the word "ouch" written on a wall
PHOTO: Nick Fewings

Many B2B technology marketers dub their platform a “single source of truth.” It’s a bit grandiose, isn’t it? You can almost imagine these marketers in a grey stone temple, wearing black hooded robes, chanting in deep tones, carrying lit candles down a corridor to the sanctum where lyeth The Single Source of Truth.

Care for a chalice of punch?

Jokes aside, many of the more than 7,000 martech platforms available today profess to be a “single source of truth” (SSOT) for one thing or another. This harmless jargon points to a painful problem: Why should marketers trust the information in their own systems?

In the introduction to this five-part series on product information management (PIM), I argued that one reason why PIMming ain’t easy is the absence of a SSOT. The rise of ecommerce in the 2000s turned products into information. Marketers now find themselves managing technical specs and content for thousands of complex products, which have to be packaged and presented differently for each ecommerce channel.

At companies where product information is stored in multiple places — including platforms for enterprise resource planning (ERP), product lifecycle management (PLM) and an unholy number of spreadsheets — there is no SSOT. Marketers often copy-paste or re-enter data from one system to another. This process is slow, tedious and prone to untraceable errors.

This PIM workflow resembles the childhood game of telephone. One kid comes up with a secret message, whispers it to the kid next to her, and it travels around the circle via whispers. By the time it travels full circle, the message has changed dramatically. The kid who came up with the secret message is the single source of truth. No one else can verify the original message.      

What Makes a PIM a Single Source of Truth for Product Information?

What’s the solution to this problem? Combining PIM with systems for digital asset management (DAM) and ecommerce syndication is part of the answer. It solves the problem of copy-pasting across systems, but it doesn't address the core concern: Why should you trust the information you’re syncing from one platform to the others?

To be a single source of truth for product information, a PIM solution needs several attributes:

1. Data Is Edited in One Place Only

Engineers and product teams use ERP and PLM systems for storing specs, renderings and other technical data. Those are appropriate places to edit product information. But once the PIM system ingests data from these sources, it needs to be locked and unalterable.

Imagine that your marketing team receives a spreadsheet containing technical specs on 500 hand tools. How do you protect the integrity of that data if everyone on your team needs to copy-paste product info into word processors, graphic design tools, photo editing applications and other solutions they’ll use to create content? Now, add your international marketing colleagues to the picture. It has become a telephone game where the secret message is sent down the hallway to be translated in French and Spanish class.

For PIM, a single source of truth must be protected against accidental changes. There has to be one platform where the data is guaranteed to be up to date. Of course, engineers should have the ability to correct specs and send updated data to the PIM, but no one in marketing should be able to change product information around dimensions, sizes, certifications, weight ratings and other issues that ultimately affect customer experience and safety.

Related Article: We Need to Get Our PIM Houses in Order

2. The Data Is Structured

Product information needs to be organized such that human beings and machines can search the data and understand it. This is crucial for several reasons.

First, one product listing can have dozens of data fields, and marketers might have to navigate thousands of listings. If a marketer responsible for Europe needs to filter to the products that will be available in Europe, that should be easy to do.

Second, a machine also needs to be capable of recognizing those data fields. This is crucial because you might export this data to another system, like an ecommerce syndication platform, which will attempt to match your product information to the data fields required by Amazon, Walmart, Rakuten and other marketplaces. If the machine can’t interpret your data, there’s a good chance buyers will see inaccurate product information.

Related Article: Looking for Structure in the Dollar Menu

3. Disparate Types of Information Can Be Assembled Together

Objective technical data is inseparable from the subjective content about it (a theme we’ll continue  in the next article). In the most basic terms, the product you depict in the photos has to be identical to the product the customer receives in the mail. How do you ensure that is the case?

One common approach is to group product specs, diagrams, photos, videos, etc. in a cloud-based folder. This has a drawback: no two ecommerce platforms ask for the same information in the same form. Potentially, you’d have to create a slightly different folder for each marketplace. Then, if you update or change the product, you’d have to change each folder individually. That’s quite a telephone game.

Therefore, a SSOT for product information management should aggregate all the specs, copy, instructions, diagrams, photos, videos, etc. needed to sell anywhere on the web. I would argue that requires a tight connection between PIM and DAM systems. The SSOT has to maintain one master listing for each and every product. The tailored listing for each marketplace should be derived from the master listing one a single-use basis. To maintain listings separately only raises the odds of bad information circulating.  

Related Article: Why Digital Asset Management Is Now Officially Martech

Trusting Your Product Information

“Single source of truth” is a slightly grandiose way of describing a technology that preserves the integrity of information even when it passes through many hands. For companies that sell a few products in a few places, that’s not much of a challenge. But for growing brands that offer thousands of products in different sizes, styles, colors and dimensions, the SSOT is not just convenient. It’s essential to marketing and ultimately delivering the product you’ve promised to send.