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    The Future of PIM Beyond 2021

    November 11, 2021
    11 minute read
    The Future of PIM Beyond 2021

    The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Forrester, Ventana Research, or IDC. 

    "The Forrester Wave™: Product Information Management, Q2 2021” report, authored by Forrester Senior Analyst Amanda LeClair, says this:

    “Salsify is a visionary and fast mover in the PIM space and commerce ...

    Salsify’s vision challenges many accepted truths in the traditional PIM world ...”

    The product information management (PIM) category is at a pivot point. The leaders have changed several times in the last 10 years as the evaluation criteria for PIM has been rewritten by analyst firms and buyers, reflecting that a new and volatile market has been emerging.

    In this post, I want to talk about what has happened over the last decade, and what I believe will happen next.

    The Innovator's Dilemma and Disruption Theory

    The way disruption works, according to “The Innovator's Dilemma” by the immortal Clayton Christensen, is this:

    1. A new product comes on the market that’s objectively worse than incumbents at all the things that incumbents care about. 

    2. It's usually cheaper, and often has a new feature that matters only to some niche in the market that the incumbents are more or less happy to give away anyway as it's seen as low value.

    When the Underdog Disrupts and Dominates the Market 

    When 3.5" disk drives came out, they were slower and had less storage and were more expensive per megabyte of storage than the then-current 5.25" standard disks. Their main advantage was that they were simply more compact and durable. And yet, over time, the 3.5" drives dominated the market.

    Salsify's PIM has followed this path. It was viewed — correctly, at the time — as an inferior PIM. When measured against the criteria that other PIMs were measured against nearly 10 years ago, that was an entirely fair view. 

    But with this year’s set of analyst reports on the PIM space, it seems that the criteria for being a leader has changed, and the recognized set of leaders has shifted, including Salsify now being named as a leader across all three reports: Forrester, IDC, and Ventana Research. You can download copies of each and see for yourself. 

    Did Salsify serve an underserved part of the market that traditional PIMs ignored, and by doing it better, faster, and cheaper, did we disrupt the market from below?

    What’s the Point of a PIM?

    If we can agree what the business value of a PIM is, in broad strokes, then the argument on how traditional PIMs have failed will make more sense.

    In my view, the point of a PIM is to orchestrate the creation of compelling product experiences that help your products and brand win on every single channel.

    A PIM should accelerate getting products listed on every commerce channel:

    • Retail
    • Pure-play ecommerce
    • Quick commerce
    • Social
    • Search
    • Direct-to-consumer (D2C)
    • Etc. 

    It should also provide the complete set of functionalities required to manage merchandising across the broad array of channels.

    Disruption in the Last Decade of PIM

    When we founded Salsify in 2012, we believed the PIM category was fundamentally broken in one major way.

    They were designed to be internal product master databases and not to be marketing and sales business applications (though many, many implementations tried to force-fit them into the latter use case, and no doubt vendors of those traditional solutions would bristle at how I'm describing them here).

    This is a microcosm in the history of IT systems. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, there was a big rush to digitize everything, which meant that every type of corporate data needed to be housed somewhere. 

    Enterprise resource planning (ERP), product lifecycle management (PLM), and other systems exploded.

    Most of these systems were owned by IT, took years to implement, cost a ton, and primarily served as internal systems of record and validation for key data.

    None of these systems were built at the time, as business applications for business users.

    PIM was the same, but for product data.

    Traditional PIM Shortcomings 

    This shortcoming can be seen throughout their architectures:

    1. Traditional PIMs came out of the master data management (MDM) world and were built on the assumption that there’s one master version of a product record (whereas, in the real world there are many, at least one per marketing or sales channel).

    2. Marketing data tends to be use-case specific (product title, image, etc.), so business users (marketers, sales reps) were forced to do all their real product data work outside the PIM.

    3. PIMs had only internal systems connectivity and had no ability to actually get content and data to market.

    4. Data quality reports in PIMs were primarily against internally defined standards and didn't take into account actual market performance.

