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Total control

1st of November, 2002
   
 
 
We all like to keep things simple, but Web sites have a habit of growing and unless your content management system grows with your site, you can end up in big trouble. David Peterson tells how to take total control of your Web site with Microsoft Content Management Server.

It started off small and easily managed, but now your Web site has become a monster, with new pages, new sections and an increasingly important role in your company as a communication tool. Keeping track of links and expired documents is a big enough job; you don't even want to begin considering the nightmare of approving new content or, worse still, letting everyone in the company publish to the site willy-nilly. And of course your budget to take care of the site is about half the size it should be.

The increasing demand for content management systems (estimated to reach US$10 billion by 2004) has seen a proliferation of content management solutions available in the marketplace. The good news is Microsoft has the right tools for the job. If your site is small, you might get away with using FrontPage. If it's large, however, you might need something a little stronger - like Microsoft Content Management Server 2001.

What is it good for?
No matter what your site looks like and no matter what industry you're in, the basic tasks and processes for effective content management remain the same. If you've ever worked on a large Web site, the following list of key site management capabilities will look familiar:

  • the ability to quickly establish an operational framework into which content can be added to demonstrate the system to members during the early phases of the project;
  • the flexibility to make significant changes to the site's layout, design and look and feel based on customer feedback with minimal effort; and
  • the extensibility to 'bolt on' additional functionality such as e-commerce capability at a later time if required.
You might be surprised to know that Microsoft Content Management Server is capable, in the right hands, of producing a fully functional Web site with all these capabilities within a week. Impressive, no?

Show me what you can do
So just what are the features of Content Management Server that allow you to get a fully-featured Web site up and running so quickly?

Content creation and editing
Contributors can create content directly on your Web site, format it and add meta-tags using only a Web browser. No specialised knowledge of HTML or Web authoring is required, only the same level of text editing and formatting skill as would be required to use Microsoft Word.

You can control the degree of editing authority given to a content contributor; for example, you can determine if a contributor should be permitted full access to formatting functionality, given authority to insert images, attachments or hyperlinks in a given text field and so on.

Revision tracking
As newer versions of Web site content are saved, existing versions are automatically archived. This provides you with a permanent log of who has made changes, when they were made and what those changes were. Different versions of documents can also be visually compared (like the revision tracking feature in Microsoft Word) to allow quick comparisons to be made.

Templates
In Microsoft Content Management Server, Web site content is managed separately to the presentation templates. This means that you can make changes to the look and feel of your Web site can be at a single point of modification (the templates) rather than having to manually change every page. It also means that template designers and content authors can both make modifications to the Web site at the same time without running the risk of interfering with each other's work.

The separation of form and content also allows you to re-use content in different formats in multiple locations around the Web site. You can also dynamically assemble content to meet the specific requirements of a Web site visitor. For example, you can set up your site to accommodate Pocket PC users by having the information displayed through a template that reformats the content for a smaller screen and removes bandwidth-consuming graphical elements to ensure greater download speed.

Workflow
A vital ingredient of content management is the automated publication process workflow. In essence, the workflow system ensures that content is properly approved before it is published, is published in the right place and can be published in a timely fashion without becoming lost in the approval process.

The standard Microsoft Content Management Server workflow process is as follows:

  • Once a designer has created a template with placeholders for content to be inserted, an author can create a page using this template in their Web browser. When ready they can determine the page's publishing schedule (ie its release and expiry dates) and submit it for approval.
  • An editor then reviews the content of the page, makes amendments and either rejects or approves it for publication.
  • As a final step, the moderator for that section of the Web site verifies details such as publication and expiry dates and ensures that the content is being posted to the right location before giving final approval - at which stage the content is 'live' and visible to Web site visitors until it is removed, modified or expires.
Microsoft Content Management Server also allows you to customise this process to meet the specific business requirements of your Web site. A news item, for example, might only need one-step approval, while a privacy policy or a 'terms and conditions' statement might require several approval stages, including review by a senior manager and a member of the legal department.

Another common variation is author-determined routing, whereby the author determines who should review their work, selecting a reviewer based, for example, on their knowledge of the content's subject matter.

Workflow events can also be used to trigger email notifications - alerting a group of approvers as soon as a new page has been submitted for approval, or a content author when one of their publication submissions has been declined.

So why not use FrontPage?
You can use FrontPage as a Web publishing solution if your site is small. However, FrontPage lacks many of the features of Microsoft Content Management Server that you need for a more sophisticated website - such as better management of workflow and publishing. Similar problems are shared by the website creation solutions offered by many document management vendors FrontPage (see August 2002 issue, pp. 18 - 21 for more on FrontPage).

Everyone's a winner
Although the benefits of a robust content management system are obvious for content publishers or the owners of large informational Web sites, content management is also important for the creation and maintenance of effective e-commerce Web sites.

E-commerce
Where many business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sites fail to deliver is in the presentation of their product catalogues - a bald list of product names and prices is much less of a compelling sales tool than a 'glossy' brochure with detailed product descriptions, graphics, video and file attachments. Richer content is more likely to attract new Web site visitors, retain existing customers and influence purchasing decisions.

