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CM ASPs: Cheaper, faster and now … maybe even better

This article appears in the issue November/December 2004 [Volume 13, Issue 10]

Content management ASPs are closing the functionality gap on the competition offering installed solutions.

"Better, cheaper, faster" has always been the mantra of contenders out to dethrone reigning IT champs. In Web content management, the champs used to be vendors of feature-rich, highly customizable and scalable solutions such as Vignette (vignette.com) and Interwoven. But in the late 1990s, application service providers (ASPs) emerged that offered cheaper and faster solutions. Whether they were better remained in the eye of the beholder. If the customer was a small to midsize company that required a basic feature set and not a lot of flexibility and scalability, content management ASPs were also the "better" alternative. Global 2000s that had to deploy Web sites in multiple languages with many thousands of pages and many users, though, still needed the high-end installed vendors.

That trend has changed in recent years. Net-native ASPs designed from the ground up to run over the Internet are uniquely qualified to do five or six upgrades a year, whereas installed vendors of packaged content management systems might do one upgrade every year and a half. So content management ASPs are closing the feature gap on the installed players. Some have developed systems so open that they can be highly customized, while others feature deployments with hundreds of users over multiple Web sites. Granted, that's not the norm. The sweet spot of content management ASPs remains midsize companies with 10 to 25 users. Pricing ranges from $4,000 to $50,000 a year for a one-time setup fee and monthly subscription fee for 10 users. As a result, they typically find themselves on bids with smaller installed vendors like RedDot and CommonSpot--the price ranges of which are comparable, though some purport to compete mostly with high-end installed vendors.

Content management ASPs differentiate themselves on usability, features, scalability, flexibility, price and vertical market experience. Usability has to do with how intuitive interfaces are and how easy it is to create content via templates and move content through the workflow from authoring to approval to the Web site. Features to consider beyond content publishing are site analytics and search capabilities, as well as unique and less important bells and whistles like e-mail newsletter marketing and polls and surveys. All of the ASPs discussed below scale well with the exception of iUpload, but its avowed target customer is strictly the midrange. Flexibility indicates how well a system integrates with other applications, such as internal ones like Microsoft Word and external ones like portals. It should be assessed by the ease of integration as well as the breadth of means of integration.

Price, of course, is determined by the amount of the setup fee and monthly subscription rate and, in some cases, by the number of Web sites the customer requires. The best way to compare pricing is probably to determine the annual total price for the users to be served and the base services that come with that price. Some ASPs may include a service like e-mail marketing in the base price, while others might charge extra for it because they have to integrate a partner's solution. It also helps if the ASP has done many implementations in the customer's vertical market, though all of these players claim to be horizontal applications.

The ASPs discussed here offer browser-based interfaces and customer service, technical support and professional services that are fairly comparable. Customers usually get a fixed number of hours of support for the base fee and pay extra for additional time. Professional services typically include implementation, integration with legacy and external applications, customization and Web site design. The cost of those might differ, depending on the complexity of the solution.

The ASPs chosen for discussion are the acknowledged leaders in this space with large customer bases. What's more, they have all shown positive revenue growth since their launches, so customers can be confident that they will still be around in years to come.

iUpload

The iUpload Application Suite is comprised of three products designed for three types of content. The Web Content Manager is the suite's platform, a publishing application that handles templating, editing and workflow for content generated by internal staff. Then there are a set of modules that cater to application-generated content. They are integrated search, e-marketing for doing e-mail promotions and a forms processing module for turning content into electronic forms. To let visitors interact with Web sites and measure how they do so, there are several other modules--corporate blogging, live chat, discussion forums, surveys and Web analytics.

Of those in the third group, corporate blogging is unique to iUpload, and some of its applications are particularly entertaining. For instance, says CEO Robin Hopper, some reality TV shows have launched iUpload blogs to provide their viewers with interactive forums for behind-the-screen data about shows. Show advertisers benefit too because they can place ads in the blogs.

Hopper says iUpload's templating approach is very adaptable. "We plug into anybody's Web site," he explains, "whether it incorporates HTML, JSP, ASP--the templating language lets users turn anything into a template." Templates act like placeholders, he says, adding, "we let users drop placeholders anywhere in what will eventually be their wrapper (HTML, XML, Java Script, etc.) and expose editable areas in their wrapper through insertion of these rich text tags." The tags let authors use different interfaces, based on the permissions administrators have assigned to them.

iUpload also uses Really Simple Syndication (RSS) to syndicate content to users' desktops or other Web sites, and users get alerts when content is updated.

iUpload has more than 300 installs, mostly with associations, universities and healthcare organizations. That might be because the system is quite affordable--the subscription fee is $500 a month plus a per-author-per-month fee of $50, which decreases the more users customers have.

Atomz

In addition to Search and Publish applications, Atomz also offers what it calls Promote and Connect. The first provides keyword-based promotions on the actual Web site, which are controlled by business rules administrators determine to customize the best promotions for different visitors. The second is an e-marketing application that lets visitors choose which promotions and content they want e-mailed to them after they leave the site. Then there's Commerce, which helps companies build--and visitors navigate and purchase from--complex B2C Web sites. Atomz also offers site analytics and reporting through a partnership with WebSideStory.

