This article introduces seven C’s to help you get your product information and its management in control.
When a system works independently without the help of a human and applies the information it has gathered to guide its own activities, we talk about artificial intelligence. There are also other definitions for artificial intelligence, but the previous sentence works as a suitable down to earth expression. There are numerous ways of using artificial intelligence. Self-driving robot cars or automatically generated propaganda videos are not directly related to Product Information Management (PIM), but instead an analysis of e-commerce traffic and product recommendations would benefit almost all our customers.
An online store can thus collect information about which products, product information or videos its visitors have viewed. The information can be combined with a customer profile and purchase history. By combining information, opportunities for additional sales can be found.
Example: A person responsible for product information management may think that a webshop visitor who has purchased a chainsaw also wants to buy a safety helmet. But when the e-commerce data is collected, it may appear that more often a buyer of a chainsaw also buys a small ax. Thus, when artificial intelligence advises an ax to a chainsaw buyer, additional sales opportunity that could not be detected by human resources is automatically utilized.
Similarly, along the path to purchase (= the customer journey from rising awareness to becoming a product owner) it would be beneficial to be able to communicate to the customer exactly the way they want at each touchpoint. At its simplest, one could show a product video instead of a product image on an online store product page or one could highlight the technical features of a product instead of a milieu image.
The design and implementation of such variable content and providing it to different online store user groups has traditionally been laborious and required not only human resources but also interviewing, identifying and categorizing clients. It has been necessary to manually combine this information with sales figures and customer data.
Thanks to artificial intelligence, no work days are needed for data collection. Instead, the artificial intelligence software is harnessed to collect and organize data. It selects relevant product recommendations for each visitor and shows them in the online store. At present, artificial intelligence is mostly used by large players, but it is becoming easier and cheaper to deploy this kind of solutions. That’s why you should keep artificial intelligence in mind when setting up an online store.
Learn from the mistakes of others – Nine tips for a successful e-commerce project
Over the last few years I have been involved in several projects where the aim was to build a new online store or portal. Considering my profession, my own role and approach has naturally revolved around the integration of product information from our PIM system to the online store, but I have also observed many other aspects of these projects. Also, in my private life, we are embarking upon a housebuilding project. When doing research for that project, I found that there are many similarities with e-commerce projects, even though the end products are very different.
Here are some of my observations – I hope some people facing similar challenges will find them helpful!
1. Know what you want and be prepared to measure your success
- If you don’t have a clear vision about what it is you’re looking for and why you have started the project in the first place, it will be difficult to achieve satisfactory results. Therefore, you should start by clearly outlining your main goals as well as the reasons for wanting to achieve them. For instance, if your objective is to double your e-commerce revenue, multiplying the amount of products sold in your web store, or improving the customer experience, it is advisable to think about ways to measure these results after the project is completed.
- Defining the project should be done at this early stage – write down your requirements for the new online shop prior to launching the project. The better your understanding is of what you require from your web store (or even your new house) before you start the bidding process, the more accurate and comparable the quotations you receive will be. This preparation is also directly correlated with the amount of surprises you will have on the way.
2. If you are not yourself an expert, hire a reliable consultant
- Building a new web store sounds like it’s not supposed to be rocket science, and this may even be true in principle. However, ecom solutions can be tricky in the sense that they often require one, two or even three integrations. Some seemingly small things can become surprisingly large problems, especially when they emerge in the middle of the project.
- Therefore, before you start your first round of bidding, you should always try to find an expert, preferably a neutral third party who can help you define the project and request quotations. No matter how well you do your homework, a layperson will find it difficult to grasp all the relevant knowledge, particularly in a bit of a rush. A good consultant can help you get on the right track from the start and define the project, which helps you avoid expensive surprises in the final stages. You may end up paying “extra” to a consultant, but in reality this is likely to save you both time and money.
3. Buying a pre-fabricated ‘turnkey’ solution does not mean that you don’t have to do any work yourself
- Many web store builders (and house-builders, I’ve heard) are surprised by the amount of work required, even if you aren’t coding a single line or hammering any nails into the wall yourself. Therefore, it is important to be mentally prepared and to have the necessary resources, clearly defined roles, and realistic deadlines. An e-commerce project will require at least one internal project manager (who may well spend half of his or hers working hours on the project), IT support for designing interfaces and data flow, and probably some product management support in cases where the data content as such does not support the vision.
