Wednesday Feb 22, 2012

Defining content and the tools to manage it

A big part of managing an eCommerce site is to be able to manage the various forms of content on the site.  Content is a relatively vague term, so we need to provide some additional definition.

Defining 'content'

Development assets - This includes things like java code, configuration files, and JSP pages (templates).  These assets are typically maintained in source code control systems.  There are usually 'build scripts' that will compile the source code, and package the whole application into a form that can be deployed to the application server.  Deployments (moving the code into staging or production environments) is something that takes careful planning and organization within the development / operations group.

Oracle ATG-specific assets - These assets include content groups, segments, content targeters, promotions, scenarios, etc.  There are a few different approaches to managing these assets, but in general, they are best managed using Oracle ATG tools such as the BCC and Merchandising.

For the most part, what's we're left with can be considered some form of content.  We can break down what's left into two categories:

Static content - examples include style sheets (CSS), small navigational images, static html files, etc.  These assets are authored by designers who usually have their own process of managing these assets (i.e. they might leverage the source code control system that the developers use, or there could be other tools they prefer).

Dynamic content - this can be considered any content stored in an Oracle ATG repository such as products, categories, skus, media items, etc.  This content is typically managed using Oracle ATG tools such as the BCC or Merchandising.  When this type of content changes, it's expected that the changes will go through some kind of approval or review process.  At the very least, the changes need to be 'previewed' in order to see what what it will look like before being deployed to production.

What about other content items that are not listed above?  Perhaps your site has other kinds of content such as articles, tips / advice, detailed product sheets, etc.  Do you consider that content to be static or dynamic based on the definitions above?   You may already be managing that content in another content management system (CMS).  Should all of that content remain in the existing CMS, or should some or all of that content be migrated into Oracle ATG to be managed there?

Which tools to manage your content

There are a number of factors to consider when making that decision:

Factor 1: Investment in existing CMS

  • Sunk cost of the software
  • Sunk cost of any customizations done to the CMS
  • Training investment for the people who use the system

The existing investment might be too much to walk away from, especially if the system is functioning well.  If that's the case, then you're likely to end up with a 'combined' way to manage the assets of your site (see description of this below).

Factor 2: Enhancing your content management capabilities

What are the advantages of managing the content in Oracle ATG?  Some possibilities could include:

  • A single UI for managing content along with the rest of the sites assets
  • A single mechanism to deploy assets to the site (one approach for content along with all the other assets managed in the BCC)
  • Narrow down to a single vendors solution (reduced support cost, operational efficiencies, etc)
  • Potentially easier to cross reference content with catalog assets (perhaps you want to create a relationship between a product and articles related to that product.  Having them in one system may make that easier)
  • Do you plan to 'target' this content to customers in personalization rules?  In order to specify content to be targeted to customers, Oracle ATG needs to be aware of the content (at least the ID and meta-data).

Factor 3: Existing system effectiveness

If it's not broke...

  • Is the existing system performing well?
  • Are users able to manage the content effectively?
  • Are there any unique features in the existing system that users simply can't live without?

Different approaches

That's alot to think about.  The good news is that you can make it work either way.  First, let's take a look at how it would work if you decide to migrate all the content into Oracle ATG; we'll refer to this as the single system approach:

Steps:

  • Analyze the existing content
  • Define the Oracle ATG content repositories to store that content
  • Consider functional requirements (preview, security, workflow, etc).
  • Migrate content into Oracle ATG
  • Instrument your pages to render the content accordingly

Below is a simple diagram that represents what the single system approach might look like.

3pCMSDiagram_1.jpg


Next, we'll have a look at what happens if you decided to continue managing content in the existing CMS; we'll refer to this as the combined system approach.  This approach allows you to leverage your investment in your existing CMS, but rather than have the content being published to your production servers, it publishes to a place where Oracle ATG CA can 'pick up' that content and store it in the same system you use to manage other assets.  There are a few benefits to this approach when you need to combine Oracle ATG with an existing CMS:

  • Single deployment mechanism to production (can take advantage of Oracle ATG switching data sources, cache invalidation, etc).  This will provide a higher level of reliability in terms of knowing what the site will look like when the deployment has completed.
  • Easier to preview site as all content is available within a single system
  • Ability to ‘relate’ an item managed in CA to an item which is authored in the CMS (but fed into CA)

Steps:

  • Analyze the existing content
  • Define Oracle ATG content repositories to store content
  • Consider functional requirements (preview, security, workflow, etc).
  • Create the process of importing the content into the Oracle ATG repositories in an automated fashion (Oracle ATG provides a framework for this).  This content should not be modified by hand in Oracle ATG; you should only change it in the existing CMS in order to keep everything in sync.
  • Instrument your pages to render the content accordingly

Below is a simple diagram that represents what the combined system approach might look like.

