Most professionals in promotional products agree that the industry needs to continue on its rapid path to digital transformation in the coming years.
What exactly that might look like in execution, however, and the path to reaching it is more difficult to pin down from company to company, or even person to person. The inherent risk of that reality is that digital transformation remains a vague idea that is objectively positive, but never takes a specific shape.
Turning digital transformation from an industry term into actionable methods, processes and results is a front-facing mission for PPAI. While distributors and suppliers work to make strides of their own, the Association has committed to working with business and technology services firms to facilitate the necessary advancements.
Last week the Association took a big first step in that facilitation by way of a meeting that included some of the industry’s top business service providers. Included for the round table conversation at PPAI’s headquarters in Irving, Texas were representatives from Antera Software USA, Bright Stores, commonsku, DistributorCentral, eXtendTech, OrderMyGear, PromoLink, SAGE and ZOOMcatalog.
Denham emphasized that PPAI’s interest in the conversation was to solve a major industry problem, and that those in the room and beyond have a hand to play in the progress that all agree is necessary.
However, some voices in the room brought different perspectives to what solutions need to be prioritized.
Morning discussions kicked off with an open question: “What does digital transformation mean to you?”The answers and opinions on the topic may create a template for how the change that will take shape in coming years.
“The most important thing, I think, is to educate the distributors and suppliers,” says Robert Guler, president of Promolink.
Many agreed that suppliers and distributors are running businesses with a focus on products, meaning that it isn’t always reasonable for them to be fully caught up on the technological tools and practices at their disposal. It’s fair to expect any individual company to simply do what “works for them,” and it might be tempting for the rest of the industry to assume those who don’t adapt will be left behind. But this thinking only slows down the growth of the industry, and in a business-to-business model, creates hurdles for everyone.
To Guler, it’s important not to put inflexible models in front of these companies because, by nature, they want to differentiate themselves from each other.
“The first thing is to advocate [for better digital practices],” Guler says. “Show possibilities. Flexibility is the answer.”
No digital conversation can happen without discussing cyber security. Unfortunately, security will be an ongoing challenge in the digital space because cyber attacks are likely to continue to evolve in strategy and sophistication over time.
Everyone in the industry needs to be aware of current and evolving best practices in digital security considering the amount of data companies entrust with one another.
“PPAI’s role in security can be to raise awareness,” says Mike Pfeiffer, vice president of information technology at American Solutions for Business and chair of PPAI’s Technology Committee.
Digital Transformation in this realm means staying ahead of issues before they come up. “Once you’ve been attacked, then you’re aware,” warns Pfeiffer.
Everyone present seemed to agree that the industry has come along way in terms of technology practices since 2019, spurned by the pandemic. Still, one word came up quite a bit in the meeting: antiquated. Doing a better job of designing things for the end-buyer’s convenience was stressed.
“What’s different about [digital transformation] this time is the focus on the consumer experience,” says PPAI Board Chair Dawn Olds.
One attendee who joined the industry from retail almost a decade ago said he was initially “shocked” by how complicated the ordering process is for promotional products. Others agreed.
“I think there’s an interesting customer journey to map out,” says Dustin Downing, chief product officer of OrderMyGear. “I do think there is room for us all to work better together and provide an experience that’s a more efficient and modern way.”
Data is a huge part of digital transformation, and PPAI is moving forward this month with Promo Data Exchange (PDX), in partnership with SAGE. PDX operates as a set of rules that are meant to create a universal way to input and search data.
Several members present at the meeting asked why PPAI launched PDX when other standards, such as PromoStandards, are currently available. PPAI addressed the reasons that PDX was launched and the fact that the Association has attempted to collaborate with others on PDX standards for the overall benefit of the industry and remains willing to do so.
In the simplest of terms, PDX could drastically reduce the phone calls or more tedious practices that industry members might rely on to check things such as inventory. This runs parallel with the Association’s commitment to developing internal digital tools and strategies that are transparent and can be shared with the industry as it adapts, says Edwin Gonzalez, PPAI’s director of digital transformation.