A fundamental and crucial starting point of the entire digital and omnichannel commerce experience is the management of product and customer data—even more so in B2B commerce than in retail, since B2B typically involves far more complicated products and orders. Moreover, the rapid growth in B2B online purchasing coincides with rising demand among B2B buyers for an “Amazon-like” online buying experience, where they can quickly and easily find and purchase what they need.
A common point often raised during B2B ecommerce conferences and discussion groups is the importance of meticulously organizing and distributing accurate and up-to-date product data in a way that will engage buyers and convert them into loyal customers through a seller’s own ecommerce site (or sites) and through third-party marketplaces. Without such a data-management system to start, it is difficult if not impossible to operate a digital commerce platform and strategy across several technology applications and multiple marketing and sales channels.
Common advice from industry experts is: Before deploying a new or upgrading an existing ecommerce platform, especially one with an ambitious multichannel marketing and sales strategy, get your data management system right. Data management is crucial to deploying effective marketing, merchandising and customer service strategies across multiple company departments and for diverse customer segments and markets.
And nowadays, many B2B buyers expect more than basic product descriptions. They often also want access to a broad selection of product information, ranging from accurate product details and three dimensional (3D), spinning images, to safety data sheets, operating manuals, and how-to videos.
Managing such collections of product data and assets is far more effective with product information management (PIM) applications for managing and distributing accurate product data, including spec sheets and diagrams, and data asset management (DAM) applications for images and rich media.
Online sellers typically work with their PIM and DAM vendors, as well as third-party consultants and systems integrators, to integrate PIM and DAM applications with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and their sales channels, including their own ecommerce platform and third-party marketplaces. PIM and DAM vendors and their integration partner firms often provide applications designed to accelerate integrations with ecommerce platforms and marketplaces. Akeneo and its integration technology partners, for example, make available such tools for integrating with marketplaces including Amazon and eBay and with ecommerce platforms including Adobe Magento, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and Shopify. InRiver and other PIM vendors provide similar integration services.
For selling on marketplaces, where an online seller will reach a much higher volume of traffic than on their own website, PIM technology plays a key role in ensuring the visitors to these marketplaces see the seller’s accurate product information. A PIM application can also help product managers to organize product assortments most suitable to each marketplace channel.
B2B “customers want more video, product spins, and relevant product content to build confidence in their purchasing decisions,” Forrester Research analysts Amanda LeClair and Nick Barber write in the report, PIM and DAM Are the Power Couple for Your Content Strategy. “For product marketers, more rich media means more ways to stand out on the digital shelf and even boost search rankings.”
It is also important, however, to deploy integrated PIM and DAM systems—either as integrated suites from the same vendor or through API integrations. In addition, the integration should extend to other business software, including ERP, web content management, customer relationship management (CRM), order management, and marketing systems—to maintain accurate, consistent, and relevant information important to both customer and seller. Large enterprises often deploy a master data management system, or MDM, for the overall control of data within PIM, DAM, and other applications.
Maintaining overall accurate data on products and customer activity is crucial to operate effectively across operations, including order management, customer service and marketing.
Deciding whether to deploy PIM and DAM applications depends on each company’s product lines and related content. Industry analysts and ecommerce practitioners say PIM is crucial for effectively managing accurate, up-to-date, and consistent product descriptions and details—ranging from attributes like size and color to materials and the latest product features—across a seller’s multiple departments, including merchandising, marketing, and customer service, and selling channels, including ecommerce sites, mobile apps, online marketplaces, and physical stores. Some companies may opt to use a basic PIM that may come with their ERP system but decide to deploy a dedicated PIM like inRiver or Akeneo with more functionality for managing large volumes of product information across multiple channels.
Some companies may decide to deploy a PIM without a complementary DAM for digital assets management. A DAM becomes more crucial when a company has a large volume of product images, videos, and other digital assets they need to manage and distribute along with product information.
“Many organizations (online sellers) manage product attributes in separate tools: one for product imagery and copy and another for rich media assets. Add in content from partners, and it is tough to find, harmonize, and enrich your product content without a lot of manual effort and headaches,” Forrester says, adding: “This is not just about technology. It is about breaking down silos between creatives and techies to put compelling content front-and-center for B2B and B2C shoppers. PIM users can turn to digital asset management (DAM) to win the digital shelf, and DAM users can accelerate the shift to omnichannel with PIM.”
Many vendors of PIM, DAM and other technology applications provide applications geared specifically to B2B, usually grouped for manufacturers and distributors; many also have applications designed for retailers. PIM and DAM systems designed for manufacturers and distributors tend to cover a broader range of product attributes and details common in products like complex machinery and equipment.
