Originally Published MDDI July 2001
With the proper planning, medical device companies can publish product catalogs in a variety of media from one master database.
Companies in various industries are beginning to heed this prediction offered by the Aberdeen Group (Boston) in a 2000 report: "A key determinant of success in the Internet economy will be the ability to digitize, manage, and distribute information in the form of an electronic catalog that meets end-users' unique and varied requirements." The report also cites industry estimates that the value of Internet-based business-to-business transactions is growing more than 200% annually—and will pass the $2 trillion mark by 2003.
From a marketing perspective, manufacturers and distributors of medical equipment are in a strong, strategic position to take advantage of e-commerce technology. These companies have decades of experience in providing customers with useful product information and taking their product orders efficiently; now medical device OEMs can take advantage of electronic technology to accomplish these same tasks.
With proper planning, a company can simultaneously—and without wasted effort—publish catalogs in the three most popular media: paper, CD-ROM, and the Internet. Serious problems can arise when a company attempts to manage and update its electronic catalogs separately from its print catalog. One basic principle of database management applies: anytime two databases are maintained for the same information, one will be wrong. By using one database to drive both print and electronic catalogs, companies eliminate the need to enter and update information twice, thereby decreasing the potential for error.
MAINTAINING AN ACCURATE DATABASE
Traditionally, the heart and soul of a company's sales department is the product catalog. Thanks to recent technology, the information in that catalog—including product descriptions, photographs, and price information—can be stored, organized, and updated in a single computer database. By using the information in that database, a company can print paper, on-line, or CD-ROM catalogs.
The first steps to a successful e-commerce venture are choosing a database strategy and then organizing the information in the database in a useful way.
Selecting a Database Strategy. All databases are not created equal; it is important for a company to design its product database thoughtfully. One that is poorly designed can be slow, hard to manage, and difficult to expand as new products are added. Poor design compromises one of the database's most important functions: quickly locating products. For example, in a Microsoft Excel database that sales teams use regularly to look up product numbers, the product-number field should be the first listed. Otherwise, finding a number will require a long search and, ultimately, it will be harder to find.
A poorly chosen database is one that is inadequate for its intended use. Using such a database is analogous to pulling a boat with a compact car when what is really needed is a sport-utility vehicle. The sport-utility vehicles of databases are Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server, which provide higher-capacity software than their more primitive counterparts.
Selecting a strategy that works with the company's existing computers and programs also is recommended; companies should avoid using vendors who provide software or service for only one platform, such as Windows NT. Firms should also make sure that the strategy is compatible with standard systems found on the Internet, particularly those of industry-portal Web sites. Such Web sites can act as gateways for a company's product information to reach other industry-specific sites.
Standardizing the Data. After selecting a database, the product information needs to be analyzed and standardized. The information needed to make up the database is typically scattered throughout a company in a variety of forms: on individual computers, in three-ring binders, in printed catalogs, and in the minds of engineers and salespeople. Three types of data analyses should be conducted:
- A Review of Existing Product Information. The company should perform an inventory of the information contained in existing databases, images, technical drawings, and pricing spreadsheets. A plan to convert that information into a standard electronic format for use in the new system should be devised. This process entails gathering the data onto either a PC or Macintosh computer—not both. For consistency, one image type, either jpeg or bitmap, should be used for all photos. Technical drawings and pricing should also be uniform.
- A Check for Missing Information. After all the existing information has been collected, the firm should check to see if any elements that would enhance the product information are missing. No detailed product descriptions, graphics, or technical specifications should be overlooked.
- An Organization of Product Lines. Once all the product information is gathered, it needs to be organized. Again, standardization is key. All employees should use the same abbreviations, names, and styles when entering data. To facilitate consistent data entry, a data specialist can help design a spreadsheet or standard form. Such consultants can also interview all employees responsible for contributing information to the database, such as product managers and marketing staff, to define product families and the features and attributes of each.
DATABASE CREATION AND MANAGEMENT TOOLS
Once the right database strategy has been established and all in-house information has been assessed, collected, and organized, the time comes for actually building the database. The following are tools necessary for the creation and management of information in the database that will be used to produce a catalog.
- The Editorial Interface. Information is entered and updated in a database using an editorial interface. This is nothing more than a computer program that permits individuals to input information in a standardized format. A typical interface appears as an electronic, fill-in-the-blank form into which employees can enter the necessary data.
- The Work-Flow Program. Because many departments and individuals en- ter product information into a single database, building a work-flow program into the system is important. This program lists the individuals responsible for checking and approving data, which project stages are mandatory, and which are optional. The program should include these two rules of content management: No product can be published in the catalog until product numbers are completed in the database, and no product can be published until it has been signed off by the CFO. A clear work-flow program ensures that the organization's approval requirements are met and that supervisors are involved in the work being performed.
Content-creation and management tools should be intuitive and easy to use. They should not be so complex that they require users to have a computer-programming background. Such tools help businesses drastically reduce costs by eliminating the need for extensive training and, ultimately, by streamlining the content management process.
PUBLISHING THE PRODUCT INFORMATION
Once the database program is in place and connected with the interface and work-flow management programs, information is ready to be entered into the database by content authors with proper supervision and approvals.
