Web allows Institute to offer new services, seek new business opportunities

With a wealth of information freely available and social networks on every corner, grand organizations formerly relying on traditional print publishing arms to bring in revenue have had to change.
Publishing remains the mainstay of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). But Tim Robinson, director of strategic business development, has just completed the second iteration of an online strategy that allows its members to access crucial surveying information from any web-enabled device.

The same strategy has also opened up RICS content to a wider audience searching for information, who can now view a degree of information for free, or without having to be a member, instantly pay and consume surveying information.

Unlike many knowledge-based organizations, RICS has not adopted web-based information delivery as a strategy of driving down costs — by reducing costly printing runs — instead it sees online delivery as a business strategy that enables it to gather information and direct future strategy.

Print is still very much part of the business model for RICS, but Robinson reports that his online strategy has allowed the organization to deeply analyze customer and member behavior, something he describes as being invaluable.

RICS had been focused on British private practice surveyors, which Robinson says made delivering information easier. But, as with most organizations, it had to grow and to expand into overseas markets, not only through the internet, but also opening physical offices in emerging markets.

The overall business strategy has been to make RICS the mark of professionalism for surveyors around the world. Today it has 140,000 members — its core customers — in 146 countries. It sets the standards for surveying across the world and provides crucial information to governments.

Its Red Book is considered throughout the surveying industry the definitive set of standards. China is among the markets clamoring for high value information from RICS.

“RICS no longer see membership subscriptions as the only or most important revenue stream to help the organization do what it does, which is inform government agendas,” Robinson says.

Following assessments, the organization is taking advantage of high quality information and software to generate income.

The institute has always standardized regulations, now it sets the standards for markets that previously had none.

“We set the standards of practice and behavior,” he says. “Once we set the standard we provide information on best practice and guidance on compliance.” Among these are legal commentaries and guidance documents.

Online, RICS aims to provide the surveying and property industry with a definitive online resource, known as isurv. The latest isurv is Mark 2 of a project first begun in 2003. Having become an online entity, RICS found its original technology didn’t suit its strategic ambitions, because a third party provider handled site administration.

Iteration one of isurv, like many publishing and information based organizations, was an exercise in digitizing content to be made available online.

“It was still the case that our processes were for a traditional publisher. It suited us then to continue our publishing processes and then hand over site management to a third party provider, with content only updated once a quarter,” Robinson says.

By 2005 RICS was fully web focused and it carried out an audit of its content creation and web presence. A thorough analysis was carried out, analyzing find-ability, the public facing side of their web presence as well as a user group of members.

To carry this out with full independence, Robinson brought in external experts. Cscape, an agency that counts Barclays, Peugeot and BskyB as its clients focused on the public face of RICS online, while TFPL, a specialist information management consultancy addressed find-ability and information management issues. TFPL then took both agencies findings and developed a set of recommendations for the online presence of RICS.

Robinson said the outside view of RICS sites was incredibly useful. “We address different audiences and we gained some valuable feedback on very specific audience sets.”

The end result was that Robinson and RICS believed the management of the most important asset RICS has, its information, had to come in-house. A selection process then began to find an information management technology platform that would provide RICS not only with better content management abilities, but also search and e-commerce.

All three elements the organization had realized in its assessment process were valuable to its various user groups.

“The market for information management technology had changed, there is now a wide range of systems on offer and increased number of vendors,” Robinson says. As Robinson began his search for a technology, the organization also re-assessed its strategy towards content creation and delivery.

Robinson chose not to look at any of the large-scale enterprise content management vendors and instead focused on some of the newer and more agile web content management (WCM) system providers that were now in the market space. After assessing three systems, RICS selected Jadu CMS, from Leicester-based WCM provider Jadu.

With the second generation of isurv now in full operation, RICS is able to offer full members total online access to all of its content at any time, yet still remains a producer of printed publications. It is also now able to sell its information assets to professionals who have an interest in surveying regulations for example, but who are not surveyors and therefore unlikely to join the organization.

