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How to Make a Catalog That Makes Money: The Ultimate Guide

Direct mail cataloging is an exciting and proven direct marketing channel to grow your business. We’ve created this list from our many catalog customers using their experiences with launching their own catalogs in order to share the basics of how to make a catalog in an effort to help you on your own journey of launching a catalog.

The 10 steps to creating a profitable catalog are:

  1. Choosing the right products
  2. Targeting the right mailing lists
  3. Creating superior graphic design
  4. Using the best product photography
  5. Planning printing and roll-out
  6. Utilizing prepress services
  7. Printing and mailing, budgeting and planning
  8. Using geolocation and personalization
  9. Tracking results
  10. Refining and repeating

We go into further detail on each of these steps and what you need to know as a business to maximize the investment into a direct mail catalog that becomes a profit center for your bottom line.

1. Choose the Right Products 

Deciding what not to put in your catalog is sometimes more important than what you do put into it, as not all your products will appeal to all your customers. Additionally, you may be targeting a specific demographic with your catalog and the products need to satisfy a found need or want to be effective.

Determining which products to include can be extrapolated from your data metrics with input from key individuals from purchasing, manufacturing, marketing, and senior executives.

2. Target Mailing Lists through Data Modeling 

A single catalog can cost as much as $2.00-$3.00 for each consumer you reach, so targeting the right audience is important to secure a successful return on investment. There are three main types of lists that can be effective for direct mail catalogs, your existing customers, new customers, or specific geographic locations. Depending on your budget or goals, one or a combination of these lists may be appropriate.

With an average response rate of 3.9%, catalog mailings do have higher conversion rates than standard pieces of direct mail, however, each of these types of lists will provide different cost and revenue opportunities. Your mailing house should be able to provide data modeling to help you decide which of these three types of lists makes the most sense for your catalog.

Targeting Existing Customers

If your catalog is going to target your existing customers (commonly referred to as a “house list”), then you have a starting point mailing list, and you’ll next need to have it “pre-sorted” for postal delivery. Pre-sorting is a necessity, as it will save you money on your mailing costs.

If your printer is also going to be handling the mailing along with the printing they can help you with the pre-sorting of your list, otherwise, the “mail house” you choose can help you with this task.

Targeting New Customers

If your catalog is going to target new customers (commonly referred to as a “prospect list”), then you will need to obtain a list from a list company, list broker, or pick a geographic location to target. If you’re using a list company/broker then you can create your data model with filters such as age, estimated income, marital status, gender, home value/new homeowners, presence of children, ethnicity, hobbies/interests, city, county, state and zip code. If your catalog is targeted to a specific geographic location, then your list company/broker can create a list based on your specific location criteria including city, zip code, or community.

Targeting by Geographic Location

If you’re targeting a very specific geographical location, such as a store location or grand opening, then you can use a service from the United States Post Office called EDDM (Every Door Direct Mail). The EDDM Service lets you pick the actual postal carrier routes you want using their graphical mapping tool, to target the exact locations around and in your target area, and they will deliver to “every door” on every route you choose.

Here are list companies and list brokers we recommend:


3. Create Superb Catalog Graphic Design 

Having a beautiful catalog that showcases your products, is a direct representation of your company brand, and is crucial to the success of your catalog getting noticed and opened.

Your catalog should be considered a salesperson for your business that will get “past the front door”, into your customers’ hands, and entice them on each of your products.

Considering all the choices that have to be made in designing your catalog, creative aesthetics, textile feel, and important catalog attributes can be the most debated and influential decision you make in the entire catalog process. Take your time with the choices, and plan out the artistic representation of your brand’s catalog. Your catalog should tell a story with its careful placement of products and how the pages “flow” from one to the next as your audience engages and turns each page to discover the next item.

Magazine Style Catalog

If you’re wanting a “Magazine” feel to your catalog (like Patagonia has successfully done for years), then you will want to add lifestyle pages and stories sprinkled throughout the catalog to define the “chapters” of your product lines. This style of catalog benefits your customers by offering them more than just a product to buy, as it also provides them with a lifestyle to connect with their own needs.

Editorial Style Magazine

If you are aiming for a “Beautiful Editorial” feel from your catalog (like Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma Home both do), create and design your catalog with big beautiful images on your pages (sometimes stretching across both pages) that show the products in their finished spaces, along with beautify written product descriptions extolling each unique and warming detail. This style of catalog has a look, feel, and flow that is instantly welcoming to view and browse and has proven to be extremely successful for the brands reflecting this style.

Sale Style Catalog

When creating a “Sale” catalog, follow your existing catalog design, and keep your product images as large as possible (tiny print images just don’t have any appeal). Highlight your sale prices by showing the original price next to the reduced price of each product and call out special savings items with even larger images and colored prices. This style of catalog benefits the customer by providing them “at a glance” the savings they will accumulate when they purchase from you.

