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Web marketers wrestle with content control

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As corporate marketers convert their Internet brochures into full-fledged commerce sites, content has suddenly become a strategic competitive weapon and coordinating that content has grown into a multimillion-dollar headache.

Companies' biggest problem in this area is their failure to tackle the critical content processes up front -- creation, coordination, quality control, production and approvals.

"Most companies are 12 months on either side of realizing that they have a big content management problem," says Rohn Jay Miller, exec VP-production for Ikonic, a San Francisco Web developer. "The solution has already cost some companies up to $10 million."

The missing puzzle piece

But corporate marketers at such companies as W.W. Grainger, Epson America and GTE Corp. are starting to include the missing piece of their Web strategies -- a content management plan.

Heavy on logistics, these plans aim to automate and standardize the high cost of content management. Their means to this end are many: Everything from low-tech style manuals and Web production calendars, to online templates, authoring tools and fully automated enterprisewide solutions.

"This is still a new concept for many companies," says Anita Bloch, president of San Francisco-based Red Dot Interactive, which among other things creates content ownership matrices for its clients, pulling in human resources, legal, investor relations and marketing.

"It's a whole interdisciplinary approach," Ms. Bloch says.

GTE, for one, claims its has saved tens of thousands of dollars•and sliced turnaround time from three weeks to 12 hours•by creating formal processes for content.

"The real key for us was getting content as close to its owners as possible," says Suzanne Neufang, director of interactive media for Stamford, Conn.-based telecommunications company GTE, which updates its site twice a day.

Using homegrown authoring and administration tools, non-techies at the company now cut and paste content into a CGI form themselves rather than submitting it to a Webmaster, who would first convert the material to HTML.

Management strategy

This content is automatically indexed and linked to other parts of site, then electronically routed, edited and approved on a staging server before going live.

Lincolnshire, Ill.-based W.W. Grainger also lives by its content management strategy. Its plan includes internally built tools for speedier, more accurate production.

"We've developed a whole cradle-to-grave cycle for keeping up Web content," says Barb Chilson, VP-general manager of the diversified hardware distributor and retailer's Internet commerce group.

Ms. Chilson admits that getting content under control "seems like a no-brainer, but it has been a wild amount of work."

One-fourth of her 50-person Internet commerce staff is dedicated to content management full-time, up significantly from one year ago, she says. Their jobs include extracting data from the mainframe computer, running it through quality control and packaging it in accordance with style and design guides for Grainger's online catalog.

Not a cheap choice

Setting up control management, however, isn't cheap. Most corporations with large information technology staffs have dodged some costs by developing the necessary tools in-house. Others have purchased costly software off the shelf. And Web shops report a brisk business in developing custom solutions for their clients.

But unless a company is already realizing returns on its Web investments, none of these options is cost-effective.

Still, that doesn't mean companies with modest Web budgets can't make a dent in this process. Imaging software maker Live Picture Corp., Scotts Valley, Calif., for one, recently began using Microsoft Front Page to streamline the workload. Wireless services provider AirTouch Communications, San Francisco, also adopted the product because it wanted to reduce reliance on its Web developer for last-minute, off-hour updates like earnings figures.

Although these turnkey packages are not the final solution, they're a first step, says Live Picture Web Marketing Manager Dave Bartell.

"At least it keeps us from using paper," he says. "We'll roll it out to more areas of the company as fast as we can train people."

Just adopting basic publishing standards can make a big difference, as printer manufacturer Epson America, Torrance, Calif., found.

Epson was having problems because its new product launches weren't being coordinated with the Web site, creating confusion among online visitors. In addition, managers were submitting material for the site at the eleventh hour and expecting it to appear almost immediately.

By creating a Web publishing calendar and e-mailing it to all product managers, Epson Webmaster Alex Nathanson was able to synchronize these activities for the company throughout the world. He also convinced managers to add the Web to their launch process time lines.

This has resulted in "50% to 75% greater satisfaction from internal customers regarding quality of information that goes up on the Web," says Mr. Nathanson. "They now have time to review things for accuracy."

Hot button

As their Web businesses become more formidable, quality control has also become a hot button for corporate marketers. On the low-tech side, that means the addition of editors and writers at Live Picture and Epson, who catch misspellings or check for dead links.

But because the content often passes through many hands, more high-tech version control software is a tool all companies seem to be examining.

"Professionalism is not a little issue," says Grainger's Ms. Chilson. "As we move from static to dynamic sites, we'll invest more in this area."

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