Putting PIM on a pedestal

There's a fine line between target marketing and marketing for its own sake. Products like Trigo's E-Way could contribute to companies promoting style over substance

Office products vendor Corporate Express is about to abandon its old system -- a private marketplace it runs using an Oracle database back end, a Microsoft Access front end, and a collection of SQL scripts to tie it all together, and replace it with a whole new exchange it calls E-Way. Based on software from developer Trigo, E-Way incorporates all the information about the pens, paper, printers, and other products that Corporate Express sells -- some 175,000 items, more than twice as many as were available on the old marketplace -- and presents it in a way that's most convenient for the customers, says Chuck Coleman, director of e-business for Corporate Express. "In terms of the richness of the content, and accommodating customers in terms of the keywords they wanted to use to look up products, we were able to have a cleaner, more efficient, authoring process," Coleman says. The name of Trigo's product is a mouthful: Trigo Product Center for the Enterprise. But where it fits in the world of Web software is even more of a muddle. Though Trigo calls its software "product information management (PIM)," it sounds suspiciously like content management products from Interwoven or Vignette, or electronic catalog management from Requisite or Saqqara, or even digital asset management products from Documentum or Verity. So what distinguishes PIM from all those other three-letter abbreviations? According to Trigo, it's the focus on the product itself -- how it's described and how it's marketed (i.e., with different descriptions for different channels), as opposed to managing other Web-site content that needs to be updated but doesn't necessarily describe a product. What's in a name?
Still confused about PIM's differentiation? "Welcome to the club," says Gartner analyst Geoffrey Bock. "In my mind, content management refers to any digital asset that you can create or manage for any purpose. PIM is a specialized kind of content management." The challenges that Trigo faces -- along with Trilogy and Cedron, other vendors of PIM software -- are twofold: It needs to manage large structured and unstructured data in a systematic way, and integrate product information into its business processes. Because the Internet has introduced new points of interaction and removed the middleman, people can buy products from an exponentially higher number of places. "Our customers tell us that they want someone, whether they come to the Web site, or get a printed catalog from a salesperson, to get a consistent message," says Russ Henry, Trigo's senior vice-president of marketing. That's why having a PIM system, which maintains that consistency, no matter what the description's final form, is important. A satisfied customer
There's more to PIM than that, of course. Trigo's customer-focused capabilities appealed to Coleman, as did the integration capabilities that its partner, WebMethods, brought to the table. Almost anything would have been an improvement on the old system, a nightmare of manual processes for both text and images. It was so time-consuming that it limited the amount of products Corporate Express could sell online, Coleman said. He describes three key features that contribute to E-Way's efficiencies. Fast updates. Coleman says that Trigo's software handles the addition of new data and descriptions quickly and accurately. "I can add 500 items, or some new verbiage, and it'll move the data out in front of the customers so that they're able to order something they might not have ordered a few minutes before." Incremental descriptions. Basic product descriptions usually come in about 25 cryptic characters, Coleman says. E-Way can expand those descriptions as necessary: from 50 characters for an ERP system or for a packing list up to 1,000 characters. "The customer can drill down for greater detail, but we're not busting a lot of bandwidth," he says. Third-party syndications. A fancy way of saying that the Trigo information can be sent off to another system -- whether it's the Worldwide Retail Exchange, the Uniform Consumer Code's data registry, or a marketplace running software from Ariba -- without losing data accuracy. As a result, the increase in products offered from 70,000 to 175,000 came without an increase in staff. The marketplace brought in $750 million in revenue last year, and that amounts to 30 percent of Corporate Express' office products sales in 2001 (in addition to E-Way, Corporate Express sells products through its 257 retail locations). Coleman wants to reach the 50 percent milestone soon. I'll do it my way
Is there an E-Way equivalent in your future? For analyst Bock, "PIM works in any environment that has large numbers of SKUs. Companies that are into mass-customization, who are trying to segment their products for their customers' needs, have large PIM problems." He doesn't believe that existing ERP systems are suitably flexible to adapt to this challenge, and that PIM software -- even integrated with another content or digital asset management package -- is a savvy purchase. Ultimately, PIM even has a role to play with CRM, provided you can market or merchandise your product precisely enough to make your customers think you designed it just for them. Corporate Express' success and the need for product specificity aside, though, there's only one red flag that remains. One of the selling points of PIM is its ability to target data descriptions for the appropriate market or channel. There's a fine line between target marketing and marketing for its own sake. Products like Trigo's could contribute to companies promoting style over substance -- using the software's flexibility to focus on promoting perceived differences rather than actual ones. The world does need more efficiency, but it doesn't need more specious marketing

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