Let Your Catalog Tell a Great Story

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With more than 400 advertising messages hitting the average customer's optical and auditory nerves daily, it is more important than ever that your catalog break through the media clutter. But while getting a customer's attention is tougher today, keeping it may not be such a hurdle - it's simply about storytelling.


If you want to connect with customers and increase sales through your catalog, take the time to study and apply the most effective techniques of story structure. If they don't read it, they won't order from it. This sounds basic, but this concept is sometimes lost when creating page after page, catalog after catalog.


Catalogs could learn from magazine and book publishing when it comes to making a multi-paged communication interesting and appealing enough to open and read from cover to cover. A catalog needs to do three things even before the merchandise offers are considered:


o Escape the garbage bin in the nightly mail review.


o Have a cover captivating enough to stand out from its three to five competitors that also made the cut that night.


o Once opened, keep the reader interested enough to look through the entire book.


Keeping your audience's attention long enough to close a sale is where storytelling comes into play. But before we discuss how to do this in your catalog, let's look at a cornerstone of catalog marketing, the 40/40/20 rule, as it applies to storytelling.


The 40/40/20 rule, now even considered to be the 60/30/10 rule, breaks out the importance of merchandise, list and creative presentation, respectively, relative to a catalog's success. Therefore, creative presentation has only a 10 percent to 20 percent influence on a catalog's success.


Though that may be true for a mediocre catalog, it is certainly not true for a great one. That's because many catalogs sell similar commodity goods (the first 40 percent of influence) with similar price/value equations, and mail to the same subsets within the 90 million direct-mail-sold households in the United States (the second 40 percent). So these factors are arguably becoming less important in catalog success, and presentation is growing more important in converting readers to shoppers and shoppers to buyers.


In recalling the last great story you read or heard, presentation probably had much to do with why you liked it. The dramatic elements of a story form the core. How these elements are conveyed keep an audience's attention. Variation in a story can occur through tempo, intensity, voice or action.


In terms of catalog design language, variation directly relates to creative presentation. Variation in a catalog can be created by changing product space allocation, alternating photo styling, using anecdotal references in copy and paginating by events.


With variation at the core of pacing, there are five immutable laws of story power I recommend using as basic elements of storytelling to create a great catalog. They are:


1. Consistently support the marketing objectives (brand, promotion, product assortment). This creates the basis of the story and the underpinning of the structure.


2. Create a great cover. So many covers are still created in a rush. The magazine and book industries typically have special cover units consisting of their top talent in design, art direction and writing.


3. Pace the book like a music score or a classic narrative structure. The mind likes to understand and process information in units, in certain quantities and at certain rates, then place them in context.


Strictly letting the merchandise and square-inch analysis determine density, adjacencies and pacing will sap the life from your book. A great catalog creates surprises for the reader. Gift catalogs suffer from lack of surprise. They design by ROI equality and don't keep the reader in a state of anticipation.


4. Stay focused on information design. It helps to study other types of communication before redesigning a catalog. Analyzing everything from maps to special-interest magazines to observe information design proves useful.


Like shopping and the purchasing process itself, an internal dialogue happens when customers read a catalog. Solid catalog design understands the need for balance, relationship and sequence. After the emotional hook is set and the reader is intrigued, the catalog must inform, fulfill and engage the desire for more information to enable the customer to make a purchasing decision.


5. Develop and use a book map for editorial point of view. All magazines use this. It is a miniature sequence map of the content on all pages. It helps set the editorial point of view and helps merchandisers see how their assortment fits into the bigger picture.


Two last thoughts on storytelling in catalog marketing. First, a little goes a long way. The narrative device, while needing to tie a presentation together on all levels, should not be obvious, or intrusive to the merchandise presentations. If the reader can see the device at work, it is too high in the communications hierarchy.


Second, it can be integrated at various levels as appropriate to the need to engage and sell. It can be built into a specific cover treatment, subtly at the individual product presentation level or in a combination of section, spread or page level.


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