Use One Database for All Channels

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Your company probably has a Web site in addition to its print catalog. How you manage the Web site and catalog directly affects your bottom line. Consider managing your print and online catalogs together.


The first step is to organize all of your information into a single database. From that database you can publish your catalog in print or online. By publishing from one database, you can reduce costs and the potential for error. Here are guidelines to help put a successful system into place.


Choose the right database strategy, then organize your information in a way that is most useful. A poorly designed database can be slow, hard to handle and difficult to expand as you add products. A poorly implemented database also may hurt performance. Select a strategy that works with the hardware and software that your company is already using. Make sure your database works with standard systems found on the Internet, particularly those of industry portal Web sites. Such Web sites can act as a gateway for your product information to reach other industry-specific sites.


Next, analyze and standardize your product information. These data are scattered throughout your company in a variety of forms. There are three kinds of data analysis you need to conduct:


• Review existing product information. Inventory what you have in databases, images, technical drawings and pricing spreadsheets. Devise a plan to convert that information into a standard electronic format for your new system.


• Check for missing information. After you have collected all the existing information, check whether anything is missing. Maybe you overlooked detailed product descriptions, graphics or technical specifications.


• Organize product lines. Once you gather the product information, you need to organize it. Interview product managers, marketing staff and all others who will contribute information to the database to define product families and the product features and attributes required for each family.


Authoring and data management tools. Next, it is time to build your database. Because many departments and individuals will enter and update product information into your database, it is important to build a workflow program into your system. This ensures that your organization's approval requirements are met and that there is proper oversight by supervisors of the work that is being done.


The content authoring and management tools should be intuitive and easy to use and also help reduce costs by streamlining the content management process.


The steps you have taken so far enable your organization to publish on the Web, in print and on CD-ROM. The following takes a look at each publishing option:


• Web publishing. Web authoring software is used to create an online catalog that will need dynamic search and data presentation to meet the needs of all users. Customer service representatives, salespeople, prospective customers and channel partners need various types of information, and they often prefer to access it in different ways. They must be able to find the products they need easily, as well as view the supporting information so they can buy or recommend products.


• Print publishing. Despite all the predictions about the paperless office, print remains a viable communication tool. Printed catalogs are handy and preferred by many customers. You can create full-product-line or specialty catalogs from your central database with the assurance that all product information is as accurate and up-to-date as possible.


• CD-ROM. On CD, the catalog can look and operate like a Web catalog. But the CD-ROM catalog typically will run faster and will not require the customer to be online. Distribution of CDs also is less costly than print distribution. Typically, a third-party vendor produces these CDs.


Getting customer feedback. There are many ways to let customers interact with you. Customers using a print catalog or visiting your Internet catalog can send an e-mail or phone your customer service department. Or they could place orders online. The transaction passes to an existing inventory system, which tells the customer whether the item is in stock. Then, the final order is approved and processed in the existing order-entry system.


A fully integrated system gives you up-to-the-minute sales and inventory information. The customer's shipping, billing and purchase information is collected automatically. All of this valuable information is available to measure the success of sales and marketing programs and help decide the direction of future marketing plans.


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