Taking control of content

When the dot-com bubble burst a few years ago, the red hot market for Web content management systems (CMSs) briefly tanked. If the Internet wasn’t going to be the future of marketing, the reasoning went, who needed a CMS? Among companies with a longer-range view, though, even relatively small ones

like Toronto-based adventure tour operator Butterfield & Robinson and car maker Mazda Canada Inc., that kind of cynicism wore off pretty quickly. They knew that for them the Internet was the future of marketing, whatever the stock market said.

They also realized that hand-coding mission-critical Web sites one page at a time was a mug’s game — inefficient, labour-intensive and inevitably leading to glaring design inconsistencies and static, never-changing content. CMS software promises to simplify and automate Web publishing so business units responsible for content can take over the task, relieving high-priced technical staff and speeding updates and changes. It is a compelling proposition.

Since the crash, CMS prices have come down by orders of magnitude and very inexpensive entry-level options now abound. “”Median prices for low-end solutions have dropped in price by half and are now hovering between $50,000 and $75,000 (US),”” says Lou Latham, a principal analyst with Gartner Inc. There are creditable products from companies like Ektron Inc. that cost as little as $15,000 (US) to implement, and even point solutions such as Macromedia’s Contribute that cost a few hundred dollars per user.

For Butterfield & Robinson, which invested in Lexicon, an entry-level CMS from Toronto-based Version5.1 Inc., in 2002, the technology did exactly what it promised. In the past, if the company’s editors and writers needed to change content they had to e-mail or phone in instructions to programmers at the firm’s Web developer, who would code in HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) and upload pages. It was expensive and time-consuming.

“”Now I have my writers and editors working right within the content management system,”” says B&R vice-president of marketing Christopher Tabbitt. “”They can very quickly effect changes to any page without having to know the first thing about HTML. That was a big win for us.””

Before Lexicon, B&R was paying its Web developer $30,000 to $40,000 a year to make often minor changes. That work is now done by the publishing group, with little extra effort on their part. The company does pay $15,000 a year for technical support on Lexicon, and extra charges for structural and design changes, but the savings are substantial.

In big enterprises, CMSs are eliminating bottlenecks caused by overworked Webmasters. IT groups are finding they can reduce staffing by a factor of four or five to one, says Latham. “”Now (the Webmaster) is just eyeballing pages at the last minute to make sure they’re rendering correctly and won’t break the site.””

Possibly more important than the cost savings are the time savings, says Rob Murdoch, manager of Internet communications at Mazda Canada. In 2002, Mazda invested more than $100,000 in a Web CMS from U.S.-based RedDot Solutions in preparation for a major Web site redesign, completed in October of that year.

“”It’s very key for us to make sure we’ve got the right information on the Web site and that it’s not outdated,”” Murdoch says. “”When potential customers come to the site to look at our products, we want to put our best foot forward.””

As at B&R, making a change or adding new content involved a several-step process culminating in hand-coding by a Web services provider. It could take two or three days. Murdoch can get new content up on the site in less than a day now. “”The CMS allows us to keep the site more up to date, include more features and better creative,”” he says. At the heart of every CMS is a content repository, a database containing discrete page elements — documents, short chunks of text, graphics, photos, video, etc. Because it’s indexed and searchable, the repository makes it easier to manage and find content.

More importantly, content changes are made in the repository, not on Web pages. If it appears on more than one page — the description of a hotel in different tour itineraries on the B&R site, for example — it only needs to be modified, or created, once.

“”You’re saving a bunch of money just because you don’t have to recreate stuff,”” Latham says.

Another key CMS concept is template-driven page building. The template, typically developed in collaboration with a graphic designer, is a set of rules for constructing a particular type of page — a new press release on the Mazda site, for example. Place this graphic here, this address here, contact information here, title here, body text here, and so on. It ensures design consistency.

Tabbitt had assumed that creating pages “”dynamically”” in this way would lead to design compromises. It didn’t in B&R’s case, he says, because the firm found the right graphic artist to work with on template design. In fact, the site has won design awards.

CMSs also provide work flow features that enforce business rules about the approvals process required before publishing new or revised content. And they usually offer version control functions that keep an audit trail of the change/add process and make it possible to roll back content to an earlier version if necessary.

CMSs have evolved from the first pre-crash, Web-centric products. Gartner now treats Web CMS as a subset of a larger category — enterprise content management (ECM), which incorporates document management, knowledge management and other functions. Top- and mid-tier document management vendors such as IBM, FileNet and the Canadian company OpenText Corp. have all purchased small Web CMS companies and are now integrating their functionality. Web CMS pioneers such as Vignette Corp., Interwoven Inc. and Documentum from EMC Corp. have also expanded functionality and position themselves as ECM vendors. B&R now uses its Lexicon repository to store content for direct mail marketing materials as well as Web content.

Lexicon has become a core business system at B&R. The company is in the process of moving management of its Intranet to Lexicon. The CMS is also the key to transforming the current site into a more dynamic marketing tool.

A MyB&R customization feature will let regular visitors say what kind of information they want to receive and how. There will be forums for travelers to keep in touch with new friends they met on B&R trips, and a more elaborate photo site that will let customers upload their own digital snaps from trips and create online slide shows from their own and others’ pics.

“”We really want to start using the Web as the ultimate one-to-one marketing tool,”” Tabbitt says.

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