Today, the difference in customer experience between print and online catalogs is becoming larger. Before we address print, what does the digital catalog landscape look like?

  • Online catalogs can update, correct, add, delete, and edit, in any way, all of the products.
  • If a customer has questions or needs help in any way, they have more venues to receive feedback in a timely manner, because they are already using the medium, the internet. They can contact customer service, use on-site search, do live chats with customer service, #tweet for help, broadcast their favorite products online, get their sister’s opinion on Facebook, etc.
  • A personalized experience may exist for the customer on the site, thanks to filtering, accounts, or custom options. This collective data is dynamic, it can change with your customer and they can control it as well.
  • Today, a consumer can look at an online catalog on any number of devices in any area they’d like. Before, they might have just been limited to a desktop computer at a desk in their office. That experience may not have been as mobile as a printed catalog, but now mobility is no longer an issue with smartphones and tablets.
  • Reading is a passive act, because no matter what the reader wants, they cannot change the printed text and images. But online, the user has choices and can direct their experience. This control makes your consumer feel engaged and empowered.
We know the printed catalog is great at customer acquisition, conversion, and retention. It’s proven, it’s still important, and we can still improve it. I’ve worked in all areas in print and digital catalogs – developer, designer, information architect, editor, marketer, art direction for photography, etc. From my perspective, I believe that there isn’t a magical formula for a successful catalog, but through testing, and some patience, I believe you can embrace your printed catalog more than ever, and treat each channel as being complements to each other. Let’s look at some examples…

Google Catlogs

#1 Mentality Growth

Let’s address the culture first – it might be time to change the way you think about the printed catalogs and other printed material. It depends on your business, but think of it as the teaser, not the catalog. You don’t have to fill it packed with information because all that dynamic data is now online. The goal here is to get them online to close the deal, right? Now, it’s about the whole package, capture and drive them online.


#2 Print is Tangible, Use That

Try putting things in print you can’t easily convey online, like texture, or size. Free People has beautiful catalogs, with amazing fashion photography, and are requested from loyal customers even though they can see the same garments online. The printed piece adds to their brand and to the customer’s experience, heightening their senses. Print excels in its tangible quality, use that for products that need to be exhibited the most. Think rattan, cashmere, rugs, gems, car interiors, food, or perfume-scented paper. A cat litter company even scented their direct mail with catnip, so the cat could get the owner’s attention.

 Ikea popup brochure mailer

#3 Don’t Get Thrown in the Trash

Be easily memorable and eye-catching. I see a lot of copying in format and layout nowadays. If the customer hated company A, and your catalog looks like theirs, then you go in the trash with your competitor. Test different covers, front and back, and see what your consumers are drawn to the most – it’s an affordable test you can’t miss trying. “You can either fit in or stand out. Not both.” – Seth Godin.

Land of Nod sale cover

#4 Test Promotions

Give various lists different promotions and test. The promotion may be the bridge to get them online.

Wedding Paper Divas wedding invitation catalog

#5 Personalization

If it fits, try mailers with your personalized products displaying the customer’s name on them, to display how the name would look on the product. If they buy a lot of widgets from you, any further printed material should have widgets in them. Adjust to their shopping habits if you can. The guide above can use the customer’s data to fill in all the event details – just remember, you have to garner that data first!

Ballard Designs swatch custom options direct mail

#6 Illusion of Control

Give the illusion of choice and control where possible. Display all personalization choices and how they can be used in a few examples. It’ll peak their interest to search on your site, “what else can I do?” or “they don’t have my style in the catalog but maybe they do online?”

Mens catalog with catalog spread with belts

#7 Secure Credibility

Since you can’t update product information after it’s printed, you have to double check everything. Make sure all characteristics of the products are accurate and have an editor proofread. And it seems obvious, but check that the product photography is accurately printed vs. online vs. in person. I can’t count how many times I found out the product was a different color, or that the sample merchandising acquired to shoot with was different than what actually shipped from the manufacturer. Have your designers check all the products and make necessary color corrections. Printed catalogs offer credibility, but that is easily crushed if there are inconsistencies between the print and digital information of the product.

Scrapbook company uses timeless cover that is still branded

#8 Timing is Everything

Plan ahead – if you only send one catalog a year, then make it more timeless to your brand so that it doesn’t have to match with your updates online. But if you’re like Victoria’s Secret, then you have to send out catalogs with each season, each sale, and it always matches the promotions online with the store experience in person. Choose what is best for your company, just make sure your catalog isn’t dated before it even gets to the mailbox.

Trendy catalog cover qr social media

#9 Don’t Get Too Trendy

People expect you to be on every social media outlet, so you don’t have to waste precious space by displaying all your social media accounts very large across several pages. They know what the tiny icons are, that’s all you need. It will help if you tell them why they should connect to you, as well. Also, when I tested QR codes, out of hundreds of thousands of people, no one used them (actually, around 0.01% did). If it doesn’t work, get rid of it, you need that space! Or change strategies – maybe the QR code should call customer service for them or bookmark the site in their phone. Point being, don’t jump on every trend without testing it out for yourself.

Sears hardware and tool segment catalog

#10 Segments

Try smaller teaser catalogs and send to segments, instead of one large product catalog to many people. It may be more effective in the long run. May even strengthen the feeling of a personalized experience. Sears sent smaller pieces for each of their categories and had great success.

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