4. Have a solid foundation
- Make sure that your background systems such as ERP/PLM and PIM can support the new e-commerce. It is particularly important to check the quality of product information prior to starting the project. If you want your online store to have the world’s greatest (or even average) search features and filters, as well as comprehensive product information, the data has to be structurally sound and checked in advance. Many people find out only after the e-commerce project is launched that a large portion of their time is spent cleaning up and making sense of old data, as this has to be done if product information is to be presented in a sharp manner. In this stage, at the very latest, you should consider incorporating a Product Information Management (PIM) system, because ERP and the web store are very rarely sufficient if the goal is to have a functioning product information process and comprehensive product information.
5. Invite bids
- Just like building a house, a new e-commerce solution is an expensive project, and I can’t think of any good reason not have a bidding process. Squeezing the budget is sensible, if not for any other reason than to gain an understanding of the price range and the various implementation options from different suppliers. You might need to spend a bit more time than you would if you gave the project to the first vendor with an impressive sales pitch, but in my experience this is a worthwhile investment.
- On the other hand, a bidding process will not amount to anything if you don’t know what you want. In the worst case scenario, the quotes you receive won’t be comparable to one another because the definition of the project was too narrow or too ambiguous. Therefore, it is important to focus on the definition now if you haven’t already. A coherent project definition requires that you have completed the steps in Section 1 and that you know what you want and can express it in a coherent and detailed manner. The more detailed the description of your requirements is, the easier it will be to compare bids and to get on with the project.
6. Choose your partner carefully
- When building my own house, I have obviously collected advice from friends who have already built theirs plus read through various online forums, and this research has helped in eliminating at least a few suppliers – the same can probably be done with e-commerce providers. In my experience, a large supplier is not the best match for a smaller client because a large company is not always interested in devoting resources to a small client, and therefore the project might be poorly managed. For a smaller company each new client is important and your project will receive their full attention. Therefore, you should choose a provider that is similar in size to your business.
7. Demand documentation
- Just like constructing a house, it is critical for the future maintenance of the online store to know what has been installed, when and where. If you want to make changes to the presentation of information or your integrations, it’s like taking down a wall in your house: you would want to know how things were built and where the electrical wiring is without having to tear down the entire house to find out.
- Often people get the feeling in the implementation stage of the project that the supplier will take care of things according to your specifications and you can just monitor their progress from the sidelines. However, according to my experience, it is important to stay alert in this stage and demand that all agreed upon actions are properly documented. Anything that is not written in ink does not officially exist, and you are dependent on the good will of the supplier. Often this good will works just fine, but to ensure peace of mind and the ease of future maintenance work, it’s important to demand proper documentation, no matter how tedious this may be.
8. Testing, testing and more testing
- It would be great if everything went according to plan and the first version was perfect, but unfortunately you can’t count on this. Both software and houses come with some guarantees, but it’s usually easier (and cheaper) to fix issues if they are detected at an early stage. In this stage you should also seriously consider hiring a consultant if you are at all unsure about your own expertise. This will probably save you both time and money (and some nerves).
9. When the project is completed, take good care of maintenance processes and internal role assignments
- Yes! The project is completed and now we can sit back and relax! Unfortunately not quite – when you finish building your house or your online shop, you should be self-sufficient and capable of getting the best possible returns for your investment. In this stage your own internal division of labour becomes critical – you have to decide who within your organisation is responsible for the proper maintenance of your store (or house) and for making sure that it responds to changes. This may require less work than the development stage, but you should not underestimate the amount of resources you need to devote to it. In addition to these resources, technology is changing so fast that you should also have a budget for constant minor development work to avoid your online shop becoming outdated.
I came across McKinsey’s article about the importance of consistency in customer experience. I couldn’t agree more. I have been studying customer experiences from the product experience point of view. Way too often companies focus on creating a great customer experience on a single customer touchpoint but don’t pay too much attention to ten others.
I guess it is very natural that this should happen. After all, companies are usually organised in such a way that different people (and quite often different functions) oversee product experiences in different channels, even within sales and marketing: an ad agency creates content for social media, marketing creates product content for the website, product organisation creates product data sheets and the sales make their own PowerPoint presentations. In this setup, it is very unlikely that the product experience will be consistent across all the sales channels.
