A Debate For The Ages: Printed vs. Online Catalogs

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It’s one of those lingering arguments (at least in the world of promotions)… sort of like the heated discussions people have about the designated hitter in baseball, the three point shot in basketball or the Mac vs. PC debate in the office… which is more effective, print or online catalogs?
As a former copywriter for a large print cataloger I might once have shouted “Print!” at the top of my lungs… but having spent almost as much time working online, and seeing the way the internet and technology are changing things… I’m not so sure anymore. The working generations behind us are more tech-savvy than ever, for them shopping online is comfortable and familiar… a way of life. Convenience and instant access are hard to beat.
And yet my mailbox continues to groan under the weight of a steady stream of printed catalogs.
What these pieces have in their favor is quite simply that you can hold and touch them… turn the pages and view the color photos… read the compelling descriptions and enjoy all that glossy paper. Catalogs are an experience as much as a way to sell things… a chance to browse the line before settling on one (or more) items. There are any number of sizes and quality levels for printed catalogs… the choices depend on your products and audience, objective, manner of distribution and budget. Companies, or the creative pros they hire, put amazing amounts of time and energy into laying out the copy and visuals of the book… a piece that must represent the product line… get attention and convince the reader to buy… while also delivering some carefully crafted, highly targeted marketing messages. 
And while web sales keep growing, according to figures from the Direct Marketers Association collected during April and May 2008, printed catalogs continue to be responsible for 50% of sales for respondents to their yearly State of the Catalog Industry survey. It seems those paper catalogs will be with us for a while yet.
Many businesses continue to use print catalogs because customers like them… some products, like clothing, lend themselves to being sold through a paper catalog. There are also industries where buyers don’t spend their days in front of a computer screen — shopping and ordering online are more cumbersome for them. 
One techie twist that’s come to printed catalogs is that the electronic forms of the book can be loaded onto a CD or thumb drive and given to customers. Those who order a lot will appreciate the convenience, as well as your efforts for the environment. You might also want to look into making your catalog downloadable from your website so that it can be brought directly to a customers computer. 
Beyond ever-improving technology, online catalogs have gotten a huge boost from the environmental (green) movement. The interest in saving trees, reducing waste and being more efficient overall is really taking hold. The paperless version of a catalog does all this… making it more popular, more cutting edge than it might have been.
Online catalogs do require some technical know-how, and a significant investment of time for photography and other behind the scenes work so that products are shown in all their glory. Once the information is online, keeping it current is far faster and easier than with a printed catalog. In these days of rising distribution and postage costs, online catalogs eliminate these type of expenses, offering unlimited, 24/7 access and instant availability to those around the corner or across the globe.
What’s more, an online catalog doesn’t take up any space on the shelf in your office… or in your recycling bin. Or in that landflll.
Whether you go printed or online, any good promotional catalog should…

  • be easy to use… find what you need fast and be able to order it
  • show the product line to best advantage… all the colors, sizes and shapes available
  • make ordering easy and checking order status simple
  • deliver a consistent, recognizable marketing message

When it comes to your own catalog choices… think first about your customers. How do they prefer to buy from you? How do they like to communicate with you? Are they comfortable using technology? Just because you have a website, doesn’t mean you must have an online catalog… in the end you want your customer’s experience with your company, online or off, to be positive and memorable.
You’ll also want to think about your products. Can you show them in an online catalog format at an acceptable quality level? Will colors be accurate? Are the choices customers make simple, or complex? Could online ordering make mistakes and returns more likely? These too are important considerations.
In the end, both printed and online catalogs have their value… and will likely co-exist (just like Mac and PC), in peace, for quite some time. 

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