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PORTAL or Theirs?

Establishing partnerships, increasing functionality, and outpacing the competition--how your Web site can be your members' portal of choice.

Editor's note: Portal is one of those technology buzzwords that you hear so often you think you really understand what it means. But when you try to explain it, you realize that you might not really get it after all.

It's time you do get it. Basically, portals are gateways to the Internet. If your association Web site helps organize your industry, serves a target market, adds interactivity, and pulls information from disparate sources, it's also a portal. And, dot.com companies by the dozens are eyeing it. They want to lure your visitors to their portals with promises of interactive communities of like-minded individuals, educational tools, and one-stop e-commerce shopping.

Hugh Lee, president and cofounder, Fusion Productions, Webster, New York (a technology solutions and meeting design and production firm), says, "The dynamic growth of the online business-to-business market (estimated to reach $100 billion in 2000 and $1.3 trillion in 2004) is driving this massive migration to the Internet. Financing for initial public offerings and new business models focused on e-commerce are putting more and more pressure on companies and associations to participate in that migration."

Lee points out that, depending on the industry an association represents, constituents may turn to for-profit competitors as their gateways to online communities, knowledge, services, and e-commerce. Even if your constituency seems totally committed to keeping your site as their portal of choice, the remarkable innovation of the Internet--with its open access to information in a way that no other communication medium has ever provided--will cause members to demand bigger and better portals.

In this and future articles, ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT will discuss Web sites, horizontal and vertical portals, and e-commerce opportunities--and the implications their fastpaced evolution may have for associations. Here, technology consultants, association executives, and principals of turnkey Web services providers talk about enhancing portal functionality, whether you could benefit from a portal partner, and the elements necessary to maintain a robust portal that can outpace competition and remain the portal of choice for your members.

The cybergeeks favor Latin, so some of the latest Internet talk derives from porta--a passage or gate, especially a grand or imposing one. Applied to the World Wide Web, the related term portal originally referred to the visitor's starting place on the Internet. Now it's a buzzword given to wider application. "The first all-purpose portals were established by Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos," Don Dea, cofounder, Fusion Productions, Webster, New York, explained in a recent presentation to ASAE staff. These jumping-off spots began as simple search engines for guiding you around the Internet. "They've since evolved," says Dea, "to a horizontal dimension that provides an organized desktop view of a wide variety of information, news, and e-commerce options, filtering in the good stuff from the mass of information online. What distinguishes a portal is the fact that it has a target audience, it organizes information, and the information it serves up is gathered from a number of disparate sources."

"Many associations," Dea is quick to point out, "have viewed themselves as the gateway to the industry they serve. They provide directories to their membership, industry news, links to industry sources and material, and a description of resources that serve their domain of interest. In helping to organize their industry, serve a target market, add interactivity, and pull information from disparate sources, they too have made themselves into portals."

The portal concept now extends to specialty portals--aimed at specific audiences.

Horizontal portals. "The characteristics of a horizontal portal," explains Dea, "are defined by generic demographic qualities such as size of organization or location as opposed to a vertical domain sector that requires specialized knowledge and expertise. An example might be the small-business market, where an office supply company, such as a business-to-business dot.com, would like to represent the horizontal port for all small businesses that might order office supplies and products from that source."

Vertical portals. Be advised that Dea and Fusion's president and cofounder, Hugh Lee, see a rush toward capturing vertical markets via portals as a serious challenge for many associations. "Setting up a vertical net or portal means identifying a highly defined target market and drilling deep within that market," says Lee. "For example, if an Internet company sees potential in setting up an online vertical portal servicing specific types of medical surgery, it would identify the entire supply chain of that particular specialty area, say thoracics, and bring all the elements together in one site. They'd want to include pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment suppliers, physicians, faculty, students, and patients."

Lee and Dea urge associations to evaluate whether the industries they represent might be poteptial targets because of what they call low-hanging fruit: business-to-business opportunities ripe for the picking by an Internet startup looking for a specialty audience or a bricks-and-mortar company looking to move into the digital world quickly.

