Keeping today's website visitors satisfied is a tough job. Right now, few corporate websites succeed, with static, lifeless pages that lack interactivity.
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Because of the efforts of successful websites, the average visitor now expects more targeted, even personalised, interactions with each and every company they do business with online, says Forrester Research analyst Kyle McNabb.
Since the late 1990s, their tools have been used by companies to create, manage, store and publish content to the web, including text, graphics, photos, video, audio and applications.
But in recent years, "the web-content management franchise has expanded significantly", according to Lou Latham, an analyst at Gartner. Today, web-content management leadership requires the capability to take full advantage of the web as an interactive platform, rather than just treating it as another publishing medium, says Latham.
"A web-content management 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 require exactly those qualities.
As a result, web-content management tools are changing. Users need to be very 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 content-production aspects of their web-content management 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 web-content management packages offer some kind of personalisation, Tony Byrne, an analyst with research firm CMS Watch believes this area is "highly specialised and quite complex".
"You should not assume that your content-management supplier's personalisation capabilities will meet your needs without thoroughly testing it first," he says.
For a start, Byrne says, there are many different approaches to personalisation. The simplest approach, he says, is "roles-based" personalisation, where site owners and editors predetermine groups of users - such as "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 so the site better matches their interests," says Byrne. Users are typically assigned a user name and password for authentication. Cookies may also be used so that users are not required to log-in on subsequent visits.
In order to boost content-targeting efforts, meanwhile, many web-content management suppliers are now turning to analytics. These detail content navigation and usage, enabling website managers to analyse customer behaviours and transactions, and tweak their 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. Vignette is currently working with Omniture on similar capabilities.
Other web-content management packages have their own analytics products built in, but Byrne warns that their capabilities may not be as sophisticated as those from third-party specialists.
A compelling web experience, however, does not just mean that content pushed at the visitor is targeted to their needs. It may also involve enabling them to contribute their own comments.
To that end, most web-content management software now incorporates support for blogs, wikis and RSS feeds. "Web-content management 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.
Uptake of these interactive tools has so far been limited, but that may be about to change. A 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 such as YouTube and Facebook, but might also provide a major way for other brands to attract new customers and boost revenue.
In an EIU survey, for example, nearly 60% 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.
And it is that kind of forward thinking that is taxing the minds of many website managers right now. Take, for example, Rob Tyler, group web manager at investment house New Star Asset Management, who was involved in selecting a new web-content management product for the company in early 2006.
After assessing a number of different web-content management packages, Tyler ultimately chose Mediasurface over rivals RedDot, Percussion and Immediacy, because he felt that Mediasurface's Morello package could help New Star meet its long-term ambitions for the website, as well as its immediate goals.
The initial aim of the project was quite conventional: to consolidate multiple websites aimed at retail, corporate, institutional and hedge-fund customers into a single corporate website. That, it was hoped, would enable the company to centralise management and re-use content, leading to lower operational costs and increased editorial productivity.
But Tyler's vision for the website sought to deliver more than that. Already, the company offers on-demand video webcasts to keep its clients up to speed with market developments and fund-manager insights.
Behind the scenes, New Star's web team is experimenting with social bookmarking techniques, exploring how the company might use RSS feeds to drive traffic to the site, and is building a business case for incorporating blogs into its web operations.
"We 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 is vital that our web-content management system can grow with us," he says.
Case study: Channel 4
Few UK companies will ever experience a content-management challenge quite as daunting as that faced by Channel 4.
For one thing, a truly robust publishing infrastructure was an absolute must. With more than 60 million page views per day, the sheer volume of traffic Channel 4's website attracts is staggering, and visitors expect the very latest information on each and every visit. When popular reality shows are on the air, the number of visitors can swell enormously.
But there is no room for cutting corners in the race to get information online. Channel 4 strives to be an innovative, forward-thinking media company, and 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 aim to be.
"It is 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 expectation 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 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 web content management software company Interwoven in 2006.
The company had already been using Interwoven's Teamsite web-content management system since 2002, 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 news feeds themselves as soon as stories break, and adapt to new situations unfolding on reality shows such as Big Brother by posting updates and video clips within minutes of the broadcast itself.
"Interwoven 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 does not appear. But again, that is something that Teamsite helps us control," McGregor says.