RIAs: Managing the Center of the Interactive Website Universe

Website visitors are doing much more than just visiting site pages today. On every successful website, users are interacting with content and coming away with a more satisfying experience. Using interactive selectors to choose products that best fit their needs, watching and commenting on videos and browsing dynamic photo albums, site visitors are being propelled into user-centric experiences. These experiences are the hallmark of today's successful websites and it is rapidly becoming clear that this is what users want and expect.

These expectations are that websites function and behave like applications, rather than static repositories of information. Rich internet applications (RIAs) are at the center of supplying this experience, providing intuitive and engaging access between site users and the website's information. RIAs let users input and manipulate data directly, changing their choices without losing other important information. With instantaneous response, change is visible immediately and the fields in forms can be validated before submission, resulting in faster processing. RIAs can contain whole processes, rather than spreading a process over several different pages, adding a level of immersion and interaction that static sites cannot provide. Beyond the benefits to site visitors, companies that leverage RIAs have seen substantial increases in revenue (upwards of 25% in some cases). Conversion rate increases of more than 60% are not uncommon.

Product selectors, photo galleries, video and audio players and other RIAs are all built on flexible frameworks such as Adobe Flex, Flash, Microsoft Silverlight and HTML5. Utilizing these technologies, websites are able to deliver the information and experience that site users are looking for quickly and efficiently.

But RIAs are only as good as the content they are delivering. And unmanaged content will doom an RIA to failure.

RIAs are extremely content dependent and, in order to stay relevant, the data they consume needs to be kept up to date and flexible. Structured data, such as XML, is preferable over HTML entered content. It can be consumed free of formatting conflicts and is reusable across the website. Like other content on the website, structured data needs to be managed easily and efficiently.

Web content management (WCM) platforms that are able to manage structured content as easily as they handle standard HTML content are the solution to managing RIAs and their content. To do this, a WCM platform must be able to produce XML data without requiring the direct involvement of developers. This will enable non-technical website contributors to manage the RIA's data. Subject matter experts and marketing professionals, by managing the structured content, are also able to manage the RIAs themselves. These are the people who are making the decisions about what should be in the RIAs and when that information should be changed; the RIA content should be dependent on them, not on developers.

With a WCM capable of managing RIAs, content can be entered as structured data via a form, streamlining the process by which data is added, edited or updated in the RIA. Using a form for input ensures that all of the correct data is entered for the RIA to use and content contributors do not need to be familiar with XML. Subject matter experts and marketing professionals can update content on the fly (just as they do content for the other parts of the website) as messaging changes, new products are introduced, new videos are available or other content updates are necessary. The messaging and structure that is used by the RIA can also be applied across the rest of the site. Updates are more efficient; rather than adding content to the site's static pages and then to the RIAs, content is updated only once and all changes are applied to every instance that the content is presented.

WCM platforms that allow a true separation of content from presentation are ideal for managing RIAs. While developers create new, more immersive and more interactive functionality for RIAs, they should not have to be concerned with entering content or even how the content is being inputted by subject matter experts. The editing environment of the WCM platform can offer a familiar environment for content authors and contributors to add, edit and manage the data that is consumed by RIAs on the site.

The era of static websites is over and user-centric experiences are becoming the norm. Leveraging RIAs and WCM platforms will produce the immersive, interactive websites that site visitors prefer and expect, and make maintaining and updating these rich experiences more efficient and effective.

About the Author: Bill Rogers is the CEO and founder of Ektron Inc., a Web Solutions company that provides a platform for web content management, marketing optimization and social software. Ektron's helps customers realize operational efficiency, increased revenue and improved customer loyalty through a combination of software and services.