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Web solutions: In-house or outsource?

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The Internet is changing habits. Customers who once waited to get their information in print are now going to their desktops to get their news in real time. As business publishers, this means our content should be published once, then distributed in many different formats so that our customers get the information they need when they want it, in the format they want to receive it.

Determining the best solution to actuate a media-agnostic strategy is half the battle. The other half is determining whether is it better to execute your Web strategy in-house or through an outside vendor.

About three years ago, when I first assumed the post of CEO for Reed Business Information (then Cahners), my management team did a thorough evaluation of our recently acquired Web development firm, eLogic. We decided that although eLogic would continue to fulfill its obligations to existing external customers, its new-business focus would be internal customers within Reed Business Information. By focusing eLogic's talents on our internal properties, we saw a clear opportunity to grow our Web sites, improving and expanding upon our electronic offerings for readers and advertisers alike.

This strategy has served us well and helped to differentiate us from many of our competitors. Today, all of our 75 major Web sites are serviced by a team of 52 Web professionals, led by Jeff DeBalko, who joined us in 2003 from IDG. Jeff in turn reports to our operations president, Bill O'Brien, who oversees the division-much like he oversees the operation of our print products.



We've done a cost-benefit analysis that has confirmed our belief: We can deliver higher-quality information at a significantly lower cost through our in-house team than if we had continued to use a number of different outside vendors.

There are a number of reasons why this is true. Operating from a single eLogic platform, we have a standardized development process and reporting procedure for all our Web sites. Through this platform and a shared development team, we have been able to provide some sophisticated upgrades that allow us to stay in tune with the latest Web trends. We use streaming video on many of our sites, and we are becoming increasingly invested in blogs and RSS feeds, which I think are going to be a much bigger part of our business in the future. Our Web sites share expertise and innovations across the board.

While we have a standardized platform, we still have the ability to customize our services, so we're able to provide a complex site, such as Variety.com, the power and functionality it needs to stand out within its incredibly competitive market. Variety.com has done so well, in fact, that it has been recognized with quite a few industry awards, including being a 2005 finalist for Best Web site in American Business Media's prestigious Neal Awards competition.

An in-house team also allows us to take advantage of group buying power, which becomes very important when negotiating contracts with companies such as Google, which provides our AdSense services.

Outside of our Webzines, we have a number of other in-house electronic initiatives that are led by our Senior VP-CIO Jane Aboyoun and a team of 26 data product developers. These initiatives include Reed Connect, a specification search product for our construction audience, and ReedLink, a comprehensive manufacturing product search engine powered by KellySearch. We're now expanding ReedLink to our life sciences, electronics and construction markets, and partnering with Yahoo!/Overture to provide sponsored links.

Because we see electronic initiatives as a core business investment for our company, an in-house Web development solution has certainly worked for Reed Business Information. Just as we would not allow freelancers to drive our print products, we feel it's important to have an in-house Web development team working side-by-side with editorial staffers, who provide content.

Would I broadly recommend the approach we've taken to everyone? No. I recognize that for smaller organizations it might be more difficult to make a major Web investment, especially when considering the capital commitment involved. That said, if electronic initiatives are a central part of your business-and for most business-to-business publishers, this will be the case-an in-house solution will offer you better control of the process.

Jim Casella is CEO of Reed Business Information. He can be reached at jcasella@reedbusiness.com.

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