Who Needs Content Management?

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted October 28, 2004

Enterprise content management (ECM) systems used to be something only big businesses could afford. But small companies often need just as much help creating, managing and publishing content as large enterprises do — or more. It all depends on the type of company.

Luckily for small businesses like Butterfield & Robinson (B&R), the award-winning international adventure travel firm, ECM systems have come way down market in the past few years and even relatively small businesses can now reap the benefits of using them. At B&R, content management has become a core technology and a key part of the company's new Web marketing strategy.

Founded by George Butterfield in 1966, B&R virtually invented the adventure travel business and is still considered preeminent in the field. Today it's a thriving firm with about 50 employees and annual revenues of over $18 million. It organizes and leads 200 to 300 upscale bicycle and hiking trips each year to destinations around the world.

It Used To Go Something Like This
B&R first started using a Web content management system (CMS) — the evolutionary precursor of ECM — in 2002 when it wanted to launch a new, slicker Web site. Lexicon, a software application from Version5.1, made it easier for B&R to create, update and change the site by putting Web page creation and publishing into the hands of content experts in the firm rather than programmers. This speeded the publishing process and saved the company money while ensuring design consistency.

Before Lexicon, if the firm's three-person publishing group needed to add a page or make changes to an existing page — even if it was only to correct a typo — they had to call or e-mail programmers at the company's Web design partner, who would make the changes and publish them to the Web after first going back to B&R for approvals.

"Now I have my writers and editors working right within the content management system," says B&R vice president of marketing Christopher Tabbitt. "They can very quickly effect changes to any page without having to know the first thing about HTML. That was a big win for us."

B&R was paying its Web services partner about $24,000 to $32,000 a year in hourly charges for making changes and adding new content to the site. Now all of that work is done by the internal publishing group, and it takes very little, if any, extra effort beyond what they put into creating the content itself under the old process. B&R bought a one-time Lexicon license for $25,000. The company also pays Version5.1 about $12,000 a year for maintenance, but the rest is savings.

How Does It Work?
CMSs like Lexicon start by creating a content repository, a database of discrete content elements such as documents, text snippets, graphics, photos — anything that might go on a Web page or be used in other publishing media. Good CMSs also have an easy-to-master user interface that allows non-technical writers and editors to create and store content elements. Finally, the CMS builds, or rebuilds, Web pages using templates.

Templates, designed typically with the help of a graphic artist, are a list of instructions or rules for creating a particular type of page on the site. They tell the system where in the repository to find common page elements such as logos, titles and links, and where to position them on the page. And they stipulate positioning and style — colors, fonts, borders, etc. — for new or unique content.

To create a new page, an editor might use the CMS to create new elements and add them to the repository, or might add them from other programs. The editor tells the system where in the repository to find the unique content for the new page, then the system automatically builds the page by pulling content from the repository and inserting it according to the rules in the template.

Save Time Without Compromise


Butterfield & Robinson
Butterfield and Robinson uses content management software to handle both its online and print publishing needs.
Tabbitt feared that moving to this dynamic style of Web page creation with cookie-cutter page designs would result in compromises in quality. That hasn't been the case, he said, because the firm was lucky to find graphic designers who understood the process and were willing to work with the tools. B&R has in fact won design awards for its Web site, which gets about 1,500 unique visitors a day.

The CMS saves time when making changes because rather than making changes to individual Web pages, it makes them to the content elements in the repository. Wherever that content appears in the site — and there is a fair amount of repetition at the B&R site, as at many others — it is corrected by the one action. The system also keeps track of all changes, creating an audit trail of who did what and when, which also lets the firm easily roll back to an earlier version if necessary.

Besides the quantifiable benefits — saved time and money — the CMS provides one additional benefit. "It gives our publishing group great satisfaction to have control of the process now," Tabbitt says. "It's like instant gratification. You look at a page and say, 'Oops, that's wrong' — and within minutes you can go in and make the change. It really has revolutionized how we work."

Moving Beyond The Web
Lexicon, like most Web CMSs, has evolved in the time B&R has been using it, and B&R's use of it has evolved too. It's no longer just for Web content. The company also uses it to create, organize and maintain the content it has always published in print catalogs, newsletters and other direct mail pieces. In that respect, it's more ECM than Web CMS now. Sometimes the content is different — trip itineraries tend to be longer with more prose in the print versions than on the Web, for example. Sometimes it's the same, as in the descriptions of hotels.

"Now our publishing people work on Web and direct mail material at the same time and in the same place," Tabbitt says. "And it's probably taking about the same time to do both as it once took just for hard copy. We try to create it once and then repurpose it however we need it."

B&R is also starting to use Lexicon to maintain its intranet site, a key tool for sales and marketing personnel. More importantly, the company is gearing up for another leap forward in its use of the Web in marketing, and for that it will rely on Lexicon as well. Tabbitt calls the current site, somewhat modestly, "glorified brochureware." He plans to transform it, making it more interactive and adding new "MyB&R" personalization features.

"We think the success of the Internet is about bringing people together in communities and allowing companies and individuals to speak together in more sophisticated ways," Tabbitt said. "That's where we want to go. We really want to start using the Web as the ultimate one-to-one marketing tool."

Regular visitors will be able to tell the site what they want to see — only show me information about bike trips, for example. B&R will add forums where customers can keep in touch with new friends they made while on one of its trips. An expanded and more interactive photo site will let people upload their own trip photos and create online slide shows using their own and other people's shots.

"There are tools in the [Lexicon] content management system to manage all of this individualization and interactive content," Tabbitt says.

Expanding Goals
Out of MyB&R, the company hopes to build new kinds of relationships with its customers. It plans to leverage the database management and statistics gathering features in Lexicon to build a specialized type of customer relationship management (CRM) system that can feed information about a customer's preferences and past history with the company to sales agents when they contact a customer.

This is definitely pushing the envelope for a Web CMS, but Tabbitt is confident that if Lexicon doesn't have the features needed today, Version5.1 can and will add them. "It's an incredibly flexible tool," he said. One of the good things about dealing with a fairly small CMS developer, Tabbitt said, is that it's willing to listen to and work with relatively small customers like B&R in order to fix problems and adding new functionality to the product.

Decisions, Decisions
B&R chose little known Version5.1 over bigger, better known CMS companies such as Vignette partly because it was small and flexible, which was a good fit for B&R, and partly because most of the alternatives, including Vignette, were "cost prohibitive."

That may not be so true today, though. While there has been some evening out in the CMS/ECM market, there are still many options available, including other lower end players such as Ektron and RedDot. At the extreme low end are products such as Macromedia Contribute, which performs some basic content management functions but costs only a few hundred dollars per user.

Could your small business benefit from CMS/ECM technology? If you see the Web as a crucial marketing tool or e-commerce vehicle for your company, absolutely.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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