Three points to keep in mind when designing your catalog, as they will greatly affect your printing and mailing costs:

  1. Paper Choice: The high-quality paper gives your catalog a premium feel that people will subconsciously notice, and the tactile quality will also print extremely well, in turn showing off the beauty of your products much more elegantly. Yet premium paper costs more (and usually weighs more too!), again adding cost to the project.
  2. Page Count: Very dense/thick catalogs, or as Restoration Hardware calls their behemoth, “Source Books”, are such an oddity that the consumer can not easily part with them, so they hang onto these catalogs until the next one arrives. As you can guess, the more pages you have, the heavier your catalog will be and thus will be more expensive to print and mail.
  3. Page Size: A larger than normal catalog (or a unique size like a catalog with square pages), will help your catalog stand out in a mailbox crowd and get a better viewing/pass-along rate than a standard-size catalog would. An over-sided catalog of this type will be more expensive to print and mail, but it can help you get a better response from your mailing. There are “standard” catalog page sizes you can choose to help minimize paper waste during printing, but at the cost of your catalog being similar to the other ones your customers and prospects are already receiving.
 Standard Size

8.25″ x 10.5″
Qualifies as a “Flat” postage priced item.

Alternative Sizes
Slim Jim Catalog:
5.5″ x 10.5″
Digest Catalog:
5.25″ x 8.25″
Both qualify as “Letter” postage priced items.

If you don’t possess an “in-house” design team that’s familiar with print design, then you will want to utilize a designer or creative agency to help you with your catalog design. Regardless, make sure whomever you hire for your catalog creative is familiar with catalog design and catalog print production.

4. Use the Best Product Photography 

Tasteful product photography can invoke a need or desire within your customers, improving the chances for a sale (or multiple sales!). The photography should be consistent and representative of your product’s finer details. A lifestyle shot of your product (where you see the product in action or on a model), can instill an emotional response in your customer pushing them to make a purchase.

Catalog Images: Photoshoot Tips

To maximize the results of your photography during photo shoots, careful planning and timing are crucial because you typically pay by the day in the form of a “day rate” or you pay “by the shot”. If you are shooting “on location” it is even more critical that coordination and timing be accurate so that you don’t end up with the photographer ready to shoot, but the product still “in transit” to the location. Supporting elements that can help a photoshoot go smoother, especially if you are doing lifestyle shots, like having sketches/mockups available to the photographer so they can see your vision of what will be in the shot, and what should be in the background also. A model wearing a floral dress evokes a different response if she’s in front of a palm tree-lined beach versus in front of a parking lot! The importance of good photography is why so many catalogers hire a professional creative director who often knows their way around a photoshoot.

Photo Selection: What You Need to Know

After the photos are shot you will need to make your “Selects”. This process involves rejecting all but the perfect shot (or shots) from the photoshoot. Imagine someone modeling a dress on a “breezy day” and you can foresee how many photos it could take to get the perfect shot of her smiling, eyes wide open, and hair flowing “just right”. Odd but true, even though you’re selling the dress, you’re also selling how the dress can make your customer feel when wearing it. Once you or your team has decided on your selects (yes, sometimes it takes a committee to choose the selects), you’ll send those files to your “prepress” provider for correction. At this time, you will also begin designing the layout of the catalog by placing the low-resolution versions of those images into your catalog page design to get a feel for your catalog’s “flow”.

 Use CGI & Virtual Rooms
Instead of hiring construction crews, building sets, and shipping products around, some catalogers are opting to use CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), to build “virtual rooms” to generate their lifestyle shots.
These CGI rooms are virtually indistinguishable from actual photographs & the products are shot in the studio & then “merged” into the CGI room image. Using this technology provides substantial savings versus the cost of traditional “location-based” photoshoots.

5. Plan Catalog Test Drops, Versioning and Prospecting  

You cannot always predict what the market will react to, so you may want to “test” the market with a concept of “versioning”—printing and mailing your catalog in smaller batches and across multiple dates. This process is commonly referred to as “Drops”, with each catalog drop having the pages and products “shuffled around” to move the top-selling items to the front of the catalog, and sometimes, removing items from the catalog that sell out or become back-ordered.

Utilize List Segmentation When Appropriate

Splitting your mailing list into several smaller mailings allows you to strategize your catalog drop dates to create windows where you analyze your sales, identify trends, and make adjustments according to market conditions. This process is often a very fast-paced and hectic one, as these “windows” between drops are sometimes as short as one to two weeks where you have to scramble to coordinate all the changes and approvals before the next drop hits. Having an experienced catalog production staff (and a world-class prepress provider like Artisan Colour) can help alleviate the chaos and stress.

6. Perfect the Prepress Process 

The single biggest factor in a customer’s purchasing decision comes down to one variable: color. Color shouldn’t just be close—it needs to be exact to minimize customer returns. Your catalog’s product images also need to be accurate and void of any flaws that could potentially detract from a purchase. “Prepress” is the process of correcting the original photography color for the printing process, retouching the photos to improve the product’s appearance, and prepping (“prep”) the files for the printing process.

CMYK & RGB Color Correction In Prepress

The printing process uses 4 ink colors to recreate images (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black), commonly referred to as “CMYK” which is a subtractive color model. Computers, televisions and digital cameras use 3 colors to recreate images (Red, Green and Blue), commonly referred to as “RGB” which is an additive color model. Since these two color spaces are so very different, the colors in your photos do not translate consistently between the two, so color correction (i.e: prepress) is required to adjust for these color differences.

