Solving the Software Puzzle
Software is fundamental to the success of every Web enterprise. Choose the right software for your business’ specific needs and you will find a valued business partner.
By Peter Prestipino
Selecting software requires we answer important questions. Do you need a better way to share and distribute content? If so, your answer is a powerful, yet user-friendly content management system.
Do you need to develop a better relationship with prospects and existing customers? A customer relationship management (CRM) software solution to empower your sales and marketing staff is what you’ll need.
Want to sell an exciting new gadget you designed and developed? Seek only e-commerce platforms of the highest caliber. Need others to help sell those gadgets? Affiliate management software is widely available and may even be built into your existing e-commerce solution.
Each of these types of software solutions comprise the pieces that can help solve the Web success puzzle. These platforms power our websites in the form of content management systems and weblogs, automate commerce, and enable us to communicate on a level perhaps never conceived of by the Web’s founders. Let’s review the components and how they can fit to ensure the best chance of success on the Web, and look at some of the vendors who are making it happen.
Content Management Systems
Content management systems (CMS) are software applications designed to store, manage and distribute HTML content and digital assets, and are available in a number of hybrid varieties. Most feature a system where users can deploy a default template or skin them per their own branding elements, offer editable content, are scalable with plugins (more common among open source systems) and rely on Web standards. More sophisticated systems offer workflow management, delegation and advanced document management to ensure content never exceeds its predetermined lifecycle. CMS are often more alike than they are different but often the determining factor is the scale that a website or business needs.
The major change on the Web since its commercial inception nearly two decades ago is that more people are involved in the process of creating and managing content. That results in a greater number of people needing the benefits of a CMS with more options from which to choose. Understanding the features and support models of these solutions will ensure you make the right choice for your business and website. However, there are hundreds of CMS on the market, and that can be confusing to both the novice and experienced Web professional. Every website is different, so any CMS should address the business’ specific needs, starting with the most critical functions.
Open source CMS like Joomla, OpenCMS, Plone and others provide the ability to easily edit and maintain a dynamic assemblage of documents and data. In addition, these solutions are often bundled with portal and community features that make the free price twice as nice. Another popular open source choice is Drupal — well known as a scalable open source CMS and used by some rather large websites, including parody news site TheOnion.com. Ultimately, however, the size of deployments remains a challenge with any open source CMS. In short, the prevailing opinion is that they often don’t grow well with your business.
The middle ground between open source solutions and full-scale enterprise-ready platforms is filling up quickly with commercial open-source solutions (that typically charge for support) like WebGui from Plain Black, DotNetNuke, ezPublish and Magnolia, hosted solutions like Clickability, and mid-market vendors like Sitecore.
At the upper end of CMS are full-blown enterprise-level solutions — often referred to as Enterprise CMS, or ECMS — necessary for many businesses running complex, resource-intensive websites. Interwoven, Vignette’s V7, or Oracle’s Stellent all provide an entire software infrastructure to manage digital assets. One of the biggest advantages of ECMS is these vendors offer more than just a support mechanism for the software; they become an integral part of your overall business.
DISTRIBUTED SOCIAL ACTIVITY AGGREGATOR: AMPLIFEEDER
Lifestreaming platform Amplifeeder has caught the attention of the Web’s elite. The solution is unique, in that its backend was developed in ASP.NET, unlike popular solutions such as SweetCron (PHP). Users of the aggregator platform can combine their activity from different services (Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google Shared Items, Tumblr, Digg, Reddit, LastFM, Stumbleupon, Delicious, Upcoming, Mixx and many others) and style the themes as they see fit. There are actually quite a few impressive themes already, something that can’t be said for SweetCron. While using a lifestreaming app like Amplifeeder or SweetCron will not appeal to everyone, it is an interesting way to broadcast your social activity.
Weblog Software: Still on the Edge
Over time, blogging moved from an edgy, mostly American phenomenon to a global, main-stream activity responsible for the lion’s share of the Web’s content — more than 133 million blogs were tracked by Technorati in 2008. The presence of blogs is apparent if not pervasive on search results and social media sites. The similarity to CMS (often a substitute) and the potential to influence conversations with consumers makes selecting weblog software, therefore, a critical business decision.
