The Next Wave: Hybrid Portals

Imagine this scenario: You get to work in the morning and turn on the computer. Once you log onto a company’s site, you scan current news, check some stock quotes, perhaps take a peek at your horoscope. If you’re an employee, you also look at some company financial statements, order some office supplies, and find out about the new HR benefits. Or, if you’re a reseller, you can go to the business site you’ve bookmarked and check out the latest products, get information to support your sales efforts or track an order. All in one place.

You can access business and personal information in one place because this company’s site is actually a portal — a combination of an Enterprise Information Portal (EIP) and a consumer portal. This hybrid portal will be the future of what’s on the web; a big advantage for businesses.

Information Overload

A traditional consumer portal — such as Excite or Yahoo — functions as a gateway to the Internet. This type of portal attempts to organize the often chaotic landscape of the web by assembling a lot of information into one place.

An EIP, like a consumer portal, aggregates information into one easy-to-use page. The difference is that this information is relevant to the employees of a particular company or to people who do business with that company.

For companies who want a competitive edge, implementing a combination EIP/consumer-type portal makes a lot of sense. Ideally, for business-to-business (B2B) sites, resellers will bookmark a company’s web site, so it will be the default site that appears when they boot up their browser in the morning. It’s easy one-stop shopping; everything resellers need is a click away.

If the EIP is used within a company, as a sort of intranet, it makes everyone’s work day more efficient. While consumer-type portals are about information gathering, EIPs are about employee productivity: Everything they need to get work done faster is right there.

Making Portals Work

To make a business-to-business portal work, there are a few items absolutely imperative to engaging your audience:

  • A promotion area, updated by the day or week, that highlights special deals.

  • An area that quickly gives the “value proposition” to buyers. Tell them straight off what’s in it for them.
  • Let your buyers get the details quickly and easily.

Of course, the beauty of a traditional portal is that there’s a reason to come back daily, whether it’s to check the weather or catch up on the news. Business to business portals may not — but often do — have all the bells and whistles of traditional portals, such as horoscopes and stock quotes. If you really want your web site to be your buyers’ bookmark, you might want to include these bells and whistles to encourage them to return every day.

If you don’t have the staff to maintain the site and refresh it daily, you could try a “faux portal” — it aggregates information like a portal, but eliminates the extra items that take a lot of upkeep. However, if you don’t feature these extra incentives, why should your buyers visit the web site on a daily basis? How is your site going to help them sell more? How can your site be the place they always want to come to, where they know they’ll find the tools they need to be successful?

Once you figure out the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to build your business community of faithful followers. Think of every time these people log on as a one-to-one sales training opportunity. Use it wisely.

A company that has used its B2B site to good advantage is 3Com. Not only does it provide links to the things a business user would want — service, support, products and site tools — but it also features an easy to follow, comfortable layout — an important feature for B2B sites that want to keep users coming back for more.

Portal Mania

Everyday I get another phone call from our executive producer: another portal customer. While my teams know how to give birth to a great portal, we are now starting to ask our clients, “why do you want a portal?” Sometimes the answer is silly enough to be, “because that’s what’s hot!”

Portals are a great way to architect copious amounts of information in a clear user interface design, but they don’t speak well to building a personality online. Well, unless you are a Yahoo with big bucks to spend on the total integrated marketing approach and can build big brand awareness with radio, motel-like billboards, etc.

One web site we designed recently is for the Cybergold surf incentive program. To encourage users to shop through its site using the program to earn points, it decided to offer other enticements to motivate users to return frequently. Does a person shopping on the web really care to see the news, weather, and stock quotes before they blast off for bargain hunting? Theoretically, the concept seems like a fit — we’ll see if the consumer buys it.

On the B2B horizon, many companies want resellers to use its web site as the be-all-end-all for everything to help sell product and make resellers successful — this seems like the kid-glove fit.

Be sure to ask yourselves: Who is visiting, what is the experience they are looking for, how are you going to build equity in your brand and most of all, build community. If you think a portal fits the aforementioned, go for it. However if you think it’s just the latest thing and aren’t sure, forget it — chances are you are trying to put a round peg in a square hole.

The Comfort Zone

Almost everyone knows how to use a cassette player.

There’s the button with the arrow to fast forward the tape, the button with the arrow to back up, the button to stop. You can go to any tape player and find similar buttons. Knowing where all the buttons are and what functions they do can be comforting.

That’s the basic theory behind consumer portals on the web: They create a feeling of comfort for the user. People are already used to seeing consumer portals like Yahoo. These portals aren’t very graphically intense. They’re almost solely text-based with no flashy design.

Because navigation is easy and intuitive, the business community is now adopting the portal paradigm more and more as their web design of choice. These designs capitalize on the comfort that users feel from portals. One of the major reasons why people are so hyped on the business portal right now is because it’s an experience that most people are already accustomed to from using portals like Amazon or Netscape’s Netcenter.

However, there are many things consumer portals do wrong that would best be avoided by business portals. A lot of consumer portals feel the need to cram everything onto one page (a la the search engine/directory portals). Businesses can avoid this clutter by targeting their information. The bottom line: Don’t stick everything about the company on the main portal page. Be selective with an eye toward what people who interact with your company really need.

Once you’ve chosen the things that visitors to your site will find useful, these things should be easy to find. Avoid poor navigation. If there’s information that won’t fit on the page, provide a list of possibilities where users can go to get more information. Ease of use is key.

Powerful Portals

If you decide to use a portal to streamline the accessibility of your company’s information and keep people coming back, there are three major things you should keep in mind:

  1. Personalization and targeting

  2. Ease and consistency of navigation
  3. The value of content

The business advantages of EIPs, from providing a center for e-commerce to creating company loyalty, are many. Look for EIPs — with the addition of consumer-portal standards — as the future of what will be on the web.

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