on Facebook, such as recipe sharing. Then, next to the Facebook icon, add “Share quick meal recipes online with other busy moms.”

    Bottom line, you cannot expect consumers to spend time with you unless you offer a truly compelling reason to engage. If you haven’t been able to create a reason, you need to do a little more homework.

  5. Embrace technology.

    What an exciting time we live in as smart phones and electronic touch pads become more prolific, offering more options to marketers. If you are not embracing this new technology, you may be ignoring your best opportunity for future growth. Why all the hype?

Well, we already know catalogs drive people to websites, with those numbers increasing every year. We also know that there is a time lag between when a catalog recipient chooses a product from the book to the time she goes to her computer and logs on to a website (let alone the time she spends diverted to reading emails, etc.).

How many customers do you think you’ve lost along the way? With the ability to instantly go online and purchase, that time lag can be drastically shortened.

Imagine, if you will, something akin to but much smaller than a QR (quick response) barcode placed next to each product in your catalog, giving customers the ability to scan the printed catalog with their smart phones and see a video, read customer reviews, add to a wish list and even purchase the product right then and there.

Better yet, the purchase is 100% trackable to a specific mailed catalog! Or, if an item was not purchased, brands have the ability to send a triggered email based on specific mobile activity. The future is now, and this technology is real, being further developed and improved every day.

What about Intelligent Mail Barcodes, which the U.S. Postal Service will require on all catalogs in this year. While some may see the new 65-bar codes as a necessary evil, the IMBs may entertain new marketing opportunities.

For instance, did you know that a few enterprising companies are working on the ability to send a mobile message alerting recipients of a mailed catalog? This message might emphasize an offer, tout new products or just act as an additional tap on the shoulder.

Endless opportunities will present themselves in the next few years, and smart marketers will create new ways to integrate multiple channels.

These are just a few ideas that will, hopefully, change the way you think of your catalog as a marketing tool. You may still be reluctant to give up valuable real estate in your print catalog. But most of these ideas do not take more space, just a creative repositioning of what you present based on intelligent customer research.

There is a greater risk in being bound by current square-inch analysis rules. If you don’t evolve, your catalog faces extinction. If you don’t employ new psychology and new technology, your catalog will falter and your customers will go elsewhere.

On the bright side, your print catalog has a unique opportunity to engage at new levels while enhancing your online activities.

Lois Brayfield ( is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consultancy based in Mission, KS.