Creating an Effective Communications Tool Online
The Eastman Chemical Co. of Kingsport, Tenn., got an early start on the Web, launching its site Eastman.com in 1995 to present information on the more than 400 chemicals, fibers and plastics that its six business units produce. In 1999, the company also added a secure e-commerce site where customers can place orders, make changes and track orders 24 hours a day. But in preparing to launch, Eastman made a critical evaluation of the public area and its conclusions weren't positive. The site did not promote the company effectively or provide high-quality information that would help to forge strong customer relationships and drive sales-in addition to presenting a sometimes frustrating user experience.
For example, customers, prospects and distributors turn to Eastman.com when specifying materials for a particular use or seeking instructions for properly handling a chemical. But Web visitors often couldn't figure out how to find the information they wanted. The site had a separate section for each of the company's business units. To look up a product, a user first had to know which Eastman unit sold it--an obstacle for customers who were focused on their own needs, not on the supplier's corporate structure. The site also lacked visual consistency to guide users. Different organizations within the company had funded and developed their own portions of the site, and each had its own look and navigation strategy. "Eastman.com looked like 12 different sites pieced together, because that's exactly what had happened," says David Holden, manager of e-commerce applications and services.
Even Eastman employees became confused when they sought information from a business unit other than their own. For example, an employee in the chemicals unit helping a manufacturer to choose cosmetics ingredients might become stymied if the customer asked for information on packaging, sold by the polymers unit.
In addition, the site contained obsolete information because it took so long to generate and update content. Authors from the different business units worked with in-house graphic designers or outside agencies to create the Web pages. "They often spent more time on what color it was going to be and the way it was going to look" than on the facts they were trying to provide, says Jenny Quillen, content manager for Eastman.com. Just bringing new content from conception to publication could take several weeks.
On the same page
Managing content that changes continuously is the biggest challenge for a company trying to make its Web site a useful communications tool, says Rod Johnson, service director at AMR Research Inc. in Boston. When businesses communicated mainly on paper, updating publications periodically was relatively simple, if tedious. Today, companies update their Web sites constantly. "There has to be a workflow and approval process to make sure the content is consistent with the standards and quality they expect on their site," Johnson says.
To bring this level of discipline to its site, Eastman first turned to iXL Inc. of Atlanta. The Web consulting firm developed a strategy for organizing the site based on the customer's perspective. For example, rather than having to know which business units provide ingredients for cosmetics and cosmetics packaging, a customer now can choose Cosmetics and Personal Care from a menu and follow links for "nail care ingredients," "solvents for fragrance" and "cosmetics packaging." Along with creating this new structure, iXL redesigned Eastman.com for a consistent look and feel, establishing standards for the appearance of particular sections.
While tackling these organization and design issues, Eastman also reassessed how it created and published content. The e-commerce department decided that a content management system would allow it to deliver content to the site more quickly and efficiently, Holden says. The department first planned to develop its own software but later concluded it would be cheaper to buy a system. The company chose Participant Server from Eprise Corp. of Framingham, Mass., a package much like the system Eastman's developers had envisioned creating on their own.
Participant Server provides browser- accessible templates that multiple users can employ to create or update site content. It also manages workflow, ensuring that a piece of content moves in an orderly way from creation to approval to publication. The company sets access rights to control the operations an employee can perform on a piece of content. Today, people in the business units create content, generally in Microsoft Word, and deliver it to Quillen's Web content team. Specialists copy it into Participant Server templates, which enforce the design principles that iXL created. The Web team then posts the formatted content in a development area, where the authors can view it as it will appear on the site. When everyone is satisfied, the Web team publishes the new content.
New ways of thinking
The redesigned site went live in March 2000. Before then, Eastman had to get employees in its different business areas to start thinking along market lines--the way the new site was organized--rather than strictly about their corporate units. Although most of the businesses supported the changes, some did not want to give up their old sites. But reluctant participants changed their minds, Quillen says, when they saw that the new strategy would eliminate publishing bottlenecks, help customers to find products and promote the overall Eastman brand.
A year after the re-launch, Eastman has more than tripled the number of pages on its site and is bringing content to the Web more efficiently. Now that customers can find material on Eastman's site, the business units receive fewer telephone requests for product literature and data sheets, Quillen says. This reduces expenditures on printing and distributing literature and returning customers' calls. In addition, she says, telephone surveys and comments posted through the site suggest that customers are pleased with their improved access to Eastman information. Users say that the redesigned Eastman.com is better organized, finding information is easier and they appreciate the expanded content. "They like the fact that we have more technical information and that all of our literature is there," Quillen says.
Along with bringing better service to customers, the changes have persuaded Eastman employees to embrace the Web site as a strategic tool. "Before, the Web was the last thing they thought about. We had to push them to put things online," Quillen says. Now the units inundate the Web content group with publishing requests.
"We've achieved exactly what we were trying to do--to make them think of this as a part of their everyday job," Quillen says. "The Web is another way to communicate with customers. No matter what aspects of the business plan you're trying to address, you should always include the Web."