Positioning your site as a portal

Regardless of whether your association is vulnerable to commercial competitors, the imperative to strengthen your organization's Web presence is compelling. Members want to participate in online communities (see "Preparing for an Open-Range Future" in our April issue) and much more. Those associations that have already extended much of their traditional activity to their Web sites (electronic newsletters and journals, distance education opportunities, online registration for meetings and conferences) have taken first steps to enriching them. Lee sees depth and effectiveness as part of the tool kit for creating a robust portal site. "Some of the characteristics that identify a portal include search capability, categorization of information, interactivity, and personalization. When it comes to personalization," says Lee, "it has to be more than seeing your name and a welcoming message on the home page. If you access the association site and you find on your Today schedule some background information for a meeti ng you'll be attending--that's the kind of customization that will draw members to your site."

To sum it up, Lee says, "If you're looking to develop your site into an effective portal platform, you need to deliver information in the style, time, and way the target member wants it so that it is personalized. You need to have the ability to decentralize content creation and publishing either by segments or topical areas of your market. And you need to have tools to build those specialized communities with the ability to talk together, share ideas, chat, and so on; and you must provide easy access to it all."

Partnership models

When it comes to creating the rich community that Lee and Dea suggest, there are more choices than ever for commercial partners--and so many models of the partnership that it can be a tough call as to how to proceed.

Go solo. Some organizations that lack the budget to outsource, have the expertise on staff to do what is required, or simply don't perceive the need for significant upgrading of their Web sites due to the nature of their constituencies may prefer to continue largely maintaining their Web presence in house. David Nielsen, CAE, executive director, USFN--America's Mortgage Banking Attorneys, Tustin, California, says, "We designed and maintained our previous site totally with our own staff. While we did just put up a new site (www.usfn.org) with the help of a Web design agency, we still developed the content and organizational structure in house. The design agency basically was the artist that created an appropriate look and design for the site, implemented the structure we wanted, and developed the search engines and programs that would run various features. The design bill was just $6,000."

With a full-time staff of four--and a major in computers and marketing--Nielsen plans to maintain the site himself with just a little help from the design firm from time to time.

Stick with the partner you came with. If you've already formed an effective partnership with a technology services provider that is keeping pace with the velocity of change, you may be wise to stick with the partnership. At DelCor Technology Solutions, Silver Spring, Maryland, David Coriale, vice president, says, "Many of our clients already have developed a full-blown Web strategy that ties back to the strategic plan for their organization. We work with them on setting the strategic initiatives for the next year or year and a half. From there we expose them to the different Web technologies that are available, making sure that these tools support the mission and goals. It is a slow, methodical process that leaves the organization with a greater comfort level and a plan that identifies short-term and long-term objectives. Having a plan on paper establishes priorities, focus, and a time line.

"I've heard many associations talk about working with turnkey companies to put up a site or portal with some functionality--online registration, a bookstore, the ability for members to update their own information," says Coriale. "Many are still trying to figure out the impact on the bottom line, whether or not they need all of the options being offered. A lot of them are adding things piece by piece."

Pick a new partner. A growing number of associations have chosen to work with the new turnkey partners--companies that provide and support Web site enhancements with speed, expertise, and support. With promises to develop community, content, resources, and e-commerce within an organization's Web site, these companies offer a variety of business models, some based on fee-for-service, others focused on shared nondues revenue streams. With 6-12 months of experience under their belts, many have changed their original business models already--now that they've spent some intense time with association executives to understand associations' real goals and needs.

Deciding to go turnkey

Using a turnkey partner can be attractive for a number of reasons. Because turnkey partners have developed template pages with standard design and formatting, most can offer a faster, simpler solution than an association could find by using its own staff or working with a technology solutions company that would need to start from scratch to customize a new site or add functionality to an existing site. Organization leaders who have chosen the turnkey solution cite those reasons and more for taking the leap.

Speed of implementation. "It had become clear to me," says Larry Preo, executive director, Purdue Alumni Association (PAA), West Lafayette, Indiana, "that we wanted to move further into the Internet arena fairly quickly. I chose not to take a wait-and-see approach and learn from our peers, but to get out ahead of the curve--or at least at the crest of the early wave--and that's what we did. I didn't have the resources, expertise, or funding to put something like this together."