3pCMSDiagram_2.jpg


Final thoughts

There are a number of different content management systems on the market which are all built differently.  These differences can have a dramatic affect on the 'best' way to integrate with Oracle ATG.  For example, some CMS's can act as a runtime engine which means they are capable of serving content / pages to the customer.  This capability (if used) will potentially complicate an integration, but at the very least, it could easily lead to a fragmented customer experience as multiple different systems will be delivering content.  This is a prime example of a time where it will be essential to work with Oracle ATG Professional Services to ensure that your environment is designed in a way that makes sense for your business.


Monday Sep 26, 2011

Critical tasks for ATG Merchandising implementation

Of all the things that you should consider when planning an implementation of ATG Merchandising, there are a few critical tasks that rise to the top.  I've broken them down into three categories; implementation, technical, and process / organization / usability.

Implementation

The items below represent the most important things to consider when planning for your implementation:

  • Engage with ATG PS - This is by far, the most important item of all.  ATG Professional Services can provide the expert skills and advice that will help to ensure that your implementation is a success.
  • Leverage ATG training (business and technical) - ATG offers education for both business and technical people for both Merchandising and Content Administration (the important underlying framework of Merchandising).  In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of these products, education is essential.
  • Plan on this being a ‘real’ project - Do not underestimate the complexity and importance of this implementation.  While implementing Merchandising is not something your customers will see, it will have an impact on your e-commerce operations.
  • Engage business users very early (requirements, most common use cases, testing, etc) - This is not just a new tool, but most likely, a new process for managing the site(s) as well.  The business users who will use this system every day must be involved from the beginning and should receive guidance on how to present their most important needs (see other posts in the Requirements category).

Technical

The items below represent the most important technical recommendations (from ATG) with respect to running Merchandising:

  • Read the CA best practices guide - ATG has created a CA (Content Administration) best practices guide, which contains essential advice on implementing CA.  It's important to note that best practices evolve over time so make sure you're looking at the latest version (available here).  The bullets below are discussed in this best practices guide, but they are worth mentioning again.
  • Use the latest version, patches, and hotfixes - There is no reason to run into the same issues that other customers have run into (which have been fixed in the form of a patch or hotifx).  Make sure you have all of those fixes in place so you don't waste valuable time debugging known and resolved issues.
  • Use the late staged workflow - This is the workflow recommended for all implementations of CA.  ATG offers other workflows out of the box, but best practices suggest that late staged is very likely the best one to use.
  • Use switching data sources in your production environment - This is something all ATG customers should do regardless of whether they are using Merchandising or not, but it becomes especially important when you are using Merchandising.  The idea here is that using switching datasources allows CA to update the catalog / content of your site without having an impact on your customers in the unlikely case that a deployment should fail.  In short, it's the safest approach.
  • Establish application security - Security is something that needs to be designed from the beginning, not something to add on later.  You should map your organization and roles to the appropriate application permissions.

Process / Organization / Usability

The items below represent the most important things to consider in order for the business users to successfully use Merchandising most efficiently:

  • Users work in different projects - We have found that when users create and work in their own project (as opposed to multiple users working in a single project), there is much better visibility into who changed what (less confusion).
  • Users should log in using their own login - We highly recommend that business users do not share a single / common login (such as the default 'publishing' login).  This will always lead to confusion over who changed what, it's much better for users have (and use) their own logins.
  • Avoid working in same category at the same time as other users - The ATG catalog structure is highly flexible in that it allows you to link the same product to multiple categories, link the same sub-category to multiple categories, etc.  With this flexibility comes some complexity in how to manage that structure.  The 'linking' capabilities can make things confusing when two business users are making changes in the same category, so we suggest that users avoid doing that.
  • Leverage the multi-edit capabilities as much as possible - Multi-edit is a excellent way to reduce the redundant 'clicks' to get a set of work done.  In an effort to optimize the business users use cases, it's important to understand and leverage Multi-edit as much as possible.
  • Create a map for business user (when I change XYZ, it has this affect on the site) - We've heard many business users say something like '... I have no idea what happens when I change the XYZ attribute of the product...'.  We recommend that a document be created that clearly shows what happens to the site when the business user changes a field in Merchandising.  This should be a large part of a custom training manual for business users.
  • Document the roles and responsibilities in your organization - Business users will need to understand who is responsible for what tasks in order to function properly.  This will separate tasks such as authoring and reviewing (so the business users will understand which task they are supposed to complete).  It will also help to get new hires up to speed faster.
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