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Decrease Production Time, Increase Quality

When it comes to catalogs, there is — as the saying goes — good news and bad news. The good news is, of course, that catalogs are wonderfully utilitarian, assuming multiple roles as powerful sales and support tools, company image builders and educational resources.

The bad news is that companies that rely on catalogs or product-centric workflows as crucial elements in their sales and support cycle often experience difficulty in providing consistent, accurate, up-to-date product information to their salespeople, distributors and customers. This is unfortunate since, for many businesses, the printed catalog is considered the main source of product data. Yet the complexity, length and inefficiency of the production process make it difficult to communicate the right product information at the right time.

Indeed, the currency and accuracy of product information — as well as the ease with which customers can apply it to purchasing decisions — can be a significant competitive advantage. Yet poor or inefficient management of this process directly affects top line revenue and bottom line profits. Considering that companies can spend up to 10 percent of their gross revenues creating and distributing product information, the inefficiency of this system can be unsettling, especially to companies operating on razor-thin profit margins.

Unquestionably, the cataloger's ultimate vision is to be able to present the right information to the right customer in the preferred medium at the time of the customer's greatest need. Fortunately, technology has provided a viable solution to this seemingly unattainable objective: enterprise product information management, more commonly known as digital content management. A full-scale DCM system effectively integrates the actual publishing process with critical business decisions by:

* Incorporating a centrally managed repository for information assets to support a range of company-wide business activities.

* Integrating publishing capabilities with business systems (e.g. integrating advertising and merchandising workflows and data).

* Providing the capability to produce audience-specific catalogs (versioning), as well as offering re-purposing and cross-media capabilities.

Once a DCM system is implemented, companies reap immediate production benefits, including improved predictability/accuracy of product information,

timeliness and cost effectiveness through optimal application of resources and content reuse. These translate directly to higher-level corporate benefits, including improved profitability, greater decision support, new revenue, improved customer service and digital branding.

To fully appreciate the benefits of DCM, one must understand its genesis. Initially, we saw the appearance of image management systems, the most prevalent of which were systems to keep track of the various attributes of a photographic image — keyword, photographer's name, subject, rights and royalties. From image management systems, we saw the transition to a management system, where the content being managed is not necessarily a single image. It could be an AVI file, a multimedia file or some other file.

The other side of the spectrum is the document management area. This doesn't always involve a media application. Traditionally, these were managed on paper. Once a document was created electronically, there was a glaring need to file them. From there, the natural evolution was to include the entire proofing process. A major step came when people considered the interrelation of assets embedded in the document. Eventually, there was a need to manage the information contained in the file, not the file itself. Rather, the pieces within the file needed to be controlled.

The next step in this evolution was the digital production process. Once this came into play, it was clear that many companies had unwittingly implemented islands of automation. Someone might have a database to track images, someone else might have a FileMaker Pro database for tracking pages, while yet another person might have an

archive for finished work. And yet another person had a compilation of marketing data, including an SKU database and all relevant product copy.

DCM ties these processes together, encompassing all of the content mentioned above and increasing efficiency and effectiveness. The technology infrastructure that embodies the vision of DCM offers on-demand, dynamic catalog creation, providing literally direct response to changing market conditions. Many companies are aware of niche catalog opportunities but haven't pursued them because of the cost of traditional methods: Traditional customization is resource-intensive, with each catalog representing major commitments of time, effort and budget. DCM provides cost-effective workflow and allows catalog production to be in synch with today's accelerated product life cycles.

Catalog production today. While the challenges for each type of cataloger — industrial supply, technical specification, BTB and consumer/demand creation — vary in type and scope, the workflows and process obstacles are notably similar.

Overburdened marketing departments must support communications within rapidly growing and changing markets. In addition, the complexity of the process can be overwhelming. Catalog publishers often need to manage widely distributed content sources. The appropriate information from those sources then is manually entered into both business systems (IS) and publishing systems (into catalog pages). For large catalogs with long publishing cycles, this is a massive effort with dramatic workflow peaks, often resulting in data errors. Further, versioning adds complexity to traditional publishing workflow.

Existing publication environments often impede rapid creation and deployment of product information. Various information sources exist in isolated organizational “silos.” In many companies, the database integration, workflow automation and network efficiencies that support other work haven't made inroads into marketing departments. What's more, although catalog publishers often have made substantial investments in tools for page layout and desktop publishing, few of these systems are integrated into the workflow of catalog production.

Catalog production tomorrow. DCM allows for an entirely different workflow and dataflow paradigm for the catalog production process. In particular, it allows for process participants to collaborate in a “connected” electronic workflow — whether or not they are part of the same company or in the same geographic location. The result is a process in which publishing capabilities and business systems converge.

DCM bridges the gap between information systems and publishing capabilities, leveraging company-wide information assets and enabling business objectives to drive targeted communications. It also integrates in-house and external communications resources, organizing the flow of content and production data. DCM systems feature “content management” systems for storing, identifying and retrieving the various sources of product information. For catalogers, content is the raw material of their publication, typically including photographs, advertising copy and product specification tables. DCM expands this definition to include audio, video and other media types.

Promise of DCM and the “tomorrow” process. The promise of database-driven content management is the true separation of form and content. A database provides a secure and stable platform for managing many independent elements along with a variety of associations among those elements. The application of database concepts to content management is a breakthrough in terms of allowing new flexibility in the catalog production process.

The separation of form from content is critical to the modern catalog environment. To achieve flexibility, content can't reside in final documents but must be assembled dynamically to meet the needs of both producers and consumers. Sophisticated database technology is required to support this form of “on the fly” publishing.

With form and content separated, content can be managed and maintained at the source, rather than in hundreds of individual documents. This prevents duplication of effort and redundant data entry, reducing the likelihood for error. Content stored in a repository can be reused whenever needed. Plus, documents with long life spans (such as industrial catalogs), can be updated or revised more easily. Content used for ongoing marketing programs can be available over the life of a promotion.

Catalog workflow encompasses production, content originators, editors and designers, marketing staff, and customers, who request and specify documents. An integrated catalog publishing system provides a platform that crosses these departmental boundaries to support electronic communications and collaboration. This integrated workflow means that roles may change for some people. Ultimately, it creates greater control over the process and more effective decision making. In addition, the resulting workflow is compressed, keeping internal staff and customers aware of new products and product changes and ensuring that prices are current and in line with competition.

Improved customer service. While all of the aforementioned benefits are significant, improved customer service may represent a company's greatest potential competitive advantage, while also allowing for enhanced customer retention. This can be accomplished by increasing knowledge of customer service staff and enabling special orders.

What's needed. To actually implement these functions, an enterprise system is required that can operate off a common database of content, integrate with real-time data from business systems, produce complex pages “on-the-fly” according to a sophisticated set of design rules and simultaneously integrate with back-end systems for transactions and order processing. While the process must be approached with significant planning and forethought, the following represents the major steps to follow:

* Inventory the existing systems and workflows.

* Prioritize objectives for the DCM system.

* Map out desired workflows according to objectives.

* Implement the DCM system.

* Integrate catalog production and business systems (merchandising and MIS).

* Add versioning and custom publishing functions.

* Create tracking and reporting matrix.

* Care, feed, track report and revise as required.

With the right DCM system in place, it's possible to transform your catalog production process from a potential financial drain into a powerful tool that enhances your company's marketing capabilities, image and bottom line profits.

Frank Liebly is director of the digital content management solutions center at Banta Integrated Media, a division of Banta Corp., Cambridge, MA.

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