Riley Edmunds, Ingeniux Corporation
For your customers, finding the information they need to make informed, intelligent decisions often means searching across multiple systems with multiple log ins and interfaces. This can lead to frustration and confusion for your customers, and a headache for you as your support costs shoot through the roof because customers are constantly calling for support.
As the number of information-based systems grows and the information they store grows, these challenges are only getting more complex. The result is negative brand perception and poor customer experience—and that is something no organization can afford.
Here’s the good news. Many of the issues we’ll see as a result of the proliferation of information-based systems—including the scenario above—can be avoided or solved with a unified portal.
What is a Unified Portal?
A unified portal is a secure website designed to deliver your customers (members, clients, partners, etc.) all the information they need to be successful. It unifies the customer experience in a single, seamless environment where the brand is known and the value-add made clear.
At its foundation a unified portal:
- Unifies content, reduces complexity and improves the user experience. A single place to access support tickets, technical documentation, knowledge, learning and training, product information, service information, reseller and partner information and customer information.
- Reduces friction and cost. It’s easier for customers to engage with your products and services, encourages self-service, and reduces the cost for traditional forms of support.
- Increases loyalty and retention. Better access to information and increased visibility improve customer satisfaction and allow customers to have more meaningful engagement with your brand.
- Generates new sales. Before a customer engages sales, they spend a lot of time researching, and validating products and services, and many look to existing customers to advocate for the brand.
It’s important to understand that a unified portal is not an out-of-the-box solution that you can quickly plug and play. The very nature of unifying multiple sources of content, integrating multiple applications, modeling unique business processes, and engaging users with your brand pretty much excludes “out of the box.”
The Key Elements of a Unified Portal
There are ten key elements of a unified portal.
User Authentication and Management
Secure authentication of users and the ability to establish rights and permissions to both the portal and the content within the portal is critical. Authentication can be done through integration with Active Directory, LDAP, Central Authentication Service (CAS) or a host of custom providers, or the portal can provide security directly.
Intelligent Content Model
You create content in a few different systems. It could be Microsoft Word, a component content management system, using DITA or somewhere else. To make this content available to customers you want to import it into your unified portal, retaining its intelligence. This intelligence is found in its structure and associated metadata.
Not all content is intelligent however. Unstructured content, like Word documents and emails, don’t have much intelligence. In this case, when you import the content into the portal you want to add value and intelligence to the content—through structure and metadata.
When you define an intelligent content model, you can easily re-use the content for multiple sites, channels or use cases, publishing it in the format required for each delivery experience. You don’t worry about presentation—the presentation layer has the responsibility of displaying the content appropriately.
To learn more about this best practice, take a moment to check out this overview of Ann Rockley’s webinar on intelligent structured content.
Whether you create content in the unified portal or integrate it from other systems and repositories you need a way to categorize it and apply metadata.
A taxonomy manager enables you to categorize content based on business processes or the content consumption model. You can define the metadata you want to use and either manually or programmatically apply that metadata.
The categorization of content is what enables you to re-use that content in different ways and locations, both programmatically and editorially. You can also leverage taxonomy to personalize or target content and guide users to the information they need.
Structured Authoring Environment
To deliver content to multiple channels, you need a way to separate the creation and management of content from its presentation(s). A unified portal can not only pull in content from other sources, it provides an authoring environment to create content within the portal itself.
To create content that is easily reused and repurposed, a structured content authoring model is ideal. Structured content is intelligent—it is categorized and annotated with a metadata model that describes what the content is, how it’s used and for whom.
One of the drivers of a unified portal is the ability of the portal to use existing business processes and workflows. A built-in workflow tool enables administrators to easily map your existing workflows in the portal or create new ones that improve the usability of content.
Web-enable Enterprise Data
A unified portal can connect to enterprise systems and cloud applications such as Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, Oracle, SAP and many cloud-based point solutions, allowing you to pull in data from those systems and display it in the portal.
Once you have connected an external system you can create index listings or custom dashboards within the portal to visualize the data. This information is specific to the customer.
Community is an important element of a unified portal. It allows customers to share insights and personal experiences on the company’s products and services and ask questions from people who use the products.
Collaborative and community capabilities empower your customers to help and learn from each other. These capabilities include:
- User generated content, feedback and interactions
- Topic and Interest Groups
- Ratings, Rankings and Comments
Community features are proven to lower support costs and improve customer loyalty and retention. They can also support cross-selling and upselling opportunities.
Research indicates that 30% to 70% of users start looking for information by performing a search. In a unified portal there are several types of search approaches that are useful:
- Federated search—provides the ability to search external applications and repositories and requires a permission and access model to ensure users only have access to the information they can access. It also requires diverse indexing capabilities and segmentation and unification of search results.
- Faceted (guided) search—enables the filtering of search results by taxonomy and metadata, guiding users and improving content findability.
- Context search and filtering—allows users to search specific sections or types of content—often known as search-based navigation.
Multi-channel Content Delivery
A unified portal enables you to bring all your information into a single location and share it with your customers, but it also enables you to deliver that content to other channels. Content can be site specific—with lines of business re-using content for their sites, or you can syndicate it across multiple external sites. Because the content you have in the unified portal is intelligent and structured, you can delivery it in specific contexts, to specific devices or media, and in multiple languages.
You can publish content to:
- The web in all its formats (website, web application, mobile), including both responsive and adaptive mobile delivery
- Business applications like Salesforce, ecommerce, in-line help and display (kiosk) apps.
- Publish to Print (PDF, Word, In-Design)
- Email and other forms of digital communication
Multi-channel content delivery requires a decoupled publishing model and a modern API. With decoupled publishing, you can manage and edit your content in the unified portal and when you need to, push it out as a resource file into an external application, or the application can request content using a SOAP or REST-based API-based web service.
Managing all your content in a unified portal empowers your business and marketing teams to update in-app content easily, translate content into multiple languages, personalize content based on business rules or audience, or enable self-service for third-party customers of your applications.
Adaptive Mobile Delivery
Adaptive mobile delivery is another approach to deliver content for mobile devices, one that many organizations are using to create personalized and targeted experiences. Where responsive design adjusts the presentation based on screen size, orientation and platform, adaptive mobile delivery is more specific, detecting the device requesting the content (and potentially the user) and adapting the presentation accordingly. These changes include both how the content is presented and how much and in what form.
Bridging Information Silos and Unifying the Customer Experience
In short, a unified portal enables organizations to bring together content from across the organization regardless of its type or where or how it was created and make it available to customers.
No two implementations of a unified portal are alike; every organization has different business processes, workflows and systems to integrate. Still, regardless of how your organization creates and manages content, you will need most, if not all, of the capabilities discussed above to create a successful, engaging customer experience.