Pump Up Performance

Want to improve the look — and performance — of your catalog? Of course you do, but you probably think you don’t have the time, talent, or resources for a design overall. If you take a good look at your catalog, however, you may find several creative tweaks you can make here and there that can really help your results. Here are 10 ways to build a better book.

  1. Create better covers

    Nothing much counts unless your cover gets your catalog opened. A mediocre cover isn’t going to make it through the initial cut as the recipient stands over a garbage can and decides what to keep and what to toss. Ask yourself some key questions:

    Is my cover dramatic enough? Will it stop someone going through their mail? Many catalogs compromise drama because they’re trying to accomplish too much on the front cover with messages, offers, contact information, and products. If you’re guilty of this, decide to communicate the key messages and discard the others.

    Is my logo front and center? Recipients should be able to see your name at a glance — hopefully, that’s one of the reasons they’ll pick you out of a crowd. I’m not a big fan of logos at the bottom of the cover because they get lost in a pile of mail. Plus, most readers are used to seeing a name in the masthead.

    Are my offers clear? We’ve trained catalog buyers to look at dot whacks for offers, so use them! Don’t bury promotions at that bottom of the page or in complicated type. The best place is the upper right quadrant of the page. And use bright colors. Red and yellow work great in making offers stand out.

    Creating a great cover takes information, thought and time. Crunched production schedules often force everyone to focus on getting out the catalog’s interior pages; as a result, the cover gets the least attention. Covers should be well planned — merchants and marketing people should provide cover content information early on in the game so that creative is not waiting for direction, product information, or strategy.

  2. Improve organization

    The faster your customers comprehend the content of a spread, the better chance you have that they will shop from it. Organization is the single most effective tool to help the reader quickly absorb the content presented. All too often, catalog spreads are a mishmash of product and copy. The readers’ eyes don’t know where to land or how to take in the volume of disorganized art and copy. They just turn the page or, worse, discard the catalog.

    Many techniques can be used to add structure to your catalog pages. For instance:

    • Design the content as spreads, not individual pages.
    • Use columns for some or all copy. This makes copy easier to read and creates more space.
    • Key copy blocks to the products they represent with letters.
    • Place headlines at the top of a page or spread — not in the middle where they have less chance of being read.
    • Customers expect to find phone numbers, Website addresses, page numbers, and company name at the bottom or footer of a spread; keep them there to anchor the pages.
  3. Provide “in-photo” information

    The goal here is to achieve a higher level of “comprehension at a glance.” You want the reader to absorb the most information they can in the seconds they scan a page. We know that the first thing readers look at are the photographs. We can’t force them to go to the copy block that describes the product — that only happens if what they’ve seen creates a genuine interest. But we can give them more information at the time they’re making the first assessment. Important words may substantially elevate interest. Examples include fabrication or content (100% cotton, sterling silver), call-outs, or magnified inset shots that underscore merchandise quality, construction, or special features. But don’t overuse this technique or it will defeat the purpose.

  4. Increase product size

    If you want to sell more product, do a better job of showing it! It’s surprising how much space most catalogers can find on their spreads without compromising density. Another source can be cutting fluff copy. Many catalogers mistakenly believe that customers enjoy longer, conversational, friendly copy — they don’t. They tell us again and again in focus groups that they want the information and facts about a product. They don’t want superfluous copy that is hard to wade through and wastes their time.

  5. Improve pacing

    The speed or tempo with which a recipient moves through your catalog is critical. Designers strive to create more interest and entertainment, but it’s not easy to produce a catalog that inspires the reader to spend more time with it. For one, this requires really understanding each and every product. And most catalogers are on tight schedules and have little time for fine-tuning and thoughtful page development.

    Even if you can find or make the time for the work to be done, you need creative personnel who are experienced and talented in designing and writing catalogs that inspire. If your people need coaching, make sure they receive adequate training and direction. If you don’t have the resources internally, get them from outside; the payoff in creative execution will be well worth it, not to mention the boost in morale.

  6. Use type that’s easier to read

    There’s no question that readers absorb less when the type they’re looking at is harder to read. Reverse type, color type, all capital letters, wide columns, and even many forms of sans serif type are all treatments that lower comprehension. If we know that’s the case, why use it?

    There’s a book on the subject that’s worth reading: Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes; author Colin Wheildon has studied hundreds of type presentations in advertisements in ads.

  7. Manage copy presentation

    If you expect the catalog recipient to read what’s in your catalog, it’s important to present copy in a digestible fashion. This means:

    • Use short headlines and subheads if the situation calls for it.
    • Lead in to copy blocks with words descriptive of the product so readers know they’ve landed in the right place.
    • As in a newspaper article, place the key selling information first and less important information later.
    • Use bold type, underlines, bullets, and other techniques to consolidate and/or call attention to key information.
  8. Call out prices

    Who doesn’t like to feel they’re getting a bargain? Whether in a store or a catalog, we love to be lured and tantalized by special pricing on selected products. You don’t have to compete solely on price to call out good values. Develop the technique that best supports your positioning. Tactics include sale pricing, theirs/ours, “only” or two-fer pricing. And choosing the right fonts can make all the difference in the world, so get creative with pricing!

  9. Help the customer make a decision

    Sometimes a reader needs more than a photograph and a copy block. For example, when you’re asking someone to choose from a variety similar products, as Lands’ End does with parkas, you might use a “good, better, best” comparison. With complicated products, such as electronics and computers, use bullets to summarize information. Multifeature, high quality products may need call-outs to underscore aspects of construction and components. When you really want to point out the difference between a product you offer that is often seen at a lower price, you can use the “ours/theirs” comparison.

  10. Create a more effective back cover

    Many would argue that the back cover is just as important as the front cover. In many cases it’s the first page a recipient sees, often facing up when the catalog comes in the mail. It’s the place to promote products that are universally appealing and representative of your positioning. It’s also a place to offer one or more of the great techniques mentioned above. Certainly, a well-priced product is a good idea, especially if the catalog is going to prospects. Also keep in mind that if you showcase one merchandise category on the front cover, include a differrent type of product on the back cover.

Glenda Shasho Jones is a New York-based consultant and an authority in catalog brand development.

Calling in THE PROS

If you’d like to make some catalog creative improvements but your regular team is stretched or not up to the task on their own, you might consider using outside resources. A freelance art director or creative agency with proven experience designing powerful catalog covers and pages can be a big help.

You might have a freelancer or consultancy do specific concept pages — or just covers — that your own people can emulate. You can also have them handle a majority of pages up to the layout stage, letting your own people take the work to mechanical stage. Another option is to have one of your catalogs produced completely — soup to nuts — by an outside talent. In that case, just make sure you’ve selected the right person or team and that you have anticipated the challenges that outsourcing might bring.

How do you find the right talent? This is the hard part, since there is no single place you can go to find these resources. Reach out to industry contacts for names and referrals. Contact The Direct Marketing Association for names of agencies and consultants. Look in the advertising section of industry publications.

Some catalog merchants are reluctant to outsource all or any portion of their creative because of the cost. This is a valid concern. But if you need the help now it could be worth it. Even if the catalog price per page is more expensive, you stand to gain much more from improved results if your book is in the hands of proven design professionals.