Getting Your Foot in the Portal

Getting Your Foot in the Portal

Todd Stauffer

Got your portal yet? From

chemconnect.com to e-steel.com, corporate portals are not just the “in” thing;

they have developed a momentum all their own. In general, the term portal

describes a site designed to let users share information, usually in a

personalized, customizable manner. Part Extranet, part publishing, the trend is

to create an e-commerce wolf clothed in conversation, community and news.

General consumer portals like Yahoo!,

Go.com and Excite represented the first round of rising Internet companies

garnering an astounding amount of venture capital and generating highly

publicized initial public offerings. Internet companies next saw value in

vertical portals, which offer quick, personalized access to disparate

information sources covering a specific topic or industry.

Now portal sites are going corporate. A

lot of this activity is happening in the business-to-business (B2B) market,

which is expected to explode this year. Analysts predict B2B e-commerce will be

a $400 billion industry in 2000 alone. By 2004, the industry will represent

$7.35 trillion in global online sales transactions, according to the Gartner

Group research firm.

“Business-to-business is in a huge

growth phase,” says Mike Oumoto, director of Marketsite for Commerce One, a

leading provider of portal software and a partner in ventures such as GM

TradeXchange (www.gmtradex change.com), GM’s B2B supplier portal. “As we go

forward, this is probably going to be one of the hottest markets

around.”

For creative, production and marketing

managers, the question is not whether you’re going to need to get into the

portal business, but when. To answer that question, you’ll need to take a look

at different types of portals, the technologies that create them, and the

creative techniques used to make portals that interest, excite and entice your

users to come back for more.

Types of

portals

The “portal” concept is loosely defined

in the Internet industry; it can mean anything from Apple’s iTools

(http://itools .mac.com/itoolsmain.html) to VerticalNet’s online communities

(www.vertical net.com) to FedEx’s shipment-tracking Web site (www.fedex.com).

Consumer portals, such as Yahoo! and

Excite, allow you to customize your news, weather, horoscope, sports and other

morning-coffee reading material. Along with that content comes a variety of

other tools–free e-mail, chat, calendar and address book applications. Aside

from the obvious goal of keeping you on the site longer, these tools promote the

sharing of information and communication between the portal site’s

users.

In a corporate environment, the same

technologies can be used to create corporate information portals or knowledge

sharing portals. Obviously, content would change and would be substituted with

company-specific issues–news at the plant, information about suppliers, prices

in the industry or seminars offered by the human resources

department.

With an efficient corporate information

portal in place, you can create an Extranet. This will allow your employees and

satellite offices to communicate with you, and will open up your information to

business partners, as well. By offering order tracking online, for instance,

FedEx is able to lower the cost of customer service while giving large and small

customers the same opportunity to manage their transactions. Amazon.com uses an

Extranet to communicate with its “associates”–the thousands of companies and

individuals who drive business to Amazon.com in exchange for a percentage of

each sale.

Using a corporate information portal–

one built on the consumer portal model to share information with customers,

employees and partners–is now a common way to do business. The final step, one

that will be exploding over the next few years, is the e-marketplace, a B2B

portal that sells more than one company’s products or services. The idea is to

bring together buyers and sellers in an electronic exchange, offering

communications, bidding/trading and information to help facilitate sales and

purchases. The Forrester Group, a Mass.-based research firm, says that up to

$1.4 trillion will flow through these e-marketplaces by 2004. E-marketplaces

promise, through communication, information sharing and new tools for

negotiation, to change the way that many–and maybe even

most–business-to-business transactions take place.

Moving to

e-markets

An example of an e-marketplace is

Gofish.com, an e-market devoted to linking suppliers and customers in the

seafood industry. Gofish.com has an attractive Web site application written in

WebObjects and served on Sun workstations running Solaris. Its e-marketplace

offers members the opportunity to customize the industry news, weather tracking

and reference material they see on their home pages. Pages within the

site–GoCrab, GoShrimp, GoLobster–display specialized news and information within

the industry.

