Electronic Catalogs - Almost Mainstream

The Woodlands, Texas -  July 1, 1996 - Plan carefully. The computer adds complexities that can explode a budget in no time.

CD-ROM catalogs, diskette-based presentations, and the Internet are now legitimate alternatives to traditional media. But plan carefully. The computer adds a level of complexity that can explode a budget in no time. To reduce your risk, use this systematic approach to developing multimedia projects.

Survey your customers: Find out what kind of interactive sales tools would be most helpful to them. The study can be as simple as a two-page questionnaire supplemented by phone interviews to a subset of your group.

Conduct a sales tools inventory: Examine your raw materials-printed sales literature, videotapes, published technical papers, etc. This inventory will establish how much information is out-of-date and how much new content needs to be created.

Look at the distribution vehicles available: Will a CD-ROM be most appropriate to replace your printed catalog? Or will an interactive diskette-based brochure best communicate features of your new products? Will only a Web presence on the Internet separate your company from its competitors? Most important, which option best fits your customers' needs yet allows you to stay within budget? Should you design and implement in-house or use an outside vendor? Each choice has advantages and disadvantages.

Stuart Steel Case History

Here's how Stuart Steel Protection Corp., distributor of industrial pipe coating products, successfully launched its first new media project.

Believing that an electronic catalog would help differentiate Stuart's products from its competitors, Gordon Stuart, president of the company, turned to his vendors first. Several liked the idea enough that they subsidized development of the program with coop funds, helping to establish a budget of $15,000 to complete the job.

Central to Stuart's sales tools is its large three-ring binder that holds product data sheets and technical brochures. It's about two inches thick, and although it includes pages provided by vendors, it costs close to $50 to assemble and distribute each printed catalog.

At the other end of the spectrum, Stuart's "line card," a one-page sales piece, carries all the companies Stuart Steel represents on one side and a list of all their products on the other.

The company needed a sales tool that could impart more information than the line card at a fraction of the cost of the large catalog.

Choosing the distribution vehicle wasn't simple. If everything in the printed catalog were entered in an electronic format, only CD-ROM could hold it all. However, a customer survey showed that only 30% of Stuart's target market had access to CD-ROMs. And CD-ROM's heavy production costs and inability to change once it's pressed also weighed in against it. The Internet, although it holds promise, was too immature for the industry.

That left the 3.5 diskette as the logical choice. Yet, even a high-density disk holds only so much data, so Mr. Stuart arrived at the "line card on a disk" solution. Midway between line card and catalog, it carries summary specs on all products listed in the large catalog.

Features include graphical interface that allows users to point and click on a section of an industrial pipeline for product details, hot link search tools, a glossary of industry terms, a list of technical reference tables, and a form that allows customers to request a sample or fill out an order.

One year later, Michael Ferrebee, sales manager of Stuart Steel, says feedback from the smaller constructions firms and consulting engineers that use the diskette has been positive. If there's a problem, it's that many of the large companies Stuart deals with are still on the mainframe and don't want diskette information on the network. Mr. Ferrebee believes it will be two years before Stuart's customers are off the mainframe. "In the meantime, the small guys are setting the pace," he says. Stuart's sales force uses the diskette extensively, leaving it behind on sales calls instead of the bulky catalog. They also use it as a slide show for presentations.

Because of product changes, Stuart has upgraded the program twice since its inception. It took nine months to get the program up and running and four months to do the upgrades. Stuart scanned in pictures, and epic Software created graphics. Stuart scanned in black-and-white illustrations, and epic added color, animation, and sound.

Mr. Ferrebee sees a future for the diskette as a help-desk reference tool or for customer service. At the most recent upgrade, Stuart added charts, wire sizes, and definitions to line card on a disk. Next, he'd like to show how to use the products - perhaps include a video of how to change a valve.

Is the Internet next for Stuart Steel? It's a logical progression and a fairly simple process at this point, but not until more of its customers are on PCs.