September 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Crowds of curators

Consumers can be e-retailers’ best friends in helping to keep content up-to-date.

Lead Photo

When Kristine Kennedy, editorial director at home goods e-retailer Wayfair LLC, wants to add an article to the company's web site, the process is simple: She logs into the system, finds the tab for adding stories, picks the relevant template from a handful of options—perhaps the "book review" one—and one of the approximately six attached design schemes. Then she inserts her article, adds multiple tags and categories to it and ticks check boxes noting where it should appear on the web site and externally. She can, for example, attach it to a specific e-mail campaign and to relevant product pages on Wayfair.com.

Kennedy does this all from inside Wayfair's home-grown e-commerce software, which manages everything from content to e-mails to customer care. Known around Wayfair's offices as "Admin Home," the system also automatically feeds web site updates to Wayfair's mobile app. Wayfair's 170 engineers are now working on extending automatic update capabilities to a mobile-optimized web site.

Such a system is about as close to a magic Publish Everywhere button available today that is at once able to post and update content on multiple channels. Maintaining accurate and up-to-date product information everywhere retailers are online is tough. Merchants are using a range of strategies to meet the challenge, from migrating to e-commerce platforms with greater content management capabilities to relying on consumers to point out errors.

Product Accuracy

Wayfair's online product catalog contains 5 million items, each with images, product details, specifications and reviews. Each product detail page also contains a button to report inaccurate or missing information, and another to ask a question.

Information submitted through those buttons appears in a special box in the customer service section of Admin Home, along with similar notes added by customer service agents about what they hear from calls or read in e-mails from customers. Wayfair makes changes daily in response, like adding extra furniture dimensions or fixing contradictory specifications within a page, says Mike O'Hara, Wayfair's vice president of engineering.

"It's sort of the same concept as Wikipedia, everyone out there helps us curate," he says.

Crowd­sourcing too plays a part in keeping product information up-to-date at Hunter Industries, a manufacturer of home and commercial irrigation, lighting and molding tools and systems with more than 28,000 products. In March, the merchant added a feedback button to its product pages that has resulted in about 200 fixes so far, says sales and marketing director Jeff Falk.

Hunter also shares articles, videos, specification sheets and presentation materials with resellers. This spring, it migrated to a new e-commerce platform developed by Achieve Internet using the Drupal content management platform, in part to help streamline how it maintained and disseminated these materials.

Previously, Hunter responded to materials requests individually, cobbling together the various pieces and e-mailing them. If a product spec changed six months later, the process repeated itself. Now the company maintains a self-serve database with support materials for every product. Each item is tagged and categorized so when a product specification or other detail changes, staff can quickly locate the pieces that need updating and fix them in one place. This way resellers always have access to the latest materials available.

Forrester Research Inc. analyst Brian Walker says keeping data up-to-date can be challenging particularly for retailers working with older, fragmented systems. He says many retailers that want to improve their processes choose to either start over on another e-commerce platform, as Hunter Industries did, or work to integrate application programming interfaces that feed and collect information around the web into their existing platforms.

Plug and play

The latter option is how PGA Tour Superstore keeps its product details up-to-date. The golf goods e-retailer plugs into Shotfarm LLC's content management database, which collects and stores the latest details from manufacturers. When a supplier updates a product PGA Tour Superstore sells in Shotfarm's management system, it automatically updates on the e-retailer's web and mobile commerce sites.

Nutrasource LLC operates four e-commerce sites selling natural health products, and will soon launch another. The retailer uses a content management system from Agility Inc. that allows it to publish new and updated content to all its sites—including its mobile and tablet extensions—with one command built into its OrderDynamics' e-commerce platform, says Nutrasource's managing director Ashoka Ganesan.

Human help

While technology can assist retailers, there's still a human element to content management. Hunter Industries, in addition to improving how it distributes up-to-date product collateral to resellers in the United States, also needs to manage content on seven sites it hosts around the world in eight languages.

Achieve Internet built the retailer a custom translation management tool that keeps a log of each U.S. site change and highlights them so that international site managers can track updates and determine whether to make the same changes on their sites. For example, Hunter's French contact might notice that the U.S. site updated a paragraph about a certain product, but because the change was grammatical and not related to specifications, he ignores it.

Previously, the process of checking back and forth, person-to-person, across time zones meant small changes could take days to fix, Falk says. But with the translation management tool foreign resellers can react fast and solo. About seven people work part-time on updating content in the United States now, Falk says, with international contacts following their lead as needed.

With separate marketing and editorial departments, as well as a social media employee, managing content agendas at Wayfair requires extensive cross-talk and calendar sharing. The three groups need to coordinate their respective content in support of company-wide promotions and campaigns, and those staffers are also in constant communication with the engineers to make sure the software of Admin Home can meet their needs. "I can't imagine another company where the editorial director and the vice president of engineering meet together every day, but we do," Kennedy says.

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