After a company has selected and implemented a database, gathered product data, and devised its authoring and data-management tools, publishing the catalog is its next step. The catalog can be published on paper, on-line, onto a CD-ROM, or all three. Each format has its own benefits to both the company and the customer, and each requires its own set of publishing tools.
Print Publishing. Despite all of the predictions about a so-called paperless office, print remains a viable communication tool. Printed catalogs are handy and are still preferred by many customers. With a print publishing program, companies can produce full-product-line or specialty catalogs from a central database, with the assurance that all product information is as accurate and up-to-date as possible.
CD-ROM Publishing. Some customers prefer viewing product information on a CD-ROM. While this type of catalog looks and operates like an Internet catalog, it typically runs faster and does not require the customer to be on-line. Distribution of CDs is also less costly than print distribution. Another benefit of CDs to customers is that a CD can be accessed when logging onto the Internet is not possible. For example, if a company's sales force works on the plant floor, it may not have Internet access. In this case, accessing a CD-ROM catalog is the more practical option.
Web Publishing. Web-publishing software is used to create a Web-based electronic catalog. An on-line catalog requires dynamic search capabilities and data presentation to meet the needs of all users. Different users—technical staff, salespeople, prospective customers, and channel partners—request various types of information, and they often prefer to access it in different ways. Design engineers, for example, may need to search specific product features, e.g., "waterproof" or "less than 10 lb." Sales representatives, on the other hand, may want to look for items by price. Each user must be able to find products easily, as well as view all of the supporting information, so he or she can buy or recommend the appropriate products.
Both IBM and Microsoft provide standard electronic-catalog packages that contain all the software needed to create an electronic catalog, including database programs, editorial interfaces, and Web-publishing software. IBM's WebSphere Commerce Suite allows a company to select only the features it needs. The software can accommodate dozens to thousands of products. Microsoft Commerce 2000 is another example of a complete electronic-catalog package.
The appearance of the information can vary depending on a company's needs. Some software provides modifiable Internet templates for the display of on-line database contents. Or, a firm may choose to build its on-line catalog pages from scratch. In general, the more features the electronic-catalog software includes, the greater the cost to the company.
INTEGRATING 3-D MODELS INTO ON-LINE CATALOGS
One Company's Innovation
By using a new version of CAD-modeling software developed by SolidWorks Corp. (Concord, MA), companies can integrate 3-D product models into their on-line catalogs. Once integrated, the PartStream.NET software makes it possible for customers to view, configure, translate, and download 3-D images of a product. Users of the program can upload designs from various CAD applications, add new product configurations, and analyze customer visits to their on-line catalogs.
Alden Products (Brockton, MA), a manufacturer of components for heart defibrillators, uses the SolidWorks software in combination with i-Mark's Web-based catalog technology to maintain an electronic catalog. Defibrillator manufacturers searching for components in Alden's catalog, for example, can configure 3-D solid models of Alden connectors and visualize how the connectors will fit into their own designs. Alden president Jeff Greer hopes SolidWork's second version of the software, which performs faster than the original, will lend his company a competitive advantage. "The new-batch-upload and parameter-constraint features will help us easily add new product configurations and quickly upload multiple CAD parts so we aren't limited to uploading one product design at a time," he says.
More information about SolidWorks' 3-D PartStream.NET 2.0 is available at the company's Web site, http://www.solidworks.com .
DIRECTING INTERNET TRAFFIC TO AN ON-LINE CATALOG
For a company that chooses to display its electronic catalog on an existing Web site, gaining public exposure to the catalog is crucial. The following are proven methods for improving traffic to a Web site:
- Registering the Site with Search Engines. Well-respected, popular engines like Altavista, Google, and Yahoo provide primary access to the World Wide Web.
- Registering the Site with Leading Industry Portals. Portals are industry-specific sites that provide serious customers with a convenient clearinghouse of product information.
- Including a URL on All Business Correspondence. A firm's print catalogs, business cards, advertisements, and news releases should each list its Web address.
- On-line Advertising. Incorporating Internet advertising into its marketing strategy can increase a company's on-line catalog exposure.
INTERACTING WITH CUSTOMERS
There are myriad ways to interact with customers. The most basic way for a company to communicate with customers visiting its Internet catalog is by inviting them to e-mail the customer service department.
A more sophisticated system permits customers to place on-line orders. Each transaction is connected with an existing inventory system, which notifies the customers of whether or not the item is in stock. Final orders are approved and processed in the existing order-entry system.
A fully integrated system such as this one provides a company with up-to-the-minute sales and inventory information. Customers' shipping, billing, and purchasing information is collected automatically. All of this information is valuable in measuring the success of sales and marketing programs, and gives management the tools needed to make decisions about the direction of future marketing plans.
Creating an all-inclusive product database is the key to publishing catalogs in a variety of media. The most sophisticated of these, the electronic catalog included in a company Web site, offers customer interaction and product exposure. Successful publishing of such a catalog is reliant upon the company's strategically compiling data, standardizing it, entering it into an editorial interface, and following an outlined work-flow program.
To more quickly and effectively accomplish these goals, some firms hire an e-commerce consultant. Small firms, for example, may lack the technical staff needed for the job. With or without the assistance of a consultant, however, medical device manufacturers and distributors wishing to remain competitive should produce catalogs that offer customers plenty of information, purchasing options, and interaction with the company.
The following are examples of user-friendly electronic catalogs.
Copyright ©2001 Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry