Know thy webmaster

Why understanding who and what’s behind your website can help you to get more out of it

(Note: this article was previously edited and published on Focus, an online magazine by Capgemini, in March 2001, while I was the company corporate webmaster. I'm rescuing it from oblivion as it appears to have been lost after a couple of site redesigns.)

The role of the corporate webmaster is one that did not exist a few years ago, but today most companies have at least one (at last count, one international company supported nearly 200 web positions across its operations). No matter where you are in the world, somewhere near your company website, you should find a webmaster. What he or she does may be a matter of some debate in your organization, but it’s worthwhile trying to find out.

Understanding who and what’s behind your website is the best means you have for ensuring you can get the most out of this vital information economy medium. Quite simply, if you are leading a marketing, sales, or online strategic function in your company and have not yet made a partner of your webmaster, webmonkey, or webster, you are not fully leveraging your web capabilities. And, in the competitive world of the Internet, where companies fight for mind share calculated in clicks per minute, you probably can’t afford not to. Knowing where the webmaster is heading and where he thinks he (and your website) are going can enable you to make the most of the one relationship that keeps you connected to all the partners, prospects, clients, and constituents your business needs.

The evolution of an art form: When the webmaster was the one true Internet king

In the not-so-ancient Internet, it was all about the technology. The webmaster had to know everything from HTML code to network protocols, and belonging to a university or similar institution to get regular access to the network and an account on a server helped. With the propagation of personal computers, some of us can remember having to desperately seek a TCP/IP stack, while others searched for a MacPPP extension that would not crash with that MacTCP one (not speaking of throwing away the old modem in favor of this new 14.4kbps that would do fax too!).

A few forward-thinking designers joined our techie band, but we remained mainly a community of computer geeks – and frankly, we liked it that way. One surely had to have some interest in the nuts and bolts of this stuff to spend an entire year of internship income on a computer (before it was required), and swallow 500-page books on HTML. Designers started to get acquainted to the code while programmers slowly got the point on usability and oddness of yellow and purple text on wooden-textured background.

At some point, the tiny community of webmasters started to realize their potential power. Maybe because technology was key or frightening, or that in most circles only techies were interested in it, but webmasters received full control of this powerful force in most circles. Those who happened to have a few communication skills – like being able to explain what hypertext is to a CEO – became kings in the web realm. Those who were more confident managing a server than talking to a marketing manager, but who knew how to hand-code and properly link two pages together were welcomed too.

So was the old-fashioned webmaster, a technology know-it-all (and the only one who could correct that typo on the home page), the HTML god, the one you would approach for a complete site design, who decided that blinking text, scrolling news tickers, and Java applets were a must. Suddenly everyone had to be on the web and there was only one place to turn.

Falling back to earth with a thud: From owner to operator

A few years later, surrounded by non-technical but more and more web-savvy people, the old-fashioned webmaster had seen enough to know what’s working and what isn’t. But he or she had faded quite a bit into the corporate web fabric.

With the introduction of “drag-n-drop” visual HTML editors, more and more people are able to throw some text and imagery on a page and start a web site. The webmaster (now known in techno circles affectionately as the webmonkey) is scared when he discovers that many of the new webmasters do not have the faintest idea of the underlying code, and have never seen anything else than the latest release of Internet Explorer on Windows.

She feels a bit amused when the newly appointed web marketing manager comes to tell him how cookies, personalization, and one-to-one marketing will change the world. He is bothered because more and more people have developed frightening ideas on the site design, and has some difficulties working with the external designers his clients are appointing now to concoct designs, which he considers as mostly paper-based life forms that are not baked enough for the web.

But she’s still the one who knows how to build that web form and link it to the database in five minutes, when the IT department still needs three days. Yesterday she played with Flash, today he demos the company stock price on the CFO’s WAP phone, and tomorrow she’ll launch the corporate WebTV.

The webmonkeys know that even if more and more people get at it, they are still technology challenged, and they are still going seek their experts advice. They are now eating 1,000-page books on new technologies every week (who said the Internet would lead the paper-less revolution?).

But the webmonkey workload is skyrocketing, and they are getting very frustrated to be pressured to fix that ever-returning home page typo while they are working at the latest next big thing. Actually, the webmonkeys feel really uncomfortable among all those “websters.” And moreover, they really hate being called “bottleneck.” But perhaps to survive they feel they must be one.