Leading providers of PIM, DAM and MDM systems may focus to some degree on vertical industries, such as maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) products. But it is worth noting what major suppliers in such industries have deployed.
W.W. Grainger Inc., a major distributor of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) products, for example, has worked with PIM and MDM providers Stibo Systems and Codifyd; MSC Industrial Supply Co., also a major MRO distributor, has deployed the PIM application from Agility PIM. Other major PIM and DAM vendors with B2B client activity and industry recognition include Salsify, inRiver and Akeneo.
A subset of PIM and DAM typically provided by PIM and DAM vendors is product data syndication for extending their PIM and DAM content through multiple channels, including merchant ecommerce sites, marketplaces, social media. Providers of PIM and DAM technology applications. PIM and DAM fees are based mostly on the number of SKUs covered for a client, though the level of fees will also depend on the number of channels to which data is distributed.
These and other PIM technology vendors can pull product data from suppliers and other sources related to customer demand to help companies distribute the most effective product information and merchandising displays through multiple selling channels, including manufacturers’ distributors, resellers, and retailers; social media sites; search marketing ads; and mobile apps.
These vendors have been adding more web analytics to the mix to help companies present the most effective collection of product content to engage customers and increase conversion rates and sales. InRiver, for example, received $32 million in funding in late 2020 and in January 2021 acquired product information technology firm Detail Online for its AI-powered software. With Detail Online, inRiver can now compile and analyze brands’ product information across multiple online selling channels to determine how companies can display a mix of content “to bring to life compelling product stories for highly customized products, obtain actionable guidance on what influences buying decisions, and adapt quickly” to modify content in a way that results in a sale.
PIM vendor Akeneo in 2019 raised $46 million, which it is using to continue developing its web-crawling, AI and machine learning technology, which is designed to constantly gather from the internet new information on millions of products—including where they are most often sold, and how they are packaged with other related products—to help sellers better understand how to describe, display and distribute product content through multiple channels to generate the most sales.
Other third-party data providers like Productsup, Integrate.com, B2BInternational and Vesta Ecommerce also help companies keep product listings updated with product details across channels. (Editor’s note: B2B International is a unit of international marketing firm Merkle Inc., which describes itself as a “technology-enabled, data-driven customer experience management company.” Vesta was acquired on June 23, 2021, by Ultra Commerce, an ecommerce platform provider for B2B and B2C.)
These providers of data management and syndication services compile information from two general sources, one internal to a client company’s operations, the other external to its operations. The internal sources include the client company’s ERP and PIM systems, which consistently update product information from product suppliers and from the company’s own product managers. The external data include public information gathered from throughout the web on public-facing (not password-restricted) B2B ecommerce sites and marketplaces. InRiver, for example, compiles information on how multiple sellers are presenting product content and how buyers respond to those presentations. This process is intended to help online sellers use the best mix of product content to increase conversion rates and sales.
External data can also include buyer-intent data, such as from software providers like Bombora and Sixth Sense, which use web analytics to reveal potential customers who have revealed through their internet activity an intention to purchase a particular type of product. These data sources do not identify individual buyers. Instead, they identify the buyers’ companies by their corporate email addresses; sellers using this information then approach the departments in those companies that would use their products.
Another source of product information is product reviews by customers and industry “influencers” whose reviews may appear on a B2B seller’s website as well as throughout social media. B2B companies may encourage their customers to post reviews, and firms like Bazaarvoice and G2.com Inc. help manage such content.
Royal Brass & Hose, a distributor of industrial hoses, fasteners and related parts for hydraulic and pneumatic equipment offers an example of how an effective PIM deployment helps a B2B company better manage its inventory information and serve its customers.
Royal uses a PIM system from inRiver that Royal’s executives say gives it the ability to manage information on products, along with their many variables, and ensure that product data is accurate, up-to-date, and consistent across marketing and sales channels, including third-party marketplaces. For an industrial hose, for example, the PIM system enables Royal’s website to link it to all compatible items including spring guards, hose fittings and crimpers, which are accessories used in protecting, connecting, and shaping hoses that client manufacturers install as part of large equipment and machinery. Royal says it is also vital to have its PIM system manage consistent data for all of Royal’s product suppliers.
In the past, problems with maintaining product data resulted in a poor customer experience. Royal’s customers and sales reps would use both printed product catalogs and its website to view product information, but with inconsistent data. “There were discrepancies with the product data; it was not consistent at all,” ecommerce manager Misti White says, adding: “It’s critical to have a PIM to push product to our sales channels and customer service reps.”