Preo believes that PAA has one of the smallest alumni support staffs in the Big Ten (without the data entry people responsible for the alumni database, the staff numbers 15). "Using iBelong as our turnkey solutions provider," he says, "made it possible to bring the project to completion at the kind of speed we were looking for."

"We probably could have developed the elements of our new site on our own, says Perry Reynolds, marketing director, National Housewares Manufacturers Association (NHMA), Rosemont, Illinois, "but only in a much longer timeframe. In the end, having a skilled partner like eSociety shortened the process dramatically. Having already thought out where we wanted to go and matching it with our partner's capabilities model was probably helpful in our moving quickly," he points out.

At the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA), Des Plaines, Illinois, Tom Dailly, director of management information services, was also looking for speed of implementation. "Since Bernard C. Harris Publishing Company had built all the functionality into their online community module," says Dailly, "we could pick the features we wanted, such as a message board, online member updating of records, and soon, and get up and running quickly."

Expertise and compatibility. With a global network of affiliates in approximately 45 countries, Youth for Understanding (YFU), Washington, D.C., was in search of a process for improving its existing communication infrastructure, which consisted mainly of ordinary mail, faxes, some e-mail and e-mail groups, says Sally Grooms Cowal, president and CEO of the nonprofit student exchange organization. "Working with such a diverse constituency--students, alumni, schools, parents, and volunteers--a Web-based tool was the obvious solution," she explains. "WeGo.com's variety of features, flexibility of use, and easily manageable tools that did not require high-technology skills seemed like the most compatible choice for our challenges. The solutions have proven to be remarkably intuitive." YFU is already using the new tools to foster very interactive online communication among its far-reaching constituents. "We now have online chat, discussion boards, newsletters, e-mail group distribution, and bulletin boards," says C owal. "This is enhanced by our ability to use the platform to build a secure intranet for our constituents."

For Philip Piccigallo, national executive director, Order Sons of Italy in America, Washington, D.C. (OSIA), the turnkey solution provided by e.ssociation showed up at the right time. "My board and I are convinced that the Internet is the principal means of communicating with present and prospective members and anyone interested in the purpose and mission of our organization. When we committed to upgrade our site, we realized that with a sizeable membership, a large configuration of state chapters, and a small office of eight full-time people, we needed a partner. We decided to join with an organization that could provide ancillary services that we could not develop ourselves."

Preo points out that PAA "picked a turnkey partner that seemed to be an organization extremely sensitive to the nature of our relationship with our alumni. In the alumni business it is the unique affinity between the university and its graduates that, if not fully understood, can lead to marketing failure with services, products, and programs. Our provider has demonstrated great sensitivity and knowledge for this affinity area, which is a key ingredient to our effectiveness."

For the National Housewares Manufacturers Association the decision was based not only on expertise but on compatibility. "We had drawn up a strategic plan that included 150 potential Internet enhancements to our existing site," says Reynolds. "The bonus for us was that our outsourcing partner came with already-developed tools that would enable us to implement many of these enhancements."

Support. "Our turnkey approach brings all the technological support with it--giving our users the ability to call the helpline 24 hours per day, 7 days a week," Preo says of the alumni association. "We don't have to provide our own personnel. If just one tenth of one percent of our potential market for new members responds with questions about what it is we offer, our little office would be overwhelmed if we had to do it ourselves,"

OSIA made sure that data collection and feedback about the site are part of the responsibility of the organization's Web partner. "We're planning on building a large database of e-mail addresses, both of e-mail participants and other visitors to the site--whether they are members yet or not," says Piccigallo. "Quick surveys will allow us to begin profiling our visitors so we will know what they are interested in and how best to provide services to them."

Goals for enhanced sites

In discussing their reasons for adding functionality to their Web sites, the association executives interviewed agree that it is the development of a rich and interactive online community that is the basis for a number of additional goals.

Global communication. "Our primary goal," says Youth for Understanding's Cowal, "was to facilitate effective communication for our global community. Our site can now connect the internal workings of our organization with approximately 100,000 volunteers and 200,000 alumni from 45 countries. As a result, we've seen a dramatic increase in online activity."

