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Print is dead – long live print!

Print is dead – long live print!

The future of catalogues in a digital world

8/1/2018 Editor Dr. Nicolai Johannsen (guest commentator) Reading time: 3 Minutes
The OTTO catalogue is set to disappear at the end of 2018. “A dusty relic from the retail Stone Age” say some – “Inspirational and useful!” say others. So what role do catalogues play today in online retail? Are they still relevant at all? Nicolai Johannsen weighs up the case.

They were a favourite conversation topic throughout the German Federal Republic, as well as a shop window for fashion, lifestyle and zeitgeist – and with a print run in the double-digit millions there was one in almost every household: the mail-order catalogue. The 70s and 80s were their golden age, when print not only lived but flourished.

The world of marketing was correspondingly simple. Every potential customer received a catalogue. Thousands of them, in fact – the same way a gardener waters his flowers, the retailers showered their heavy catalogues across the land. Orders came in by phone or by postcard. Print worked. Print generated revenue, Print made customers happy.

But enough of flowery nostalgia and back to the present. The OTTO catalogue, famed as Germany’s biggest ‘Big Book’, will soon exit stage left. And that’s a good thing, as our customers no longer need it or use it in this form; they themselves have made it redundant. So is paper now dead and buried for ever? Obsolete, yesterday’s news? Personally I don’t believe it is. Not because of some romantic bond, but because print – when applied intelligently and with modern methods – can still fulfil a task.

Catalogue or magazine formats that deliver engaging narrative, that inspire and that entertain deserve a niche in a coveted place: the customer’s home. Alongside the countless customer contact points in the digital universe, this particular touchpoint is worth a great deal. Because it’s at home that the customer wants to take time out from the constant bombardment of digital messages, looks forward to leaning back on the sofa and enjoying a moment’s peace – which an intelligently managed brand can use to great advantage.

So how do I apply a couple of sheets of paper in a way that will still have a genuine impact in an increasingly digitalised world? It’s quite simple: I adopt a 21stcentury mindset. Rather than bury myself in print circulation figures, double-page spreads and asterisked text, I think in terms of technology. Today, smart catalogue-based marketing simply doesn’t work without tech.

More precisely, with the aid of data forecasting at OTTO we work out users’ assortment preferences, their degree of print affinity and purchase probability. Based on these indicators we then decide whether a print format is suitable for a specific customer, and if so which one. The next step involves personalised advertising media, for instance a postcard with individualised product recommendations. So instead of the ‘watering-can’ approach we apply data-driven analyses and scoring models that help us decide whether a print-based advertising medium will be used or not. As ‘gardeners’ we no longer ask ourselves whether to “water – or not?” but rather: “how long has it been since it rained, what soil do I need and what nutrients do I need to mix into the feed to help the plant grow?”

A glance at a catalogue today is therefore slightly deceptive. In purely visual terms – except the hairstyles and fashions, of course – not much has changed in the last 20 or 30 years. However, the technology in the background is decisively different, bonding the analogue and digital worlds. Is this enough for a ‘Print renaissance’? Probably not – but at the same time I’m looking forward to seeing how long Print formats can still spark our users’ enthusiasm!

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