Publishing Dynamic Product Catalogs

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

As a technical information-development professional looking for opportunities to expand dynamic publishing to the enterprise, don’t overlook product sales catalogs. Product sales catalogs provide a great opportunity to demonstrate the value of single-sourcing content, integrating with purchasing databases, and automating the publishing process. Enabling sales personnel to assemble catalog copy to meet their immediate needs further exploits the potential of component content management and brings dynamic publishing to an otherwise skeptical group.

The place to begin is with the pain points.

Introducing database publishing

In one organization, we found a tiny group putting together product catalogs and price books for their dealers with a slow, expensive, and painstaking process. Basic product descriptions and benefits lists were combined with photographs of each product and tables of data copied manually from the price data in a corporate financial database. After the copy was assembled and approved, a graphic designer took six months using InDesign to carefully lay out each page. By the time the catalog was completed, the pricing data was already out of date. Each catalog was a chaotic mix of page layouts with stars, bars, explosions, and other “decorative” items strewn through hundreds of unique pages. The design chaos made it difficult to update the content with last minute changes. And, the customers had difficulty finding the precise products and prices they needed.

Figure 1: Existing Catalog Development Process

Dynamic development process

First, identify the common elements in the catalog copy and assist the catalog team in developing a standard. Overcoming allegiance to layout chaos means stressing the potential for cost cutting. The promise of faster turnaround and lower development costs can persuade even the most recalcitrant sales team of the benefits of standardized copy.

Next comes the design of a simplified authoring environment. The standard copy consists of a product name, a short description, and a benefits list. Each product is illustrated with one or more photographs. The result is a thoroughly simple design that could easily be developed by a single author.

The base for authoring becomes an XML/DITA editing tool that simplifies entering content. Every product description follows the exact same structure, a feature that increases information access and readability for the customers.

The most complex part of the new process is the design of a process to produce the pricing tables by drawing the data directly from the financial database. Once the required transforms are in place, each table is built automatically and appended to the content in the DITA topic.

For this project, we created transforms to develop custom indexes that make the information easier for dealers to find. Once the XSL-FO stylesheet was in place, a design and publishing process that once took months to complete was completed in minutes and eliminated the graphic-design costs. Once the copy is reviewed and approved, the printing takes about two weeks.

However, this company is now moving to on-demand printing triggered by a specific dealer request.

Figure 2: New Catalog Publishing

The marketing and sales managers, who had been skeptical at first, saw the potential for additional catalogs. The second project was a non-US catalog with different prices, dealer discounts, and a more limited product set. Metadata allowed for easy selection of products for more limited markets, replacing the one-size-fits-all approach of the previous design process. The automated publishing process also enables the company to produce catalogs much more frequently than they have in the past.

The company plans to link the DITA topics and the publishing process to their e-commerce site and automated online purchasing process.

Taking Automated Publishing to the Next Level

But automating the publishing process and integrating XML structured text with data from a relational database is only the first step in catalog publishing. In another organization, we identified the potential for customized catalogs produced on-demand for a sales representative.

Once again, the basic information about a product is authored in DITA topics and stored in a component content management system along with the drawings and photographs required for the catalog.

The analysis of the catalog in this project included not only descriptive information but tables and graphs of data. The original presentation of the information was as chaotic as the first project. Every product section in the print catalog was unique and every page was individually designed. In some cases, product benefits lists and critical engineering data were truncated in order to fit the page layout.

Once again, the first step was standardization. Working with the marketing communications management, we identified a standard set of content for each product and designed a consistent layout to be produced through the DITA Open Toolkit and an XSL-FO stylesheet.

But the key question was how to get the sales representatives to use the source information to produce custom catalogs. We knew that sales representatives wanted to create unique catalogs for individual customers, rather than carrying around the huge catalog of the entire product line. They also wanted nothing to do with DITA topics and XML.

In response, we created a SharePoint interface that allows a sales person to select from a variety of options, including product name, industry type, and other key characteristics of the information. By simply clicking check boxes, each sales person creates a unique catalog that is fully formatted and immediately available for download and printing.

In a similar project some years earlier, we enabled the sales representative to use a simple, clickable interface on a website to select specific functionality for a product set and choose a cover page with the customer’s business name. Because the sales force was widely distributed, we even gave them the ability to select a printing facility nearby. All that was required of them was to drive to the printer and pick up the final catalogs for their next sales call.

Looking for Opportunities

In most organizations, development of product catalogs and price books are cost-intensive, time-consuming, and tedious. They represent the ultimate static publishing. But the arguments for dynamic publishing of catalog content are easily persuasive to those watching out for the bottom line:

  • Significantly reduce the time-to-market for catalog content from months to days
  • Significantly reduce the cost of developing final catalog layout to the initial development of XSL-FO stylesheets
  • Enable the development of custom catalogs from the same source content
  • Enable on-demand printing of custom catalogs
  • Ensure that pricing data is accurate and up-to-date, coming directly from purchasing databases
  • Enable on-demand development of custom catalogs by individual sales representatives
  • Link catalog content to e-commerce websites

No doubt there are many other opportunities for dynamic publishing in your organization. Your starting point is to develop a single source of all materials (text, images, and pricing data), free of formatting (XML/DITA), and presented to staff and customers through an intuitive and easily available user interface.

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Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.