Controlling the process: Overcoming the webmaster bottleneck

The webmaster who is still mastering the entire web site cannot cope anymore with all projects and their owners – some big sites can have more than a hundred of legitimate service and content owners, authors, and editors. And if the web site is static, then someone has to produce the pages. But the practice of turning Word documents into static HTML pages adds little value, slows down the system, and moreover, perpetuates the growth of a gigantic and unmanageable amount of content. HTML mixes the content and its presentation for a web browser. Should you want to publish this content on a different media, or even publish it on a web site with a different look and feel, you cannot re-use your HTML files to do that.

Of course everybody now agrees that the “brochureware” era is over, the time when a company would turn its annual report into a bunch of web pages and say, “we’re online.” But many companies that have moved to a more important online presence have kept the same brochureware methods, turning paper documents into static web pages. At some point, all these companies will face this inability to cope with growing content and the same web team resources.

There is one solution to this problem: use smarter technology and go dynamic.

It is rather ironic that the old-fashioned webmasters’ rise and fall is now based on his or her role as a “human-to-human interface” between the users and the web technology. A role that was vital a few years ago, and that now turns out to be a problem, unless they re-engineer every process that can be automated and can then benefit from a “regular” IT human interface that one can put into the user's hands.

Among the biggest trends in the web industry now are the content production and management systems (CPMS). A CPMS allows the site’s owners to manage and publish their information and services online, directly and without having to deal with any particular technology used to publish to any online channel. Of course, it also helps avoid the “webmaster bottleneck.”

On the webmaster’s side, a CPMS allows a tighter control of all the common elements, such as the look and feel, the corporate identity, and brand. It greatly reduces the workload, since the content management workflow is now completely transferred to the real owners (it won’t necessarily eliminate typos on the home page, but the webmaster will not take the blame anymore J). It speeds up the rollout of content. It allows the webmaster to focus on the big picture and get back to a serious Internet watch, a world that is far from maturity.

On the content and service owners’ side, the CPMS will add some more work, as the company must take care of the entire publishing process. But it will allow for a streamlined workflow, from content authoring to publication, with the proper validation steps. And as soon as something is validated, it can be instantly published on any online channel that the CPMS handles, it being the web site, a mobile device, or a connected fridge (should your audience demand those).

Trade-off: the CPMS price – an investment that can exceed a million Euros depending on the complexity of your online presence – versus the web team resources. But can you afford to maintain your web team in an ever-increasing manual production mode? Of course you can choose to increase the team resources or to outsource some of the workload, but this is only increasing the running costs. Each time you rely on your webmaster or your web agency to add or update a page, this has an extra cost. If you could manage your content directly with a CPMS, this extra cost would be zero.

While this all sounds excellent to the businessperson, it is still a little frightening for the webmaster. The reason is that at this point, the old-fashioned webmaster really feels like an endangered species.

Maximizing leverage: Launching the new webmaster role

The truth is that your webmaster should now be at the edge of another revolution: giving away the power to you, the users. It hurts a little, especially since there is still no one else who understands the technology behind the funky graphics and slick features. Now that almost all parts of the company have a shared interest in its web presence, it is time to rethink the roles and responsibilities. With involvement, come new responsibilities, for both the webmaster and the other actors of a web site.

Ask yourself, is my webmaster positioned to address the big picture concerns on my site –competitive/technology watch, my company online presence versus the media and technology evolution, customer touch points – or are we and our webmasters still more focused on all that daily programming necessary just to stay online? The web doesn’t run by magic, but it won’t last on spit and bubblegum either.

The increase of clients and diversity of uses of web sites – content sources, e-business sites, market-places, B2B, B2C, B2E, etc. – should mean that your webmaster acts more and more as the keeper of the flame – the person with the “big picture,” the central guardian of the consistency of the company brand online. With only one home page and many different purposes, the web site needs a real manager, not only to take care of the unity of the look and feel (interfacing with the marketing team) and the smooth rollout of new content and services (managing the technology), but also to ensure that the site is always valuable for its visitors. Yes, you do still really have to understand how all of this works, both inside and outside your company, to be effective in this role.

Webmasters need to embrace their role as change agents (which they’ve been all the time), combine their role as site users and visitors advocate, understand all the business, design, technology aspects, evangelize their communities – all of this to ensure the best possible online presence as a natural part of the company’s strategy. It may mean upgrading skills in areas outside of their technology comfort zones, but it’s an investment a company should encourage. At the end of the day, this is one skill set you can’t do without, at least until the next great new technology comes along. And given his/her track record, chances are your webmaster will be the first to learn how to use that, too.

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