Content Syndication: Ready for the Masses?

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Each month, this magazine discusses the consumption of syndicated content by companies of all stripes. But what about the production of syndicated content? Clearly, there is a strong case for everyday organizations to syndicate their content: producing high-quality content for a Web site is expensive, so why not realize more value from it by distributing the information as widely as possible?

Syndication in Theory
Syndication should be a very attractive communications and information-sharing tool across companies spanning a variety of industry sectors. This kind of simple content integration could also be valuable internally, behind the firewall, within super-distributed organizations. Consider some opportunities for syndication in the following sectors:

Academia: Rather than integrate content in some complicated way, different faculties of a university could maintain separate content repositories but share relevant content to give students and others a more holistic view of the campus. And what about, say, the Mechanical Engineering departments of different universities; couldn't they communicate with each other by creating a common feed of original content?

Major trade associations: Trade associations serve as a natural meeting ground for specialists and, therefore, an obvious aggregator and provider of syndicated content. Moreover, syndication could offer a simple solution to the age-old problem of information sharing between association state chapters and national headquarters. For example, local chapter Web sites could easily host headlines from the national Web site (and vice-versa).

Government agencies: In these times of heightened tensions, headline syndication could provide a rapid, yet simple channel of communications from government to citizens, both directly and through other Web sites. Also, syndication feeds could summarize thematic information, as opposed to institutional news about particular government agencies. For instance, more than 24 U.S. federal government agencies affect commercial exports somehow. If all those agencies contributed to a single headline feed of export-specific content, businesspeople and the commercial trade press alike would benefit.

Commercial firms: Commercial firms—especially in manufacturing—have a long history of sharing content electronically with distributors and trading partners (think EDI). Today, syndication offers the ability to share unstructured content such as marketing materials, in addition to traditional catalog data and highly structured business documents, like invoices.

Unlike many other technology areas, potential syndicators can rely on mature industry standards to govern distribution channels and provide a high level of predictability to the whole process. First, for simple headline syndication, there is Rich Site Summary, or RSS (see Karen Bannan's article, EContent January 2002). For more sophisticated needs—such as full-text distribution, acknowledgement, channel management, rights proscription, and so forth—syndicators can rely on the Internet Content Exchange protocol (ICE). Now in its second version and approaching its fifth year, many analysts call ICE "the original Web Service."

So it all sounds wonderful, right? Unfortunately, there's just one problem with this vision of ubiquitous syndication: almost no one outside the media industry is actually doing it.

Syndication in Reality
Many of us thought content syndication would have really taken off by now. Notes Steve Drucker, CEO of Web consulting firm Figleaf Software, "Content syndication, for me, has always seemed like a powerful feature, but for our clientele, there just hasn't been any demand for outbound-syndication." The problem is not a lack of content management tools. Drucker points to his experience with Allaire's Spectra CMS package (since discontinued by Macromedia when it acquired Allaire). "Syndication was one of the core strengths of Spectra, but I'm pretty sure that in the history of the product—more than 600 customers—not a single one used the syndication feature set," says Drucker.

CMS vendors themselves tell a similar story. Dan Ryan, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Stellent has found that, "B2B syndication has not taken off in any great measure yet."

Stellent's April 2002 acquisition of syndication software and services provider Kinecta sheds some light on what's going on. Kinecta provided syndication tools entirely to media companies (such as the Financial Times), often on a hosted basis. Stellent wanted to expand Kinecta's customer base and begin to move further into the hosted arena. But instead of customers homing in on the syndication facilities of the package (upgraded and renamed Stellent Connection Server), buyers focused on the product's other roles as a deployment mechanism to corporate server farms and connector framework for integrating disparate internal content repositories. In short, enterprises are trying to get their own content houses in order. "We're seeing more interest in integrating downstream content than outward," summarizes Ryan.

When it comes to sharing content with partners and customers, Ryan observes that companies are focusing their energies on refining extranets and enhancing them with email alerts about new content.

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