posted 1 Aug 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 10
Web 2.0 is changing people’s expectations of the web experience. Increasingly, users expect every website to be more like Facebook or Amazon, but meeting such high expectations on a modest budget is a major challenge.
By Jessica Twentyman
In early 2006, Rob Tyler, group web manager at fund management company New Star Asset Management, set out to find a new web content management (WCM) system for the company.
His short-term goal was pretty conventional: to find a WCM package that would enable him to consolidate multiple websites aimed at retail, corporate, institutional and hedge-fund customers into a single corporate website.
That, he hoped, would enable New Star to centralise management and re-use of content, leading to lower operational costs and increased editorial productivity. And, to date, the chosen system, from WCM specialist Mediasurface, has helped New Star deliver on this goal.
But Tyler’s long-term vision was more far-reaching. He wanted a WCM package that would enable New Star to deliver a customer experience that was “more tailored, more dynamic and much, much more compelling.”
In short, New Star is embracing Web 2.0 – and it needs a package that will help it tackle the content-management challenge inherent in running a website that contains more multimedia content, is more tailored to the needs and interests of individual visitors and which enables visitors to provide their own feedback and commentary.
Already, for example, the company offers on-demand video webcasts to keep its clients up to speed with market developments and fund manager insights. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, New Star’s web team is trialing social-bookmarking techniques; exploring how the company might use really-simple syndication (RSS) feeds to drive traffic to the site; and, is quietly building a business case for incorporating blogs into the company’s web operations.
“We know that, in future, we’ll need to do as much as we can to keep website visitors engaged and new web developments are emerging all the time with the potential to help us do that, so it’s vital that our web content management system can grow with us,” says Tyler.
Tyler is not alone in his thinking. Most website managers are starting to realise that keeping today’s website visitors satisfied is a tough job – and, right now, few corporate websites succeed in that task, with their static, lifeless pages and lack of interactive functions.
By contrast, internet pioneers in the consumer world, such as Amazon and eBay, have set user expectations “skyhigh” with their compelling, dynamic content, according to Forrester Research analyst, Kyle McNabb.
And because of their efforts, the average website visitor now expects “more targeted, even personalised, interactions” with each and every company they do business with online, “whether it is a bank, insurance company, retailer, distributor, law firm, utility, telecoms provider, government agency or some other business,” he says.
At the same time, a recent survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) found that, despite early scepticism, ‘serious businesses’ are starting to see that social-networking technologies are not just for consumer sites like YouTube and Facebook, but might also provide a major way for other brands to attract new customers and boost revenues.
In the EIU’s survey, for example, nearly 60 per cent of large companies questioned said that they are inviting customers to contribute content to their website that explains, supports, promotes or enhances their products, or that they plan to do so within the next two years.
So it is no surprise that suppliers of WCM software, such as Interwoven, Vignette and Mediasurface, all claim they can help companies rise to the challenge of heightened user-expectation.
“Instant messaging, blogs, wikis, and social-networking sites are changing the way people interact with businesses – it is no longer just a one-way process. The successful businesses will be the ones that open up Web 2.0 communication channels to customers, giving them an opportunity to provide feedback on products and services,” says Robin Daniels, senior marketing manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at WCM specialist Vignette.
“By monitoring and responding to the ‘community’, businesses can start to alter and improve the way they work, which leads to both happy customers and growing profits,” he says.
That is demanding a significant expansion in product focus, however. Since the late 1990s, WCM tools have been used by companies to create, manage, store and publish content to the web, including text, graphics and photos, video and audio files, and application code.
But in recent years, “the WCM franchise has expanded significantly”, according to Gartner analyst Lou Latham. Today, he says, WCM leadership requires capabilities that take full advantage of the web as an interactive platform, rather than just a publishing medium.
“A WCM product may be perfectly good for creating and deploying static HTML pages, but unsuitable for a very interactive site that requires personalisation and other dynamic functions,” he points out. And these days, he adds, most sites have exactly those requirements.
As a result, WCM tools are changing – and customers need to be sure that the product they select today will continue to support their corporate website as it evolves to meet the expectations of an increasingly demanding breed of website visitor.
