Product information management (PIM) software has evolved considerably from its early roots in master data management (MDM).
Now brands demand that this technology be oriented to the realities of digital commerce.
What is PIM?
As the name suggests, Product Information Management (PIM) is the technology an organization uses to centralize all the underlying information about their products, along with being the platform to manage any subsequent modifications or changes, such as new packaging or product marketing language. By using a PIM platform, all departments within an organization have access to the same, up-to-date information and collateral on a given product, rather than different, potentially inaccurate versions floating around within individual departments.
While PIM has been around for decades, the role of the software has expanded considerably, from tracking basic information like unit measurements and specifications, to now including a wide range of associated assets. These include images, videos, text descriptions, etc - all of which are now central to the shopping experience on retailers like Amazon and other online sales channels.
With hundreds of attributes now attached to a given product, along with online marketplaces and channels requiring quick action when launching new products, PIMs have also taken on the role of being a workflow engine across a range of departments, as well as a means to syndicate product content across an ever-expanding array of retailers.
TIP: Getting your terms mixed up? Learn the basics of master data management (MDM) to understand where PIM got its roots.
The types of product information that need to live within a PIM
While not all-encompassing, the following graphic concisely illustrates the types of content that should live within a PIM system, acting as a good strategic guide:
The key benefits of PIM
There are four core functions of a PIM platform, all of which are geared towards allowing brands to better execute across the digital shelf, and provide experiences for customers that drive purchases.
1. Content onboarding
This allows multiple teams who may be working with different systems or interfaces for content production to get those assets in a single place for proper merchandising.
2. Content centralization and governance
A PIM platform acts as a central repository for all product content assets, across channels. This is especially important with online retail channels constantly changing requirements and merchandising options for brands. This function also provides the ability to enforce content quality standards within an organization.
3. Content creation and enrichment
The ability to create and enrich a range of product content, including SEO tags, enhanced content, and product FAQs, is a critical piece of functionality within a PIM. This allows brands to effectively build product experiences that resonate with customers, and do so consistently over time.
4. Content distribution
Brands use a PIM to get their product content to every digital channel where it’s appropriate, and do so while meeting the unique requirements of each channel. Potential syndication endpoints include retail websites and marketplaces, digital catalogs, and advertising platforms.
How brands are leveraging PIM systems
With the growth of Amazon and other online retail channels, digital has become a buyer's best friend, and research bears this out as well.
71% of buying journeys now start online, and retailer recommendation engines have become so attuned to what consumers are looking for that 9 out of 10 people never look past the top five search results.
In today’s marketplace, if a product isn’t showing up at the top of search results, it might as well not even exist.
Moreover, as buyers explore their different options, what's really resonating is high-quality content. We're talking about video, high-quality images, 360 product visualizations, and other types of rich media. Recent consumer research showed that consumers, across age groups, are looking for more images and videos on product pages than ever before.
And this isn’t just about B2C products - the same exact behavior extends to B2B buying, where 53% of buyers rated “product details, imagery, and videos” as very important when selecting and buying products, according to a 2018 survey by B2B ECnews. B2B buyers are effectively consumers in their modern lives, and they want to be able to quickly explore products, find the most up to date catalog, compare bundles, have accurate product specifications, see clear delivery and warranty information, etc. And in the post-purchase phases, buyers are going to ask for product care or troubleshooting information. That too has to be readily available to the sales rep.
The market has shifted dramatically because of these changes. The graph below is from IRI and their research, and what’s clear is that offline leaders are struggling online. Most companies, even household names, strain to apply the same level of disciple online, as they do offline.
IRI found that brick and mortar category leaders are, on average, down 13 market share points on ecommerce. So what's going on? It really comes down to things like search. Search is a real battleground requiring a lot of vigilance, with the new guard, in the form of new brands, encroaching on that prized real estate.
As one example, L2 Research found that brands that were founded after the year 2000 have an 81% one-year search term refresh rate. Meanwhile, 59% of brands that existed before the year 2000 maintained the same keywords. New brands understand they need to have keyword strategies that help boost their visibility as the competition on Google continues to increase.
Here’s what a modern SEO checklist looks like. What’s highlighted are the importance of things like keyword research as a proxy for buyer intent, expert product content that's credible and really helps unpack the value of a product, compelling titles that have been optimized for the different search engines, as well as meta descriptions.
All of this really ups the ante for brands to create, manage and optimize product content. It’s because operating at the speed of the buyer really pays off.
The question is, what stands in the way? What separates brands that are struggling to keep up from the brands that are winning their category?
A core component of achieving these goals is the technology brands use to manage product content. So let's look at the core components of PIM and how those core components really have to evolve to help you succeed as a brand.
Going beyond the traditional PIMs
Traditional PIMs have this golden record mindset. But when it comes to omnichannel commerce, there’s no such thing as a standardized dataset. What is relevant to a business buyer through a digital catalog is going to be different than what's relevant to an end consumer through a direct-to-consumer site.