Examples include accountants and lawyers who at times in their professional careers will have a need for the professional surveying guidance RICS offers. Robinson believes that a web-based presence enables these professionals to discover the information that RICS has and to purchase it accordingly.

Online has enabled RICS to develop new services tailored to these professions and as a result open up new business opportunities.

“We now seek to provide a set of guidance forms and legal commentary,” he says.

To guarantee that these non-member and non-surveyor groups are captured, Robinson believes an organization has to achieve exacting standards online.

“People expect simplicity, relevance and speed and you have to come up to their level of expectation if you are going to hold their attention,” he says.

Two organizations are the principal causes of this behavior; Amazon and Google. Robinson said the thorough analysis carried out before the new isurv service was developed pinpointed this. All groups using the RICS online service had a “common thread” about their online experience expectations.

“To come up with an e-commerce package especially different from Amazon would be a very brave thing to do now. They have created a design and service conformity,” he says.

In creating a new isurv service RICS decided to retain the brand name, despite pioneering a vastly different service from its initial web presence. In selecting the Jadu platform RICS also had to change search engine, a process many publishing and information companies have found difficult.

The original isurv had a search engine provided by Fast Search & Transfer (FAST), the Norwegian enterprise search vendor acquired by Microsoft at the beginning of the year. In its place RICS now has the Google Search Appliance, the yellow box complete with the Google algorithm inside.

This automatically indexes an organization’s content and delivers a search service exactly like the ubiquitous web search engine onto the RICS website.

“FAST is the leader in enterprise search, but we had what was an old product and it was extremely effective. I had no complaints about it. But when I came to look at the Jadu platform it had done a lot of work engineering the search offering. We knew the search offering had to come up to the Google user experience,” he says.

The background to the entire isurv project is one of a publishing industry that has undergone radical change since the dot com boom.

“We have been delivering a lot of material online, no organization has choice on whether to do that. The user and the customer demands it,” says Robinson.

Commercial and society publishers thought the move to an internet model would reap significant financial savings, ridding them of the costly processes of buying paper, printing titles and then distributing a physical product. Robinson also reveals organizations believed they would discover “immediate global markets, but this has not played out”.

Changing demands

The reason is choice. customers and users now have a choice between paper and online, which means commercially, organizations such as RICS have to deliver both, hardly a major saving. “Some customers demand paper, yet we have to keep pace with change,” says Robinson of the conundrum he faces as director of strategic business development.

So if costs have not been cut, and new business models have to exist alongside existing models, where is the return on investment? Robinson is remarkably relaxed and doesn’t appear to be a man under pressure to rid RICS of costly printing runs and turn it into an online entity.

“The advantages are actually in knowing your users,” he says, warming to the subject. “It’s the data and the analytics you gain, you cannot now make false assumptions.”

As a result, RICS now receives feedback from its varied users. For an organization which holds information as its primary asset, being able to gauge whether the right information is being produced is of great value.

“We can have a dialogue with our users, rather than a one-way process,” he says. “We are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible,” says Robinson of the interaction between organizations and their users.

He describes Web 2.0 technology such as blogging, social networks and wikis as “maturing, they can now be adopted very easily without compromising the organization.

Robinson is measuring engagement on the RICS site and reports increased usage, more repeat visits to their content and increasing overseas users. This has resulted in increased sales from new markets and as a result, “a much better understanding of who is using what,” he says.

RICS is now developing new product sets to increase its range of services.

Soon a range of business users will be able to download a standard document for surveying purposes, manipulate it to suit their needs and share the final product within the organization. Robinson has had to convince his organization of the value of this, an idea he says was welcomed.

Casting an eye over the publishing industry, a sector he started out in as a commissioning editor, Robinson says: “The provision of free content is a trend that is not going to go stop soon, for publishing organizations, it is now about how you deliver your content and make that usable to buyers.”

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