What’s the right level of automation in content targeting?

I spoke with two web content management (WCM) vendors in the past week that are investing heavily in online marketing. In the WCM realm, this mostly means user-friendly tools that marketers can use to not only create content for a web site but also to test it and target it to site visitors.

A question I’ve been asking lately is, how automated can / should this targeting be? Interwoven, FatWire, Tridion and others have tools that let marketers segment visitors and then build some rules around how content should be targeted to these segments. This is a fairly manual process – segments and rules have to be manually created and managed. This is workable for sites that have a few broad segments and relatively shallow content / product catalogs. But wouldn’t be manageable with multiple, detailed customer segments and a deep product catalog.

This is one of the reasons Amazon, with arguably the deepest product catalog around, has long applied what we used to call “collaborative filtering” on its site — you know, the “readers who bought X also bought Y.” This approach has its own drawbacks to be sure (on Amazon, I get a strange list of recommendations based on the books I purchase for myself, for my kids or as gifts) but it wouldn’t be feasible for someone at Amazon to manually create cross-sell rules for every item Amazon sells.

A crew of start-ups like Baynote, Aggregate Knowledge and Loomia offer updated approaches to collaborative filtering that use more inputs (like time on page, search terms, clicks, scroll rate etc.) than early collaborative filtering tools. These vendors take different approaches (i.e., behavioral vs. contextual) but they’re similar in making recommendations automatically.

Some WCM vendors note that customers are leery of a “black box” making recommendations with live content on their sites. That isn’t surprising really. They also note that most customers are only beginning to segment customers or to get their feet wet with content testing (like multivariate testing to test layout or content success rates) and aren’t ready for automated recommendations yet. Still, Vignette just signed an OEM agreement with Baynote, so there must be some interest.

So which is the right approach? Ultimately both rules-based and automated targeting are likely to have roles to play. As emerging online marketing suites that include WCM, web analytics, testing and targeting tools come together, they’ll let the marketers choose the right approach for different types of content and/or different customer segments. But we aren’t there yet.

Public ECM companies? Open source and SaaS are next

Just catching up on feed reading (impossible) after being out at AIIM so much last week and saw Dennis Byron’s post at Seeking Alpha about enterprise content management investment opportunities. He looked at the AIIM show floor through the lens of the public markets and found few investment vehicles, at least at present. He missed one or two – consolidation in 2006 did take Stellent and FileNet off the public market, but Open Text, Vignette and Interwoven remain (these last two were absent from the AIIM show floor).

Byron also identifies the right prospects for a year or two out. Alfresco (open source) and SpringCM (SaaS) both had big booths at AIIM and are two of the most interesting companies to watch in ECM at the moment. Alfresco may be a bit further along — John Powell, Alfresco’s CEO, is on record saying 2009 is a target for an IPO. But the two are comparably sized with 70ish employees and probably something like $10m for a bookings run rates (both have annual subscription models).

This is of course peanuts to the Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and EMC crowd that dominates ECM these days but may point to the future nonetheless — or at least a future. We consistently hear from traditional ECM players that open source and SaaS don’t come up much competitively, which I think is an indication that change will be slow in coming. It’s also a reminder though that “ECM” is a fractured market with many sub-sectors and room for many players (SpringCM and Alfresco don’t really compete, for example, even with business models aside). Success of new vendors and models doesn’t necessarily displace established ones particularly in ECM, which means many things.