In-Depth

Managing Web Content

Corporate America has long had a mixed response to the question of whether to buy or roll its own applications. That debate is now being renewed in the arena of Web content management. Some customers maintain it makes more sense to build their own system, especially given the rich development tools available today. But analysts generally caution against it, saying it is a giant money pit with little real return.

Of course, the answer for any given company will depend to a great degree on corporate culture, established legacy applications and what exactly is needed in a Web content management (WCM) setup. The more features you need, the more it makes sense to go with an off-the-shelf package, especially given that there are so many already available.

Some analysts count at least 70 WCM players, from high-end enterprise systems to individual or workgroup solutions. Software ranges from WCM market leaders Vignette Corp., Austin, Texas, and Interwoven Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., to document management vendors that are now targeting the WCM market, such as FileNET Corp., Costa Mesa, Calif.

Then there is a contingent coming into content management from the software configuration management space—Merant, Rockville, Md., Serena Software Inc., Burlingame, Calif., and Rational Software Corp., Cupertino, Calif., to name just a few. Their claim to fame is that they bring the discipline of version control, impact analysis and change management to everything that is part of the site. "If you go to any sophisticated Web site, it's a combination of code and content," said Tony Stayner, vice president of marketing at Serena, "These need to be developed, deployed and tested together."

Adding to the confusion are the general economic woes besetting the entire IT industry, as well as WCM vendors that have been acquired or closed their doors. Among the market moves: Eprise Corp., Framingham, Mass., and Open Market Inc., Chicago, have been acquired by Divine Inc., and Microsoft Corp. snatched up NCompass Labs Inc. earlier this year. (See sidebar, "Web content management: The big picture.")

Web content management: The big picture
Giga Information Group Vice President Connie Moore calls Web content management (WCM) one of the "brighter spots" in the software business. Revenue in the category is growing at about 20%, despite the country's economic woes and weakening IT budgets.

That said, however, she says most of the WCM projects she is aware of are more short-term than before, and the "average deal size has been falling." Pharmaceuticals, government agencies and financial services firms are heavy users of WCM, said Moore.

In general, people are buying WCM for a combination of external and internal use—business-to-business or intranets. But the majority of the focus these days is on WCM use for "customer-facing" content, Moore noted. "It's harder to cost-justify for the intranet," she added.

WCM customers generally fit into one of three categories, said Bob Markham, a senior analyst at Giga:

  • Users already have an existing custom WCM system in place and are looking for a package. These customers have done a significant amount of integration, and will need to revisit all those integrations with whatever new package they implement.
  • Other customers were early implementors that implemented a package that is no longer working for them. Perhaps they selected a middle-market package and now they need a high-end solution, Markham said.
  • The final group of WCM users are those extending content management into "more of an e-business platform," Markham explained. "They want to couple, either loosely or closely, their content management with customer relationship management" or other back-end systems.
As this is happening, customers have to make tough choices about vendors. Merant bought a WCM product called Collage from NetObjects, Macromedia Inc. acquired Allaire Corp. and Starbase purchased Worldweb.net Inc. At least one WCM vendor—eBT International Inc. in Providence, R.I.—closed its doors. These are in addition to the acquisitions of Eprise, Open Market and NCompass Labs Inc. Players that have achieved some success in foreign markets will continue to try to expand in the U.S. A recent example is Day Software, Newport Beach, Calif.

Most observers believe the market consolidation was inevitable, given the number of vendors in the market and general economic conditions. "I think it's been accelerated by concerns that customers have had about the viability of these vendors," Giga's Moore said. "And now they're becoming more concerned, so the strong ones tend to get stronger, and the small ones tend to get weaker."

Divine Inc. in Chicago recently acquired Open Market and is in the process of acquiring Eprise. The goal is to provide WCM as one piece of a toolkit to help manage all customer relationships for a company, explained Jeff Schultz, chief marketing officer at Divine.

WCM is "an important component; so much of what we're doing is moving content around," Schultz said. Right now the company is moving quickly to try to provide focused solutions to specific problems. But over time, Divine hopes to integrate its acquired products into a cohesive whole.

For now, though, Divine is looking at its WCM acquisitions as a way of satisfying different ends of the market: high-end needs with Open Market, and distributed, non-technical business users with Eprise. By the end of Q1/2002, Divine plans to have a position paper available that will talk about how the two WCM product lines will come together and where they see integration possibilities, Schultz said.

