What is Product Information Management (PIM) in a Syndicated, Multimedia world?

Martijn Hoogeveen
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Product Information Management & Syndication Cycle

We started in 2001 with our own PIM as a foundation for the open catalog project Open Icecat, long before PIMs were recognized: the acronym PIM was not yet coined, and the PIM software industry was not yet formed.

So, what is PIM? It stands for Product Information Management. PIM refers to the processes for handling all the structured data, unstructured content, and digital assets that are needed to market and sell products through multiple distribution channels. A PIM also ensures that quality data is created for internal use and multichannel distribution. A lot of webshop systems are said to include a PIM, but in most cases the functionality is at best rudimentary for managing global, multilingual product catalogs. It’s often just enough to get a reasonably looking product data-sheet online in a given webshop. Further, adding to the confusion there are a lot of 3 letter abbreviations such as PDM (Product Data Management), PCM (Product Content or Catalog Management), PRM (Product Resource Management), PLM (Product Lifecycle Management), DRM (Digital Rights Management), CMS (Content Management Systems), DAM (Digital Asset Management), MAM (Media Asset Management), CMP (Cross Media Publishing), MDM (Master Data Management), ECM (Enterprise Content Management), etc. etc. Let’s try to clarify the field a bit.

What is a true PIM?

So, what’s a true PIM then? In essence, it is an information system that facilitates a publisher – a brand owner, retailer or independent – to define a taxonomy for its product domain, and next gather and combine any type of information conforming to the product taxonomy in one database environment, and publish the standardized product information for online and offline purposes. It’s about media types as:

  • product identifiers (brand name, manufacturer part code and/or ISBN, GTIN or other universal identifiers)*
  • categorization (according to UNSPSC and/or other standards)*
  • multilingual marketing texts, descriptions and/or disclaimers*
  • fully standardized product specs, grouped in spec groups*
  • product images*
  • product variants, for example whereby specs like sizes and color can vary
  • product relations for cross-sell, up-sell (alternatives) and compatibility
  • product videos (normally in MP4)
  • 3D/360 degrees animations in an HTML5 compatible format
  • leaflets and user manuals (usually in PDF)
  • reasons-to-buy
  • feature logos, videos and related multilingual texts
  • HTML5 based mini-sites

There’s a whole world behind every media type as mentioned above. And the more important online advertising and ecommerce become, the more these worlds expand into differentiated universes.

Synonyms PDM, PCM, PRM, ECM

A PIM is more or less synonymous with PDM – Product Data Management, except that in computer science “data” refers to databases and “information” refers to data that is meaningful for a certain user. In that sense, one could go even further by defining PKM – Product Knowledge Management – as an environment in which meaningful relations between products are maintained, such as compatibility information: for example, which memory module fits in which computer.

Also, here and there the term PCM (Product Content or Catalog Management), PRM (Product Resources Management), and ECM (Enterprise Content Management) are used as synonyms of PIM as well. It’s just a matter of taste, commercial emphasis and linguistics. It’s hardly worthwhile to spend much thought on it. In the context of Icecat, we tend to talk about PIMS – Product Information Management & Syndication – as the need of brand owners is not just to organize and use their product information internally, but also disseminate it to any and all their business partners, in accordance with their respective syndication policies. Many concurrent PIM solutions miss the capabilities to seamlessly communicate with the rest of the world.

Taxonomy Management at its Core

The taxonomy is a core database within a PIM. It defines the data model per product category, and the database integrity rules per product attribute in the data model. It also defines the units in which specifications are expressed (Gigabyte, mm, inch), conversion rules between – for example – the imperial and metric systems – and the spec value tables with allowed values per attribute. A great taxonomy standardizes its domain completely, so that any conversion, mapping or translation can be fully automated. In a flexible PIM, taxonomy management, is a separate engine that allows for domain-specific, multilingual and localized data model creation.

Key sub-system of a PIM: DAM

Digital Asset Management (DAM) is one of the core-functions of a PIM, where “asset” is used for rich media types which are typically structured in one file such as a PDF, JPG or other image, MP4 video, etc. A DAM is therefore a sub-system for a PIM. Media Asset Management (MAM) is used as a synonym of DAM.

A separate DAM system becomes important in case that a lot of meta information about the asset needs to be created and managed. For example, in case that image recognition plays a role, it is logical that separate, specialized systems are used to take care of such AI (Artifical Intelligence) functionalities.

Core-function: Digital Rights Management

Another core-functionality of a PIM and a DAM is Digital Rights Management (DRM): a set of functionalities to control which user is authorized to access and/or manage which information. For example, a brand’s product manager might be responsible only for a certain product line, and a brand’s authorized resellers might be the only ones authorized to download certain rich media assets.

Enterprise systems and PIM

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and Content Management Systems (CMS) are broader than what a PIM requires. Within Enterprises lots of other data types, which are not directly related to products, but certain enterprise processes, are generated and need to be managed. A CMS is often effectively an enterprise website management system that manages the presence of an enterprise online, which might include product data exported by a PIM, but also other data and html templates.

Sometimes an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system is confused with a PIM as well, but an ERP is mainly focussed on logistical processes and thus logistical data, which are highly volatile by nature. Often an ERP system provides some basic data (product identifiers, price and availability) to a PIM.

Product Lifecyle Management (PLM) is used to describe processes that manage the information related to a product from its inception to its market introduction and finally its end-of-life (EOL) status. A PLM can contain a lot of data about a product that a manufacturer would never publish, such as business secrets, supplier information, R&D and test data, internal communication, data about older product versions, data about products that are never introduced to the market etc etc. A PLM might be used to feed a PIM with the product information of the final product as it’s released to the market, and to which marketing materials are added by the marketing and sales departments responsible for the success of a product on the market.

Finally, Master Data Management (MDM) is used as a term to indicate the need within an enterprise to manage a “Single Version of Truth”: which system is leading for what. In modern, ecommerce-ready enterprises, a PIM is containing the master data regarding to products as promoted on the market. And an ERP, for example, is used to be leading regarding to any logistical product information such as stock, pricing per customer and order history.

Vendor Central

A relatively new trend is that ecommerce platforms are opening up their PIM environments for their suppliers or vendors. Think of Amazon Vendor Central, Google Manufacturer Center, and Icecat’s free Vendor Central. To avoid manual data-entry seamless API integrations are required.

There’s a whole lot more to say about the world of PIM, and we will continue to publish on the subject.

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Martijn Hoogeveen

Founder and CEO of Icecat NV. Investor through iMerge. PhD Multimedia at Delft University of Technology. Former Professor Multimedia/E-commerce at Open University Netherlands.

  • commented on August 12, 2019 by Dany

    Martijn, thank you for such a clear comparison of different systems!
    I would like to add something regarding ERP and PIM systems. You said that "Often an ERP system provides some basic data (product identifiers) to a PIM", I think this is not the only task that an ERP system can perform for a PIM software. Speaking of online shops, the combination of these two systems will also allow monitoring the availability of inventory and its replenishment that, as a result, ensures the rapid enrichment of product information. For an easier understanding of their differences and interaction, I advise to read this article: https://treopim.com/journal/what-is-the-difference-between-pim-and-erp-do-you-need-both

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