We were wrong with our forecasts.
When I started working for a software vendor in the early 2000s, e-commerce was the hot topic in both business-to-customer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) commerce. At the time, we assumed that with the introduction of Product Information Management (PIM) systems, Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), and online stores, the need for printed catalogs would continue to decline and eventually disappear altogether. After all, it was always time-consuming and costly to get the catalogs ready on time for the print deadline, sometimes in different versions or languages. As with most predictions by futurologists, the future has turned out to be far more complex than we would have expected.
Now more than 20 years later, companies are introducing PIM systems, optimizing their processes with a focus on their digital channels for 'e-commerce' in all its varieties. However, "print" is always part of the story, from data sheets to catalogs, the need for creation and thus automation is on board. Quite often it is even a relevant driver for the projects. Often, the first focus is on traditional database publishing (DBP), which is characterized by the fact that direct access to data and assets makes the graphic designer's job easier and dramatically reduces the error rate. However, it is quickly becoming apparent that by consistently linking the various data within the company, many more variations are possible for the production of high-quality documents for sales and marketing. In this area, too, the demands of customers, and thus the diversity of tasks in print/publishing, continue to increase. So you could also put forward the thesis that the demands on "print" are growing with the demands of the digital world. Today we are accustomed to receiving information that is always tailor-made, adapted as far as possible to our particular context. For example, catalogs, just like online stores, are rarely needed in just one language or with just a single product range.
Why were we all so wrong?
Were we wrong to say the catalog was dead in the early 2000s?
No, because more and more manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers are giving up publishing their entire range in one catalog or series of volumes. The trend is clearly toward targeted catalogs adapted to a determined situation or demographic. These are then enriched with further content depending on the targeted group.
Does this mean that the need for catalogs has disappeared altogether?
No, because demand has changed, and we must respond to that. Catalogs are currently undergoing an evolution. From an all-encompassing omnibus of the current product range to a targeted information medium for a clearly defined context. At times it's simply tailored in range to the current recipient, but sometimes its enhanced with editorial content designed to help the recipient better understand the products and increase their appeal, thus giving the catalog greater value for its recipient.
So the catalog is just celebrating their triumphant return to marketing?
No. Although the number of catalogs sent by mail has been increasing every year since 2015 in the USA, the days when catalog production and publishing took center stage in marketing and determined all processes are over. Gartner formulated in their CMO Leadership Vision 2022 that it is the task of the CMO to find an integrative, channel-independent and hybrid approach to reach all relevant customer groups / markets with the right approach at the right time.
Print / publishing has arrived in (digital) marketing
For a long time, there were many terms or word formations to describe the difference between the two streams in marketing: Digital Marketing, Online Marketing, Offline Marketing, Traditional Marketing and many more. It's now time that we bury this distinction and look at marketing holistically, as described by Gartner.
Whether a marketing automation system decides that 5,000 postcards with personalized advertising should be sent to B2C customers, a catalog with specific prices is sent to a B2B customer based on consumption over the last 12 months in preparation for the annual meeting, or a multi-level email campaign with the latest seasonal merchandise is sent to all customers, segmented by B2B and B2C, of course: The impetus for production follows the same rules in all cases. Once we have internalized this, it becomes clear that print is not dying, but rather is developing explosively in its capabilities. This also makes higher demands on a modern print/publishing automation clear. It must not only support all the dear processes from (digital) marketing and enable the use with print, but it must also continue to support the classic requirements such as InDesign automation.
As with many forecasts, we can say that they were not completely wrong- after all, the main catalogs are slowly dying out. It is becoming increasingly difficult for large and broad catalogs to fulfill their original mission of providing information about the relevant products in the range. However, the prediction that print would die with it was based on a false assumption. Will print continue to exist in the future? That certainly depends on how we understand print. I assume that print will continue to be used in product communication, because it has too many advantages.