Wonderful websites

With regional internet penetration having doubled since 2000, the web is becoming a fantastic place for local companies to increase their market presence. However, if organisations are to attract and retain customers, their websites must be smart, effective and easy to use. Content management systems could hold the key.

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By  Alicia Buller Published  August 1, 2004

|~|Rashid200.jpg|~|Rashid Ghanti, Middle East account manager at Documentum.|~|Company websites are no longer just online business cards. They are necessary as sales, branding and cost-saving tools. As such, organisations need to pay as much attention to their virtual image as they do to their offline brand. IT managers today need to optimise their backend systems to ensure their sites are able to deliver a positive experience to web users. Online company presence has the potential to deliver unparalleled returns on investment (ROI), but the flipside is that it’s a fickle marketplace, where getting it right has never been more important. The online community is growing ever more savvy and expects up-to-date, dynamic, accurate content. Gone are days when a company could place a few bullet points on the web, accompanied by a beaming photo of the chairman, and hope for the best. “People are expecting to be able to find out all about you on the web — what you do, what you sell, the latest news, activities and offers,” says Christian Kroker, managing director at local content management system (CMS) solution provider, Enigmatis. “People get on the web to find out who can help them. Out of all the businesses they find online, they’ll only call a few, depending on which one looks the most professional. First impressions on the web are crucial — like if you walk into a shop and it’s dirty, you’ll walk out quickly. If the site looks lousy, you’ll think, well, can get they anything else right?” he adds. Traditionally, many companies managed their website content through inhouse IT teams. Business users would create content and pass it through the IT department to publish, or the technical team would create content itself and upload it. This bottleneck meant requests took longer to publish and that content creators were not experts but IT workers. This combination often led to websites that were not only out of date but also lacked credibility. “To get content to the web quickly, and to give the right information to the right people at the right time, you can’t go through the IT department, it takes too long,” says Samir Benmakhlouf, business development manager at Microsoft Bahrain. “The business people need to take ownership of the site because the IT department is often too overwhelmed and slow. If you remove that barrier you save a lot of time and money,” he adds. More recently, many local companies have invested in a CMS — intelligent software that is able to post and manage content automatically based upon a structured workflow system. This removes the need for content to go through the IT bottleneck. CMS solutions are offered by a wide range of local and international vendors, ranging from tailored software for small businesses that delivers basic web presence for a few thousand US dollars, to powerful off-the-shelf solutions for multi-nationals that can exceed US$100,000. The typical CMS is layered onto a database, which is usually provided as part of the solution. For example, IBM offers its DB2 database with its package and Microsoft offers SQL. Both companies can also connect their CMS to legacy databases, but this isn’t recommended for optimum performance. For the CMS to produce accurate content, it should also be able to integrate with other information and database repositories such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications and customer relationship management (CRM) systems. “The best way to deliver accurate content is to bring it directly from its source, i.e. the repository where it already exists, rather than re-keying content which is prone to human errors, or keeping multiple versions of the same content in different places,” says David Thorpe, EMEA marketing manager at Vignette. “To do this users need strong integration capabilities so they can integrate directly with the ERP, CRM, document management or other applications where the content currently resides and create a virtual repository where users get the content as and when they need it. This also ensures it is up to date,” he adds.||**|||~|IBM_BasharKilanilarge.jpg|~|Bashar Kilani, manager of IBM software for Middle East, Egypt, Pakistan & North Africa. |~|Another step to ensuring website credibility is to only allow authorised persons to manipulate and publish web content. This responsibility should be given to business users rather than the IT department or a web-master. “The IT team are there to ensure the system is stable and secure, and that the web design is appropriate, but it is only the business users who have the knowledge to accurately create and modify content,” says Thorpe. CMS solutions can enable this process in a number of ways. Firstly, a good CMS system will allow business users to post content on the internet without needing to master complex web skills. For instance, a user is now able to enter content into a standard word programme with Documentum’s CMS and the solution will automatically convert it into web-ready content. This not only ensures that credible content is posted quickly; it also enables a richer variety of authorised users to contribute to the site. “We set up the system so that different users have access to different programmes depending on their skill set. For example, a journalist, a designer and a marketing person will all need various set-ups. We employ specific interfaces for different users, this makes it easy for the layman to contribute to the website,” says Rashid Ghanti, account manager, Documentum. Another way to improve information credibility is to deploy a workflow system. Typical CMS workflow processes require information to be created, reviewed and proofed by the appointed persons prior to publication, while leaving the exact steps and stages of approval up to the customer. Many CMS solutions are also reactive to time delays. For example, if a designated employee hasn’t responded to the appropriate content request by a certain time, the CMS will automatically move the request up the chain to ensure that the information is updated on time. On top of this, access regulation