—Johanna Ambrosio

Even as this is happening, WCM vendors of all stripes are adding more and more features and functions to their products. Personalization engines, digital asset management, syndication tracking, analytic tools, micropayment features, links to customer resource management systems and other features are finding their way into WCM packages.

These factors are causing customers to take stock of their WCM strategy. Enterprises are "stepping back to find out they have three different WCM systems, six different pieces of portal software, 18 different Web sites and some home-grown WCM software," noted Guy Creese, a research director at the Aberdeen Group Inc., a Boston-based consultancy. Enterprise customers are taking a deep breath and trying to figure out what to do about unifying their corporate intranet with their external Web site, for instance, which often have distinctly different methods for classifying or storing documents and other types of content.

Customers who roll their own
Some customers are finding it makes sense to develop their own systems. Giant Internet retailer 1-800-Flowers.com in Westbury, N.Y., for example, went on a search about a year ago to buy an off-the-shelf system to replace its in-house developed tool—and came very close. "We even got so far as to send our guys out for training on the new package," said Bill Carson, vice president of applications. "But when they got back, they said we'd use a maximum of 10% of the package's features. It just didn't make sense for what we needed."

On a more strategic level, the retailer was wary of committing all its Web-related business logic to one specific vendor. WCM packages "want to be everything to everybody," stated Enzo Micali, chief technology officer at 1-800-Flowers.com. "We would have had to put a lot of our business logic into the content management system, which effectively would have locked us into that software."

Further, Micali said, it would have been "very disruptive for us to change to another WCM package," and it "would have been very difficult to cost-justify that activity. We've put a lot of time and effort into our existing tool."

So the deal was off. Instead, 1-800-Flowers.com decided to revamp its internal WCM administration tool, used by some 35 people in the marketing department, to update the site. This tool has been in use since the mid-1990s, is written as an ASP and has "evolved over the years," said the firm's Carson.

One of the features recently added to the in-house tool was the ability to make content "go live" based on date and time. So, for example, as of 3 p.m. on a given day, the rose special can start—and all of the site's relevant pages are updated with information about the special deals.

In fact, that was one of the benefits of looking at third-party tools, Carson said. "By doing all the analysis, we figured out which pieces of functionality we were missing."

Christopher Klanac is using an off-the-shelf package, but says he wishes he had developed his WCM system in-house from the get-go. Klanac, content management specialist at mutual-funds provider Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, has been using Vignette's StoryServer package for several years. "We've built all our own utilities using Vignette's tools," he said. "A lot of our requirements for workflow just weren't supported using their built-in systems," he explained.

In the three years Morningstar has been using the product, some of the features Klanac and his team had to add have since been put into the package, Klanac said. But at the time they started using StoryServer, the package did not include a built-in spell checker, for example. So Morningstar wound up integrating a word processing package from another vendor, which provided a Microsoft Word-like environment within StoryServer. This avoided having to cut-and-paste copy from StoryServer into Word, spell check it and then cut-and-paste it back into StoryServer.

Another issue the firm ran into, said Klanac, was that Vignette's workflow system was "one way." In other words, Web documents could be made to automatically flow in order from one person to the next, but they could not go back again. Morningstar had to tweak the workflow to allow more back-and-forth communication between a content contributor and their boss, for example.

All in all, noted Klanac, "you can build all of this in-house, and you're better off doing it, as long as you have a good development team." His reasoning is that "as flexible as these products are—and Vignette is incredibly flexible—you're still fairly limited in the way that workflow or versioning work."

Off-the-shelf packages are not inexpensive—high-end ones can go for $500,000, with implementation and other consulting services costing at least as much. "This is something you have to weigh [in your decision]," said Klanac.

Picking a package instead
On the other hand, in-house WCM development is not for everybody. Frank Russell, an investment management company in Tacoma, Wash., installed Interwoven's TeamSite about two years ago and is satisfied with both "the vendor and the product," said John Stingl, manager of the Web services team.

Stingl's team maintains the corporate site as well as channel sites for some 45 partners that sell Frank Russell's investment products on the retail side. They had "a requirement to share content from site to site," Stingl said. "Each new site required a separate development effort."

In addition, said Stingl, the content was hard to manage. "There were inconsistencies from site to site, and we didn't want to have to hire dozens of people just to manage the content."