"The intranet platform," says Cowal, "allowed the YFU-USA board with its international representatives, for example, to conduct an online dialogue in preparation for a visioning and strategic planning retreat. We used one of our chapter sites for the discussion and for the dissemination of information and sharing of documents--benefits we had no way of accomplishing before."

Creating a vertical portal. Our strategic plan," says Reynolds of NHMA's new site, "is to create a Web-based community for our industry that will bring all the elements together. There has been no central location to obtain industry news; no site where you can find all housewares manufacturers' Web sites and sort through them by category. You couldn't go anywhere to find a list of the approximately 2,000 sellers, manufacturers, and marketers of housewares." The new site also offers a business-to-business e-commerce element. "Many of our members," says Reynolds, "are struggling with the issue of how to take themselves to market on the Internet. We hope this may be a resolution. For instance, members can sell odd lots of products that are no longer in their main line of business, or they can sell their regular product line by auction or direct it specifically to certain retailers. We also bring 12,000 U.S. and 6,000 non-U.S. retailers to our International Housewares Show each year. We give these companies the o pportunity to be in front of every major retailer in the United States and most of the major retailers in the world. Now, by having the trade show online, this visibility is dramatically expanded."

Reaching out to new members. "With a database of more than 400,000 potential members and a current membership of 68,000," says PAA's Preo, "we obviously have room to grow. With enhanced online capability to capture the attention of the alumni, we hope at some point that they might consider sending a student to the university, making a donadon, or providing other support."

Beyond serving OSIA's present membership of 560,000, Piccigallo hopes to "reach out to new and exciting audiences. If one thinks ideally, our prospective membership is the 24 million people comprising the Italian-American community in the United States. We adapted our acronym (OSIA) to embrace an even wider constituency with a new branding slogan "One-Stop Italian America." Our new site should appeal to anyone who appreciates things deriving from Italy, the Italian-American community, or both." Piccigallo hopes that people will visit the site for information on everything from rare wines and olive oils to how best to begin learning to speak Italian.

Serving as a model for chapters. "A great feature for us," says Preo, "is the availability of a template Web page that our chapters can access. While they develop their own content, the page itself will have a consistent look whether it's for the club in Naples, Florida, or one in Boise, Idaho. Since the national headquarters is absorbing any costs involved, the clubs have an added incentive to use this feature," says Preo.

AT YFU, Cowal says, "the chapter-building module of the site holds tremendous promise. We've already seen the creation of 15 new country chapter sites. Because the template-format site-building tool is browser-based, all country chapters regardless of technical expertise can create their own Web pages and customize them with their own content."

Says Piccigallo, "Our present membership is not entirely online. And not all of our chapters have Web sites." He hopes that for OSIA's 21 state chapters and nearly 700 local chapters the national office Web strategy will serve as a model for chapters to design their own sites and take advantage of improved access to the national office site.

Facilitating increased participation.

"For an organization of our global dimensions," says Cowal, "planning of international conferences is both logistically and content-wise a monumental challenge. By making use of our enhanced electronic communication capabilities in planning our European conference in March 2000, we experienced much greater input into building of the agenda and more active participation in the entire process."

Only the beginning

Only a few turnkey sites have launched as this article goes to press. Site enhancements for associations with long-term strategic plans developed with full-service providers will no doubt accelerate as the rush for online presence continues unabated. As the Internet business models continue to evolve, so does the knowledge of the participants.

Reacting to online transparency.

ENA's Dailly cautions association executives to pay attention to the fact that along with new online capability for members to update records and view more of the inner workings of the association comes the need for quicker responses. "In a point-and-click world," says Dailly, "members want instant results. If you allow members to do their own member data updates, and your turnkey provider only does the internal updating once a week, the member will be able to see that. Dailly was aware going in that there was no direct integration of his turnkey solution product with ENA's in-house database. "While members can update their data online," he says, "we must download and then manually enter the changes to our database on a weekly basis. There can be a delay between the time the member enters the changes and the time that the information is posted." Dailly plans to monitor the number of changes made weekly in order to decide when it might be worthwhile to consider integration of the two systems. (See related arti cle, "Coordinating Behind the Scenes.")