enables passwords to be put in place so that only the right people are able to manipulate content, which again helps to ensure information on the site is credible. “To regulate credibility you need a system that allows you to implement an approval workflow before content is published. This might include taking content through translators for multi-lingual sites, and then through to marketing and legal for sign-off on the content prior to publishing,” says Thorpe. In effect, using a CMS makes it very difficult to upload pages that aren’t consistent. The system structures the pages according to content type. For each type, there is a specific workflow, a specific layout and specific validation. The end result, however the data is entered, is always a structured collection of typed pages. In addition to regulating the content and the look and feel, CMS can also regulate content expiry — crucial for keeping website information fresh. “Our CMS manages dates for all content — the date to be published and date to be removed — these two actions are automated by the system,” says Pierre Bernassau, EMEA senior marketing manager at Documentum. Of the local companies using a CMS, National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) was one of the early adopters. It implemented Microsoft’s CMS offering to help keep its website accurate, up to date and dynamic. “MS CMS is essential for managing our content. We got to the point where we just couldn’t manage the [content] volume anymore. It was taking two days to put up content and we just weren’t sure what was going up and when. Today, bank information has to be right up-to-the-minute because customers won’t accept less than that any more,” says Golnar Mahmoudi, head of the internet division at NBK. “Having access control has raised the bar of our website quality massively. The CMS automatically updates content for us. Even if the bank is closed, it will update and remove content, so we can provide customers with a timely 24-hour service,” she adds. NBK has also taken pains to ensure that the CMS is not just an add-on to its business but that it is treated as an ingredient of its entire business strategy. “A company can win by incorporating their web strategy into everything they do, they have to view it as part of the whole business strategy,” says Mahmoudi. NBK recently combined MS CMS with MS Commerce Server and WebTrends 2000 software to help it track, profile and deliver customised content to its visitors. These add-ons allow the bank to collect data from customer registration forms and assist in tracking user preferences and delivering customised content. Through measuring hit-rates and page views with software such as WebTrends 2000, NBK is able to discern what the customer is interested in and what they’re not, and change its content and offers accordingly. “It’s important to ask your customers what they want through surveys, focus groups, polls and the web and deliver it to them. We are currently reconfiguring the user experience based on feedback, so that new users don’t have to answer so many questions before they register, and also we have provided external user content, like prayer times, according to feedback from the web,” says Mahmoudi. “The website helps us to retain customers — it creates another delivery channel — another factor in keeping the customer happy,” she adds. Today, NBK gets 90,000 unique site visits on a monthly basis. This is a 250% growth in traffic since NBK revamped its site. The Kuwaiti bank attributes much of its continued website success to a simple formula: it focuses on researching and delivering in terms of customer needs. “A website that wins will be easy-to-use, current, customised, personalised and offer a good value proposition,” says Mamoudi. Supporting this, a report by accounting and research company Arthur Andersen, has found that users rate website aspects in the following order of importance: ease-of-use, fast download time, current information, content quality and content organisation. Features such as fancy graphics or long company profiles don’t even get a look in. Overwhelmingly the evidence suggests that current and credible information can only be delivered via an organised CMS solution. In addition, as well improving customer service, up-to-date and accurate CMS information can also help to protect a company’s assets. “Out of date content costs money and price errors and wrong information mean missed opportunities. This is why CMS is vital to update hundreds of websites around the world. Without automation, it would be a logistical and financial headache,” says Thorpe of Vignette. This is not the only way to save on cash with CMS. Bashar Kilani, manager of IBM software for Middle East, Egypt, Pakistan & North Africa, says the internet is crucial to saving on transactional costs and boosting sales. “A lot of people internet shop before they actually go shopping – it’s more and more part of the culture. Another plus side is that it’s very profitable for organisations to do transactions over the internet. A web transaction can cost only 10% of the equivalent face-to-face transaction — this is why banks and telcos are promoting the internet as an access channel,” he says. The beauty of the web is that it presents a level playing field. The barrier of entry into particular markets is the same for everybody. Companies that have the right infrastructure find themselves in a good position from a cost point-of-view because the cost of CMS goes up according to an organisation’s size, number of web pages and the need for translation. “SMEs should look for bespoke website companies because it’s a lot cheaper. Whereas larger companies, like banks or airlines, normally get a larger off-the-shelf CMS solution which can go up to about US$250,000,” says Simon Bond, regional business development manager at web design agency, Impact Proximity. “We build bespoke CMS solutions for the client — or they can buy off-the-shelf solutions from larger companies, like Vignette, IBM or Documentum,” he adds. With other companies such as Enigmatis selling CMS solutions from a few hundred US dollars upwards and an increasing number of open source offerings hitting the internet, there’s becoming scant excuse for an under-performing website. “Increasingly as time goes on, web usage is going up, online business access is rising and everybody who is not on the net is at a serious disadvantage,” warns Kilani. ||**||

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