Print and electronic catalogs, hand in hand

As we approach the 21st century, the debate over whether electronic catalogs will make print catalogs obsolete is bound to heat up. After all, the explosive growth in electronic catalog marketing in just the past few years has made a solid case for the future of e-commerce. And the rising production and distribution costs of print catalogs have made it increasingly difficult for marketers to make money in mail order.

But even as electronic catalog commerce gains greater acceptance and technological advancements make the medium faster, easier, and safer, we’re not likely to see the end of the print book. Some customers will always prefer the familiar convenience of picking up and shopping with an ink-on-paper catalog.

So instead of worrying about which shopping medium customers of the future will prefer, we should concentrate on how we can give the people what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. By 2001, we will be doing so with both custom-printed catalogs and electronic media.

Customized contact Across all industries, one thing is for certain: People are pressed for time-and they’ll continue to be so. Whether your catalog targets consumers or business users, you’ll need to provide them with customized information. Many marketers are already exploring new ways to customize both electronic and print catalogs to serve specific niches and even individual customers.

For instance, catalogers use database information to create one-to-one marketing opportunities, such as specific product offers and pricing for each individual customer. Many database-driven catalog software systems make it easy to customize content. Some systems let you select the information you want to send to a customer and then click on the preferred method of output-print, Web, CD-ROM, or fax. Look for new developments in this technology.

Moreover, databases can improve the accuracy and consistency of catalog information. Many mailers repeat the same product in multiple catalogs or even within the same book, or they reuse catalog pages for other marketing purposes, such as space ads. Unfortunately, each time you move or replicate information, you risk making errors in your creative. For instance, you might refine a product description in a solo mailing but then neglect to do so in your standard catalog.

But with some database software systems, any time you make a change in the copy, the system automatically changes the information every place in the document. Many companies have password-protected security access to the database so that only authorized users can make changes to the catalog content. In the near future, it’s likely that large catalogs will almost entirely be produced using a central repository for all digital content.

Although many believe that electronic media will always provide a cheaper method of distributing individualized information, the price of customizing print books has come down. Digital presses enable mailers to customize catalogs faster, easier, and less expensively than in the past, thanks in part to technological breakthroughs in digital databases.

Electronic commerce According to Cowles/Simba Information’s The Electronic Advertising and Marketplace Report, consumer and business-to-business sales on the Internet last year reached $7.03 billion. And that’s barely scratching the surface of Web marketing’s potential. The Direct Marketing Association’s Best Practices in Interactive Marketing Report for 1997 indicates that only 39% of the sites surveyed offered transaction capabilities and only 17% of direct marketing Websites were profiting from their online presence.

For the most part, the media have exaggerated online security concerns. Working with more than 1,000 companies involved in electronic marketing, I’ve never met anyone who has had a credit card stolen over the Internet. This is not to say that ‘Net security is not a legitimate concern and that catalogers shouldn’t keep on top of the issue. But don’t let security fears prevent you from moving forward with electronic commerce initiatives that could benefit your customers and their businesses-especially as bandwidth is bound to increase over the next few years, allowing users greater flexibility.

The World Wide Web has proved to be more flexible for information delivery than offline electronic media such as CD-ROMs because it can be updated so quickly and easily. Sophisticated marketers will use a variety of media, including e-mail and other “push” technologies, to contact customers based on their interests or past purchases. For example, if you know that a customer bought a particular item in the past, you can send him or her an e-mail when that item is on sale or when you’re introducing a similar product.

As more distributors and catalog companies explore international business opportunities, the Internet will continue to be a useful tool in reaching customers overseas. Building brand identity on the Internet will also become increasingly important, especially for business marketing, as more companies view the ‘Net as an important marketing component.

And the Internet will continue to provide more cooperative marketing opportunities, such as related or complementary catalogs linking to each other’s sites, creating tandem offers and other synergies.

The advent of XML In an exciting development for direct marketers, a new Web-based programming language is being developed and will be in use by the end of this year. Extensible markup language, or XML, will let catalogers incorporate style and format elements, such as specific font preferences for prices, in with the actual data. This advance will let Web designers work with and store data in a more visual format.

Although few expect XML to replace the standard hypertext markup language (HTML) used by Web marketers today, it will provide more power and flexibility in using a database to create catalogs-both print and electronic.

Hybrid CD-ROMS While CD-ROM catalog marketing never quite caught on in the way some industry watchers predicted, new hybrid technologies that link CD-ROMs to the Internet may revive interest in the medium. One of the common misconceptions about CD-ROM technology is that once a disk is mastered, you can’t update the information without pressing a new disk. But hybrid systems now available can integrate a CD-ROM with the Internet or let you dynamically update the information from a client server via modem.

Hybrid CD-ROMs with online/ Internet updating capabilities enable companies to change the content on a disk-remove discontinued products, for instance, or update prices. Users can receive a file of the updated content via modem or the Internet so that the new information is then readily available on the disk. But this kind of updating can be done only with a limited amount of information, so you wouldn’t be able to update an entire catalog this way.

Along with such drawbacks, though, CD-ROMs do have their benefits. They let you include much more in terms of high-end graphics, video, animation, and other capabilities than a Website does. And CD-ROMs are easily transportable for traveling salespeople, who may not readily have Internet access but can use their laptop to access an electronic catalog.

CD-ROM integration with a cataloger’s back-end systems, such as inventory programs-including real-time order processing, price verification, and inventory availability-is still in the early stages for many companies; only a smallfraction of those that could benefit from such capabilities now use the technology. But I expect this practice will be in full bloom by 2001. Such advancements will enable more two-way communication between the buyer and the seller. The buyer gets the most timely product information available, and the seller has a more efficient means of communicating with customers and processing orders.

Expect to see a true convergence of various means of communication-telephone, computer, television-working together as an integrated set of tools. For instance, a customer watching TV will be able to hit a button to call an advertiser and order the product. Or an online shopper will be able to reach a catalog phone rep with a keystroke to ask questions or place an order.

But it won’t matter whether you’re marketing via print or electronic-as long as you provide quick, easy, and efficient communication and ordering for your customers. The good news is that the increasing technological capabilities will let you provide more customized information and better service-with more immediacy and security-to your customers by 2001, and far beyond.