August 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

Corralling Content

Compelling content can drive sales, but poorly managed content can drive customers away.

As the Internet has progressed so have consumers’ expectations from e-retailers. Online shoppers accustomed to watching videos on YouTube and seeing Flash sequences in ads all over the web expect the same kind of rich, visual experience at an e-commerce site.

An image of jeans is no longer enough. Shoppers want to zoom in to see how they hug the hips, view a video of a model strutting down a runway and read how the jeans should be washed. That means retailers are managing a lot more content-photos, videos, product descriptions, prices and more. That can take a lot of money for computer hardware and software, staff and services, and a lot of executive attention to content management strategies.

Details, details

Peter Cobb knows firsthand the importance of adding relevant, meaningful content to an e-commerce site-and the resources it can take to manage it right. As co-founder and senior vice president of eBags.com, an online handbag and luggage retailer, detail has been Cobb’s mantra from the get-go.

“From the very beginning, we would demand that we had four or five or six shots per product, because that is something especially important with handbags,” Cobb says. “If it’s a laptop bag, for example, people want to know, ‘Can I slip in a newspaper when I walk to work?’ It’s very important to our product.”

Moreover, a color swatch isn’t enough for eBags; the e-retailer serves up full images of products in every hue available. And, to differentiate itself from competitors, the merchant has started adding and producing its own made-from-scratch videos comprised of an employee acting as a beat reporter, hitting the crowded fashion districts of New York and Los Angeles to seek out little-known designers and showcase their products online.

Such content helps drive sales, Cobb says. In July, bags sales were up 104% over the prior year, he says, and he believes unique videos and multiple images are differentiators that contribute to the company’s growth. But managing such content for 520 brands and 36,000 SKUs is costly and time-consuming, especially because eBags does most of the work in house.

Custom built

The eBags.com site cost over $10 million and requires a staff of 40 to maintain, Cobb says. Those 40 employees come up with creative ideas-such as the program for creating original videos that developed out of a staffer’s weekend film-making hobby.

But mostly they’re occupied with the nuts and bolts of managing server loads and making sure content is loaded in a uniform way. The team built an eBags template for new products to make sure that every description includes such data as brand, model number and dimensions.

In-house development means eBags can get the features it wants, Cobb says. For instance, the e-retailer’s customer reviews application sets no limit on the number of reviews that can be posted for each product, and some eBags products may have as many as 4,000 reviews.

“It is important for us to have unlimited customer reviews, so we do it ourselves,” Cobb says. “An outside vendor might limit you to 100 customer reviews. Our feeling is when you go outside, you tend to be forced to cut corners on innovation-you have to dilute the customer experience to be like everyone else.”

Build vs. buy

Build verses buy is a key question for retailers when it comes to content management, says Patti Freeman Evans, research director and senior analyst for research and consulting firm JupiterResearch. She suggests e-retailers analyze the pace at which they plan to add different types of content and also take a hard look at staff workload and skill sets.

“If the pace is not that fast, it might be easy for you to do it in house,” she says. “Take a look at the velocity at which you plan to change content and the amount that you plan to add.”

While eBags opted for a home-grown system, many retailers will be better off using technology developed by an outside vendor, says analyst Mick MacComascaigh. As research director, enterprise content management, at consulting firm Gartner Inc., he says 20% to 25% of the calls he receives are from businesses, including e-retailers, with in-house content management systems that have gotten out of hand.

A common problem that arises with in-house systems is that only a handful of I.T. staffers understand the program well enough to change content, which takes that control away from marketers and merchandisers. The I.T. staffers, he says, “are far away from knowing what content to add when and what content is good for a particular product. It should be the business and marketing folks making those decisions, using web analytics.”

Smaller companies may be able to get by with systems managed by a handful of techie superheros, but past a certain size it becomes difficult to manage web content in house, says Kasey Lobaugh, principal and multichannel retail practice lead at Deloitte Consulting LLP. “As companies hit the $500 million mark they really start thinking about getting guidance,” he says.

Content management systems from vendors such as Oracle Corp. and Interwoven Inc. can help companies set up a single central location-often called a core repository-for adding, modifying and deleting content. Such programs can eliminate headaches and save money, MacComascaigh says, by acting as the control center. They store not only the content, but also the meta-data that describes the size of a graphic or audio file and control rules and standards, such as acceptable formats and employee permission settings so that only trained staff can make changes.

“This is so important,” MacComascaigh says. “Without this type of system, we see many companies re-inventing the wheel. They will pay for an image they already have because they don’t know they have it. Or marketing content such as an endorsement from a comedian that is only known in, say, Germany, will be served up on a U.S. page, turning something that was created to promote the brand into something that is actually alienating a segment of the audience.”

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