The Successful Cataloger Looks Back - Then Forward

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It's done! The last frantic corrections, color proofs, press check and mail tapes are delivered. Your catalog is on its way to customers and prospects. It's time to relax, put that issue behind you and start thinking about your next book, right?

Not so fast. Many successful catalogers make time for a very important next step: the postmortem.

An effective postmortem, scheduled as soon as possible after the catalog is "put to bed," can be an invaluable step in the evolution of your catalog and your company.

The following are steps to help ensure a successful postmortem:

Invite the right people. Naturally, you'll want to include your creative, production and merchandising team; everyone from merchandiser, art director and copywriter to photographer and proofreader. But consider widening your invitation list. Include others throughout the company, from the facilities staff to the warehouse packers and call center representatives.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it can be enlightening to hear from those who are familiar with aspects of your company's operations, but who are not involved in the catalog's design. They will provide "fresh eyes" and an objective take on everything from product selection to layout and copy.

Second, your company gets an added bonus by expanding your postmortem invitation list: the positive effect that the invitation - and participation in the process - can have on your staff.

Whether the comments offered on the catalog are positive or negative, there's a great feeling of inclusion and empowerment that staffers experience, just by virtue of being asked to share their opinions. Holding an open postmortem can be an effective way to recognize the companywide contributions of staff at all levels in your company, while fostering feelings of ownership throughout the organization.

Set the format. First, be sure to schedule enough time for the meeting. Consider scheduling two meetings, to keep the groups smaller and to ensure that those who wish to participate can fit it into their schedules. Keep the mood informal and festive. After all, you've all worked as a team to create this issue of your catalog. Celebrate the accomplishment.

Prepare a loose agenda of topics as an aid in guiding the discussion, but don't insist on following the list to the letter. Allow the natural flow of ideas and opinions and refer to your agenda if things seem to get too far off track.

At the start of the meeting, make it clear that you are about to begin an open discussion and that all ideas will be considered, but the decision to take any future action will be made by your creative team.

Ask the right questions. There will certainly be specific areas you are curious about. What does everyone think about the new typeface? Or how about the new pagination strategy? What are your favorite/least favorite new products? Which products do you think will be winners, and which do you predict will be "dogs?"

But don't stop there. Open it up and invite comments on everything and anything. Declare nothing off limits. A customer service associate has an opinion about paper stock? Let's hear it. A receptionist has a product idea? Great. The warehouse manager has some thoughts on the models? Interesting. The point is, you never know where a good idea will come from. Create a postmortem environment that encourages big, fresh ideas as well as the usual pointing out of typos and upside-down photos.

Keep the discussion open and inclusive. Encourage comments on random topics pertaining to the catalog. You may wish to ask participants to prepare some notes and ideas in advance. Remind them to bring examples from other catalogs to share with the group and to illustrate comments, if applicable. Adhere to the "no idea is a bad idea" rule. Every comment is helpful in adding to the big picture and no one should be criticized for his opinions.

What to do with all those comments? Assign one person to take notes during the postmortem meeting. Then organize the comments into themes: design, photography, copy, products, pagination, etc. Within each category, split comments into "must change" and "suggestion" sections. This way you can separate the mistakes and factual errors from matters of personal taste and opinion.

Next, call a meeting of your core catalog creative team and review the suggestions and comments. Assign further research into some ideas and ensure follow-up on all viable suggestions.

It's a good idea to prepare a summary of the postmortem and distribute it to all participants. This way, they know their comments were heard, regardless of what action was taken. And don't forget to thank the postmortem participants.

Put your findings to work on future catalogs. Now that you've got a comprehensive postmortem summary, don't hide it in a drawer and keep going with business as usual. Keep the summary close at hand and refer to it often. Use the good ideas as is, or let them spark further concepts and initiatives.

Whether you emerge from your postmortem process with a clear blueprint for the future, or a list of more ideas than you know what to do with, just going through the process is a step in the right direction and a valuable experience for you and your team.

Mike McCann is chief marketing officer at Inc., Lyndhurst, NJ, a catalog and e-commerce company specializing in awards, recognition and promotional products.

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