Content management grabs attention of b-to-b players

As suppliers and distributors wake up to the important role content plays in fueling online marketplaces, vendors of content management systems for product distribution are ramping up functionality aimed at easing the process of getting product content online.

Only a small percentage of supplier content is currently set up for quick and easy communication with distribution channels, analysts said.

Vendors of product management systems, such as Excara Inc., Requisite Technology Inc., and Saqqara Systems Inc., are aggressively attacking the stumbling blocks facing suppliers and distributors as they try to repurpose content for online marketplaces.

Excara this week will introduce ContentCenter, a Web-based application that lets manufacturers manage and maintain their online product catalogs. The hosted application offers a set of tools to distribute and update accurate product information to distributors online.

The issue of getting product content online is coming into focus because distributors are now stepping up the pressure on suppliers to get their product data into a suitable format for use in Internet exchanges and other marketplaces, said Jim Murphy, analyst for content management strategies at AMR Research in Boston.

"There is huge need for this data to be processed in a way that can be managed," Murphy said. "There are requirements and standards for distributors in exchanges. Everyone wants the information in a different format, and the suppliers are trying to deal with that."

The content management problems suppliers are facing include a substantial initial cost of getting the content into a usable online format coupled with a large maintenance cost required to introduce new products and make changes to existing products.

These difficulties have prevented many suppliers and distributors from participating in online distribution channels, Murphy said.

"People have been focusing on all the infrastructure parts of the Web. So you have this great exchange, but you can't get in the game unless have the content," Murphy explained. "A lot of these companies can't sell on the Web because they don't have product content that can go on the Web. Companies that do [content management] right will not only save money through efficiency but also will be able to sell more actively."

Other catalog content management vendors include Requisite Technology, which in the second quarter plans to announce a series of "supplier enablement" initiatives designed to boost a supplier's ability to participate in online marketplaces in a more automated fashion, according to company officials. The programs will also aim to help suppliers retain ownership and control of their online catalogs and differentiate themselves from other suppliers.

In January, Saqqara announced Content Works, an application designed to enable product data for e-commerce. The next release of the product, due in May, will add an automatic classification feature that can sort content into separate categories. Product categorization is a key component of readying content for online exchanges, and the thousands of possible categories can prove a hindrance to getting content online, according to Bob Payne, president and CEO.

Maintaining control of content is crucial for manufacturers, Payne said. "We think it is dangerous for a manufacturer or a distributor not to be managing what content goes to who and in what form. You lose control of a key sales aspect for your products," Payne said.

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