B2B companies selling through multiple channels are driving up demand for product information management systems, as vendor Akeneo launches an artificial intelligence-backed product library for its PIM system.

It’s for sure not the sexiest topic, but product information management software, or PIM, is becoming more top of mind with B2B companies. These businesses sell across an increasing number of channels from ecommerce sites and print catalogs to social media and voice-activated devices.

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Bruce Eppinger, senior analyst, Forrester Research

“I cover ecommerce platforms and PIM technology, and I get three times as many calls on PIM,” says Bruce Eppinger, senior analyst for digital business strategy at Forrester Research Inc.

Why? Because as more manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers dive into digital commerce, they’re learning that it’s becoming more important than ever to maintain accurate product information displayed throughout a growing number of channels including internet search results, Google Maps, social media, mobile apps, print catalogs, third-party online marketplaces, as well as their own ecommerce sites.

PIM market ‘growing gangbusters’

The growing need to optimize content for multiple channels, Eppinger says, “is why the PIM market is growing gangbusters.” He notes that in a review he conducted of PIM technology vendors, he calculated average revenue growth of 35% in 2017 over 2016.

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PIM vendors include Agility, Akeneo, Contentserv, EnterWorks, IBM, Informatica, inRiver, Riversand, Salsify, SAP and Unilog.

“Digital business professionals need a PIM solution to manage dozens of sales channels, deliver content to hundreds of resellers, and create and manage content that’s relevant for every channel and every market segment,” Eppinger says in a June 2018 report on PIM technology that reviews many of those vendors. One of the key points that report covers is how much artificial intelligence—which experts say can help PIM applications better compile and organize product information across multiple product categories—fits into the road map of PIM technology vendors.

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Fred de Gombert, CEO, Akeneo

This week, for example, PIM vendor Akeneo introduced Akeneo PIM 3.0, which integrates with its AI-backed Franklin online library of 50 million products. The Franklin library continuously updates its listings and descriptions of products by crawling public websites, using AI and machine-learning technology to recognize and match product information into categories, Akeneo CEO Fred de Gombert says. “When we say 50 million products, we mean we found them after checking at least five sources to make sure the data is accurate and up to date,” he said in a telephone interview from the Akeneo PIM Summit in Paris earlier this week.

Getting rid of the boring tasks

“The main purpose of PIM is to get rid of the boring part of product managers’ jobs, the manual arrangement of product data,” de Gombert said. “The idea behind using AI and machine learning in PIM is to take away repetitive tasks and automate them.”

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In giving an example of a practical use case, he said Akeneo PIM 3.0 helps a business to identify and organize product information that complements or adds to its existing product offerings. “With AI, we can proactively help a business to identify and sell new product categories,” he said. This also complements Akeneo’s product experience management software suite, which is designed to help companies better engage customers through consistent product descriptions across channels in product recommendations, catalogs and other forms of content, he added.

Eppinger says it’s too early to comment on how Akeneo’s overall use of AI compares with that of other PIM vendors, but he notes that Akeneo’s Franklin library “is the only AI-driven product data pool I’ve come across.”

Such use of AI to help companies expand their product data “is where the PIM market is heading, helping companies in merchandising and marketing at scale,” Eppinger says. “To keep up with digital transformation,” he adds, many businesses today must send 10 times as many product descriptions to 10 times as many places as they had in the recent past.

Good data vs. bad

Ensuring product data accuracy is a crucial part of this, experts say. “Machine learning and AI can bring a lot to PIM, especially around automatic classification of products and finding data quality issues,” says Justin King, who advises B2B companies on digital commerce technology and strategy as CEO of consultants B2X Partners. “If a system can learn what good data looks like versus bad data, then it can go and seek those opportunities to improve the product content.”

Akeneo, based in Nantes, France, with a U.S. office in Boston, provides its PIM software under a software-as-a-service model accessed via a web browser. The annual cost starts at about $60,000, but the average cost for Akeneo’s customers ranges between $100,000 and $500,000, says Christel Grizaut Billaut, vice president of marketing.

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Akeneo is seeing strong demand from B2B companies, particularly among companies in electronics, construction products and pharmaceuticals. “Pharmaceuticals are highly regulated, and it’s very important to have accurate product descriptions,” de Gombert said.

Going forward, Akeneo will continue to develop its technology to help tailor product descriptions for particular channels, such as voice-activated devices, while also keeping them consistently recognizable across channels, de Gombert said.

Akeneo has received more than $15 million in recent years from venture capitalists, the most recent funding coming from Salesforce Ventures, the investment arm of Salesforce.com Inc. The amount from Salesforce Ventures wasn’t disclosed.

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