“This is a huge delta for the industry,

where $80 billion is done via phone, fax and Rolodexes, through a loose set of

brokers,” says Pete Murray, chief technology officer for Gofish.com. “You might

call your four or five brokers, who look through their Rolodexes. You may reach

a couple of hundred potential customers. Then, between 5% and 8% of the

transaction is spent on the broker.”

With Gofish.com, customers and

suppliers can buy and sell directly in the seafood exchange. Sellers have the

opportunity to transact with more customers than in the traditional phone and

fax market, using Gofish’s communications tools, auctions and bidding system. In

fact, Gofish offers a sophisticated application that tracks user bids and

counteroffers and even sends users an Internet “page” when new offers or

messages arrive from other members. Gofish.com makes money by taking between

0.75% and 2% of the transaction price as commission.

But isn’t the seafood trade an odd

place for a sophisticated e-market? Not according to Mike Shank, head of

eBusiness Design and Strategy for IBM Global Services. In fact, the

inefficiencies of traditional markets are most affected by

e-marketplaces.

“E-marketplaces add value by bringing

transparency to the existing marketplace so that you now know very quickly what

the customer wants,” Shank says. “What we call ‘commoditizing’ may well just be

stripping [the transaction] away to the essentials. When business-to-business

was first starting to happen, people said it’d be the death of the middleman.

Actually, there’s an incredible birth of intermediaries that add value within

not just a supply chain, but in a value net.”

This “value net” model of communication

and information sharing–where value is created by the interactions of a firm and

its customers, competitors and suppliers–can result in a new way for very old

industries to transact business. With everyone on more equal footing in the

e-marketplace, small and large companies can come together for spot

transactions. All the businesses within a given industry can access the same

information about customers and buying trends, and make quicker decisions. And

e-markets help route out inefficiencies–if a company can’t fill orders, the

market will quickly find out, and a competitor that can fill its orders will

step in.

E-marketplaces also offer a new level

of automation. For instance, Datastream’s iProcure.com not only lets customers

trade industrial parts online, but it fulfills their parts orders automatically,

as well. Systems within a customer’s plant track the inventory of spare

parts–when the inventory reaches a critical level, an order is automatically

placed online. The order is filled by a preselected supplier, or is bid on in

the marketplace.

“In the old days, someone would go over

an automatically generated purchase order and they would either call, fax or

print that purchase order and send it to a selected industrial supplier,”

explains Courtney Millwood, vice president of marketing for iProcure. “What

iProcure does is link through the marketplace to various industrial suppliers.

It’s a time improvement: You don’t see your procurement person doing [the

ordering] at 11 p.m. on Friday.”

But iProcure also allows for spot

purchases, and you can still place orders even if you don’t use Datastream’s

high-end client server applications to run your industrial maintenance

schedules. “We have a lot of mid-market customers, where they don’t necessarily

have a full IT staff,” Millwood says. Those customers can still use iProcure for

transactions, even if their maintenance system isn’t automated.

Design and

implement

The main reason to build a portal site

is to encourage collaboration and communication, whether or not the site is

ultimately designed to sell something. In addition to simplicity, designers of

successful sites emphasize the need for stickiness–a term used to describe a

site that is easy for the visitor to use and encourages him to spend time

there.

“Looks are just as critical in the

business-to-business space,” says Marketsite’s Oumoto. “If [users] don’t like

it, they’re not going to come back. You don’t want to take the corporate

customers and throw extraneous graphics and advertising at them. But the site

can’t look bland, either. It takes more personalization and a more targeted

model.”

At the same time, simplicity of

interface design is key, Oumoto says, because many corporate users may not have

the same level of Internet experience as users of business-to-consumer sites

like Amazon.com. This is because e-marketplaces thrive in industries that use

the phone and fax as their primary technologies for trading. In the consumer

market, you can at least assume that your customer has a PC and can get an

Internet or AOL connection up and running; that is not always the case with

e-marketplaces.

Working with feedback from focus groups

and consumer response, Staples.com recently relaunched its Business Solutions

Center, a portal and e-market for small-business customers. After a soft launch

in the fall of 1999, the site now has a refined look and feel.

