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The quest for content quality:Improving effectiveness is the next frontier for the CM industry

By Bob Schmonsees

In this first installment of a two-part series, the author presents an expanded vision for the content management (CM) market. It’s based on the premise that as business content becomes an increasingly valuable corporate asset, improving the quality and effectiveness of that content becomes mission-critical. Enhancing the value and impact of the enterprise content asset is as important to the CIO as efficient administration and control of that asset.

In this broader market vision, content management vendors and their implementation partners will have to elevate the market discussion from technology issues to business issues, and go beyond the content administration and technology infrastructure they provide today. They will need to augment their traditional offerings with new functionality and services that improve the value of the enterprise content asset, turn it into a strategic competitive advantage and increase its contribution to the customer’s operational results.

The vision for ‘total quality content’(TQC) will require CM industry executives to step outside their IT-centric comfort zone; adopt a broader, more strategic mindset; and embrace the challenge of increasing content quality and effectiveness as a fundamental industry objective. If, however, they can elevate their sights, embrace that vision, and start delivering on the TQC value proposition, CM has the potential to become a mission-critical application like customer relationship management (CRM).

While a TQC approach can improve any business content, this article primarily focuses on marketing and sales content. Improving the quality and effectiveness of marketing and sales content can create sustainable competitive advantage, increase revenues, shorten sales cycles and reduce marketing and sales costs.

This first part reviews the current state of the CM market and how the adoption of a TQC vision could revitalize the industry. It summarizes the major business and environmental factors that are driving the need for more effective business content and the market forces that will make higher-quality marketing and sales content a business necessity in the coming decade. It proposes a practical definition for effective content and outlines a set of five strategic principles for a new business practice called "message management" that enables marketing and sales organizations to begin implementing a TQC program.

The demand for more effective content is inevitable, and a systematic quality management approach is the only answer. Today, there is no content quality cookbook, and this article is not intended to provide all the answers. It is just a first step in what will be a long and constantly evolving journey for marketing and sales organizations, CM vendors and their partners.

An industry at a crossroads CM is at a crossroads. Over the past decade, it has matured as the technology and software functionality for managing unstructured information has become more useable, scalable and robust. The early adopters have long since embraced CM, and now mainstream and mid-market customers have begun to implement CM technology.

The marketplace is growing, but recent financial results for most of the industry have been lackluster, and valuations have come back in line with those you would expect in a commodity market. There are other signs that CM software is becoming a commodity, including significant price pressure, market consolidation and the entry of Microsoft as a viable, low-cost competitor.

There is little question that CM will become ubiquitous; the real question is whether it will become more strategic, accelerate its growth curve and preserve premium prices. To address that challenge and raise the strategic importance of CM, the leading vendors have adopted a tried and true technology marketing technique: Broaden the vision, redefine the space, modify the message and add ‘enterprise’ to the name to make it sound more strategic. The result is ‘enterprise content management’ or ECM. The ECM positioning is based on viewing all business content as a strategic corporate asset and implementing a comprehensive technology strategy to enable tighter control and more efficient administration of that asset.

ECM is certainly a step in the right direction, and looking at content as a strategic asset makes a lot of sense. But that new vision does not go far enough to excite CEOs and get them and their CIOs to embrace ECM as a strategic imperative.

Today’s CEOs are interested in more than cost cutting and control. They are looking at their technology investments to create sustainable strategic advantage and grow their business, and that message is missing from the current ECM positioning.

Traditionally, the marketing of enterprise software goes through three distinct positioning phases. In the first two phases, the message evolves from increased management control to include reduced costs and better efficiency. In the third phase, which sometimes results in what Geoff Moore calls a ‘Tornado Market,’ the message expands further to include increased effectiveness and strategic advantage.

There are five realities of business content and four major market forces that make the time right for the ECM industry to push the effectiveness message and embrace the concept of TQC. The five realities of business content are:

1. Content isn’t documents.

For generations, paper was the primary, if not the only, content delivery vehicle. As a result, the document became the fundamental unit of business content, and it drove the way we thought about, wrote and read things. Today, companies need to embrace electronic communication and information delivery as the foundation of their business content.

