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A Formula for a Successful Catalog Critique

Your catalog is your store, your sales force and your image. It's how the customer gets to know you and how he continues to think of you long-term. Bottom line, it's important to monitor your catalog to ensure it's always making the best impression and generating the desired response.

Here are some best-practice guidelines to conducting a catalog critique in your own organization:

* Preparation. Proper planning means inviting the right participants. Include representatives from all departments who have input or are affected by the outcome of your catalog. Don't forget your vendors because they too are accountable for your success.

It also means creating candor. Create an environment to get honest, open opinion and appropriate input. Convey that the critique is about making the creative product the best it can be so that all departments reap the rewards.

Since not everyone involved will be experienced in determining which elements most influence a catalog's success, some guidance is in order. Critique index forms document and help quantify the specific areas that most directly impact the effectiveness of a catalog. They also give participants a framework for their opinions and encourage focus, which helps with objectivity.

Finally, make it formal. Set a critique session date and send required invitations. Assign pre-session homework, such as the forms mentioned above. Encourage participants to come ready to work.

* The Session. Once everyone has collected their thoughts, it's time to bring them together. The following areas will help create an effective critique session:

* Demonstrate senior-level involvement. This reinforces that you are serious and committed.

* Keep it focused. Display marketing objectives, positioning statements and target market definitions. Have on hand competitive catalogs. Whenever you reach a stumbling block, refer to these items to guide you to your resolution.

* Use the forms. The summary of participants' pre-session homework becomes the critique session discussion prompter.

* Assign a moderator. This is often someone in marketing because they are charged with the vision and responsibility of the entire outcome.

* Make it fun. Cater in food. Allow casual dress — anything that makes the day special.

* Hold it offsite. This minimizes interruptions and shows how important you feel this exercise is.

* Apply the learning. As important as it is to hold critiques faithfully, it's a waste of time if you don't have a method for applying your learning to future work.

An effective approach is to prepare a summary of the main revisions discussed. Prioritize the revision requests because you can't, and often shouldn't, do all the revisions at one time. The next step is to create an action plan, assign responsibility for those actions and schedule progress checks to see how the revisions are progressing. It's also important that you use the previous critique results as benchmarks against future critique sessions.

Is the catalog critique process easy? Not initially, but it does become easier the more you do it. I recommend conducting critiques at least twice a year. When conducted faithfully and effectively, and when the learning is applied to future work, it should lead to measurable sales growth, which, after all, is the reason for conducting these catalog critiques in the first place.

Robin Glat is director of marketing services for AGA Catalog Marketing & Design, New York, (www.AGAnet.com). Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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