Business Tools

Electronic vs. Print Catalogs: Using Old and New Media to Reach Your Customers


Over the past 18 months the term “ROI” has been the focus of every decision maker responsible for cutting costs and evaluating spending. Every dime spent on marketing is being scrutinized more heavily than ever. One of a company’s greatest costs each year is associated with designing, producing and printing a company’s product catalog, newsletter or periodical. In addition, the time of year the pieces need to be created can also be a heavy burden on many companies’ bottom line.

In the automotive aftermarket, the trade show season revolving around Performance Warehouse Association (PWA), SEMA and then Performance Racing Industry (PRI) combine for a 1-2-3 punch of major cash. How companies choose to manage their catalog creation can have a resounding impact in how successful they are in reaching their customers in a cost-effective manner.

That brings us to the topic of choosing the proper type of media to deliver your messages. There are many good reasons to select either media: Both print and digital catalogs have very unique and different ways of reaching consumers. I am sure that you have either heard or spoken the words “print is dead” or been on the polar opposite of “print will never go away,” but I am here to tell you that it is most definitely somewhere right in-between. There is no clear-cut winner in this debate and a valid argument can be made for each type, depending on your business needs and customer requirements.

Let’s take a look at some of the distinct differences between the two and how each can help your business in their own way. First up, why print?

1. Faster than a speeding set of fingers? Yes, brick-and-mortar distribution has changed and evolved over the past few years, but a call center technician needs answers faster than even the Internet can provide sometimes. With some companies having incredibly large parts offerings and page after page of application listings, it is often much quicker for a salesman on the phone to reference a catalog rack sitting right in front of them. Think about how long it actually takes to look up parts online at some of your favorite websites. Now imagine you rarely or never go there.

Plus, callers are often seeking suggestions and help because they themselves don’t exactly know what they are looking for. Also, don’t forget that your distributor might not be able to provide a good broadband connection—or a connection at all for that matter—to all of its employee’s workstations. Part of the magic that sometimes occurs with printed catalogs is consumers find something to buy that they didn’t even know they wanted.

2. I’m sorry, can you repeat that please?
 Perhaps immensely difficult for you to comprehend and come to terms with, but it is true that some people just don’t use computers and the Internet. I have personally had this conversation many times over, and while it baffles me that in this day and age someone would not take advantage of all the resources made available to them, it still is something to consider depending on your customer base. Whether it is a personal choice or has more to do with socio-economic issues, the fact remains that you should take this into account.

3. “Studies show…”
 Are you having trouble actually getting a good response rate? Finding it hard to deliver critical information to a specific target demographic? A joint venture between Ricoh and IBM wanted to find out a little more about how Americans wanted to receive their important news. The resulting survey showed three out of four Americans would prefer to open important traditional mail delivered to them rather than e-mail, and 50% said they prefered traditional print material over 44% for e-mail. (Source: InfoPrint Survey.)

Some people just plain prefer mail so make sure to do your own homework and find out which of your customers do. There was one catch to that survey though; it was as long as that printed material was less impactful on the environment. And that brings us to number 4.

4. You’re killing our mother!
 Are you an environmentally responsible company? If you are, then use it to your advantage. There are many case studies that argue creating electronic devices to deliver media, such as iPads, Kindles, and making billions of CDs, CD-ROMs and DVDs has a greater negative impact on the earth’s resources than renewable and easily recycled paper products. A recent New York Times article noted that "with respect to fossil fuels, water use and mineral consumption, the impact of one e-reader payback equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it's 100 books; with human health consequences, it’s somewhere in between.”

If you do print, be mindful when selecting a vendor whose printing facility complies with environmental best practices and choose paper and processes that are earth friendly. If nothing else, be mindful of what your customers care about. If they do care, make sure to let them know you are concerned, too, because “going green” is never a bad decision these days.

5. You can pry it from my cold, dead hand: digital media is fleeting. It is fickle and oftentimes you are never in control of the media yourself. An online catalog or product information page is only as good as the URL and server on which it is hosted. I am sure that you have visited a few broken links in the past and found that as frustrating as can be, especially when you were really looking forward to reading or looking at something in particular. Print, on the other hand, lasts forever.

Well, you know what I mean. You can cut or tear out an article, have it framed and mounted on the wall and it has the opportunity to become something much more special than when it was first printed. Heck, much to my wife’s chagrin, I think I have favorite catalogs and magazines saved from the early ’90s.