Weblog software is essentially designed to facilitate the creation, maintenance and syndication of blogs and their content. No matter the individual solution, features always include support for authoring, editing and publishing content entries, as well as the ability to easily create or edit titles and permalinks (URL structure) and post dates. Also commonly included is the presence of comment support, and categories or tags, and the support of trackbacks or pingbacks. These are the most basic, yet most important features of any weblog installation.
More advanced features include Web syndication (offered through RSS or Atom) capabilities, post moderation and even posting API’s, which can enable blogging from mobile devices via SMS or e-mail. Blogging directly from any number of third-party applications should also be available. For example, some blogging software solutions support plugins for Firefox, such as Scribefire that allows the user to post directly to their own blog from anywhere on the Web.
Much like other software, weblogs come in two varieties — open source and commercial/proprietary. There are hundreds of developer- hosted blogging platforms (e.g. blogger.com, LiveJournal.com, tumblr.com, Vox.com, even My- Space) for novice bloggers to use, but as individuals and companies gather some expertise and sophistication, there is often a shift towards more robust and customizable platforms. WordPress or Movable Type are ideal for open source advocates, or choose Compendium, a proprietary system that adds value to blog content marketing strategies in an innovative manner. Compendium takes a unique approach to blogging in that it’s built to support multiple bloggers and has a singular focus on leveraging that collective brainpower for the purpose of influencing the impact of search marketing and social media.
E-commerce Solutions: Sell, Sell, Sell
Merchants could not exist on the Internet without an e-commerce software solution. Instead of taking orders over the phone from consumers visiting static websites, e-commerce shopping cart software aids those making purchases online. But e-commerce solutions do much more than simply provide a means of displaying products and capturing a client’s payment information. The administration of products and users is an integral part of creating a profitable e-commerce enterprise.
E-commerce software is categorized into two types: licensed software and as a hosted service. Licensed software is similar to many of the open source platforms including OSCommerce and Magento because it is downloaded and installed on a Web server. The major advantages of licensed software are that the merchant owns the license and can host it on any Web server that meets their requirements.
A hosted service, on the other hand, is never downloaded. Instead, it is offered and supported by a hosted service provider such as Volusion — in this case, an application service provider or ASP, and paid for on a monthly or annual basis. This model often has predefined templates from which a user can choose to customize their individual look and feel. Users typically have less of an ability to modify or customize the software, but get the advantage of the vendor continuously updating the software for security patches as well as new features.
The most important features of e-commerce shopping cart software are the storefront and administration area. The storefront is where consumers will interact with a merchant’s products. Every storefront should offer search and the ability for the merchant to create products and the categories where they reside, as well as offer the ability to highlight featured products through the use of best sellers or “hot” items. E-commerce solutions differ wildly in scope and depth in their consumer interfaces — what merchants should consider is the interaction that shoppers will have on their site(s).
The administration section of an e-commerce solution should also be an area of great focus and attention. Often called store managers, they should enable the addition and editing of product features, establishing categories, implementing discounts, and the handling of shopping and payment settings through third party modules. While the vast majority of e-commerce solutions are now Web-based, there are a few holdouts for desktop-based applications.
NETSUITE, BRIDGING THE GAP
You might notice quite a bit of overlap between the software solutions featured in this article. For example, your CMS might come with analytics, or your shopping cart software might come with an affiliate management module. You essentially eliminated another software implementation to manage — and that’s a good thing. Whenever one software solution bridges the gap between multiple core functions, you’ll spend less and by the very nature of the tightness of the integration, achieve greater insights. NetSuite is a provider of enterprise-level business software suite that enables merchants to leverage one platform for their e-commerce, CRM and financial reporting information from one convenient data source. “Our solution is unique in that it's one product that does many things,” says Mini Peiris, vice president of product marketing for NetSuite. “Businesses don't have to worry about learning a new interface. And in turn, there is a lot of value delivered to customers.”
Analytics Software: Measuring Up
Internet professionals often turn to analytics software as the last piece of their Web success puzzle. Analytics software offers the ability to measure, collect and analyze website data for the purpose of understanding consumer use and intent. Web analytics is often broken down into on-site and off-site — an important distinction. The former measures website visitors’ activity, while off-site analytics refers to measurement and analysis of a potential audience as determined by visibility and buzz happening across the Web. On-site Web analytics is the focus herein.
