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Senior Money Memos



Some website owners may find the thinking in this newsletter somewhat provocative. However the logic is sound and the question is one that needs to be asked.

The logic follows from the following facts:

a) The Internet is more complex than is often realized. It may behave in unexpected ways.
b) In particular, something that performs well in a printed format may not do well when converted to an on-line format.
c) On the other hand, the Internet does allow some new and powerful ways of connecting with other people.

It is important to ask whether adding a product catalogue to your website is the best use of your energies and the most cost-effective way of spending a significant amount of money.


It may seem natural for any company producing an extensive range of products to maintain a product catalogue. In the days before computers, this might be a series of typed product description pages often kept in a loose-leaf book. With a computer, this information can be held in a database. Either way a sales person can provide product information to prospective customers.

Once the information has been assembled, it is of course straightforward to produce copies for those who might find the information useful. Any owner can be proud to see a fine document that describes the whole range of his or her company products. So is born the company product catalogue. Some customers may say they would like to have a copy of the catalogue. In response a company may then produce printed copies of the catalogue. This can now be much more economic with printers who are set-up to do small print runs. Nevertheless it is an extra expense, but the product catalogue can become almost a company institution. So year after year, the catalogue continues to be republished. At this point stopping it would likely meet a lot of resistance. .. and after all, it is a document to be proud of.

Then along comes the Internet. Putting the catalogue on a website seems to have many advantages over the traditional printed catalogue. Graphic design costs should be less as the designer does not have to work with large CMYK files. Concept costs are reduced when working with templates and there are no text layout charges. Overall there is less hands-on time charged. The cost of printing is avoided. The cost of revising it each year will also be much reduced.

For customers, they have easy access to the catalogue and can check whether the company carries the particular product they need. It all sounds like a no-brainer decision.

Except .. Although every step on the historical path that brought us to this online product catalogue decision may have seemed logical at the time, we may have ended up at the wrong decision point. Let's back up and re-examine one of those historical decisions.


Making sure the whole selling team knows exactly what you're selling is clearly important. A sales representative should be able to handle a large proportion of customer inquiries. With highly technical products, an instant answer may not be expected. Indeed it gives a sales representative the opportunity to make a second contact, which often helps to solidify the relationship. Nevertheless there is an essential minimum of information that should be readily available in a very accessible database or in a printed sheet.

If such sheets are available, there then comes a question of whether they should be available to customers. Some companies do so and others keep them confidential. There are arguments both ways.

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  • Some customers like to have detailed product information.
  • Customers can do their own searches for the right product.


  • It is costly to create the catalogue.
  • It is costly to keep it updated.
  • The catalogue may be weighty.
  • Competitors can obtain it and learn from it.

The most sensitive aspect has not been mentioned in the above table. Should the catalogue include prices? There are Cons on this issue on either position. If you don't publish prices, the catalogue is less useful to prospects and indeed they may be frustrated. If you do publish prices, then it is easier for competitors to become aware of these and adjust their pricing strategies accordingly. There is also the extra challenge of how to revise price data when needed.

How these Pros and Cons balance out in any given case may push a company either way on whether their catalogue should be publicly available. There is a yet more important factor involved in the decision. That is the question of how the product catalogue will best support the selling function in the company.


If the Product Catalogue is made public, then it should be regarded as one of the selling tools to encourage prospects to buy your products. The extra costs of making the Product Catalogue a public document should be regarded as a marketing expense. This compares with other marketing expenses such as ads in the Yellow Pages or in trade journals or promotional literature. Whether the catalogue should be made a public document should be assessed on a Benefit/Cost ratio and compared with alternative ways the marketing budget could be spent.

In many cases, the benefits generated by making the product catalogue public will not be as cost-effective as other ways of spending the marketing dollars. Viewed in this light, the public product catalogue may well not be the best use of marketing funds. That would seem to be the decision that the majority of companies take. They do not have printed catalogues that they send out to customers.

Now we have the arrival of the Internet. The Internet is a lower cost way of doing many things. This includes showing a product catalogue on a website. However the cost savings alone should not be used to justify the transfer of the public product catalogue onto the website. The right question to ask is, "Does this use of funds produce a greater sales return than other ways of spending the marketing budget?" So how do we attempt to measure the sales contribution of an online product catalogue versus other marketing expenditures.

To fully explore this, it is important to understand the true nature of the Internet. There are two aspects of the Internet that are important here. The Internet can transmit data from one person to another person. Much more powerfully, the Internet can allow two people who do not know of each other's existence to find each other. Both of these aspects are important in thinking of how best to support the selling function via the Internet.


The Internet is a data channel. One person can send a whole variety of 'data packages' across the Internet to another person. A 'data package' could be a short video or a photograph or an audio clip or a web page: it could even be a data file for some analysis program. Provided both parties have matching hardware and software, the data package received at the end of 'the line' will look exactly the same as that sent off by the sender. Of course if the hardware and software is not 'matched', then the communication will not be successful. In this case, the Internet acts a little like those Enigma Machines that were used in the Second World War. The receiver gets only a garbled version of what the sender sent.

If your customer wants to check out whether you can supply a particular product, then provided you both have 'matching equipment', the customer can search your product catalogue and decide whether you can supply. In theory that sounds great, but more and more people are realizing that it doesn't always work out well in practice.

The experts point out how difficult it is. Gerry McGovern warns that Graphic design plays a minor role on the Web. In that article he states the following:

The Web is, at heart, a task-focused, functional place. If you want cutting edge web design, look at Google, Skype, eBay, Amazon. These websites make money by meeting real needs.