DelCor's Coriale couldn't agree more. "By setting up online access to e-commerce, membership records, bookstores, and so on," he cautions, "you are setting yourself up to transparency of your database management. Where you used to do a mailing and update the record at the time the mailing went out, now a member can access his or her membership record on a 24/7 basis and see that you may not have updated it immediately. Members can suddenly look inside your organization whenever they want to. Good database management processes must be in place where you didn't need them before. An organization can no longer fake it behind the scenes."

Recognizing marketing imperatives.

"In order for us to reach the next generation of Italian-Americans," says Piccigallo, "we must be ahead of the crowd in cyberspace. We're completing a comprehensive marketing strategy with the recognition that much of it must be geared to young people. We'll use all marketing methods: print, e-mail, direct mail, press releases, electronic and print advertising, and publications. Coverage in our own magazine--delivered to 150,000 households--will be key to the launch of the Web site. We'll use every form of outreach of our national organization and more."

For Larry Preo, the marketing piece is even more critical. The material from PAA's original site will gradually migrate to the new site, which, of course, has a different universal resource locator. "To burn that URL into members' minds," says Preo, "the marketing plan is going to be key to any success that we have. We'll be using everything from direct mail and inserts to notices on credit card bills and billboards, to ads in our alumni magazine."

Retrofitting to strategic priorities.

Interestingly, what might have begun as a swift and less expensive turnkey solution has for most evolved into a more strategic proposition. Reynolds, of NHMA, says, "In looking at how we developed our site, I would strongly recommend developing a strategic benefits model, as we did, before you go to market to look for solutions providers. It's easy to let capabilities drive decisions; remember that you are creating something that is a benefit to the members or to the users of the community, so don't just create something because you've found the tools to do it with."

Developing a strategic document with NHMA's board was also critical to being able to move ahead quickly, notes Reynolds. "At the end of last year," he says, "we defined for the board where we thought we should go and we all agreed on what would be the correct strategic plan. At this point, the board is with us and supporting us down to funding the marketing effort at a level we think will get the message out.

And what about e-commerce? "Our partner offers a revenue-sharing program we will be implementing in the future," says Cowal. "Our first priority is to build a highly interactive site that is highly used. It is only when we've achieved this that we will roll out e-commerce activities."

Cowal's strategy seems to reflect that of many other associations that are migrating their activities to the Internet. Anjai Gandhi, cofounder and vice president of group services, WeGo.com, Palo Alto, California, says, "E-commerce is a critical and attractive component of an association's Internet strategy. However, many associations are not approaching e-commerce in the best way to realize its full potential. Ideally, association members are seeking a comprehensive online destination for content, community, member services, and commerce. Without the other elements in place, the commerce will not be significantly differentiated from the many competitive dot.com sites offering the same goods and services. Also, associations must focus on the right type of commerce. While there is some potential in business-to-consumer affinity programs, the real opportunity will be in business-to-business commerce focused on the organization's industry or profession.

"Many of the original turnkey business models were focused on a projected shared-revenue stream generated from c-commerce opportunities to be included in the sites," Gandhi adds. "After working more closely with associations within the past few months, we are finding that the nondues revenue stream is not their top priority. Rather, they are first looking at how to create a strong online community that is based on providing member service. In many cases, companies such as ours are developing much more strategic and long-range plans, with the e-commerce piece to be added after these other priorities are met."

In putting together the puzzle of portals, partners, and priorities, it appears that many turnkey solution providers are going through a quick evolution as they find that even simple templates and add-ons must be incorporated into grander strategic plans and more complex technology infrastructures.

Reynolds says, "Your Web site component is more than the technology. That's sort of like thinking that your auto mechanic can tell you how you get to Flint, Michigan. He may not know how to get there, but he knows how to make the car work. To get where you want to go, you need a strategic road map as well. Putting the two elements together is what your outsourcing partnership is all about."

Carole Schweitzer is associate editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT.
COPYRIGHT 2000 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Schweitzer, Carole
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
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