Website analytics enables Internet professionals to formally dissect visitor activity — as they arrive on a site, how they move through a site, and where and when they leave the site. From tracking hits, page views and visits to determining new versus returning visitors, bounce rate and referral tracking, analytics software provides insights into a Web-based enterprise and becomes a valuable asset for any organization looking to understand potential roadblocks and opportunities. Being able to understand the psychology of consumers’ interactions offers an opportunity to exceed the status quo.
There are many popular vendors in the space outside Google Analytics that deserve attention. Omniture’s SiteCatalyst product and Lyris’ ClickTrack solution are two options. Omniture has recently released many tools to measure Web traffic and the social effect of participation in consumer generated media. For example, Omniture’s App Measurement for Facebook (part of its SiteCatalyst solutions) was released in early June 2009. ”With more than 200 million active users, marketers are intrigued by the potential of Facebook to help them connect with consumers in personalized and meaningful ways,” says Brett Error, CTO and executive vice president of products for Omniture. “Yet the relatively young phenomenon of social media has forced marketers to rely on experimentation to tap into that potential.” When an analytics solution can deliver actionable insight into social applications, you can bet your website that marketers will be able to develop data-driven social media marketing strategies that support and positively affect efforts across other online channels.
Analytics solutions are much like life — you get out of it what you put into it. Even if you don’t invest in robust marketing analytics solutions like Omniture or Lyris, consider another product and use the insights it can provide within every business decision. Other noteworthy providers in the space include BLVD Status (free) that offers an excellent suite of features including RSS and form conversion tracking as well as a WordPress plugin. Woopra is a unique option because it is available as a desktop version, but also provides live tracking and Web statistics.
AMADESA SITE-SIDE BEHAVIORAL TARGETING
SaaS website testing and personalization provider Amadesa announced the launch of an automated, site-side behavioral targeting capability. The algorithm analyzes hundreds of anonymous user data attributes (time of day, day of week, IP address, referring URL, etc.) in real time to learn which campaign promotion, category image or other content element is most compelling. It then automatically matches the best content to each visitor to drive engagement. This in-session updating captures visitors' actions and behaviors, incorporating them into personas. Merchants are then able to act on these finding in real time.
SEO Software: Master the SERPs
Search engine optimization (SEO) is more challenging today than ever before. Many Web professionals opt to take advantage of SEO software to minimize the learning curve and help manage their overall Internet marketing campaigns. While some purists might argue there is no substitute for manually optimizing your site, the truth is that minimizing the often dull and repetitive tasks associated with SEO can leave more time for strategic thinking and business planning. While not a cure for an ailing SEO campaign, software can improve organization and structure.
SEO software typically provides a range of tools that mimic both the art and science of optimization. For example, keyword list builders and keyword analyzers are common, as are rank checking tools. While website submission is a relatively useless feature — search engines constantly improve their crawling practices and the practice of submitting sitemaps directly to search engines is on the rise — many solutions continue to provide that capability. While different SEO software solutions provide varied features, most are quite similar, leaving price as the only true differentiator in many cases.
One of the most well-known solutions, Web CEO, offers a free edition of their SEO software, whereas the SmallBiz and Professional Editions range from $199 to $389, respectively. There are many others, however, including RankSense (starting at $29.95 per month), and SEO Administrator (licenses range from $129 to $199). Each of these solutions offers a robust suite of search engine marketing tools in one platform.
While many of the aforementioned offerings have been around for many years, new vendors are entering the market. LotusJump ($24-$49 per month) is a robust SEO software solution that has generated plenty of attention. The service automatically populates user accounts with customized SEO and social media tasks to complete. Traffic Travis is another recent entrant offering SEO and SEM software programs. The downloadable software includes a suite of 11 tools for finding keywords, analyzing pages for SEO factors, identifying inbound links, traffic reporting and position, and provides a decent competitive research mechanism.
While there is no cure for the ills of poorly conceived SEO strategies, SEO software does help with the overall process and makes for more productive, successful and efficient campaigns in general.
CONSOLIDATED COMMUNICATION TOOLS
Bold Software announced the availability of a product that might just revolutionize how website owners and large scale retailers communicate with customers and prospects. The BoldCCM (Customer Communication Management) suite combines live chat, click-to-call, e-mail management, active co-browsing and remote control into a single interface. New within the full platform is ActiveAssist, the co-browsing and full remote control capability that allows customer operators to control a shopper's mouse or computer to resolve sales and support questions. In addition, a Salesforce.com integration module aids in creating leads, contacts and cases inside a firm's Salesforce implementation.