We all know that screens are harder to read than paper. Humans, however, are developing new reading patterns, are getting comfortable with all kinds of interactive media and are more adept at absorbing small chunks and sound bites of information that are delivered in rapid-fire fashion. The one-time event mentality of documents has given way to a continuous improvement model that supports rapid change.

The fundamental unit of managed content is becoming more granular. With today’s object-based technologies and XML, business content can now be easily reconfigured, reused and repurposed. Companies have to get used to thinking about their content in smaller, reusable, thought-level chunks that consist of individual facts, ideas and opinions. We also must embrace the concept of dynamically generated, personalized, and user-customizable content.

2. Content is not created equal.

Some content—like e-learning and instructional content, customer service content and marketing and sales content—is critical to an enterprise’s success. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, ECM has traditionally been marketed as content type neutral. Instead of being solution focused, it has been marketed primarily as an enterprisewide technology to manage and administer all kinds of content. That is starting to change with initiatives like Documentum’s alliance with Adobe to produce a marketing content solution. However, the promotional material on that offering focuses mostly on reducing the cost of content administration.

3. Content assets have a cost and value dimension.

To date, the ECM vendors have focused on the cost side of content management. The reality of todayÕs competitive markets demands that businesses leverage both dimensions of every asset, even content. As the concept of TQC evolves and takes hold, the ECM vendors must ask, ‘What are the most important content assets and how can we improve their value and make them perform better?’

4. Content is not data.

IT professionals are used to managing historical data that doesnÕt change and with which quality is a binary issue. Content is continually evolving, and the quality of unstructured information is far more subjective and qualitative.

5. There is always pressure to increase quality.

There is always pressure to increase the quality of the things we produce and consume, and content is no exception. Spell checkers, thesauri and formatting wizards have significantly increased the quality of business letters and presentations, and there is a growing body of knowledge on more effective writing and Web site design that is beginning to be codified. There are also best practices in personalization, collaboration, automatic categorization and man/machine interaction that can have a significant impact on content effectiveness. Those best practices and technologies, however, have not yet been consolidated under a common TQC umbrella, and they are probably just the tip of the iceberg. The adoption of an industry commitment to quality will exploit those existing capabilities and create a framework that will spawn new technologies and best practices, just like it has in the manufacturing sector.

Four market forces

In addition to those five realities, four major market forces drive the need for more effective marketing and sales content. Those forces impact all companies, especially those that sell complex products and services in which the marketing and sales content is broad in scope and includes a wide array of prospect content as well as internal sales and competitive intelligence. The four market forces are:

1. Increased product complexity and velocity of change

Products and services of all types are undergoing rapid change, becoming more complex, and, at the same time, becoming harder to differentiate. Accordingly, real differentiation is often fleeting and provides a short window of market opportunity. That triple whammy puts a premium on more accurate, current and effective marketing and sales content, and the rapid assimilation of that content by prospects and sales channels.

2. A changing buyer/seller relationship

The selling process for complex products has become more fragmented, with more people—each with different agendas and perspectives—involved at various stages of the sales cycle. Buyers at all levels are more informed and demanding, and salespeople no longer have a significant information advantage.

Self-service technology has absorbed many sales functions, and there is new genre of communications and presentation capabilities that have reduced face-to-face contact throughout the selling cycle. We have replaced some of the most important sales activities with content, and the resulting loss of substantive personal contact has diminished the value of the sales channel in many industries.

With all that complexity and loss of control on the selling side, it is more important than ever to improve the quality and effectiveness of marketing and sales content. It is also critical to create content that helps the sales channels provide additional value and increases their ability to influence the decision process.

3. The explosion in marketing and sales content

More is not always better, and in todayÕs business environment there are more people creating more marketing and sales content than ever before. Technology has made professional-looking marketing and sales content easy to create and publish, and many times people end up writing a whole new document, Web page or presentation from scratch, just to put a slightly different spin on the message.

The result is a compounding effect on both the absolute amount of content and the number of occurrences and variations of the message. That reduces quality, causes considerable duplication and in many cases creates inconsistencies and conflicting information that can prolong sales cycles or even kill a sale.

