ecommerce shop with a picture  and description of a couch for sale
PHOTO: Igor Miske

One of the biggest problems in ecommerce is among the easiest to ignore. It is so obvious that most companies haven’t bothered (or managed) to solve it. That problem is product information management, also known as PIM.

This term emerged around 2003, as ecommerce was going mainstream. Until then, businesses were used to physical shelves and catalogs, which were finite and didn’t change too often. The products and their information were manageable.

Ecommerce stores, however, had unlimited space to publish merchandise on the internet. They didn’t even need to take physical possession of goods to sell them. But online retailers needed to publish the right information about merchandise, otherwise how would it sell? Spreadsheets weren’t up to the task, so early PIM vendors capitalized on the problem — with software that only massive enterprises could afford.

Now, PIM is becoming an every-company problem. As midsize businesses grow online sales, they discover the limitations of managing tens of thousands of SKUs on spreadsheets.

Seventeen years on and PIMming ain’t easy. That’s why I’m writing a five-part series about it. Bad PIMming can weaken sales, slow product launches, and disappoint customers who might smite you with the never-ending curse of bad reviews.

First, let’s get into the heads of buyers who interact with product information online. And based on that understanding, we’ll sketch out the challenges of modern PIM that are worth addressing throughout this series.

What We Learn About Products Online

We've established that the transition from physical stores to online commerce spurred the field of PIM. It did so in more ways than one.

In stores, shoppers interact with goods, or at the very least with their packaging. If you visit a clothing store and try on a T-shirt, you learn enough about the fit, appearance and feeling of the material to make a purchase decision. Worst case scenario, maybe it shrinks after being washed (so disappointing ...).

If you were to buy that T-shirt online, though, you’d have to base your decision on product information, like the size, cut and your prior experience with the brand. You’d look at images of the shirt and how it appears on models. You might read a copywriter’s description of who and what the shirt is for. You might compare the price of that shirt to dozens more like it sold by other brands. And most likely, you’d read customer reviews. Did it fit them as expected? Did it shrink in the wash?

That’s why product information is so important when browsing the internet’s infinite aisles. A T-shirt is a simple and inexpensive item, but goods like power tools, bicycles and electronics are often the opposite. And for B2B products like manufacturing machinery and parts, the buyer needs significantly more documentation. The more complex the product is, the more that product information will influence the purchase.

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Products Have Become Information

When people shop goods virtually, we have to rethink what a product is at the moment of purchase. Jorij Abraham, an ecommerce consultant who authored a textbook about PIM, said it best: “products are becoming information.”

In a literal sense, online products are bytes of data. Sometimes, they exist online before they’re even produced, now that shoppers can digitally customize tons of items.  

Online, products are whatever shoppers can read, see and hear about them. The product is images, videos, text and specs.

No wonder “unboxing” videos have become so popular! In general, we might feel overloaded with information — but not when we're buying complex goods virtually. In that case, we often wish we had more information (so much so that people will watch a mediocre YouTube video to get it).

Related Article: Get Off the Ecommerce Sidelines

The Challenges in Modern PIM

When retail went online, two things changed. First, websites began to offer more goods than they could ever offer in stores or catalogs. Managing the high volume of product information became a challenge. Second, online shoppers had to interact with those products in ways they had never done before. Products became information.  

Behind the scenes, these two changes have created major challenges for marketers:

The Telephone Game

B2B software has become highly specialized over the past 17 years, and so have people’s careers. Engineers and designers use their own software. Product teams use their own platforms. Marketers use stacks that combine at least a dozen of the 7,000 plus martech solutions out on the market. Most of these solutions are one-trick ponies.

Marketers and their vendors have learned to integrate martech systems. But they’ve largely excluded the systems that feed them accurate information about products.

The result has been like the childhood game of telephone, where a message can’t be whispered from person to person without being completely muddled by the end. The quest for a “single source of truth” about product information needs to be rethought in light of the way that product information workflows are expanding across multiple departments.

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The Drill or the Hole

A popular marketing cliché, credited to Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt, says that, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

PIM is challenging us to rethink that. When marketers translate from objective product information (e.g., the drill bit size) to subjective marketing content (e.g., images of happy drill owners with quarter-inch holes) shoppers have to trust it. But why should they?

Online, you can sell quarter-inch holes, but you better believe that shoppers will do their due diligence. Expectations tend to get set too high online, and too many people have been burned. 

The Structure of Information

The telephone game addresses the issue of how to manage high volumes of information. The drill versus hole topic challenges us to rethink how online shoppers make decisions.

So next, we have to tie them together: how do you structure information such that it is scalable and useful to buyers?

Ultimately, brands must decide which attributes matter for a category of products. Some things, like size and color, are obvious. But when you consider issues like geography and market variance, it gets more complicated. And when you consider how a product manager or marketer is going to search, browse, and filter hundreds of thousands of products based on their metadata, it gets even messier.

Related Article: How Information Architecture Improves Customer Experience

No More Ignoring PIM

The purpose of this series is to help companies improve how they manage data and content about products. There is an opportunity to streamline product launches, build more trust with buyers, and create marketing experiences that are empathetic to the unknowns of buying online.

PIMming ain’t easy, but the cost of ignoring this 17-year-old problem is too high. Let’s do something about it.