So the company decided it was time to look at WCM tools. After surveying the market, they settled on Interwoven. "We liked that it fit into our IT architecture; it ran on a platform we already approved: Microsoft NT," noted Stingl. "It had the functionality we were looking for, especially templates, as well as rollback, version control and scalability."

Templates were key for putting content management into the hands of non-technical users, he added. In the past, sites had required the use of Microsoft FrontPage, a fairly sophisticated HTML editor.

In all, Stingl said, "we're happy we made a WCM decision. There's no way we could have handled the number of sites we have without a tool in place. We would have had to quadruple the number of staff we have."

Indeed, many analysts flatly warn against developing an in-house WCM system.

"I don't think it's a good idea to develop your own WCM software," said Connie Moore, a vice president with Giga Information Group in Washington. "There's such a range of capabilities and price ranges in what's already on the market."

Rob Perry, a senior analyst at consultancy The Yankee Group in Boston, agrees. "It's so much cheaper and easier to work with a vendor," he said. "People underestimate the time needed to create a large solution, and this is something that's going to be part of the infrastructure of a large company."

Aberdeen's Creese notes that there are segments of the market that do "want to roll their own," particularly in the financial services arena. For these companies, not only is content key to their business, but they have an "incredibly deep" programming staff.

Giga's Moore explained that companies generally need to reassess their WCM strategies when something changes about the site: either they add more sites to the mix, or the site changes from a static provider of marketing information to one that is more interactive. "If you're moving from one stage of e-business to another, your content management system must match up with customer expectations," she explained.

Technology trends
Several things are making WCM packages more attractive than ever, analysts and others say.

First, "a lot of the WCM vendors have moved over to Java platforms," said Aberdeen's Creese. "So if you're a Java shop, it gets a lot easier to use a system that assumes WCM is one of many applications that need to run on top of Java."

Also, the packages are "starting to come out of the raw tool stage and are becoming real applications," said Andrew Weiss, CTO at WCM software provider Merant. He likens it to the history of programming languages becoming higher level and easier to use. "The tools are becoming applications unto themselves; some of the mundane tasks are embedded in the technology."

Perhaps the most important trend, from a corporate perspective, is that more of these tools are incorporating ways of tagging content more automatically—whether it is through XML or some other means. This is critical to track the content that visitors are viewing, as well as for reusing content; and many of the high-end WCM packages provide automatic tagging.

This will resolve several key issues of past tagging schemes, particularly inconsistency. Different content creators may consider the same piece of content to be "about" different things, if they remember to tag it at all. "There's no glory in it, so people just don't do it," Aberdeen's Creese said.

The key question here, however, is whether the meta tagging is done via a standard such as XML, or via some proprietary means. Doing the meta tagging in a proprietary way could cause problems down the road if you try to communicate with another site that uses XML or another standard.

Whatever the scheme used, though, meta data "forms a basis of integration with other applications," explained The Yankee Group's Perry. "The fundamental value is on the integration side" to allow the content management system, for example, to retrieve information directly from a database. Several companies, including Stellent Inc. (formerly IntraNet Solutions), Eden Prairie, Minn., and Interwoven, have created APIs for their WCM packages to help on this front.

Another thing to consider is that prices are dropping. Given the current state of the economy, it is pretty much a buyer's market in most areas at the moment. It may be a good time to buy—or to roll your own.

Key questions
If you are in the market for a Web content management (WCM) system, here are some important questions to ask vendors:

  • How does the package handle and manage the creation, collaboration and life cycle of Web content?
  • How well does it fit into the overall scheme of how you already do business? This will heavily influence how much customization will be required.
  • How easy is it for non-technical content providers to use?
  • How well does it scale?
  • How does it integrate with other systems and infrastructure software?
  • How does it handle security?
  • Is it based on standards?
  • Can you roll back to a previous version of the site?
  • Can the package distribute content to wireless devices, caches and other types of end-user tools?
  • How does the package handle features and functions other than traditional "core" WCM abilities—things like micropayment or source code?
  • What is the vendor's long-term strategy? Where does it see the market heading?
Particularly these days, demand to see proof of the vendor's financial status—not just income and profit, but how much cash is in the bank, how many customers it has and so on. When doing your due diligence, you are well advised to treat all WCM vendors as start-ups, no matter how long they have been in business.

—Johanna Ambrosio

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