So what does that mean? It means your data model has to be able to adapt with the changing needs of each market that you participate in. PIMs are built on relational databases that are focused on reconciling core product data from multiple internal sources into a master record, and that's absolutely valuable. However, with omnichannel commerce, it can't end there. That's foundational, but to compete in a world driven by SEO, companies need the ability to add, remove, and edit attributes within seconds with no IT support, while still defining access permissions so only the right person has access. A golden record model doesn't really scale with this perspective.
Another point is that required attributes change when you're working with different channels, but those attributes may not exist within the system. That’s critical for an omnichannel strategy, and is why PIMs should offer brands an intuitive business rules engine that can calculate or generate those required attributes. This allows users to perform those transformations on the same content for different endpoints, at scale.
Common use cases for this are converting measurement values to other units of measurement based on where you're selling into, the markets you're selling into, mapping dimensions to the retailer specified attribute, or working with multiple property values or sets of property values with different formulas.
It's also important to drive data quality against market requirements, not just against internally defined requirements. Successful brands need both. By enabling more people within the organization to contribute, and opening up different methods to help them contribute, either via spreadsheets or manual entry for example, you can help drive improved speed to market.
Along the same lines, traditional PIMs produce channel agnostic attributes and validation rules. The challenge is that attributes and the validation on top of that will vary by use case. For example, if you're sending product content to your print catalog versus your digital catalog, versus retailer sites, versus a marketplace, versus a distributor, etc. Those requirements will vary, and they are outside of your control.
To handle that variance, a lot of people resort to non-ideal data practices. They customize the data to meet the requirements of the channel in a rather manual way using Excel spreadsheets and not working within the application. Brands can invest in a very large, expensive database and think that they have data governance in place, but still won’t be there because the channel data is out in the wild and ungoverned. This creates a lot of risk for you as a brand, and it also creates a lot of duplication and inefficiencies, ultimately slowing down time to market.
A better approach is to have a platform that gives you channel specific perspectives of your data. For example, you can have a Grainger- or a Home Depot-specific view of the world, and that view gets tweaked and optimized and reformatted without having to touch any master data. This allows for thousands of incremental improvements separately that can be scaled across your organization rather than living locally in someone's desktop.
A PIM should maximize your content creation efforts across channels
It’s also vital for modern PIMs to support enhanced content, which we know is critical for engagement on the page and driving conversions on the digital shelf. In many cases, if you want to leverage enhanced content with a PIM, it means exporting those assets, organizing them together, and then uploading manually through a point solution. That process is slow and painful because the assets and the product data aren’t synchronized with your core PIM or digital asset management software (DAM), and makes it hard to scale pre-built templates or the enhanced content you've invested in for similar products.
Similarly, with brands needing to move faster than ever to win on the digital shelf, it’s critical that the PIM can quickly get up and running so you can begin executing. This really has to do with getting content into the system. You don't want to go through a complicated process that might involve filling out a spreadsheet with your data, and then having to transform it into a commonly agreed upon model. That’s going to massively extend your time to market. It’s better to have a PIM that can import data or get data in the system on day one. That allows you to see it first and get the full picture quickly. With this approach, you're not forsaking governance, but you are getting data into the system before applying the governance and the quality on the way out to the channel, rather than preventing you from getting data into the system in the first place.
When it comes to getting your product content out to sales channels, syndication is just the tip of the iceberg. More to the point, most PIMs don't have syndication capabilities, and the PIMs that do offer syndication functionality usually focus their attention on the data transport aspect of the problem. You can’t just focus on transferring baseline product data. Increasingly, it's syndicating things like enhanced content. To execute well on these kinds of rich media assets, brands need the ability to source the data from any place, and manage it with a channel relevant structure. Added organizational agility comes from empowering a lot of users to contribute data from a variety of methods, including spreadsheets, manual inputs, and also creating content with business rules and automation, along with channel-specific checks before you publish.
Knowing whether you are ready to publish to a particular endpoint, and being able to tweak content to meet any changing channel requirements, is vital to move quickly. This plays into the idea of insights being another aspect of PIM to take into account.
In-app insights are a must for PIMs to support any commerce initiative. These tools are really invaluable because they give you the things like SEO keyword recommendations, brand compliance assessments, and buy box reporting. All of those things help you keep pace with the market, tell you what will be most effective, and help you detect the gaps so that you can correct them.
Importantly, analytics should be integrated throughout the PIM application in order to really operationalize those learnings. For example, clicking on a given suggestion within the application and creating an assigned task. If you can't do that, it makes it very hard to optimize continuously.
Put the buyer journey first
Remember, this all relates to the buyer's journey. Your PIM should act as a way to really craft product experiences for your buyers, because that’s increasingly what they are demanding online. Differentiated experiences demand content, ecosystem connectivity, and analytics in a kind of closed loop. With this new view of what PIM should do for you, your business can much more easily continually create those product experiences that matter for your buyers.