I believe the reason why consistency is not appreciated so much in companies is humane. First, consistency sounds boring and secondly, it requires a process that people from different sides of the organisation are willing to stick to. In other words, it requires management. Luckily, there is a technology that can help us there. It is called Product Information Management, PIM in short.
In Product Information Management people from different sides of the organisation maintain all the product related information in a common system called PIM. From PIM, the product information is published to all the sales channels that need it. The product master data in PIM may come from ERP or other such system which is used in internal processes, but PIM is used as a common platform to enrich product data to be used in all the customer touchpoints.
In PIM: ad agencies can add the copy text to promote the products, marketing can add product marketing texts, product organisation can maintain all the technical details and sales can bring in their input from the field. This is beginning to sound like collaboration, isn’t it? And the outcome of this way of working is consistent customer experience. Worth a try, don’t you think?
And as for being boring, I would argue that too. I can think of nothing more boring than copy-pasting content from one place to another. With PIM you can get rid of that altogether. Once you have shared your product information in PIM, it is available for automated publishing in all the sales channels that might need it without any copy-pasting.
Marketing automation and inbound marketing are hot topics for marketing. People are concentrating in content production, and automation provides content to potential customers right when and where needed. The marketing automation system replaces ten separate systems and significantly reduces manual work. But can basic marketing automation handle all the publishing in all channels? In my own experience, it is worth exploring options for automating multi-channel publishing, especially if the offering contains a lot of products.
Like all other content, product content should also address its readers correctly and be targeted at each phase of the purchasing path.
Why then is the product content publishing so burdensome? Like all other content, product content should also address its readers correctly and be targeted at each phase of the purchasing path. This need leads to a huge amount of product information.
For example, if you take running shoes, the content for the purchasing path can go like this. First of all, interest in running and getting shoes is inspired by inspirational running pictures in social media. Once there is an interest in the topic, the potential customer may be interested in tips for shoe selection. This can be followed by a comparable sports shoe test of different shoe options. Eventually, one gets to the product page of a shoe from where one buys online or alternatively the shoes are bought from the nearest store.
If we consider that the range of this company includes a hundred shoe models with variations, we are suddenly talking about managing the release of tens of thousands of product information.
When counting the number of separate pieces of product information for this single customer’s purchase path for this single product, it is likely that there will be more than a dozen individual pieces of product information including all the images, texts, feature data, store materials, and articles, not to mention the user recommendations. If we consider that the range of this company includes a hundred shoe models with variations, we are suddenly talking about managing the release of tens of thousands of product information. It is clearly impossible to manage such a quantity without any assistance from automation.
When you publish content to only one channel, it is likely that it is better to do the publishing through the channel’s own content management. As soon as the same content is published to multiple channels, you should consider centralized publishing.
So what’s the solution? As a rule of thumb you could say that when you publish content to only one channel, it is likely that it is better to do the publishing through the channel’s own content management. As soon as the same content is published to multiple channels, you should consider centralized publishing and associated product information- and digital asset management. This will save you from overlapping work.
If you think about the content of that earlier sports shoe example, it would probably be best to publish the content for the early phases of the purchasing path via a marketing automation system. Publishing of product-related product information to web pages, online store and potential merchandising materials such as posters, shelf labels, and other sales promotion material in the store, is not usually possible with marketing automation systems.
Publishing automation systems can be used to define publishing channels for each product information field, and to handle the actual publishing at the touch of a button.
Fortunately, there are also solutions that are just for this purpose. Publishing automation systems can be used to define publishing channels for each product information field, and to handle the actual publishing at the touch of a button.
Automation takes care of all the routine work and it is possible to make full use of the people where they are at their best.
What kind of marketing systems does a company with many products need, in addition to the marketing automation system and publishing platforms? I personally feel that a good product information- and a digital asset management system and the accompanying publishing automation module are often sufficient. In this way, automation takes care of all the routine work and it is possible to make full use of the people where they are at their best: in analysing, planning and in goal-oriented content production.