Your website must be useful. It must be fast and convenient, with a navigation that is familiar and simple. The Web is not a brochure, an annual report, or a TV ad. It's the Web.

Jakob Nielsen, equally world-renowned, then points out that Amazon: No Longer the Role Model for E-Commerce Design. As he states:

On balance, Amazon is still the world's best e-commerce site. Many of its strengths, however, are unique to its status and would not carry over to sites that emulate its design.

In summary, although the Internet can be used to transmit data, it will be a challenge to do this effectively.

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The Internet when serviced by rapid and massive search engines such as Google picks up another astonishing ability. If you search for a particular individual, supplier or product, then however obscure the target may be, there is a good chance you will find what you're looking for.

This has put the purchaser in the driving seat. No longer is a purchaser forced to rely on what can be learned from sales representatives who visit. You can search for potential suppliers and do some homework on each without them even being aware. Different people will do these supplier searches in different ways. Some may check out on-line trade directories such as the Thomas Global Register, KellySearch or for Canadian suppliers, Frasers. Others will rely on search engines such as Google, Yahoo! or MSN Search. Different people will come up with different short lists. Few will be happy to restrict their search to only one supplier and look only within that supplier's product range.

What is really needed is a way of connecting to as many as possible of these prospects who are searching for products the company might supply. The most achievable objective is to ensure the website makes the company visible as a preferred supplier of these types of products. If the website confirms the credibility of the company then prospects may well contact the company to get help on what they're looking for. Rather than a full product catalogue on the website, descriptions of some typical products may well do most of the job in confirming the suitability of the company as a potential supplier. The goal of attracting as many of these prospects as possible is much more achievable than that of developing a full on-line product catalogue that will impress them and that they will use.



This newsletter is really about websites that do not involve shopping carts.

The decision to add a shopping cart to a website is not one to be taken lightly. People get frustrated about many aspects of websites, but the shopping cart is perhaps the item that will cause the ultimate in frustration. A shopping cart should only be included in a website if it will bring in a significant contribution to the company revenues. Otherwise it is likely to weaken the attainment of other website objectives.

Even for a website that includes a shopping cart, many of the issues discussed here still apply. However there are some additional challenges when the catalogue is interlinked with a shopping cart system.

The way this new Internet purchasing cyberspace functions would seem to reduce the attractiveness of including a full product catalogue on the website. However if one is to be included then the following Pros and Cons must be kept in mind.


  • An online catalogue is easy to maintain.
  • Customers can search the catalogue more easily.
  • The online catalogue saves on printing costs
  • Some prospects may find the website and check the catalogue.


  • Customers may have problems viewing and searching the catalogue.
  • Search engines may rank other suppliers higher for specific products.
  • The company is unaware of prospects who are interested and visit the website.
  • Competitors can also see the information.


If a website product catalogue is to be built then clear goals should be set and the website designed accordingly.


  • It should provide information in a user-friendly way to existing customers.
  • It should easily be found by prospects doing search engine keyword searches.
  • It should be strong in converting prospects to potential purchasers.
  • It should encourage prospects to contact the company.


  • It should be constructed to have strong search engine visibility
  • There should be clear navigation around the website from whichever 'door' the prospect enters the website by.
  • There should be a strong conversion process turning prospects into purchasers


  • Adobe PDF files, if used, should be included in a way that does not cause visitors to leave the website.
  • The catalogue should be designed so as to have cross-browser compatibility. In other words, it should look good in most of the popular web browsers.
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Given the more open and interconnected nature of the Internet purchasing cyberspace, it is important to try to establish direct contact with prospects. The standard product catalogue, even if situated within a website, may not be the best way of developing and strengthening links with prospects. There are a number of alternative ways that may more effectively establish such links. The exact configuration should take into account the specifics of the company and the industry. However here are two approaches as illustration.

CD-ROM-based Product Catalogue with Internet update for registered customers

Where the company has an extensive product range that professional purchasing agents would like to have knowledge of, then this can be made available as a CD-ROM on request. It can also have an automatic update arrangement via an Internet connection for registered users. This avoids the problems of Internet based product catalogues that may not appear as they should in different browsers. It also means that an Internet keyword search is not required and thus avoids the possibility of a competitive product appearing on the screen.

Product Catalogue Blog

An alternative way of presenting the product information would be as a weblog rather than a website. This has several advantages such as better search engine visibility and the ability to rapidly inform prospects and customers of updates and new products via RSS newsfeeds.

For more details on either of these approaches or for other approaches more specifically geared to your industry, please contact us.


The Internet has changed the way most market places function. Before the Internet a published product catalogue was appropriate for certain companies in certain industries. The Internet allows the publication of an on-line product catalogue at a much lower cost. However this does not mean that companies that did not have printed product catalogues should now invest in on-line product catalogues. The Internet is complex and opens up other prospect-contacting methods that will be much more effective than on-line catalogues. If nevertheless an on-line catalogue seems the right choice then this must be built with skill so as to maximize the number of prospects that are gained.

SMM will be happy to help you figure out your best approach. Our help can be configured to meet exactly the needs you have. Our strengths, experience and creativity can complement those of your company. So write us a Message today on what you're looking for without obligation.

Barry Welford

Socializer Add to Social Bookmarks

The author wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Denis Doyle
through useful discussions on some of the technical aspects of this newsletter.

Added to site 9 January 2006
As a service to your readers, why not link to this article on Do Product Catalogues Belong On Web Sites?.


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