Ecommerce is harder to execute than originally expected.
Companies — both B2B and B2C — have near-unanimously come to this conclusion after a few years in the ecommerce space. And for those who have yet to start, the window of opportunity narrows as the ecommerce leaders continue their exponential growth.
One of the more significant challenges involves deciding which application or applications to leverage when developing an ecommerce product catalog: a content management system (CMS), product information management (PIM) system or a combination of the two.
Let's start with some definitions. No single definition exists for either and so there's some ambiguity and overlap between the two as well as with Master Data Management (MDM) and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) which we won’t cover here.
With that in mind, every organization tackling this challenge must allocate adequate time to consider the subtleties involved, as a well-structured product catalog is a key foundational component of any successful ecommerce implementation.
Shortly after the World Wide Web (WWW) emerged as a commercial medium in the mid 1990s, people became captivated with the idea that content could drive online commerce. Unlike a distribution center or store, the ability to offer relatively unlimited product information online, especially as data storage costs declined, allowed customers to better educate themselves on products, substitutes and complements.
At this point, using WCMs on a regular basis to develop websites was a few years off. As website development sophistication grew, so did the use of WCM.
With the exception of some pure play ecommerce merchants, companies usually developed their websites before establishing an ecommerce presence. WCMs therefore became the de facto standard for companies to more effectively manage the corporate website development process.
The intricacy of company websites derived from the breadth of the company, its different divisions, the lack of integration that previously existed between corporate and the divisions, etc. As a rule of thumb, corporate marketing had responsibility for a company website, so the site served more like marketing collateral.
In these instances, the WCM was the best tool for presenting product information. It served to educate prospects and customers through product overviews, including the value proposition, rather than detailed specifications.
But when the expected outcome is a purchase as opposed to just education involves a different process and therefore requires a different approach, especially in B2B.
Let’s revisit the buying decision process to highlight this. In the case of viewing a corporate website, most customers are in the initial stages of the buying process: recognition of need and search for information. While there’s no way to ascertain where customers are on this continuum, given the primary objective is to gain familiarity with the product(s) of interest, it's safe to assume it's earlier in the process.
However, when someone is looking to buy, it’s more likely they are in the middle to later stages — information search, evaluation of alternatives and purchase decision — because the expected outcome, buy vs. learn, is different. To reach that purchase decision online, customers need to find the necessary product information to make the strongest possible buying decision.
If remaining questions require having to engage someone or something else in the middle of buying, that creates “friction,” which impedes the purchase process. With the marginal cost of publishing product information close to zero once enabled, the simplest solution is to publish as much product information, in as well organized a fashion as possible — and that requires more than WCM.
Numerous efforts have been made over the last few years to integrate WCM with ecommerce applications. But to deliver a truly robust ecommerce product catalog you'll need some form of PIM, whether third party or home grown, to provide rich product detail for customers.
This is the core function of a PIM. WCMs just aren’t best suited for this, even if some WCM software vendors suggest the two as comparable.
This isn’t to suggest that WCMs and PIMs can’t coexist — they should. Both contain different types of product information, with each playing a part in educating customers about a product's value proposition and PIM providing the more detailed product information.
The most effective course for companies is to carefully architect the product information that needs to display — in search results, when browsing, on product pages, etc. — and identify where that product content is located and then figure out how best to get it to populate that page.
This will likely require some re-architecting of those systems, including but not limited to WCM, PIM, MDM and PLM. But establishing a strong foundation for the ecommerce product catalog is worth it, as it delivers the relevant product information customers need to make the best possible buying decision.