    5. PIM implementations would skew heavily towards data model design vs. actually getting information to market.

    I'm not saying these traditional PIM systems were terrible. Far from it. They’re impressive pieces of software with significant functionality, but they were built to solve only an internal data problem. They were expressions of what the market need was at the time.

    Salsify’s Take on PIM

    Our belief was that PIMs must move FROM simply storing data (IT, backend system) TO powering the full go-to-market orchestration for products (IT + business application, like customer relationship management (CRM) has become with Salesforce).

    1. Multi-Channel. Rather than store one product master record, a PIM must help manage every possible product record for every possible channel.

    2. Experiential. Rather than focusing on just attributes and images, PIMs must store every piece of content required to market a product.

    3. Built for Business Users. Business users don't want to muck around with data models all day, they want to create great experiences and get them to market to drive sales.

    The Last 10 Years of PIM

    What happened in the last 10 years is pretty simple.

    PIMs went FROM being glorified databases of product content TO being go-to-market business applications (while still having to do all the nitty-gritty data stuff the traditional PIMs did well). 

    That’s a MASSIVE change — one that has been reflected strongly in the latest swath of analyst reports

    The Expansion of PIM

    What kinds of features are now considered by the analyst firms that were NOT required in years past?

    • Syndication. If you store content in a forest, does it make a sound? (Terrible, I know, but you get the idea.)
    • Analytics. Internal data quality matters (you can’t screw up regulatory data). BUT external data quality and performance matter at least as much. Because, ultimately, we're all here to grow sales.
    • UX. When PIMs are used primarily by IT, they can be as complex as necessary. Finding a sweet spot between all the data modeling and storage requirements and “Can Julie over on the Walmart team use the PIM?” has required rethinking the whole PIM interaction model.

    Those are big changes.

    Outdated PIM Considerations 

    Things that have dropped include:

    • Internal Data Integration / ETL. MuleSoft and other such players have made this far less important; just connect to MuleSoft and go.
    • Pre-Import Data Cleansing. This is nuanced, but traditional PIMs had rigid data models, so data had to be fully cleansed before it could be imported. Modern PIMs allow data cleansing to happen in place, saving substantial implementation time.
    • Supplier Portals. These are still very important in retailer use cases (in fact, Salsify sells a stand-alone supplier portal called SupplierXM), but as PIM has expanded into a larger market of manufacturers and distributors (from really just retail), this feature has much less universal need.

    This evolution of "what's needed in the new PIM" isn’t done, and there will continue to be volatility depending on each company's own digital maturity.

    The Next 10 Years of PIM: Orchestration and Automation

    If the goal of a PIM is to help you get your products to market as quickly and optimally as possible and to assist you in keeping your products competitive over time in the face of constant channel volatility, then the changes we've seen so far are merely foundational.

    The world is continuing to move faster and faster. In 2010, you had to worry about planogram resets maybe a few times a year; on Amazon the search results refresh with every single search: infinite planogram resets.

    This means there is a nearly infinite number of things that you might do right now to improve your performance across hundreds or thousands of channels around the world.

    Nobody has the time to be perfect.

    What to Expect in the Next 10 Years

    My view of the next 10 years of PIM is that orchestration and automation will become critical.

    This will include features like workflows that: 

    • Connect every single employee in a company necessary to help move the entire company at the speed of the market (this is the basis 101 where many PIMs fall short even today).
    • Increasingly connect AI, rule-based bots as workflow participants to provide automation (e.g. "this task is assigned to AI to complete"). Our AI bet is that AI-for-automation is the highest value use case in the PIM world.
    • Connect across companies to fully link agency or supply chain partners (users in Walmart passing tasks to users in Mars across the supply chain, and vice versa).

    I'm a believer, and I have skin in the game to make this future happen. We're already at work building all of this today at Salsify.


    Download the complete Forrester report, "The Forrester Wave™: Product Information Management, Q2 2021," to learn more about the evolving PIM market and Salsify's ranking as a Leader.



    Written by: Rob Gonzalez

    Rob is a co-founder at Salsify. He built the go-to-market team at Salsify from the ground up. Previously he ran inbound marketing and product management for Cambridge Semantics, another Boston-area startup. He loves ideas.

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