Atomz has more than 250 customers, says Steve Kusmer, CEO. Some of them, like Verizon Wireless, are fairly large, so Atomz has proven it can scale. But its Publish application also boasts "one-click" content authoring that lets authors simply click on content they want to post to a site and then slot it into the workflow. That combination of power and ease-of-use differentiates Atomz from iUpload.

Kusmer says Atomz's key vertical markets are manufacturing, news and media, retail, information technology, telecommunications and non-profit organizations. The typical cost for installs, he adds, range from $50,000 to $150,000 per year.

Clickability

Clickability's Web content management platform is called cmPublish for authoring and publishing content. However, CEO John Girard explains that it comes bundled at no extra cost with several other modules--Web analytics, e-mail newsletter marketing, and polls and surveys. ImWare, by contrast, gives users interactivity and analytics capabilities. Users can save, print and e-mail content, as well as determine what published content is most popular. Its analytics capability also tells editors how visitors are using site content--whether they are, say, e-mailing articles to colleagues. ConnectSuite, on the other hand, determines thematic ties between content and is most used by companies like About.com to list related articles on a site.

CmPublish is distinguished by a templating language that makes it easier to maintain and debug templates. Girard says, "It's extremely low overhead and based on an open source language called Velocity that gives authors functionality comparable to something like JSP." Meanwhile, he adds, Clickability's "submission queues" let site visitors actually enter content into the workflow where editors approve and post it to the site.

Most of Clickability's more than 100 installs are in media, healthcare and nonprofit companies. For a single Web site with 10 authors, Girard says, the one-time setup fee would average $10,000, while the monthly subscription fee would be about $1,750.

CrownPeak

CrownPeak offers Advantage CMS for publishing and Advantage ES, an application development kit for customers that want to implement CMS on their own. Unlike Clickability, CrownPeak partners for its other capabilities. It uses Picosearch and MondoSoft for search, WebSideStory for analytics, E-mail Labs and DoubleClick for e-mail campaign management, DoubleClick for ad serving, PollMonkey for polls and surveys, and Lionbridge for translation.

Jim Howard, CEO, claims that CrownPeak "is the only hosted enterprise-quality system on the market." With enterprise installs at companies like Hyundai, he contends that CrownPeak's features rival those of high-end installed vendors like Interwoven. Most would attest that the system also excels at usability, scalability and flexibility.

CrownPeak's Template Wizard lets authors simply highlight content for a site, then click on menu features to give the content its form--as, say, a text box. Users can also execute code within templates. For example, Howard says, if a developer wanted to look in a database for a list of press releases in date order, he could create that capability quite easily in Visual Basic. An author could also copy content and code from template to template and output subsets of it in different formats like XML and HTML.

Of course, administrators may have to change workflows on any asset in the system, and CrownPeak lets them configure the business rules to do so from a very simple interface, according to Howard. For instance, if an administrator has not approved a piece of content after three days, a rule could automatically direct the content to another administrator.

Howard maintains that most editing for any content management system is done in external applications like Microsoft Word. But when the author drags and drops content from such an application into a CMS browser interface, tags in that system may come with the content. CrownPeak simplifies editing by automatically stripping them out.

Howard says Advantage CMS also integrates with internal and external applications via numerous means such as "ODBC, Web services, HTTP, SMTP for directing e-mail in and out of system, and XML over HTTP or FTP or SFTP." Users can also readily add new capabilities to the CrownPeak API, a fairly cumbersome activity for installed vendors. Indeed, Howard believes, "Advantage CMS is as flexible as any open source product."

CrownPeak has more than 100 customers mostly in manufacturing, government, publishing and nonprofit organizations. Pricing for 10 to 20 users is a one-time setup fee of $10,000 to $15,000 and a monthly subscription fee of $2,500 to $3,500. Companies that want to install or customize the solution themselves can get Advantage ES for an extra $500 a month.

The Market Position of Content Management ASPs

According to CMSWatch, about 1,000 products claim to perform content management. Among them, it explains, at the high end are installed systems for extended enterprises with all the bells and whistles, like Interwoven--licenses for which run $200,000 to $250,000. Licenses for upper-tier solutions for large departments, from vendors like Open Text, run $125,000 to $175,000. Those for smaller departments from mid-market vendors like RedDot go for $40,000 to $100,000. Low-end solutions from vendors like Ektron fall in the $5,000 to $25,000 range and are strictly publishing applications. Of course, open source solutions are gratis but come with no support.

Content management ASPs compete well with the mid-market and up, and, as is evident above, come with no shortage of features. Finally, if hosted systems don't work out, customers can always discontinue the service. With installed systems, on the other hand, there's no going back.


John Harney is president of ASPWatch, a consultancy focusing on market, partner and technology strategy for ASPs, e-mail johnharney4@msn.com.


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