In general, says Latham, suppliers are focusing less on the contentproduction aspects of their WCM suites (authoring tools, repository management and library services, for example), in favour of a greater emphasis on enhancing content-delivery functions, such as personalisation tools and analytics, which enable companies to deliver web content to visitors in a far more targeted way.
However, while most WCM packages offer some kind of personalisation, this area is “highly specialised and quite complex”, according to Tony Byrne, an analyst with IT research firm CMS Watch.
“You should not assume that your content management vendor’s personalisation capabilities will meet your needs without thoroughly testing it first,” he says.
For a start, there are many different approaches to personalisation. The simplest approach, says Byrne, is ‘roles-based’ personalisation, where site owners and editors pre-determine groups of users (for example, ‘customers’, ‘investors’ and ‘job candidates’) and create custom pages or content sets for those users.
Alternatively, companies might opt for rules-based personalisation, in which business rules are established that affect the display of content on pages within a site. “For example, an online gourmet store is overstocked in French-roast coffee, so the site software recognises this in the inventory database and automatically places promotions to users who have bought coffee before,” says Byrne.
A third approach is preferences-based personalisation. “In this model, users indicate their preferences, usually during an initial session, so that dynamic pages can be delivered on subsequent visits to the site that better match their interests,” says Byrne. Users are typically assigned a user name and password for authentication. Cookies may also be used so that users aren’t required to log in on subsequent visits.
In order to boost content-targeting efforts, meanwhile, many WCM suppliers are now turning to analytics. These detail content navigation and usage, enabling website managers to analyse customer behaviours and transactions, and ‘tweak’ content accordingly.
Interwoven, for example, recently announced a partnership with web-analytics specialist WebSideStory that will enable it to deliver a new segmentation and analysis product. “In a Web 2.0 world, customers expect a more consistent and compelling experience that clearly demonstrates that a company knows who they are and what they’re interested in,” says Ben Kiker, chief marketing officer at Interwoven.
Vignette, meanwhile, is working with third-party specialist Omniture on similar capabilities.
Other WCM packages have built in their own analytics products, but Byrne warns that their capabilities may not be as sophisticated as those from third-party specialists.
A compelling web experience, however, doesn’t just mean that the content pushed at the visitor is targeted to their needs. It may also involve enabling them to contribute their own comments and opinions.
To that end, most WCM systems now incorporate support for blogs, wikis and RSS feeds.
“WCM technology is becoming interesting again as the ‘Web 2.0’ buzz drives site owners to interact more with site visitors – which requires more control over content,” says Latham of Gartner.
Among the first vendors to do so has been Stellent, now owned by Oracle. For example, its product now ships with a blogging module out of the box, which enables administrators to drag-and-drop existing documents from the WCM into blogs and post the same item to multiple blogs. An integrated discussion widget handles commenting, and both blogs and comments can be syndicated using RSS.
Likewise, Stellent has also built a wiki module that emulates the Wikipedia user experience, according to Byrne of CMS Watch. “You can use regular hyperlinks as well as wiki mark-up of double-brackets, allowing authors to create new pages and categories on the fly.
That means, unlike Wikipedia, authors can created community-determined hierarchical taxonomies,” he explains. However, the availability of these kinds of WCM capabilities does not necessarily mean that organisations are ready to use them yet, says Byrne.
“Slowly, Web CMS vendors are incorporating Web 2.0 applications into their software, but they cannot teach you how to integrate social content into your broader web publishing effort,” he says.
His advice? “Stay tuned, and expect to be surprised.”
Jessica Twentyman can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Twentyman can be contacted by e-mailing email@example.com
How to spot when it’s time for a website redesign
Forrester Research analyst Alan Webber is often asked by clients how frequently they should overhaul their websites – a question, he says, that assumes there’s a standard lifespan for a corporate website. “The real answer is this: redesign sites when they no longer support business goals,” he says, adding that website managers should watch for one of more of six indicators that it may be time for an ‘online overhaul’.
