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Semantic technologies fuel the Web experience wave

Content is increasingly contextual, incorporating cues from user online behavior to serve up a better audience experience.

We're in the midst of a not-so-subtle shift within content management. The popularity of Web content management is waning and is being replaced by Web experience management. This substitution raises a simple question: How can content be transformed into an experience?

The underlying problem is not new. Since the dawn of the Web, we've been trying to deliver the right information to the right people at the right time, to make it useful and actionable, and to demonstrate results. But the underlying issues are now more complex. In today's digital age, we expect to find what we want with just a few clicks. Our environment should be smart enough to understand our queries and context -- and perhaps even our intentions.

An academic research topic for the past 15 years, the Semantic Web is fast becoming a practical reality. With linked data, standardized schemas, and Web-wide tag sets, we are now able to embed semantics (or meaning) into information streams and data sets. Websites can become more intelligent and sensitized to user needs. With these next-generation technologies, websites can deliver richer experiences.

Static publishing

To understand just how far we have come, let's go back in time. Initially, webmasters focused on editing static webpages and the links on those pages. By the early aughts, Web publishing systems arrived, enabling site contributors, editors and administrators to manage and publish information contained within webpages on their own, without IT support.

With a little extra effort, nontechnical end users began to create new sections of a site simply by replicating and modifying predefined templates that produced static page displays. This step forward spawned Web content management (WCM) as a category.

Dynamic content assembly

Next-generation WCM systems now separate content from presentation and assemble self-contained chunks of information -- often termed content snippets -- for multichannel delivery. Content is dynamically organized and rendered for various devices -- the same information is formatted for full-screen Web browsers, tablets and smartphones. Content is readily integrated from disparate structured and unstructured sources, and mashed up to derive new information.

As a result, content is increasingly contextual, incorporating clues and cues from devices and the business environment. My current context should drive my experience -- though companies have a ways to go before this becomes a reality. For instance, when I connect to an airline site from my laptop, I begin by shopping for a flight. But when I connect to the same site from my smartphone and I'm near an airport, I should be directed to the flight status page, verifying the departure time and gate for my reservation. Unfortunately, none of the airline sites I've seen work this way -- yet.

Managing the complete Web experience

Not surprisingly, to make contextually aware Web content work correctly, a lot of intelligence needs to be added to the underlying information sources, including metadata that describes the snippets, as well as location-specific geo-codes coming from the devices themselves. There is more to content than just publishing and displaying it correctly across multiple channels. It is important to pay attention to the underlying meaning and how content is used -- the "semantics" associated with it.

Web content management systems now separate content from presentation.

Another aspect of managing Web experiences is to know when you are successful. It's essential to integrate tracking and monitoring capabilities into the underlying platform, and to link business metrics to content delivery. Counting page views, search terms and site visitors is only the beginning. It's important for business users to be able to tailor metrics and reporting to the key performance indicators that drive business decisions. Digital experiences should be directly linked to measurable business results.

Digital marketing through WEM

Here's an example of Web experience management (WEM) in action. Uponor Corp., a specialized plumbing supplier for the residential and commercial building markets around the world, is confronting the challenges of digital marketing. It relies on Sitecore, a WEM platform that runs within the Microsoft .NET environment, to manage product information and digital marketing initiatives. Product teams add and update product families and individual parts descriptions through simple Web forms.

Uponor maintains the product information for more than 1,500 SKUs and delivers the content to websites and mobile devices, optimized for the experience. Design engineers can browse through or search for product specification and options from their desktops, while contractors in the field can rapidly find answers to questions using a smartphone app. The information views are tailored to the tasks. In addition, Uponor manages end-to-end content distribution from a single source by integrating with computer-aided design (CAD) tools to support engineering activities and by powering a print-processing engine for publishing hard-copy catalogs.

Uponor also produces its hard-copy catalog from this single source; the process for creating it has become dramatically more efficient. "Before, to print a catalog took over 200 days. Now, it takes 30 days by using [the WCM] system," said Don Costello, Web product manager for Uponor North America.

The company also tracks results of its business goals, objectives, and a range of performance metrics. Uponor customizes the integrated reporting capabilities of Sitecore and can identify the business value of content delivered to targeted market segments.

Molding the customer experience

In short, there's more to digital content than simply publishing and managing it on the Web. The transformation from WCM to WEM goes beyond the semantics of a product category.

Compared to 10 years ago, digital experiences are now much more pervasive and critical to business success. WEM includes capabilities to personalize and contextualize content for different work situations. WEM uses content, metadata and metrics to create competitive advantage. WEM includes capabilities to trace connections among the various pieces of information, to add context and meaning to the interactions. With WEM, firms can deploy the digital resources they need to mold the complete customer experience. One might even say WEM is fueled by the promise of the Semantic Web.

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