New InRiver CEO Offers Perspective On Why PIM Is Becoming Top Priority For Marketing Execs

0aaThor Johnson InRiver

One of the fastest growing areas of the software-as-a-service (SaaS) space over the past decade was marketing automation, and one of the brands that helped define that category was Eloqua. The company would go on to be acquired by Oracle in 2012 for a reported value of $870 million.

During Eloqua’s formative years, 2005 through 2007, I had the opportunity to work closely with Thor Johnson in his role as head of marketing for the company, on a number of initiatives that helped define the category and position it for successful adoption.

Johnson was named CEO at leading Product Information Management (PIM) software provider inRiver back in May of this year, and I recently had the chance to catch up with him to get his perspective on how the PIM category parallels marketing automation, and how PIM can serve the storytelling requirements that are such a big part of marketing..


Retail TouchPoints: How do you see the PIM space changing in terms of utilization and positioning, and how does that compare to other categories you’ve worked with in the past?

Thor Johnson: The IT team has historically controlled the technology, but as we move to the cloud and online stack, you’ve got a marketing-driven tech stack. So, you’ve got Master Data Management for the IT guy trying to figure out, ‘How am I going have all my data in one place and manage it?’

Meanwhile the marketing side is saying, ‘I don’t care about MDM. I need all of this product information in a way that I as a marketer can manage it, publish it, and see how it’s doing.’ We like walking into a company where they’ve got MDM because it means they’ve got their data house in order. But most of the companies we walk into don’t have MDM and they don’t have PIM. Their data house is not in order, and the marketer is going, ‘Oh, god. help me.’

RTP: What is driving this change, where marketers are realizing that product information is so critical?

Johnson: Marketing doesn’t like MDM. They want something that’s built for marketers, which is driving the need for PIM. Historically, when I as a marketer was just putting my products or subset of my products on my web site to sell, I can do that by hand, but now, customer expectations have exploded. We’re all using Amazon. We all have that expectation if we’re B2B or B2C. The other change is my channels have gone from my web site to my distributor’s web sites. I might have a couple of brands’ web sites that I’m selling on. I’m selling on Amazon. I’m selling on The Home Depot. I’m selling on Lowe’s and I’m trying to figure out how to get into Walmart and Target.            

Now, doing this by hand no longer works, so marketers are sitting there with multiple spreadsheets. They don’t trust their data. Whatever their ERP is feeding them they don’t trust that either. So, they’ve got this data problem, but they’re seeing it as a marketing truth problem because they know when this data gets in front of the customer, the customer is saying, ‘Do I believe this?’ They believe it if it’s compelling and they believe it if it’s consistent. If you don’t have your data house in order, you can’t produce consistent anything. So, that’s the need I think that’s driving PIM, and we’re seeing it both with this explosion of channels and this explosion of user expectations.

RTP: You talked about the expansion of sales channels — from marketplaces to distributors, etc. — but there is also the need to manage product information across core sales channels and touch points, which I’m sure adds to the complexity.

Johnson: Almost every one of our customers uses our print module. At some point, you want to pump out a PDF for that sales guy to take into that customer and show it to him or her. For manufacturers it’s even more complex. My web site is not going to have pricing on, but it’s going to have full product information for everything I sell. Now, I’m selling OEMs and through multiple distributors, I’m going to pick which products are going to each one of these distributors. They’re going to price it, but all of their customers are going to come back to my site to find out more details on these products. That’s a perfect example of omnichannel right there.

RTP: You mentioned earlier that PIM historically has been lumped into categories like MDM and seen as a data problem, or something IT handles. Is there an education or perception problem you need to address to make marketing aware that this is a solution for them as well?

Johnson: When you talk to a marketer they’ll say ‘I’m not trying to do rows and columns of the world. I’m trying to tell a story and the story is I want this to fit in this look. I want this to fit in this room or I want this exhaust assembly to fit in this motorcycle. Oh, no. I want to change the exhaust to flat black instead of chrome. That means I want all 14 parts to change.’

The marketer wants to tell a story, so he’s assembling products the way you want to see them. So, it’s a look. It’s a blouse, a shirt and a tie. It’s the chair and the ottoman that are part of the entire room that you’re looking at. I’m only looking for a chair, but I want to see how it looks in this room. That is not a rows and columns view of the room.

RTP: You brought up the scenario of a marketer needing the tell the story of how something looks in a room. How do you see the advancement of technologies like augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) impacting the need or use cases for PIM?

Johnson: Augmented reality becomes a data type for this. It adds to the mayhem and complexity. Again, if you’ve got an R&D group coming up with augmented reality views of your products, the marketer is asking, ‘How do I blend this in?’ The answer is through this PIM mechanism. Now, AI has got a bunch of really interesting applications. We’ve got some cool things in AI. One is content generation. So, the way inRiver works and which makes us unique is when you start to work with us and you set up your product with inRiver, you set it up according to the way you’re going to merchandise, not by rows and columns, and the way you describe your products.

What we can do is use AI to take that product information and actually write copy. Now, is that your final copy? In some cases, it is. We’ve got some real interesting sentiment analysis that we’re also running through an AI mechanism that actually says, ‘Does this copy make you happy or sad, and how is it compared to the copy that your human beings wrote?’ We’re using AI to take your product data, turn it into copy, and to translate it to 14 languages. Because of our European base, every one of our European customers is dealing with multiple languages. Here in the U.S., it’s one, two or three, but in Europe, we’ve got lots of companies with a dozen or more.

RTP: Globalization is another data and product information challenge for brands today as they look to expand into new regions. How are you helping address the complexities of selling on a global scale?

Johnson: This is absolutely a global marketplace. We’re a SaaS platform running on a Microsoft infrastructure. We can set up anywhere, anytime. We have customers in Australia. It’s really easy for us to spin off an instance in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, or any place else that the customer brings up. We can deal with Arabic. We can deal with Chinese. We’ve been in America now for four or five years. We have the footprint here and we’ve developed the skill set to operate in multiple countries.


Thor Johnson leads inRiver as CEO and as a member of inRiver’s Board of Directors. A SaaS industry forerunner and expert, Johnson led Bedrock Data in Boston, a .406 Ventures-backed data integration company and marketed Intralinks (NYSE: IL, since acquired) as CMO. He pioneered modern B2B marketing and demand generation at Eloqua Corporation, which is now part of Oracle (NYSE: ORCL). Johnson has a degree in Computer Science from Brown University and earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.  

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