4. A shrinking message shelf life

In "The Cluetrain Manifesto," David Weinberger says, "For every product, there are dozens or hundreds of facts . . . useful facts....When linked together, those facts, along with other ideas, opinions, and chunks of information, create a complete product message.

Many of those chunks of information are changing rapidly in todayÕs competitive environment, and as a result, a productÕs positioning and value propositions have become highly perishable. That has significantly reduced the shelf life of a productÕs message and requires that the positioning and value propositions be constantly reviewed, refreshed and refined.

We are all familiar with the typical product life cycle in which revenues follow a bell curve from product inception through market acceptance, product growth and finally to product maturity and its corresponding phase of declining revenue.

Today, however, most product life cycles include multiple "message life cycles," and the velocity of message change is sometimes overwhelming. As soon as a message begins to work, something in the marketplace changes, or the competition adds a new feature and marketing and sales organizations have to adjust. That adjustment has become increasingly cumbersome with the explosion in marketing and sales content.

The life of a message changes with the stages of the product and market life cycle. During product launch and decline, for example, the positioning and messages are more fluid with shorter shelf lives. That is because marketing and sales organizations are going through an aggressive learning curve during product rollout, and they are constantly trying new approaches during the declining revenue phase.

Increased product complexity, the changing buyer/seller relationship, the explosion in content and the shrinking message shelf life all have a significant impact on marketing and sales productivity. When taken together, those forces put a premium on producing higher quality and more effective marketing and sales content.

The opportunity for ECM vendors

Those five realities and four market forces create a unique opportunity for the ECM vendors to expand their value proposition and capture more executive mind share with a broader, more strategic message.

The situation is similar to what happened in the late 1990s when Tom Siebel led the charge to reposition sales force automation and contact management to the more strategic value proposition of customer relationship management. It was more than just a name change, and CRM became a revolution in business process because it put a strategic perspective on what was previously an inwardly focused IT and sales administration function.

It is interesting to note that a key part of SiebelÕs message focused on improving sales effectiveness through higher quality content with some unusual sales coaching functionality called ‘decision issues.’ That sales effectiveness message helped SiebelÕs sales force change the game, call higher in an organization and differentiate themselves in the eyes of ‘C’level executives.

The rest is history, CRM became mission-critical because it was tightly aligned with the objectives and interests of the CEO, and was framed in ideas and concepts that they could easily understand and embrace. That repositioning elevated the discussion; changed the way the industry sold; significantly increased adoption rates; and gave us new technologies, processes and best practices. It created a market tornado and established a model that ECM vendors and their implementation partners would do well to emulate.

The road to TQC

So, how do ECM vendors begin to work with marketing and sales organizations to improve content quality and effectiveness and increase its impact on the sales process?

To begin with, they need a more systematic way to define and measure quality and effectiveness. A good way to do that is to focus on how well the content influences the opinion and behavior of the reader through:

  • the value of the message. How unique are the thoughts and ideas that make up the subject matter? How relevant is that information to the reader?;

  • the quality of the writing. Is it clear and concise? Does it simplify things for the reader and promote comprehension and retention? Does it have a structure that simplifies updating and continuous improvement?;

  • the impact of the delivery experience. Is the information easy to find? Does the interaction engage readers? Do they feel like they are being dealt with in a more personalized and human fashion? Can the content be easily customized and repurposed by the user?;

They need a well thought out planning, process and technology strategy that helps their customers maximize quality and effectiveness. That is what message management accomplishes. Message managementÕs premise is that marketing and sales content is too important to be managed haphazardly. It is similar to CRM in that it is a proactive business strategy supported by more rigorous planning, process and technology.

Message management is based on five strategic principles:

  • Adopt a 360-degree view. ;

  • Remember that less is more.;

  • Transfer knowledge. Don’t just disseminate information.;

  • Increase channel value. ;

  • Continuously improve the content.;

The second part of this article will describe the practice of message management in more detail, provide an operational roadmap for implementation, and suggest some new technologies to make the TQC vision a reality. .....................................................................................................................................................................................

Bob Schmonsees of RJS Associates is a former CEO who helps companies impose their marketing and sales effectiveness, e-mail bob@web2one.com

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