Which one to use for e-commerce catalogs?

Removing friction from the online shopping experience should be the primary goal of your e-commerce presence

PHOTO: negative space


E-commerce is more difficult to execute than initially expected.

Companies – both B2B and B2C – are almost unanimous in this conclusion after a few years in the e-commerce space. And for those who haven’t started yet, the window of opportunity is narrowing as e-commerce leaders continue to grow exponentially.

Definition of WCM and PIM

One of the biggest challenges is deciding which application or applications to leverage when developing an e-commerce product catalog: a content management system (CMS), a products (PIM) or a combination of both.

Let’s start with some definitions. No single definition exists for either and therefore there is some ambiguity and overlap between the two as well as with master data management (MDM) and product lifecycle management ( PLM) which we won’t cover here.

With this in mind, every organization taking on this challenge must allocate ample time to consider the intricacies involved, as a well-structured product catalog is a key fundamental to any successful e-commerce implementation.

  • Content Management System (CMS): Software application or set of related programs used to create and manage digital content. CMS are typically used for enterprise content management (ECM) and web content management (WCM). An ECM facilitates collaboration by integrating document management, digital asset management, and records retention capabilities, and provides end users with role-based access to the organization’s digital assets. A WCM facilitates the collaborative creation of websites. ECM software often includes WCM publishing functionality, but ECM web pages typically remain behind the organization’s firewall. We will focus here on the WCM
  • Product Information Management (PIM): Manages the information needed to market and sell products through distribution channels. A central set of product data can be used to provide information to media such as websites, print catalogs, ERP systems and electronic data feeds to trading partners.

Soon after the emergence of the World Wide Web (WWW) as a commercial medium in the mid-1990s, people were captivated by the idea that content could drive online commerce. Unlike a distribution center or store, the ability to offer relatively unlimited product information online, especially as data storage costs have fallen, has allowed customers to better learn about products, substitutes and supplements.

At this point, regular use of WCM to develop websites was a few years away. As the sophistication of website development increased, so did the use of WCM.

WCM vs. PIM: WWhat should you use for your e-commerce catalog?

With the exception of some pure play e-commerce merchants, businesses have generally developed their websites before establishing an e-commerce presence. WCMs have therefore become the de facto standard for businesses to more effectively manage the corporate website development process.

The complexity of corporate websites stemmed from the scope of the business, its various divisions, the lack of integration that previously existed between the business and the divisions, and so on. Typically, corporate marketing was responsible for a corporate website, so the site served more as a marketing collateral.

In these cases, the WCM was the best tool to present product information. It served to educate prospects and customers via product overviews, including the value proposition, rather than detailed specifications.

But when the expected outcome is a purchase as opposed to just an education, it involves a different process and therefore requires a different approach, especially in B2B.

Let’s revisit the purchase decision process to highlight this. In the case of consulting a corporate website, most customers are in the early stages of the buying process: recognizing the need and seeking information. Although there is no way to determine where customers fall on this continuum, since the primary goal is to become familiar with the product(s) they are interested in, it is safe to assume that this is earlier in the process.

However, when someone is looking to buy, they are more likely to be in the middle or later stages – finding information, evaluating alternatives and making a purchase decision – because the expected outcome, buying vs learning, is different. . To make this buying decision online, customers need to find the product information needed to make the most solid purchase decision possible.

If the remaining questions require engaging someone or something else in the middle of the purchase, this creates “friction,” which hampers the buying process. With the marginal cost of publishing product information close to zero once enabled, the easiest solution is to publish as much product information, in the most organized way possible – and that takes more than the WCM.

Create a solid foundation with your e-commerce catalog

Many efforts have been made over the past few years to integrate WCM into e-commerce applications. But to deliver a truly robust e-commerce product catalog, you’ll need some form of PIM, whether third-party or in-house developed, to deliver rich product details to customers.

This is the main function of a PIM. WCMs are simply not the best suited for this, although some WCM software vendors suggest the two are comparable.

That’s not to say WCMs and PIMs can’t co-exist – they should. Both contain different types of product information, each playing a role in educating customers about a product’s value proposition and PIM providing more detailed product information.

The most effective course for businesses is to carefully design the product information that should be displayed – in search results, when browsing, on product pages, etc. – and identify where that product content is, then determine the best way to get it to populate that page.

This will likely require re-architecting these systems, including but not limited to WCM, PIM, MDM, and PLM. But establishing a solid foundation for the e-commerce product catalog is worth the effort, as it provides the relevant product information that customers need to make the best purchasing decision possible.

Bill Davis helped start the e-commerce revolution in 1994 as the first employee of NetMarket and has since focused on multi/omnichannel selling in a variety of roles. Bill is currently a Senior Consultant and Global Lead Trainer, Digital Maturity Model (DMM) at TM Forum.