To achieve this, you can integrate Microsoft Content Management Server and Microsoft Commerce Server to build personalised and content-rich e-commerce Web sites. Microsoft Content Management Server provides you with a platform to create, publish and manage content and to deliver it in different languages and to a range of different browsing devices, including Pocket PCs and WAP-enabled mobile phones. Microsoft Commerce Server's profiling system allows this content to be dynamically assembled based on a customer's areas of interest. Its analytical tools can be used to determine which content was most effective in attracting and retaining customers and in influencing purchasing decisions.

CRM systems
Microsoft Content Management Server can also add value to your enterprise's customer relationship management system, facilitating the rapid (but controlled) production and delivery of information targeted to particular customer segments. This can include:

  • sales support information to prospective customers to help them to make informed purchasing decisions and to build a reputation as a valued source of information;
  • after-sales support information to help retain existing customers by providing advice on how they can get the best value from the products that they have purchased, and updates on the latest developments in new products or services which may be of interest to them; and
  • communicating sales and marketing tools and information to partners and resellers.
In an integrated Web content management and CRM environment, the CRM system (such as Siebel, Onyx or Pivotal) manages the customer data - such as their profile and history of purchases - and Microsoft Content Management Server would manage the Web site structure, content and publishing process. If the customer profile changes - as a result of a product purchase, for example - the content delivered to that customer would change automatically to display support information or material on complementary products and services the next time that they log in. (For more customer relations management systems, see July 2002 issue, pp. 12 - 17.)

Intranet portals
As well as providing a solution for Internet Web sites, Microsoft Content Management Server can be used to manage the publication of Intranet content. It can also be used in conjunction with an intranet portal solution such as SharePoint Portal Server to implement one or more of the following scenarios:

  • linking internet and intranet publishing processes, supporting the "promotion" of documents published on the intranet to the internet Web site (Figure 5);
  • sharing content between internet and intranet Web sites; or
  • using SharePoint Portal Server to index and search Microsoft Content Management Server Web sites
Additionally, using webparts, Microsoft Content Management Server tools and reports can be included as part of your Digital Dashboard.

Case Studies - Tall tales and true?
A number of leading international companies have already adopted Microsoft Content Management Server for their corporate Web sites. These are their stories.

An affordable solution The Ford Motor Company, for example, facied mounting costs from the maintenance of their Web site with their existing Java-based content management tools. Using Microsoft Content Management Server, 5 developers rebuilt their flagship Ford.com Web site in less than 12 weeks. The immediate benefits that they reported included a dramatic increase in reliability, an improved ability to handle the site's rapid growth and frequent content update requirements and reduced hardware costs - cutting the number of Web servers required to handle customer traffic from ten to four.

Having achieved these favourable results, Ford now has plans to steadily migrate a significant proportion of its 280 other consumer-facing Web sites (including Volvo and Land Rover) to Microsoft Content Management Server and a company-to-dealer B2B portal.

Now you're talkin'
Berlitz Languages Inc is also a user of Microsoft Content Management Server to support their multilingual Web site requirements - which include the need to support the languages of more than 60 countries, the display of multiple languages on a single page and multilingual search capabilities.

With Microsoft Content Management Server, content authors can create content in virtually any language and site developers can also configure site navigation elements such as links, buttons and URLs to display in the language that best suits the Web site visitor. By sharing templates, the different language versions of the Web site can retain the same look and feel, usability and branding elements and remain synchronised at all times.

We are legion
Other prominent Web sites using Microsoft Content Management Server at the time of writing include:

Common themes in reports of Microsoft Content Management Server implementations include the business value of its functionality, its ease of integration with other Microsoft .NET server products, its comparatively low total cost of ownership, the speed with which a fully functional Web site can be developed and deployed and the ease with which Web site content can be created, published and managed without the bottleneck of IT involvement in the production of HTML.

However, although Microsoft Content Management Server does include a significant amount of functionality 'out of the box' it would be a mistake to conclude that implementing a Web site using Microsoft Content Management Server is a trivial, do-it-yourself affair as a degree of technical expertise and product experience is a must during (at least) the initial setup, planning and design phases.

If you're considering Microsoft Content Management Server as a solution for your business, you'd be well advised to contact a Microsoft Certified Partner with Microsoft Content Management Server skills and experience.

Microsoft Content Management Server 2002
This article was written while the author was working with Microsoft Content Management Server 2001. However, by the time you read this, Microsoft Content Management Server 2002 will be due for release. Microsoft Content Management Server 2001 was acquired by Microsoft from NCompass Labs in early 2001 and is, essentially, a rebranded version of the NCompass Resolution product. The main changes brought about by the 2002 release will be a reworking of many of the "behind the scenes" components to provide stronger support for XML and tighter integration with other Microsoft products, such as Office XP, Visual Studio .NET and the rest of the .NET server platform.

ASPs
An increasingly popular alternative to large up-front capital expenditure on servers and software licences and the issues associated with maintaining an in-house infrastructure support capability is to "rent" managed applications from an application services provider. In addition to the traditional areas of email, webservers and database hosting, a number of application service providers (such as YourASP.com.au) are offering managed solutions for Microsoft Content Management Server.

David Peterson is a principal consultant at Peterson IT Consulting (www.PetersonITConsulting.com). He can be contacted by email at david@PetersonITConsulting.com.

   
     
   
   
     
     
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