1. Flat or falling business metrics
Web analytics can provide an understanding of how a site adds value to the business’s bottom line, according to Webber. Metrics to watch typically include number of visitors, home-page abandonment rates and, for sites that sell or generate leads, conversion rates and average-order size. “If key-performance indicators (KPIs) like these drop, while comparable KPIs in other channels (such as retail locations and phone centers) rise it likely means that there are fundamental problems with the site,” he says;
2. New brand identity or brand positioning
Building and maintaining the brand is a top business goal for executives and website decision-makers. So, when a company re-brands itself (or one of its product lines), site content, function, language, imagery, typography and even layout must change to provide consistent support for the new brand attributes;
3. Product or line-of-business expansion
Launching a new product or going into a new line of business can change the way that customers, partners and internal stakeholders think about a company. “Depending on how extreme that change is, it might require a site overhaul, but it doesn’t always,” says Webber;
4. Merger, acquisition, or restructuring
A merger, acquisition, or major restructuring can bring massive change to a company and that will always call for a radical change to its site, too;
5. Technology platform upgrade
When underlying technology changes, site owners must often modify their designs to
accommodate a new enterprise-software package or approach to page coding. “Ironically, this unwelcome gift of extra work can be a blessing in disguise because it creates an opportunity to improve the customer experience,” says Webber. “For example, when pages must be recoded to accommodate a switch from static HTML to CSS [cascading stylesheets], there’s no reason to slavishly reconstruct page layouts designed five years ago;”
6. Navigation system breakdown
Websites are subject to a cycle of accretion and erosion that wears their navigation systems down over time. Accretion happens as contributors add content and links, which tends to make menus become too long and confusing. Worse, new categories of content that were unanticipated by the original design may have no logical fit in the site architecture. “When this happens, links can’t go into the ‘correct’ menu because it doesn’t exist. So instead new content gets jammed into the ‘least wrong’ menu,” says Webber. Erosion occurs as out-of-date content gets removed. Over time, pages and whole sections disappear, sometimes leaving cross-links from other pages that now lead nowhere.
In practice: Channel 4 Television
Few UK companies will ever experience a content-management challenge quite as daunting as that faced by broadcaster Channel 4.
For a start, a robust publishing infrastructure is a must-have for a TV-station website. With more than 60 million page views per day, the sheer volume of traffic to Channel 4’s site is staggering – and those visitors expect the very latest information on each and every visit. When popular reality shows such as ‘Big Brother’ are on air, moreover, those numbers swell.
But there is no room for cutting corners in the race to get information up online. As one of the country’s most innovative and popular brands, a significant swathe of its 32-million-strong weekly television audience expects the company to provide an online experience that is just as creative, thoughtful and compelling as its TV programmes.
“It’s no longer simply about publishing information about Channel 4, its programmes, its presenters and so on,” says Sam McGregor, manager of new media technology at Channel 4. “Meeting user expectations is vital and, in keeping with that, our site is rapidly becoming not only a video-centric portal that builds on TV programmes, but also a platform for user interaction, where our audience can rate programmes and provide their own commentary,” he says.
Producing and editing content and keeping it up-to-date is therefore a huge task – and it is one that needs to be handled by the editors and business users responsible for content, rather than busy IT staff. For that reason, Channel 4 extended its relationship with WCM software company Interwoven, in 2006.
The company had already been using Interwoven’s TeamSite WCM system since 2002, said McGregor, but has now supplemented that with Interwoven LiveSite, a content-publishing server that reduces the content editor’s dependency on the IT team.
That enables editors to update newsfeeds themselves as soon as stories break and to adapt to new situations unfolding on reality shows, such as ‘Big Brother’, by posting updates and video clips within minutes of the broadcast itself. “The software has really helped us to ensure our site is current with news and editorial content that our viewers are really interested in,” says McGregor.
Not only that, he adds, but interactive areas on the site that encourage contributions from website visitors have become a vital part of enabling editors to understand the audience and appreciate their needs. “Of course, that relies heavily on strong moderation capabilities, in order that inappropriate content doesn’t appear – but again, that’s something that TeamSite helps us control,” he says.