6. The X-Factor
: Call me nostalgic or just plain old-fashioned, but there is something pleasant and comforting about holding a printed piece in your hands. From dog-earing the pages, breaking in the spine of a book just right and flipping back and forth between tattered pages, the feeling I get when picking up a favorite brands' media is joyful. The catalogs, magazines and fliers on the bedroom nightstand and in the, uh, restroom are important pieces of literature in my life. They are like good friends with whom you never have to stay in constant communication. When you speak again after a long time apart, there is a wonderful familiarity and bond that is always there whenever you want to catch up.

An inspiring list to be sure, but people crave digital media and the norm is to use a computer for both researching and purchasing items. So now let’s see how the digital stuff stacks up:

1. I have to pay how much?
 To me, this is quite frankly one of the single greatest reasons to using electronic media for all varieties of marketing delivery. Often the shock is at how inexpensive it is to convert to digital. Especially if you have already produced files that you are going to print. The low cost of actually turning your catalogs, newsletters and mailers into an easily accessed online resource is hard to ignore and there is a nice selection of options to choose from that are very easy to use.

The after-costs of running print media must also not be overlooked. Shipping and mailing costs can rack up fast and the more pages and higher quality the paper, the more logistically expensive it will be to manage. 

I have included a list of providers that can turn your product catalogs into full viewable online offerings that same day. I have personally used ZMags and NXTBookMedia and highly recommend them.

If you or your marketing department do not have full professional licenses of Adobe’s Acrobat, I also strongly suggest that you make the small investment in that software product. Many great things can be created with it, including submission forms and interactive documents.
f. Adobe Acrobat Professional –

2. Because I said so, that’s why: There is a new word-of-mouth today and it is the Internet. Specifically, consumers live inside forums, blogs and social media outlets that are directly referencing your products and marketing materials through URL links. More purchasing decisions take place through online research than any other method today, and user feedback and reviews are increasingly affecting how your customers buy things. A whopping 92% of respondents in a recent survey said they had more confidence in information they seek out online than anything coming from a sales clerk or other source (source: PostRelease study).

If your customers are looking for your products online, you had better make it as easy as possible for them to find it and have enjoyable experiences learning and researching them. Combine that with the incredible effects that social media is having on brand equity and reputation and having a strong digital product, and marketing presence with consumers is a must.

3. Oops, I take that back
: If you make a mistake in printing, say an incorrect part number, you get to live with it for an entire year or worse, be forced to waste lots of money fixing the problem. With digital assets, it is not a problem to have the latest up-to-date info from engineering and production to make edits or updates on the fly. Need to add features to a new model? Great. Have additional part numbers to add to the product offering? No big deal. In addition, the frequency of your updates can be more often than you ever were able to with print.

4. Look at all the pretty pictures
: Page count, MEH! For those of you who deal with printing in your professional lives, you know how important it is to work around sheets and the all-important number of pages that you can squeeze all of your product info into. Plus, as discussed earlier, you have to worry about actually getting it mailed places as well. When you design and create a digital version to feature your products, the hand-cuffs come off. You are free to include more images, graphs, multimedia and information to help sell products without worrying about the tremendous increases in production costs.

5. Early bird gets the worm: Speed is so critical in today’s competitive landscape. The first to market reaps the lion’s share of profits. Getting information in front of your consumers and having data for your distributors to support those new products is vital. There is just no comparison here; the speed to get digital materials in front of your customers is so much quicker than traditional methods.

6. The X-Factor
: In this case, it is really the Y-Factor. Generation-Y that is. Unfortunately, Gen-Y is losing interest in cars. They have a new digital social space in which they are living and interacting, and print media is not making a tremendous impact on the new growing generation. But much like Gen-X forced companies to change how they did business when they dominated the consumer space, it will take some adapting by the automotive aftermarket to react to Gen-Y. Being flexible in how you are delivering your content is the key.

This short-attention-span group lacks the will to digest large amounts of data at once. They are used to minute-by-minute, bite-sized tidbits of digital media. Use this to your advantage. Seek out the places that they are living and breathing every day (forums, blogs, Facebook, etc.), and deliver them small doses of relevant content that can tie your brand and products together to make a difference in their buying habits when the time comes to make purchasing decisions. Then make sure that all of that great product data is available online.

We could discuss the pros and cons of printed vs. digital media all day long, and I still wholeheartedly believe that the correct answer lies in producing both. The lower cost to place catalogs online or on CD allows you to scale back the number of printed catalogs, and often saves money. In many cases, you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Regardless of which you choose and what percentage of budget you place toward one or the other, just make sure that the most important question is answered first. Go ask your customers, poll your consumers and do what is best for them. What might seem economical or intuitive to you may prove to have a completely different perspective when you listen to them. — Tyler Tanaka, chair-elect, SEMA Street Performance Council (SPC)