No More Static Cling: Making the Move to Dynamic Content

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May 12, 2004

May 2004 Issue

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When you think about it, a Web site's primary purpose is to provide content to visitors, but the real trick is presenting the most relevant content for any given visitor at any particular moment in time. If a site suffers from static cling, the content is essentially hardwired, rarely changes (regardless of a visitor's needs), and can only be altered by a webmaster making manual revisions. Although products like Macromedia Contribute and Atomz Site-Centered Content Management provide ways to make quick site changes without affecting the underlying design or code, these solutions only simplify manual updates, doing nothing to drive content that's based on variable conditions. Vastly more desirable is the ability to have content appear on the site in a dynamic fashion. Often, this means leveraging data learned about the visitor on the fly—like where they navigate, what they read, and how long they spend in a given area—then pulling information and images from a central content repository so that only the most appropriate (or at least somewhat more appropriate) content appears. Ultimately, dynamic content translates into return visits because your content is fresh and meaningful to the visitor each and every time.

While the objective may be clear, the process of generating dynamic content isn't. The solutions we look at in this article offer a variety of ways to generate content dynamically, but they are by no means the only ways. One company uses IP addresses to generate content based on the geographic location of the visitor, while the others use content management, search technology, or a combination of the two. What all these vendors have in common is that they currently focus on providing solutions for commercial ventures. Most experts believe that investing in the infrastructure to deliver dynamic content inside the enterprise will not happen on a widespread basis anytime soon, mostly because it's too expensive and difficult to cost-justify for the average enterprise.

Dynamic What?
Dynamic content is content that changes based on any number of factors, including information the visitor provides the site (by filling in a form, for instance), data based on previous visiting behavior, IP-based geographic data, or other factors. The main idea is to present content that best meets the needs of the user at any given time. "Dynamic content refers to the ability to have the content refined based on your own profiles, so it's really dynamically generating the pages that will be displayed for you," says Mike Maziarka, director at Cap Ventures, a strategic consulting firm.

Webmasters have used scripting to pull information from databases for years, but generating dynamic content is much more difficult. The goal is to provide a customized experience for a visitor that delivers the information they need when they need it—potentially so they'll make a purchase and certainly so they come back. Companies that have a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system in place have a leg up because they already have a database full of information about their customers that they can leverage for this purpose.

"To a large extent, content is rule-driven where you establish the relationships between content and the people who would be interested," according to Maziarka. "The CRM system allows you to segment the customer base, and personalization allows you to act on [their individual needs]. That enables you to understand when to apply certain types of content based on these preferences."

The level of customization varies greatly and doesn't need to be dramatic. In fact, sometimes only a small part of the page will change. "We have seen sites use dynamic elements where there are 10 different campaigns and only one block is dynamic. Based on what they know about the customer, that block changes," says David Daniels, research director at Jupiter Research.

While CRM may provide a piece of the puzzle, there are a variety of formulas for delivering content dynamically. Let's take a look at some companies that offer dynamic content solutions.

Digital Envoy: Providing Content Based on IP Information
Digital Envoy provides a way to change content based on a site visitor's IP address. David Helsper, VP of engineering at Digital Envoy, says, "We do IP intelligence. We are going out there and mining the Internet for information related to IP addresses. The most obvious thing is geography: We can tell the country, state, connection speed—and all this information helps us to nail down the geography. We can come up with SIC codes, zip codes, country and time zones to provide our customers with a rich and broad range of data." Helsper is careful to point out that the company doesn't gather any personal information with this method. "We have no idea who you are," he says.

From this information, however, Digital Envoy helps clients determine the geographic location of a visitor and change certain elements on a page. For example, one client, a sports magazine trying to sell subscriptions, changed the cover of the magazine on the Web site based on the zip code of the visitor."If you were coming from Boston, you might see [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady. If you were in Atlanta you would see [Atlanta Falcons quarterback] Michael Vick," Helsper says. "Subscriptions increased about 20 percent by changing the cover based on where someone's coming from, so personalization helped drive up subscriptions."

Atomz: Delivering Content Based on Search Results
Steve Kusmer, CEO of Atomz, a Web content management company, sees dynamic content as simply a way of keeping content fresh. "How do you show differentiated content at different points to help drive the user experience," asks Kusmer. "Most Web sites are static, how do you take that further to meet the user's needs?" Kusmer's company uses a combination of Web site content management and search technologies to drive customization.

In fact, Atomz uses the kind of directed customization that Jupiter's Daniels spoke of. Rather than trying to do massive customization, Atomz's templates have a customization section—a box at the top of the results page. A user enters search terms and the boxed section of the site's content changes depending on the results. Kusmer uses palmOne's Web site, an Atomz customer, as an example. When a visitor enters a term into the search box, Atomz uses its CM and search capabilities to produce a list of results with some special content, depending on the search. "At the bottom you have fairly standard search results, but there is also a Noteworthy section at the top of the page. What it is, is content driven by search content. What palmOne is doing is putting a promotion up based on product name," Kusmer says. palmOne keeps this somewhat fresh by rotating different promotions even within the same search, so users coming back won't necessarily see the same promotion each time for the same search.

iPhrase: Advanced Search Helps Organize More Complex Data
A relatively simple approach can work for many companies, but if you have more sophisticated data requirements, you may need to take a different course. iPhrase is a search company that helps customers retrieve the most relevant information and deliver whatever results they need. "The company focuses on search and customer interaction solutions for companies trying to enhance some type of online customer experience," according to Tony Frazier, iPhrase's senior VP of marketing. "We provide a mechanism to allow users to express themselves using a wide variety of inputs—keyword, phrase, full sentence, even email or interactive messaging—and based on that input we can deliver the most appropriate resources from either structured data or documents. Then we render that with a presentation layer that makes it easier to get answers, facilitate refinement and capitalize on ways to influence those users."

One iPhrase customer, National Semi-conductor, uses the search technology to pull the most recent parts information from its database. The Web site makes use of diagrams that coincide with part types. These parts are constantly upgraded in incremental ways. Prior to deploying iPhrase, when a user clicked the diagram, they saw a static parts table that might not have been updated with the most recent changes. "The graphics were beautiful when you first built and posted them, but 12 or 15 months later they were rapidly going out of date," says Phil Gibson, National Semiconductor's VP of Web business and sales-force automation. "We turn out so many parts so fast, and they are uniquely better than previous parts by very small parametric details."

The company has 30 system diagrams with approximately 10 blocks on each diagram. Each block has a unique list of parts associated with it. Thus, the company had roughly three hundred calculations to update every month and it took an astute expert to make the decision about which parts to include in each list. When this was a manual process, the idea of scaling to hundreds of diagrams was out of the question.

"What iPhrase brings to the process is that they allow us to establish a fuzzy layer in between the GUI front end that presents the user with a visual way to navigate through information and the parametric detail of information that we stock in our databases across the company," according to Gibson.

Gibson says that with iPhrase, the parts list gets updated automatically whenever they update the parts database. Engineers who visit the site have been very happy with this, as have distributors. "The extended sales channel distributors really like the way they can guide customers and tell them, ‘ok here is the best device' and not be embarrassed that it's old technology."

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