Vignette's StoryServer was one of the first dynamic Web publishing systems to hit the market when it debuted several years ago. Since then, the company has added e-commerce and portal content management to its array of offerings. Its most recent release is Syndication Server, which manages the distribution of syndicated content to affiliate Web sites. Dylan Tweney talked to Vignette president and CEO Greg Peters.
How has Vignette evolved from content publishing to more of an Internet-commerce company?
Peters: We sell a Web-based platform that includes a number of software services - content management, personalisation and back-end data integration. These are deployed by customers and manifest themselves through a number of different Internet Relationship Management Applications, or IRMs. And these types of applications would be things like portals, electronic-commerce applications, self-service applications, knowledge management applications and so on.
In effect, what companies are doing is getting their businesses online and beginning to interact in a direct fashion with their customers. How do they acquire customers as rapidly as they can? And how do they increase customer retention, customer satisfaction, and customer loyalty in the online world where customers are free to move about anywhere they want to go?
So how do merchants attract and retain customers online?
We think that you do that by really owning the customer relationship and by managing that customer interaction. [You do that] principally by providing convenience and advisory services so that you're providing value to someone as they're coming into your site. If they're receiving that kind of value, then there's a good shot they're going to continue to come back. An example is Bank One, which bought our software and deployed it on their own Web site. They actually created a financial portal, where they're providing all kinds of financial planning tools and capabilities to help the visitors coming into their site, whether they're a Bank One customer or not. And if those individuals are getting the value that Bank One expects them to get, now they've got a reason to continue to come back.
In other words, sites need to provide more than just good content?
Content isn't just a story that sits on a Web page. Content is everything that exists on the Web, in effect. It can be products, it can be services, it can be anything. And that content can actually be distributed out to other outlets.
There has been a lot of talk about online customer service this year. There are a lot of horror stories, but not too many success stories. Is there anybody who is doing it right?
Clearly it's an evolving market. There are a lot of self-service capabilities and there are the obvious benefits of driving service online. To a large extent, the kind of community gatherings that can take place online to help solve customer problems has been very beneficial to customers, because they can trade similar experiences.
What is the biggest issue facing IT managers who are trying to build some coherent Internet-commerce strategy?
I think probably the biggest issue is they're drinking from the fire hose. The thing we see more than anything is just the sense of urgency that companies have today to get these solutions up and running and deployed. Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, or Office Depot and Staples - those kinds of online competitive battles are taking place in virtually every industry that exists today, worldwide.
Companies either want first-mover advantage to get ahead of their competition, or the competition is already out there and they want to catch up, because they're losing market share for every day that they're not online. That kind of urgency obviously puts strains on IT staff. As a result, deployment times are a really critical aspect of our software solutions.
What does the future hold for Vignette?
The next thing that's on our plate is to start to package up some of these Internet relationship-management applications. This is similar to what happened in the front-office space. Ten years ago, if you wanted a human resource application, you'd probably write your own application and set it on top of one of the back-office systems and away you'd go. Today, you wouldn't dream of that. You'd buy one of the out-of-the-box applications. Well, the same evolutionary kind of transition will take place in the market that we're addressing.
Do the rapid development demands and rapid market growth on the Internet leave any room for small businesses online, or are they all going to get swallowed up by large companies?
No. I think syndication is an important aspect of that. For example, a small bank can syndicate mutual funds from Fidelity and various other products from various companies, and they can end up with capabilities equal to or similar to Citibank's. Because of that, I think the Internet actually enables small companies.
The bigger focus isn't so much on who supplies what product. It is ultimately what is being offered to customers. As long as the selection that customers have is of the greatest quality, they'll remain on a site.
Over time, the products and services that companies are offering will start to be blended together so that it will become very, very difficult - if not impossible - for the actual end-user customer to figure out who and where they're buying from. It's all kind of seamless to them. And that's a better answer for everybody.