Friday, August 20, 2010

Addressing Enterprises Need for Microsites: Enterprise Drupal Gardens

Today we have a guest columnist: Thomas Erickson from Acquia. Tom writes:

Organizations no longer have one website, they have many websites and the number keeps growing. Microsites are those websites that don’t fit neatly into larger IT priorities. This is typically because they are too small and short-lived to task core development teams to build and often are viewed as a distraction. One CTO we recently spoke to referred to these as his “rats and mice” sites. At the same time, microsites can represent new business opportunities; they can be effective sales and marketing tools that can be tied to revenue and other important business goals.

Early last year, shortly after I had officially joined Acquia as an employee, I was thinking about critical issues that enterprises face when confronting the interactive web. Acquia had heard from several corners of the market about their headaches with current technologies.

For example, the head of NBC digital had spoken at a conference in Boston, and talked about their number one issue: creating microsites. At the same time, we at Acquia had also been having conversations with a large university that has over 400 websites. Each professor, department, library, etc. had their own site. The vast majority of these were reasonably small, falling into the microsite genre.

Finally, a major branch of the federal government also had hundreds of sites and over 30 different content management systems. In all cases, these organizations faced a nightmare of branding and maintainability, not to mention security.

The stories repeated themselves over and over. Acquia heard about them because we support Drupal, and Drupal was being used at varying levels in all of these cases. The pain point was clear: It’s extremely hard to create, sustain, and maintain microsites.

I asked a friend of mine, who works for a large digital agency, for his thoughts. He had an interesting perspective, taken from his experience with consumer brands. Here’s the scenario he gave me:

A product manager is tasked with achieving goals for awareness and market share for their product and is given a budget to accomplish it. A creative boutique demonstrates a cool capability to the product manager, who decides they “have to have it.” The underlying technology is of no concern, and the product manager spends $X and Y weeks on the project.

Other product managers in the organization do the same thing. Assume 30 product managers, and soon $30X is spent on 30 websites with 20 different technologies; some of them are reliable and secure, and others are less so.

The CMO looks over the properties, each perhaps with differences in look and feel and consequently in branding. The CMO wonders if there is a way to get consistent branding, spend $15X or less instead of $30X; do them each in substantially less time and leave the saved sums for other creative programs.

One or more of the sites gets hacked, the CEO finds out, and barks at the CIO. The CIO maintains the primary websites in the company, but has little to do with these creative microsites. The CIO also wonders if there’s a way to avoid having 20 different technologies, each with their own knowledge curve to maintain and sustain. But perhaps even more importantly, secure.

Alas, the dilemma plays out.

There are solutions for microsites. Many of them are promising, but there have always been substantial barriers that remained difficult to overcome, including:

  • Existing in-house content management systems (CMS) are specialized, with a dedicated team whose first priority is a long work queue associated with the organization’s primary web strategy.

  • Procuring machines to host microsites internally is a painful and long process. Sometimes so much so, that the economics of the microsite are negated before it even is created.

  • Quality control is always a sore spot, particularly within IT departments. Even though sales and marketing may be the drivers behind the concept and content of the microsites, without a seamless process, quality assurance can get lost in the mix and it’s ultimately IT that is left holding the bag.

In the end, any of these hurdles lead to the following scenario: IT cannot provide sales and marketing with a system to drive revenue, sales and marketing staff depend on IT staff to get everything done; a bottleneck ensues, and ultimately sales and marketing adopt other platforms and run the risk of undermining brand consistency.

I think that SaaS is the way to go and I believe enterprises are recognizing this. However there are many options, all with their positives and negatives.

One direction is to go with something like Marketers are already comfortable with it because it’s both easy and user friendly. WordPress has made it simple for anyone to create a blog. The trade off here comes with functionality. While is great for blogging, it doesn’t offer the flexibility enterprises need to build effective microsites.

Alternately, enterprises may choose to go with a more robust CMS solution such as Clickability, which gives them the content management functionality lacking in other solutions. However, because these platforms are proprietary, they come at significant cost and yet still trail the pace of innovation that open source communities like Drupal and Wordpress are able to maintain. The result? These solutions fall short for both economical and technical reasons.

It’s in the shortcomings of these existing solutions that we at Acquia see the opportunity for a Drupal-based SaaS solution with an open source twist. By that I mean, it's a solution that’s priced right, offers robust social publishing capabilities, and provides an approachable user experience for non-technical users.

Drupal has long been recognized as a great development platform for web content management and social collaboration. However, our mission at Acquia is to present Drupal’s rich social features not only as a great developer solution, but an answer to many of the challenges I have outlined above. Our approach to broadening Drupal’s adoption and specifically addressing the need for a better microsite platform is Drupal Gardens.

Drupal has proven itself as a very capable system for microsites. Sony Music, Intel, Proctor & Gamble, and hundreds of others have used it. But it has a learning curve and it still needs to be hosted. What it lacks in ease, Drupal makes up for in flexibility and capability.

Our founder, Dries Buytaert, had always envisioned creating a Drupal-as-a-Service platform, and now we had worked out the perfect use case for the product: enable organizations of all sizes to easily create, sustain, and maintain tens, hundreds, or even thousands of microsites. By leveraging Drupal and building a robust SaaS platform for it, each of the personas in the first scenario could be satisfied:

  1. The product manager has the creativity necessary to build unique, compelling websites. A SaaS offering means a minimum of fuss in licensing and procurement.

  2. The CMO can establish guidelines on branding, using templates and themes to enforce consistency. Using open source in a repeatable way also drives cost down dramatically.

  3. Acquia ensures the security, reliability, sustainability, and maintainability of the entire platform right up to the application, providing comfort to the CIO.

We launched Drupal Gardens in public beta in July. Today there are over 15,000 sites built on the product. Drupal Garden’s ThemeBuilder brings a powerful, but simple-to-use suite of tools to design websites, dramatically reducing the learning curve without taking away the flexibility. We also created an export capability, so if your microsite grows up and needs to do more, you can easily take your entire site – the code, content, users, and design - and move to a custom hosting environment. Users have complete flexibility to work the way they want to work. After all it’s the open source way.

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