Dow embarks on a massive site overhaul

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When Dow Chemical re-launched its Web site in June, it offered an attractive new design and much easier navigation. But underneath the surface, even bigger changes are taking place.

The Dow site is in transition, says Kanina Blanchard, senior communications resources manager for the Midland, Mich.-based company's Internet and intranet services. Over the next six months, control of the $1 million site will move from Modem Media.Poppe Tyson, New York, the firm's interactive agency, to Ms. Blanchard's internal team. At the same time, that team must sell Dow's division managers on putting their individual businesses online.

Dow goes condo

Ms. Blanchard compares the effort to building a condominium tower. Her team is putting in walls, plumbing and other infrastructure; it's up to the divisions to furnish and live in the resulting space.

Ms. Blanchard, who started working on the site in 1995, leads a four-member team that should grow by year-end to six.

Over the years, the site has evolved from what was essentially a billboard to a database of 200 product families to today's site, a virtual guide to Dow's products and business units. But it still has a long way to go, Ms. Blanchard says, based on the company's continuing research.

The current site is based on data generated last August from user feedback and customer surveys.

"When we asked what is it you want off the Web, the No. 1 thing they wanted was data sheets -- technical data sheets, product safety data sheets and product information," Ms. Blanchard says.

The survey also asked how often users were on the site and from where they accessed it.

"We found 52% were spending one to five hours a week [on the site], and 47% of them were using the Web from both work and home," Ms. Blanchard says.

Working with feedback

Sean McKenzie, director of account services at Modem Media, used that feedback for the latest redesign.

"The essential idea was to give Dow more of a personal image," he says, and to make navigation easier.

But the hard work starts now. Before Ms. Blanchard's team can run the site and support the business units, thousands of documents have to be created, Mr. McKenzie says.

These fall into four categories:

  • Run Books, listing steps to follow in fixing problems or making changes on the site, "so anyone tied to the account would know what steps to go through, meaning there's less room for error," he says.

  • Design Guides, showing how pages should look and how they should be built, "so a line of business can control its creative and not lose what they've created in their own field, just as Dow must retain its image." The two will not conflict.

  • Spec Books, the site's technical and functional specifications, allowing applications built for one business unit to be used by others. "They can see how it's built, what the scripts are, and how they're put together."

  • File Libraries, the actual computer code and HTML files used to build the site. These can be used in adding new features.

    Gearing up for the hand off

    Mr. McKenzie estimates he'll need eight or nine people working full-time on the Dow account during the six-month transition period to produce these materials for Ms. Blanchard's team.

    But they're crucial in turning from just another site on the World Wide Web into a functioning business.

    "The intention is always to help the client build the site, establish processes for maintaining it and then develop a road map for the next 12 to 18 months," Mr. McKenzie says. "The expectation is the client will eventually take it in-house."

    Ms. Blanchard's team will use the documentation to support the business units and to train them in building their own Web businesses.

    Still, for early entrants, the move seems to be paying off. Pam Erb, a marketing communications manager in the company's specialty chemicals unit, is one of the "tenants" in the new structure. Her group moved in early, putting all its printed documents online March 1.

    "For the business it was a bit of a risk, but in the last couple of months we're feeling more comfortable," Ms. Erb says.

    She adds that customers are pushing for improvements, such as online training, that they say will help them do more business with Dow.

    Before her site went online, Ms. Erb says, the division drew 17,000 serious customer calls each year. The cost of handling those calls rises every year, but the cost of handling them on the Web remains fairly fixed, she says.

    Looking to the future

    Because of her site's proven success, Ms. Erb is now leading a global division team, making sure concerns about languages (human and computer) and regulations are addressed as the site expands.

    "We meet quarterly and discuss what we need to think about, before we hit deadlines," Ms. Erb says.

    It's this kind of detailed work that, when moved to the Web, will prove the site's value over time, Mr. McKenzie says.

    Modem Media will continue to support the Web site, while Dow is outsourcing much of its information systems work to Andersen Consulting.

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