Do I need a PIM to manage product content for my eCommerce site? It’s a question we frequently hear from clients. Of course, the answer depends on your particular situation, but in general, Yes, you very likely do. Why? Because content, particularly in a B2B scenario, is what sets you aside from your competitors and will draw buyers back to your site time and again. And frankly, the off-the-shelf eCommerce packages or Content Management Systems don’t provide the functionality necessary to manage product content effectively. To illustrate the value of product content online, it’s often helpful to take a simple off-line buyer journey and compare that to an online experience. Let me explain.

Let’s assume you are a small contractor and you need a drill, simple enough. You stop at the local Home Depot, and you do one of two things, you either ask someone standing around in one of those orange smocks where you can find a Black & Decker Cordless Drill, or you look up at the aisle signs and find the Power Tools aisle. In the case of the latter, you enter the Power Tools aisle and can quickly browse the shelves to find where the cordless drills are being displayed. Now that you are at the selection of drills you begin to evaluate the available options. In B2B just about every purchase is based upon a set of buying criteria, which may or may not be known to the seller, our drill in this example is no different. In this case, your criteria is a drill that is lightweight, has a comfortable grip, a long battery life, and comes with an extra battery and a carrying case, and of course, you want it at a reasonable price. Notice the priority of the criteria; price follows functionality. When speaking with B2B buyers, we find this to be the case most often, particularly for unplanned spending. The most important of the criteria are generally the characteristics of the product followed by price reasonableness. So you begin your evaluation, you physically pick the different drills up to get a feel for weight and comfort, read the box to see what contents are included, and in some cases, you may even try it. When you have finished, you put your selection in a basket, notice that right next to the drills are other accessories, so you add a set of bits and drivers, then head to the front to check out.

That’s a very simple example of a traditional buying experience, probably something we have all done at some point or another in a purchase. So let’s extend that example to an online experience.

We start at the beginning. When you walked in the store, you were in a hurry so you simply asked someone where you could find a Black & Decker Cordless Drill, that’s called the search bar online. And the results of the search bar are largely data-driven, and better be good. Consider what most of us would do if we were in a store and the person we asked responded “I don’t think we have those” and walked off leaving us standing there, we would probably walkout. Now, what would you do online if you are in a rush, you type something in the search bar, and it comes back with the dreaded “No Results Found”? You would probably look elsewhere. Surely the search engine has a lot to do with that result, but the search engine is working against the data available to it, and it helps tremendously to have data that is complete and consistent. Here we are looking for products where <Brand> = “Black & Decker”, <Product Description> or <Category> contains “Drill” and one of the specifications, perhaps <Power Source>, = “Cordless”. The search engine is only going to be as good as the data that underlies the search. So the search bar is analogous to the man in the orange smock, and product data is going to determine how successful those search results are. Incidentally, if you were to review almost any B2B site, you would see that the search bar is almost always the most used feature.

Next, consider the in-store navigation experience. That’s where we used the aisle signs indicating high-level categories to find the right aisle, then browsed the aisle to find the right shelf. Online that your product taxonomy drives navigation, for example, Power Tools>Cordless Tools>Cordless Drills. A taxonomy serves many purposes, for example, assignment of category-specific attributes or specifications, and you may have more than one taxonomy, but a primary function online is to help the buyer to navigate to the right location – the right aisle, right shelf. It should be intuitive and oriented to how your customer thinks about the types of products you carry, which is likely different than your internal reporting categories.

Now, recall the buyer’s criteria – a lightweight, comfortable grip, long battery life, an extra battery, and a carrying case. Through the search or via navigation of the taxonomy, the buyer ends up with a selection of available options, often called the product listing page. If you have done a good job of anticipating the buying criteria you will be presenting the buyer certain key fields down the left-hand side we call facets. Facets are elements of the product data that speed progression through the buying criteria, for example, in this case, we might have Brand, Weight and Battery Life available for the buyer to reduce the number of options based on their buying criteria. So we know weight is an essential criterion and have configured it to be one of the facets on the left-hand side. That’s perfect; however, you’re not done. If the data doesn’t support the facet, it’s not going to be as effective as you hoped. For example, let’s say the search returned 20 drills, and of the 20 you only have a value for <weight> in the data for 8 of them. This means the facet <weight> on the left-hand side will only have eight items in its options – the other 12 are now eliminated from consideration by the buyer because he has no intention of calling you to see what the others weigh. Of the eight listed, there are three that are “1-1/4 lbs.”, two that are “1.5 lbs.”, and three that are “1.25 lbs.”. The buyer wants the lighter weight, so he selects the “1-1/4 lbs.” option, and by default, he eliminates the other three that weigh the same, but unfortunately have a different representation of that weight at a data level. So, how would you know which products are missing data? Or which data values were not normalized? You wouldn’t unless you were proactively managing your data with a tool designed to do just that – a PIM.

Most buyers eventually end up at a product detail page, the page that has everything they need to know to satisfy their buying criteria and complete the purchase, or at least it should. In addition to a full set of specifications on the product, this is also where you include additional selling features and benefits for a given product. For example, the buyer cannot pick up the drill. You need to tell them that the grip is ergonomically designed and comfortable to hold. Here, as above, missing or inaccurate data can cost you the sale. In addition to specifications, most buyers want a visual confirmation that this is the product they think it is. These means multiple images of the product, not a generic image. It means videos showing how the product is used, how-to guides, etc. However, conflicting data can also cost you the sale. This often happens when generic images are used. For example, the buyer has made it all the way to the product detail page, the description and specifications seem to indicate this is the cordless drill they want, then they look at the image. It’s a clunky, corded, industrial-looking drill. The buyer is left to conclude that either the description and specifications or the image are incorrect. The last thing they want to do is get the wrong product so – they go somewhere else. It’s important that everything on that page ties neatly together. The specs, description, selling features, images, documents, etc. all tie to that specific product. How do you manage all that across thousands of products? PIM.

Lastly, data drives your merchandising. In the store, our buyer noticed related products on a shelf next to the drill and made a purchase of bits and drivers he had not planned on. Online these are presented as accessories, other options, etc. Under the covers, these are product relationships that you have to manage, and just like in the store they can have a dramatic impact on your average order value. Establishing and maintaining those relationships is crucial to your online success, and once again a PIM is designed to do just that in a very intuitive fashion.

In a B2B scenario content is most often your key online differentiator. The quality and completeness of data is where the battle for the buyer’s attention is being waged. Unfortunately most of the eCommerce and content management systems available only provide for a rudimentary product catalog. A product catalog and a PIM are simply not the same, irrespective of vendor marketing claims. Consider just a few of the concepts we’ve hinted at here:

  • management of one or more product taxonomy(s) to drive attribution and navigation
  • automated identification of data completeness and accuracy issues, with simple correction, across thousands of products
  • merchandising through product relationships for cross and accessory selling
  • supporting rich content that reinforces the buying decision through Digital Asset Management (DAM) for images, documents, and videos

This was a simple example, but hopefully, it helps to illustrate the importance of managing your product data for online success. You quickly see that a product catalog is not the answer, you need active management and continuous optimization of your data. You will need a PIM, and a program (technology does not work on its own) to compliment your eCommerce technology to drive improved customer satisfaction, improved conversions, higher average order values, and stronger customer loyalty.