Content Managment and e-Commerce: Partners

E-Commerce is not simply the Internet replacement for data entry clerks. Meet e-commerce's key companion -- content management.

At its simplest, e-commerce can be defined as transactions that occur over the Internet. This transactional focus is how e-commerce is typically measured. E-commerce is simply the Internet replacement for the terminal-based data entry clerks that handled orders submitted over the phone or via snail mail.

This is far too simplistic a view. Web sites that only offer order entry capabilities fail. Customers use the Web to research and compare products, understand options and make purchases. These broad informational needs are handled by e-commerce’s key companion, content management.

Forrester Research defines content management as "a combination of well-defined roles, formal processes and supporting systems architecture that helps firms contribute, collaborate on and control page elements, such as text, graphics, multimedia and applets."

Content management is the key to e-commerce success – presenting the right information to the right people to get them to order your products. Without effective management, you could easily be presenting people with out-of-date, erroneous information. In addition, if you don’t think about your audiences’ needs, you can easily overload your visitors with irrelevant information that does nothing to help them buy, and potentially leads them to click away without doing anything.

Best Practices for Content Management

To most effectively use content management there, are a number of "best practices" that businesses should take into consideration.

1. Content management is about people – not just content. Focusing on the people involved in your Web activities is central to successful Web sites. It must ensure that the right people create, update, review and approve and view the site’s content.

Execute an audience-driven design. A Web site should be designed to enable its target audiences to obtain the information they are looking for, and execute transactions, as easily as possible. But, too often, a Web site is structured to reflect the organization, rather than for maximum impact on its audience. One of the key opportunities presented by the Web is its ability to recognize and classify the audiences who interact with the information it holds. Once these key audiences have been identified, the next step for a company is to associate business goals for each audience. By leveraging knowledge about viewer behavior and organization, content creators can immediately take advantage of flexible business rules that determine the most effective way to deliver a certain set of information.

Unify management of content creation and delivery. Many Web sites present potential content contributors with a hodgepodge of access control systems, application logic, personalization attributes, and other constraints that govern content creation and delivery. An effective content management system addresses this problem by providing an extensible, top-down management system that enables companies to associate business rules with the viewing, modification and management of content assets.

Implement non-technical content management. The key to eliminating bottlenecks and improving information quality is empowering business people to create and modify the content for which they are responsible.

2. Automate costly, time-consuming processes. A content management system should make managing Web content simpler and provide a unified environment for managing multiple types of content.

Simplify template and business rule management. Content management systems generally provide a mechanism for isolating content structure from information. Different types of content that appear in multiple instances on the site are often expressed as templates because templates support a consistent look and feel, promote the reuse of design elements, and make it easy for non-technical users to contribute content to the site.

Harmonize management of template-driven and ad hoc content. A content management system should harmonize the management of both template and ad hoc content. Unified management makes for a more consistent Web site, with all content moving through the same work processes and approvals, and accessible through a single, consistent set of business rules.

Track and manage content changes. The content management environment should be to allow content creators to see what their content looked like when they originally contributed it, as well as how it evolved and changed on its way to appearing on the site. To be effective, these capabilities must occur without requiring significant user action. This archiving capability is important for many reasons from being legally required to just making good business sense. This audit trail capability should be an automatic part of the publishing process, so that every new document is automatically added to the archive, and a change document is saved whenever the content is edited and resubmitted.

Use metadata to automate management and measurement. Metadata is the "information about information" within a site. Examples of metadata include the author of a piece of content, its creation date, its access control properties, the category the content is classified in or even a functional description of a page. Once metadata is associated with a particular type of content, it can be leveraged as a powerful management tool to generate automated directories and listings of content, assist in site measurement or drive the dynamic behavior of the site.

Metadata can be used to automate many parts of managing a site. For example, many sites feature a directory page that lists press releases, which must be updated every time a new release is added. If a press release is removed from the site, someone must also remember to delete it from the directory, or it results in a broken link. The problem is multiplied further if there are multiple directories or methods of linking to press releases within the Web site.

A content management system should make it possible to assign and save metadata attributes to each press release document, and use this metadata to automatically administer the press release directory page. When each press release is created, a metadata attribute called "page category" would be assigned a value of "press release." Querying the metadata present in the content catalog automatically generates the directory page. When press releases are added or removed from the site, the directory page is automatically synchronized with the site content. A content management system should support other uses, such as passing metadata to Java applets or DHTML code, without adding additional complexity from the content contributor’s point of view. Additionally, metadata should be subject to the same management processes as other content so that it can be created, edited and put through approval workflow.

3. Leverage existing assets and skills. Companies need to take advantage of knowledge that already exists within their organization and build toward corporate goals. At its simplest, this means letting people apply tools and existing knowledge to the tasks of managing Web content. It also means integrating with other corporate systems to facilitate the reuse and exchange of information that can be found in those systems.

Support quality, brand consistency and corporate standards. Within a given Web site – and across the enterprise – there are likely to be many content and design elements that are reusable. A content management system should make it easy to manage, organize and share these common elements and to build them into other reusable objects. By implementing a platform that facilitates reusability, companies can enjoy a significant decrease in the costs of synchronizing and maintaining site content, and realize a more consistent presentation of information.

Use the Web to manage the Web. A large part of the cost of software is often indirect, experience cost – what it takes to build the skills necessary to use the system across the organization. This is why Web browsers have been so quickly adopted by business organizations. By allowing business people to access many systems through a single user interface, they promise to lower costs. This also helps to explain why a Web content management system should be browser-based. All functions – content catalog management, work flow, template definition, content contribution, versioning, business rules and so forth – are managed through a Web browser.

Leverage existing technologies and data. If a content management system is to be scalable into the future, it must integrate with other systems to make the most effective use of technology investments. Further, by enabling companies to choose the technologies that make up their Web infrastructure, the content management system can support a "best-of-breed" solution. To do this, a content management system must be as open as possible.

Leverage the corporate directory. In the future, corporate metadata is likely to go well beyond employee directory data to include a unified view of all of a company’s information assets. Organizations that use Web content-management systems to tie together metadata from the enterprise directory with audience-driven intranet structures will be able to make new employees more immediately productive by giving them access to required Web content resources based on their roles in the enterprise.

– Hank Barnes is Vice President of Marketing at Eprise Corporation (Framingham, Mass.). He can be reached at