How The Prepress Process Saves You Money 

Additionally, printing paper is not always bright white, so the images can look dull and lack the contrast your photography captured when originally shot. Having a prepress company fix or adjust your images minimizes the chances that your customers return their purchased products because “the color didn’t match”. Additionally, having a prepress company inspect, correct and prepare your files for the printing process will help to avoid costly “downtime” on your press run.

Use A Printer With Prepress Expertise

Artisan Colour has been providing the highest level of prepress services to the world’s most distinguished catalog brands since 1998 – after all, color is in our name. We take color seriously and choose the best artisans to give our clients the best results. You’ve most likely already seen our best work right in your very own living room. Many catalog retailers trust our company to produce their catalogs with meticulously crafted work and confident execution. 

7. Plan Digital or Offset Printing with Mailing Services 

If your catalog circulation is 10,000 or more for your entire mailing, or your “drops” are each 10,000 or more, then you will want to print your catalog with a “web-offset printer” because these quantities are most cost-effective at this scale and above.

For circulations less than 10,000, or if you are running test mailings, catalogs for special customers/stores, or variable data catalogs, then you will want to utilize the capabilities of digital printing because of the flexibility of print runs, quicker turnaround times, variable data capabilities, and lower total cost.

On-Press: A Critical Step in The Catalog Printing Process

The scale at which an offset printing facility operates is a manufacturing marvel, complete with multi-story tall printing presses and football-field-sized departments for collating, binding, shipping, and mailing. When working with an offset printer such as Arandell, you will need to purchase your paper and “book” your press date months in advance and have your catalog files ready for printing before your booked press date.

Large catalog print runs can stretch across several days and your printer provides you the opportunity to be “on-site” for the press run to verify your catalog’s color accuracy during the print run. Artisan Colour can help with an “on-press” representative there with you to help guarantee you the most accurate color for your catalog.

Keep in mind that the press date you book with your offset printer is fixed and typically not flexible. You may be charged for the press time whether you print your catalog or not!

Digitally printed catalogs offer unique marketing opportunities to your business and the recipients of your catalog with features such as variable data/variable images, personalization, quicker turnaround, better time to market, better engagement with 1-to-1 output, and short-run “test” catalogs. Your files are prepared the same way as offset printing, and the results are as equal to, if not better than traditional offset printing.

Choose The Right Mailing House Or Provider

Artisan Colour offers a full range of digital printing services to accommodate your cataloging and mailing needs. Whether you print digital, offset, or both, having a printer that can also handle your mailing for you, will provide you with huge savings in both time and cost due to their knowledge and experience with the many facets of the USPS.

Here are some helpful mailing videos: 

8. Use Geolocation, Personalization and Individualization

By presenting the right product at the right time to the right person, you can be assured that you are doing everything possible to maximize sales and garner new customers. There are three ways you can segment your catalog for maximum impact on your target markets, using geolocation, personalization, and individualization.

Geolocation Catalogs

Have products tailored to the area of the country where the customers spend their time. For instance, in the winter months, most would be thinking about stoking the fire, curling up in a warm cozy blanket on a large plush couch with their favorite warm beverage, while those in the Southwest desert would be interested in outdoor furniture, cool drinks, and short sleeve clothing.

Personalized Catalogs

Have products tailored to the personal traits of your customer such as gender, race, age, ethnicity, etc. With personalization, you can create a fashion catalog for your female customers with women’s wear on the cover and featured in the first section of your catalog, and vice versa for your male customers.

Individualization of Catalogs

Determining the factors that define your customer (or potential customer) as exactly who they see themselves as, including their job, hobbies, lifestyle, etc. can increase conversion rates substantially. Creating a catalog of specific products that uniquely matches each individual and their own uniqueness, is the most challenging, yet also the best way to immediately engage customers and create brand loyalty. These individualized catalogs are the most highly tailored and can only be achieved through automation and digital printing, but lucky for you, Artisan Colour offers exactly this catalog service.

9. Track Results and Revenue 

Understanding how your catalog impacts your sales is a key metric for the success of your campaign, yet it can be quite challenging to obtain an accurate “matchback” on sales vs. catalog views.

Since the printed catalog does not offer a way for you to individualize the response, it can be a bit of a guessing game, however, there are techniques one can use to gauge the success of your catalog. Custom URLs are one method, though you wouldn’t want to have your customers type in a custom URL for each and every product, but you can create a custom entry window for your e-commerce site and provide its url in your catalog (i.e: Another common method is to put a custom offer code in your catalog mailing label to track how many people use it at checkout time.

Possibly the easiest and most accurate method of all is to ask your customer during checkout: “How did you hear about us?” or “Did you like our recent catalog?”

10. Refine and Repeat

The cataloging process is a continually evolving practice of testing, analysis, refinement, and repetition, yet the impact of adding catalogs to augment your website’s sales cannot be disputed. We’ve been doing this since 1998 and would be delighted with the opportunity to provide you with our experience and knowledge to help you reach your cataloging goals. Contact us today to get started