“It has a lot of content on each page,

but it’s presented in such a way that it’s easy to navigate,” says Debbie

Hohler, a spokesperson for Staples.com. “The pages are designed to load quickly

on our users’ machines. Services are in the center, with content on the sides;

the Poll and other fun things run on the right side of the site. The Peers and

Experts [sections] are on the left side, where we also promote that

small-business customers can sell their own services.”

The key to this type of portal is

flexibility. “It has to be configurable to that community,” Oumoto says. “With

eBay you have a one-size-fits-all, but for business-to-business, you need to

customize and be flexible in the community. It has to be designed for that

particular group or market.”

Shank, of IBM Global Services, says

that the most important considerations in designing a portal for your company

are staying flexible and continuing to innovate. “The infrastructure, strategy

and design you have today is not what you’re going to have down the road,” he

says. “You’ve got to think about Version 3 while you’re designing Version

1.”

Gofish.com’s Murray agrees: “We went

into Gofish.com with the explicit design understanding that we’re going to have

to change it directly as we go. We’re inventing a new way to do business. We

designed the site so we can rapidly make changes in response to client requests

and to innovate in the environment.”

Brand

position

A simple and sticky site might not be

enough for some e-marketplaces or business-to-business portals, where being

first to market and having a strong brand are important. Gofish.com is an early

competitor in its market, and it is closely tied to Seafax, a recognized leader

in credit services in the seafood industry. That’s helping Gofish.com develop

its brand.

“We are certainly making a major effort

to ensure that our brand is very strong,” says Timothy Brooks, vice president of

product development for GoFish.com. “It goes back to a feeling of confidence.

We’re not selling Beanie Babies to hobbyists. It’s a site where people sit down

to make their living.”

Susan Pinkwater of @tmosphere

(www.atmosphere.net), BBDO’s interactive marketing division, faces similar brand

marketing issues with RealEstate .com, one of her clients. “The people we’re

marketing to are not just consumers,” she says. “We really have to think about

all of their alliances and all their different possible revenue streams. It’s

very different.”

Branding is about creating an emotional

attachment to a product or service, Pinkwater claims. In the B2B market, that

generally means creating a brand people can trust. While being the first in the

market can be important, it’s not as important as being seen as fair and honest.

“From a business point of view,

[marketplaces like RealEstate.com] need to position themselves to be a tool for

the user to get the best information. They should let you do your own

calculations, run your own figures. The more up front and honest they are, the

more people are going to trust them.”

But what if you aren’t the first to

market? Build your brand around a niche.

“A lot of the ‘firsts’ or ‘seconds’

come out as all things to all people,” Shank says. “Instead, get focus. Bring

some domain expertise to your site. If you understand certain sellers, buyers or

a market mechanism that isn’t being exploited, then concentrate on

that.”

“Being first to market doesn’t always

mean being the best,” Oumoto says. “It gives you some sort of lead, but

companies will be out in the next six to 12 months with a more refined business

model. There will be a lot of consolidation. Second and third to market will be

looking at banding together or joining existing communities.”

Build a better

market

In the end, the motivations are

bottom-line oriented–whoever builds the best marketplace is going to reap the

biggest reward.

And there are certain issues for you to

keep in mind while constructing your portal. Build an attractive, secure site

that promotes information sharing. Throw in the negotiation and discussion tools

that the professionals in your particular industry need. Begin to build your

brand around your site’s niche strength, whether or not you’re the first one to

market. Then heap in a lot of credibility and reliability through your

relationships and editorial content in order to boost your brand and market

loyalty.

And while you’re at it, get help. Let

your users beta-test, recommend design elements and suggest content for the

portal. After all, you want the site to be a place where they spend the better

part of their days.

“It’s not just getting the site up,

it’s making sure you bring people to it and making sure that you bring value to

your users and allow them to participate in how it works,” Shank says. That goes

all the way down to look-and-feel…and then some.”

Todd Stauffer is the author of more

than 20 books on computing and Web design topics.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Publish.