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Libey: Catalog Reinvention Turns A New Page

If it is unfashionable to blog on a three month stale print publication, apologies.

The 12/11/06 issue of DM News has been sitting on my desk for a long while. The DM News crew did a great job pulling in columnists to climb out on limbs predicting what the next few years will hold for direct marketers. The 12/11 issue was one of their best in years — kudos, Adrian and Mickey.

In that issue, Don Libey wrote on the future of cataloging. I think he’s right on some issues, and dead wrong on others. I ‘ve reposted Libey’s column below with some commentary.

There are vested interests on both sides of the debate. Printers, paper manufacturers and the U.S. Postal Service see the paper catalog as being invincible. Internet service providers, search firms and the Internet industry see the catalog as a relic of the pre-online era.

The truth: the debate will be decided by metrics. The problem: we don’t have the metrics.

We have metrics. Perhaps too many metrics. The problem is that they’re all channel-specific, and we don’t have good methodologies to allocate the credit for an order properly across the barrage of overlapping messages we send prospects across myriad channels.

The coming year will advance those metrics and the logical answer will be that the catalog is losing influence and search is gaining influence.

In fact, while not in 2007, but one year soon, there will be no multichannel marketing, only marketing once again, and it will demand mastery of all channels. We will come full circle and be completely re-invented in a much larger industry.

Agree.

In 2007, catalog creative conventions will begin massive change. All of the square-inch, grid, pagination, space allocation and other traditional conventions will begin to be abandoned in favor of new conventions that drive and support online conversion.

Disagree.

As catalogs become more costly with postage increases, using catalog inches effectively will become ever more crucial. The formula may no longer be “catalog sales for SKU divided by catalog inches for SKU” — the web sales from catalog promotion must be factored in — but “squinch” is far from dead.

Photography will become much larger-heroic, as it is called. Space, copy and message will be thought of differently; not as cost per square-inch, but conversion cost relative to paid search, keyword expense and pay per click/pay per order. If a large hero photo does the job at less cost, that tactic will be adopted.

Yes.

Catalogs will begin to look very different, more like magazines.

No.

I predict it will go the other way — catalogs will look more transactional, with less institutional. The message will be “trust us” (page 2 and page 3), then “we have everything, here’s lots of SKUs, and we have three times more selection online” on pages 4 though 48.

In 2007, the number of pages will decrease.

Perhaps across the industry the average pages per book will drop, but average annual pages sent to twelve month buyer households will rise.

As catalogs morph to Web drivers, the intent will be to attract buyers rather than display products. If a buyer can be attracted to the in-depth online product experience with 36 pages instead of 120 pages, the “bait-and-hook” catalog will gain in usage.

Sure. But in 2007, I don’t think mailers at 120 pages will drop to 36. Mailers will experiment with dropping signatures, and some big books may shrink. Catalogs need a certain heft to be considered, and driving folks online will require sufficient pages to display the breadth of product. Many catalogers observe products given catalog space sell more online than equivalent products not given catalog space — fancy that.

Next year, the last vestiges of lazy, sleepy marketers will begin a flight back to quality lists. Catalog companies who continue to use pre-1990s circulation plans relying on lowest-cost compiled names will be forced to seek high-quality, segmented, response names.

There are still sleepy B2C marketers mailing poor names who haven’t gone bust yet?

Far too many business-to-business catalogers are still mailing the entire business universe once a year, segmented only by SIC.

True on the B2B side.

In 2007, the debate between “black box” membership list co-ops and list-specific co-ops will intensify. Catalogers will demand metrics – from both – that empirically prove the future value of customers. The loss of list rental income with membership co-ops will grow in importance, and senior catalog executives and chief financial officers will begin to look at these models with increasing, intensive scrutiny.

Yep.

Next year, the youngest baby boomers who own catalogs will turn 62 years of age. Many others are approaching 70 years old. The largest transfer of catalog ownership ever known will occur over the next three to eight years.

Expect lots of roll-ups, and most of those roll-ups to fail. Most mergers fail.

Some of these companies will be sold to competitive catalog companies. Some will be bought by private equity groups. Some will be handed off to the children.

In all cases, however, youth and profit will come to dominate their operations. And that can only mean huge shifts from tradition to innovation, from passive to aggressive, from print technology to online technology, from response-based to conversion-based. An age ends and begins in 2007.

We wont see all of Don’s predicted changes happening in the 12 month time-frame. Regardless, many of his points are worth considering.

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  • Alan Rimm-Kaufman
    Alan Rimm-Kaufman founded the Rimm-Kaufman Group...
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