CRM Software: Know the Customer
Customer relationship management (CRM) software is often reserved for enterprises that have made a significant investment in their business and have a particularly organized focus on developing rich, heavily data-driven user profiles. In all its complexity, CRM software essentially enables us to collect, track and organize sales contacts or current and prospective customers. The advantage of using a CRM is it aids virtually every department that needs access to user information — from direct sales and business development teams to marketing and advertising departments. Features often include a rather robust contact manager, configurable tasks such as reminders and alerts, and detailed tracking with profiling and history.
CRM is big business — the market capitalization of leading CRM vendor SalesForce is more than $5 billion. However, it is really just a software-based approach to handling the relationships we have with our customers. With an increasing focus on building better relationships with consumers over the past few years — a virtue of the of Web 2.0 age — CRM earned its rightful place in the pantheon of essential software for Web professionals.
Even more than analytics software, CRM solutions often have multiple touch points within an organization. For example, much of the data accessible within a CRM solution can be analyzed in order to plan marketing campaigns, develop business strategies and judge the success of CRM activities (How many customers do we have? What is our market share?). Realizing the many uses of CRM solutions, consider it more of a software- enabled strategy for doing business — one that adds value to customers in ways that add value back to the company. When we know the circumstances under which consumers interact with our brands, we are better able to deliver what they want and influence their future behavior.
Properly identifying what type of CRM solution is appropriate for an individual Web business is clearly important. Should it be used to analyze customer data (an operational strategy), used as a direct sales tool (to gather intelligence) and to inform business processes? Or, should our CRM enable a more of a collaborative solution, one which covers all aspects of a company’s dealings with customers and whose ultimate goal is to use the information gathered by all departments to improve the quality of services provided by the company?
Why add another layer of software complexity to your business? The answer is simple — if it adds value, why not? The challenge for many Web business owners is justifying the cost. While many of the enterprise level CRM solutions offered by Oracle or SAP can run into the thousands of dollars (sometimes hundreds of thousands) per implementation, there are many high-quality offerings that power CRM initiatives at a fraction of the cost — and do so exceedingly well.
Some of these vendors include open source CRM powerhouse SugarCRM and mid-market vendor OnContact Software. For those interested in testing the value proposition of CRM campaigns strategically, consider Zoho.com, free for up to three users.
BRANDVERITY POACHMARK UNVEILED
Affiliate Management Software: Extend Yourself
When sales trend downwards, smart merchants turn to affiliates and affiliate marketers to pick up the slack. However, managing those affiliates can be a cumbersome exercise. For this reason alone, many merchants whose e-commerce solution does not directly support affiliate marketing through built-in or add-on modules often turn to affiliate management software to aid in managing campaigns and affiliate partners.
One of the top-tier affiliate program software vendors, DirectTrack, offers the most comprehensive solution on the market. The most popular features include the fully-customizable private label interface and powerful ad serving with day parting, geo-targeting, and access to the Speedera CDN for image hosting. There are also a wide range of creative possibilities (including e-mail), helpful management tools like automated notifications, custom payout structures, and perhaps the best accounting tools available, including a check-cutting service through an escrow account. Affiliate tracking and reporting from DirectTrack rivals the best independent networks and includes real-time tracking, blended tracking, cookie or API tracking, and other important campaign management tools. You'll need to pay extra for the power of all those additional features but, for many, the benefits far outweigh the cost.
DirectTrack and other solutions represent legitimate alternatives to outsourcing full affiliate program management responsibilities to agencies, to organize and promote offers on various networks. Other noteworthy affiliate software management solutions include Post Affiliate Pro (ranging $219 for a leased license to $299 for an owned license), and iDevAffiliate (ranging $99 for the standard edition to $299 for the premium edition). Hasoffers.com is a newbie among affiliate software vendors, but one that is positioned to become a competitive force in the market. Its white label offering is free for networks under one million clicks per month.
The importance of software on today’s Web can not be overstated. The wish for, and challenge of software is one and the same. What is ultimately needed is a product that improves some process of our Web life, thereby allowing us to focus on our core business practices. While the solutions highlighted here are some of the most robust, user-friendly, and supportive communities online, the right software for your enterprise is the one that works well with your business initiatives.