HOW AND WHY TO OPTIMIZE YOUR CATALOG TO SUPPORT ONLINE
First published on ACMA website April 2013
© 2013 Susan J. McIntyre
Your catalog can be your strongest tool for supporting your online efforts. Why should you care? Whatever one channel can do to help increase sales or reduce cost in another channel makes business sense. Your catalog can do that, and can do so without lowering its own sales.
THE NEW SALES PIE
As demand for more ways to interact with your company expands, catalogers are responding by expanding their online channels and media — building programs for more devices, more social.
At the same time, I'm seeing more and more catalogers returning to more printing and more mailing, after having tried to cut back. And despite the fact that 60% or 70% or 80% of their orders may be coming in through their website, they say they have found that those web sales are primarily due to their catalog mailings. Some of this consensus took several years to reach, after testing catalog mailing reductions, doing "hold-back" tests (half of customers get regular mailings, half get no mailings for 6 months, etc.), and moving marketing dollars out of print to online.
So for now, forget the mantra "print is dead". It's not true yet and doesn't appear to be coming true any time soon. But print is different now. Your print channel needs to be more productive, work on a lower budget, and — since it's an important driver of online sales — needs to do a superior job of online support.
THE NEW BUDGET PIE
The plethora of channels and media has given consumers more choices about how to purchase and how to interact with your company. That's great. But it's increased your budget needs too. You're now dealing with a mobile budget, an iPad budget, a Facebook budget, a Twitter budget, a pay-per-click budget and much more.
But all those budgets and channels haven't significantly increased sales. Customers are happy because they can shop and talk with you the way they prefer. But a lot of their interaction with you is channel-shifting rather than more buying.
That often means that about the same old budget as in the past must now be split up among all your channels and media (in addition to dealing with normal cost increases and ballooning postage). So part of supporting your online efforts with your catalog means finding ways to cut your catalog budget to enable allocating budget resources to your other channels and media that some customers have come to prefer. And to do so while retaining the catalog's sales effectiveness.
THE NEW CUSTOMER MICRO SEGMENTS
We normally think of customer segments as being split into demographics, or split into buying behavior (e.g. 13-24 month $100+ MultiBuyers) or split into product groups (e.g. they buy only menswear but never womenswear). But within those segments we need to also start thinking in terms of new micro segments.
- People who just want the products you have to sell.
- People who want to read more about the products.
- People who want to read reviews.
- People who want to use live chat.
- People who want to interact with you on Facebook.
- People who want to read your blog.
- People who want to follow you on Twitter.
It's not to say that you are currently collecting data on each segment. Nor that it would be clear what might be actionable should you have all that data available.
But if you visualize all those micro segments, you can think about what each would like best in order to interact/buy more. And you can think about how best to inform them — in the catalog — about all their choices.
YOUR CATALOG CAN GUIDE USERS TO YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA
It's common for websites to list logos for their Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and blog pages. But it's very uncommon to list those social media in their print catalogs. However, doing so is easy and worthwhile.
If, for example, you built a Facebook page because you want users to interact with your company via Facebook, then it makes sense to let potential users know your company is on Facebook so users can self-identify themselves and go there. But if only your ecommerce website (not your catalog) lists your Facebook, Twitter, blog and other channels, then only customers already buying from your website, or who found you via search, will know about your social channels, thus limiting their messaging and interaction potential.
Don't force catalog customers who might enjoy Facebook and other social to go through a 2-step process to find that you even offer them. You already put your URL in the catalog and encourage users to shop online. At a minimum, it takes very little room to also list all your social media on your back cover, or on 2/3 or on your order form.
Or go further. Add space in your catalog, large or small, sprinkled around or grouped in an online section. Add notes about what useful information customers might find on your blog, or the interesting posts they'll see on Facebook, or first-to-know inside news from Twitter. Catalog readers who are not interested will pass by. But catalog readers who are interested, will select what interests them most and give it a try.
COPING WITH FEWER PRINTED PAGES WHILE SUPPORTING ONLINE
In the past decade I've seen most page counts drop. 56 page catalogs are now 32 pages. 124 page catalogs that showcased the entire product line are now 68. And so on.
There are some basics to consider when deciding on page count. Like talking to your printer about press efficiencies and signature sizes in order to print the maximum pages with the fewest press make-readies so you minimize cost. And since there's a weight point at which your postage will be the same even if you decrease pages, you might be better off printing the maximum pages possible for a given postage. And pinpoint when you should print more pages (peak season) and when fewest pages (off season). All of these types of decisions will help optimize cost/benefit and free up a few budget dollars.
But once you've covered those catalog budget basics, how can you also squeeze more sales from those limited page counts?
When you do lower page count, you can't build your catalog the same way that you used to. The obvious direction to take is to focus on best sellers and new products. But also remember the adage "They can't buy what they can't see."
Sure, some people will find the "missing" products when they're navigating the web. But a great many of your catalog buyers who place orders on the web won't be searching for other products, they'll be typing into the search box the item numbers of the products they saw in the catalog — and only those items. And yes, some may also add on one of the web-suggested "Others who bought this also bought" products. But you also know that you would have sold more if your "missing" (web-only) products had been pictured in your catalog. And you know that fact based on the old high-page-count days.