We are currently developing a next generation Adeona PIM system, and while the foundation will be familiar, many things will be changing. Over the years we have learned a lot from PIM in general as well as from our clients, and we are using these insights in the development of a new product version.
Adedona PIM 2017 – highlights:
The architecture has been updated to match growing needs and to adapt to different environments in the best ways possible. It’s scalable and supports larger amounts of data, and is available for deployment both as a cloud based service as well as on-premise/private cloud service.
2. Information model
The information model of Adeona has been updated, and while most of the features remain the same, we are introducing some new ones as well. Based on the customer feedback, we have developed upgraded features and information models that support business needs better. Related workshops still continue.
3. REST API
Everything works via a single interface, and the REST API is available for both internal system use as well as for external systems and developers. All the data within the system is available via uniform interface, which will help with e.g., integration and building data-driven applications.
Search functionality and finding relevant information are key features in systems with a lot of data, and this is one thing we have really focused on. All the information saved in the system can be fetches swiftly and easily by using the Elasticsearch search engine which indexes all the information in real time. For example, a web store can use the PIM system as a search engine, streamlining the whole project.
5. User interface and usability
All admin access is web browser based, and the new user interface is fast and straightforward. The powerful search feature is used in many ways, and managing especially large amounts of data was taken into consideration during the planning of the user interface.
We are developing the product together with our clients, and the workshops related to the new version were held in March. We gathered together with our clients to go through some key uses of the system, and got familiar with the user interface and the functionalities.
Workshops will continue in the fall, so feel free to join us!
1. Does your product information management process look something like this?
If the answer is yes, contact us and we will help you.
2. Do you want to provide the best possible customer experience?
In that case, the PIM system is a relevant part of the solution. Through centralized product information management, you will be able to provide high-quality, correct and up-to-date product information through one source to all of your channels and stakeholders – both customers and your own staff.
3. Do you want to boost your product marketing?
By using PIM and its automated publishing solutions you can publish campaign leaflets, product catalogues or cards, create catalogues or leaflets, posters, price lists or shelf labels for shops just by a few presses of a button. You can publish in formats such as PDF, Excel, PowerPoint, and InDesign. See examples of publication solutions here and here.
4. Do you want to be ready for fast, strategic changes?
If the foundation of your product information management is solid, expanding to new publishing channels, applications or new country or language versions is easy. Via PIM interfaces you can offer product information to e.g. your new retailer’s online store or website, to your customer’s purchasing system or any other channel that you wish to employ. There is no need reinvent the wheel every time.
5. Do you want to get rid of unnecessary manual work phases?
PIM allows you to automatize many routine tasks which would take a long time to do manually (and which often are the most tedious tasks as well). From PIM the product information is brought to the right stakeholders automatically. In addition, you can get rid of excessive copy pasting when you can rapidly produce e.g different Office or InDesign format product publications instead of requiring weeks’ worth of manual work.
A modern application lives or dies based on the availability of its public API. Before having a deeper look into what API’s mean to us, and how they can be used in the most effective way, we should understand the basics.
API (Application Programming Interface) is an interface that allows the application data and functionality to be reached, as well as allowing for further programming of the program or a part of it, for example in regards to standard libraries. These interfaces can function on a very low level and deal with the inner functions of the application itself, for example calling open source libraries within the system. However this article only covers public API’s that are expandable or can be integrated and allow for the application data to be used in a variety of different ways.
Traditionally API’s have been considered to be an internal part of the application, or at the very least to be used as a means to integrate something to the application. Modern applications act as services, and this is why it’s important to make sure that expanding the system is just as easy as is the use of the data included in it. Modern applications use and offer a multitude of interfaces, for example social media applications like Facebook and LinkedIn are mainly run on interfaces with separate user interfaces built on top of them (e.g., browser, mobile, etc.).
In an API-centric architecture the applications connect to each other over these interfaces. How a single application has been built doesn’t matter as long as it follows the general practices in its interfaces. API-centric architecture also makes it easier to create device independent applications, so that for example the application can be run on multiple mobile operating systems using the same interface on them all.
Using general practices and de facto standards when connecting applications and using the data via different applications makes the whole process easy.
One of the main ideas of an API-centric architecture in that the interfaces are publicly available and that they contain a comprehensive documentation. Even a good interface will go unused if it’s hard to use or lacks documentation completely. In the best case scenario all the information and logic of the application can be reached via the API. This makes it flexible to connect, integrate and expand the system with needed applications.
