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GE's overhaul of Internet, intranet unites businesses, customers

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It had 80,000 pages of information about 72 different business units in 12 separate divisions, nine of which would be big enough to qualify as Fortune 500 companies if they weren't all owned by the same $70 billion conglomerate.

It had inconsistent -- if not chaotic -- content, production values, navigation, and look and feel.

It was General Electric Co.'s World Wide Web site.

And it was a mess.

NO INTEGRATION OF INFORMATION

"We had a Web site that was totally organizationally focused without much integration of information between our businesses. You'd have a hard time finding information, so we wanted to make sure we'd have a front door to establish a set of common standards," says Susan Moyer, the Internet project manager for GE corporate marketing communications.

To solve the problem, Stamford, Conn.-based GE hired Meta4 Digital Design, Jersey City, N.J., to tackle the $6 million Internet project.

A SINGLE BRAND IMAGE

"We wanted a unified General Electric site targeted at both our consumer and our business markets. Because our business customers are our consumer customers as well, maintaining a single brand image for the company is considered critical," Ms. Moyer says.

Around the same time, GE was looking to revamp its intranet. For that, it turned to McLean, Va.-based Proxima, which is changing its name to Proxicom this month.

The goal of both efforts was "to tie together businesses and our customers on our external site, and tie together our businesses by using our [intranet] as an interdivisional communications tool," said GE spokesman Ted Meyer, who was on both the Internet and intranet project teams.

CHALLENGE IN TYING IT ALL TOGETHER

For Meta4, the challenge in rebuilding GE's Internet site was not so much figuring out what information business-to-business customers and consumers wanted; it was rather working with people from GE's disparate divisions -- many of them with different business philosophies and attitudes about what a Web site could be expected to deliver.

"We found that on the old site, you didn't know where you were. Different companies tended to do their own thing," says Albert Blanco, Meta4's president.

To sift through the variety of needs, Meta4 set up a team of people to work with each of GE's 72 business units. Each of these units was asked to submit basic information about what its units sold, and what type of marketing message it wished to convey. A sample home page template was then created by Meta4 and sent to each unit for feedback.

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH

Once that communications flow was in place, Meta4 conducted face-to-face team meetings with unit representatives and at various decision points in the implementation process, and used e-mail to deliver status reports to them.

On the client side, one of Ms. Moyer's responsibilities was to identify product information that business-to-business and consumer side customers would expect to find on the new site.

For GE, that task was made simpler because it handles all of its own customer-information back-office support, rather than outsource it, as many companies do. The GE Business Information Center handles inquiries for most of its business-to-business units, while the GE Answer Center performs similar functions for the consumer side.

"Since we basically had already consolidated this response [mechanism], we were able to utilize that history," Ms. Moyer says.

DELIVERING WANTED INFORMATION

"We asked both centers what type of customers were calling in and what types of questions were they asking. Once we were told this information, it was up to us to incorporate it into the Web pages so we could then deliver that type of information electronically."

The new Internet site took eight months to build and went live in April. Mr. Blanco says Meta4 pared the site down from 80,000 Web pages to 15,000, still one of the largest corporate Web sites in cyberspace. NBC, GE's television division, has its own Internet presence and is not on the corporate Web site, but is linked to it.

Proxicom spent four months retooling GE's intranet, and the new version launched in May.

Content suitable for inclusion was identified from a survey distributed internally to about 80,000 existing intranet users. Some of it had previously been created.

ONE-STOP CLICKS

"There were content areas within the legacy systems that also had to be prioritized," says Raul Fernandez, CEO of Proxicom, which has also built intranet sites for Citicorp and Georgia Pacific, and Internet sites for American Express Travel and marketplaceMCI.

In the canvass, many of these users told the developers that they wanted a fresh design able to incorporate their specific needs.

There are five main icons, routing to Hot News, Employee Services, Communities, Idea Forum and Value sections. Additional Home Page links provide one-stop clicks to an internal text-search engine, a What's New page, and a link from the GE intranet to the Internet site.

Several business units also have their own links from the intranet to external Internet sites of key customers. For example, GE Lighting's intranet area has links to the Wal-Mart Web sites. By clicking there, a salesperson at GE Lighting can check to see if and how a new GE product is explained and positioned to consumers on the Wal-Mart site.

FURTHER ENHANCEMENTS

The new, Proxicom-built GE intranet launched in early May, and the company and GE are now in discussions about further enhancing the site with multimedia applications.

Proxicom and Meta4 continue to manage the creative elements of the GE intranet and Internet sites, respectively.

GE declined to divulge how much it costs to maintain the sites, saying only that the costs are spread among each business unit.

Though both sites have been up for several months, Mr. Meyer says there is no empirically based, cost-benefit analysis applied to either site's performance.

Part of this, he says, is due to the fact that virtually all of the several dozen GE employees who have some input on either or both sites have many other responsibilities -- meaning that the internal person-hours expended on site-management can't be easily calculated.

ESTIMATES ON ROI

"We're not spending a lot of energy and resources trying to measure these sites from a return-on-investment standpoint," says Mr. Meyer. "We have some [rough] estimation in terms of the cost-savings on printed materials achieved through improved Internet access to our call centers, but we really can't quantify it to the dollar."

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