So you need to find other ways to also show people what you offer that is not shown in the catalog.
There is a range of ways your catalog can indicate that more products are available online.
The simplest and least space-consuming way is a generic message sprinkled throughout the catalog such as "Much more online". That's also the least eye-catching, and the call to action is weak. But if you do nothing else, at least do that minimum web cross-sell.
Another way is to do category-specific cross-sells on catalog category pages. Let's say you have a spread of floral sweaters. Saying "More floral sweaters online" at least tells the customer interested in floral sweaters that it's worth seeing what others are available. This can still be just a well-placed text line so it takes up almost zero space.
Or you could use a bit more catalog space and take that idea a step further. Show one postage-stamp size image of a floral sweater that's only available online, with the caption "More floral sweaters online." And do the same for other product categories.
Or if you're willing to release even more catalog page space, you could show a row of five online-only floral sweaters, each with an item number and price and a group headline line "Even more—see details online".
Be creative. But note that the point is to be really clear, and in an intuitive way, show that what the user is seeing in the catalog is not your entire line.
QR CODES AREN'T DEAD YET
They're actually a quick and easy way to lead mobile-device users to parts of your website that they may find of interest.
QR codes can show customers what's not possible to show in a catalog.
Example: "See all that will fit into our storage/ottoman". Take a series of still photos and turn them into an animated GIF that lets the customer see the product packed and unpacked. By the way, animated GIFs are great for adding spice to your emails too.
Beyond animated GIFs are simple, short how-to videos like "How to prune a butterfly bush" for a gardening catalog. Or even easier to make: "Watch this web cam of a hummingbird building her nest."
QR codes needn't only send users to animations. Static information that won't fit in the catalog — like profiles of craftspeople, or customer stories — can be of interest to your catalog readers, especially when associated with a particular product or product category.
You can also use QR codes in a very straightforward, product-centric way like "See all our floral sweaters" that simply sends them to that category page on your website.
Catalog readers won't know that all your interesting and useful materials are available if you don't tell them about it in the catalog. Letting them know in your catalog will not just lead them to your website and possibly to purchasing a specific, related product. It will also accustom some users to visit your site more often, generating more brand loyalty and long-term sales.
THINK ABOUT ONLINE TOO, WHEN BUILDING CATALOG CREATIVE ASSETS
How to best do this depends on your company structure. If your company is big and multi-department, then marketers from each relevant online department should meet with you catalog marketers when reviewing product handoffs from merchandising.
If your company is small and you are the all-channels marketer, then think about these same things yourself on a product-by-product basis:
If a particular product has a great story, think about how to communicate that story in the various channels.
- Is this an opportunity for an animated GIF or video? Then factor that into photography.
- Is there a craftsperson or expert story? Then an interview is called for and the copywriter needs to write both web-ready and catalog-ready versions.
- Is this a product that could benefit from in-depth product copy that will never fit into the catalog? Then start with an "all-you-wanted-to-know" product story for the web, and edit it way down for the catalog.
WANT TO PHASE OUT YOUR CATALOG ENTIRELY? NOT A GOOD IDEA
Unless your company is a major retailer with monster stores all across the country, you would almost certainly find your sales suffering significantly if you tried to eliminate your catalog.
The catalog arrives when most customers weren't thinking about your brand, or feeling any need for your products. Opening your catalog cover opens a wonderful world of possibilities for the catalog reader. And a profitable percentage of them will buy even though it wasn't in their mind at all yesterday.
As much progress as has been made in turning online into something that's more interactive, your website is still mostly waiting around for people to think of something they want and then go searching — hopefully to your site.
"OK," you might be asking, "why can't I accomplish sending people online with email and postcards instead of expensive catalogs?"
Emails do generate sales, but they have a very short shelf life, plus they can showcase only a few products at a time, and are often felt to be intrusive in a way that catalogs — welcome in many homes — are not.
Postcards also have a short life, and also can showcase only a limited product range. And while it's worthwhile testing to see if they work for you, they typically only work well when promoting discount deals.
There's something kind of magical about a curl-up-with-it catalog that still works to drive significant sales — including sales to your website.
PRIMARY PURPOSE OF YOUR CATALOG IS STILL TO DRIVE CATALOG SALES
Don't lose track of that.
Catalogers currently are thinking that they have to be on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other social because all their competitors are too. And that's where a lot of consumers appear to want to be. But no one is really sure that it works to increase sales or long-term brand loyalty for catalogers. So we catalogs are supporting those efforts because we think we'd better be in those ballgames at least until it all becomes clear.
So don't get so carried away supporting social with your catalog that your catalog becomes ineffective as a selling tool. Even if people like to interact with your company via your social media, those relationships are not "friendships" — those relationships are based primarily on folks wanting to buy stuff that you have to sell. That is, they like your company primarily because they like your stuff. Whether they purchase on line or, in between purchases, interact with you on Facebook or Twitter, without your stuff, those folks would almost all drift away.
So keep proactively putting your products in front of customers via your catalog mailings in clear, complete, compelling ways — to inspire interest and purchases whether they were thinking of you or not. That's the natural role of a catalog. And you'll see your catalog generating sales via all your channels.