Public API doesn’t however mean that all the information within the system would be publicly available. API calls are always authenticated so that the user will only have access to information they have credentials for.
At Canter we work each day to make product information management (PIM) as easy as possible. As with everything else, those who manage to make complex things easy will prevail, and this is also the case with product information management.
Although it’s not complex in the first place.
Or at least we don’t think it has to be, and following few principles will go long way. While company and industry specific differences do exist, the basic principle will always be the same.
PIM is not an IT project.
It is the implementation of new mode of operation that includes both change management and automation of manual processes. PIM system does not do everything automatically, but instead operates as enabler. In order to make product information management for our clients as easy as possible, we have focused especially on the following and been actively developing them.
We think that acquiring IT system should not be a complex task. Pricing models based on the amount of users or transactions direct the decision making incorrectly, and instead we think that it is more important to find out how to make most out of the usage and processes. The more our clients use the PIM system and the data it provides, the better are the benefits they can get out of it.
Easy acquisition also depends on:
- the length of the contract – we believe in the added value we provide, not in long contracts
- the possibility of starting with just simple specifications
- what sort of training is included
- how the client is supported with change management
- the update guarantee
Easy deployment of a system leads into powerful use. When the basis is solid, it is also easier to do change management.
Easy deployment means many things:
- how well the specification workshops are managed and prepared
- clear practices and industry-specific productization
- ease of installation and parameterization of the system
- functioning Application Program Interfaces (APIs) facilitate the integration
- best practices and connectors to the most common systems
Easy-to-use user interface motivates the users to handle the upkeep of product information and benefit from the data.
Good user experience is the sum of its part, and listed are just few key points:
- logical, reliable user interface
- search functions that work faster than a though
- smart recommendations
- mass editing, importing and exporting; especially useful when dealing with large amount of products
Seldom does a PIM system operate alone, and usually it’s a part of at least one other system. It is very common to have it integrated with many other systems, for example with ERP or a webstore.
System integration needs to be easy, so well documented and standardized API makes it easier and faster for everyone. This allows the data to be exchanged between multiple systems without massive integration projects.
Easy expansion and usage of data
We want to help our clients to benefit from their product information more effectively. When PIM interfaces are functional and open, it’s easy to build data-based applications with the help of product information. This allows for our clients to work with those they see fit themselves.
Could we help you to make your product information management easy as well? Contact us!
The stiff breeze of digital transformation becomes a formidable storm. For a good ship with an excellent team a unique opportunity to reach the finish line in front of the competition. Similar to the wheat races of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the largest sailing ships were racing under extreme weather conditions, this applies to all companies today: Digital transformation is both an opportunity but also a risk for the company. This applies in particular to product communication. In the future, product data and processes will be the focus not “creative” advertising messages. Therefore the design and maintenance of the “golden data” set must be a high priority.
The number of channels and touchpoints in different contexts for new markets is growing steadily. There is an obvious need to edit data only once and to use this on-demand in the most diverse contexts. In addition to the technical infrastructure of PIM systems such as Canter’s Adeona , the process change is of fundamental importance. All available resources must be directed towards the “golden data” set and the effort to enrich solely for the channel and the creation of the touchpoint presentation must be minimized as far as possible. All the men on deck must work and on it. However, there remains only one team for all other activities. This change applies in particular to the print channel. Traditionally, a great deal of effort is being made to adapt and create data for the print channel but the production of print publications is often still done manually. Using these resources efficiently for all channels and touchpoints is a key factor in the return on investment of PIM projects. This, however, inevitably means there is a need for higher automation of the print channel because resources for manual activities are now missing. The priint:suite, with its unique automation and productivity functions, not only offers the opportunity to save time and money, but also creates space for better data and thus also for more creativity.
In the print channel hitting the wind at speed leads to successful communication.
Horst Huber is a pioneer in the field of system-driven publishing. His extensive expertise – spanning cross-channel marketing, process optimisation, database publishing/Web-to-Print, benchmarketing and potential analysis – is drawn from over 20 years of project experience in retail, mail order and industrial enterprises. He is also founder and CEO of the WERK II.