Blue Martini Web Portal: An eCRM solution for Higher Ed?

With millions of pages of information readily available on the Web, it has become difficult to find information that we really need. The goal of Stanford University's Enterprise Portal is to provide a managed entrance to this plethora of information that is not only customized for users upon their arrival at the site, but can then be further personalized by them to better suit their individual tastes and interests.

The external Customer Relationship Management (eCRM) application suite from Blue Martini Software provides a powerful portal development toolset, which allows higher education institutions to deliver Web content to campus constituents in new and highly targeted ways. Information and services can be targeted to an individual user based on his specific role in the higher education environment (faculty, undergraduate, graduate student, staff, alumnus), and then further personalized by the user once he logs on to his customized portal site.

Why eCRM?

Blue Martini's offering is not an ERP (enterprise resource planning) solution, but a way to deliver access to targeted information and tools. Not surprisingly, the company's eCRM application suite in the past has been tailored to the e-commerce environment, supported by marketing statements such as "improve your return on investment, increase revenues, up-sell or cross-sell your customers." In short, it has been marketed as an electronic tool for a company's sales and marketing arm. Indeed, eCRM sounds much like a high-tech term one might expect to hear from a Silicon Valley company. So why would Stanford—one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the country—also be interested in such a product?

Stanford's interest lies in the fact that these same tools used in a higher education setting allow the university to segment its population into granular groupings and deliver content that specific groups want and need. This targeted content can help these groups become better informed and engaged students or alumni, or teach or work more effectively within a complex university environment.

For instance, by integrating Stanford's own secure electronic log-in capabilities (Kerberos Web authentication) and by using Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) to retrieve information from the central university information repository and other campus database systems, we can ascertain that a user is, for example, an undergraduate student, living in Branner residence hall, majoring in English, currently enrolled in Literature 342, and a member of both the varsity football team and the drama club.

Armed with this information, the Blue Martini architecture enables us to provide that user with Web content regarding undergraduate life on campus, Branner hall's meal plan, updates from the English department, the online syllabus and class assignments for Literature 342, the varsity football practice schedule, and the next scheduled meeting of the drama club—all without the user having to search for it!

Stanford's IT staff evaluated several software packages as potential solutions for our portal infrastructure needs. However, Blue Martini's open architecture, personalization features, and application program interface offerings allowing for ease of interface with other applications quickly moved it to the top of the list. Some more traditional portal software applications offer more templates to follow for design success, but with this also comes a smaller set of design options. Blue Martini's high level of flexibility, along with its strong content management capabilities, is what sold us on the product.

Implementation and Maintenance

Blue Martini's eCRM solution is both powerful and customizable, but this comes with an appropriate price tag that is not insignificant, even to a large institution. Because the products cover so much ground—from content management to call center management—they are licensed in a modular format. You will need to take the time to thoroughly research which modules you need to license and focus on exactly how you intend to use these modules.
Additionally, Blue Martini is not a plug-and-play software package that you can have up and running with the help of a couple of technically savvy staff members within a few days or weeks. It is also not the kind of package that you can successfully implement without the assistance of Blue Martini's own consulting staff, or a third-party implementor.

At Stanford, we were able to implement the basics of a nice-looking, well-organized, and fully functional portal within about a four-month time period. This was accomplished with many months of pre-planning and with an in-house team of approximately 15 people (at various levels of effort)—including programmers, integration experts, and design, testing, and user interface experts (along with various management and advisory groups)—working side-by-side with a staff of approximately seven external consultants.

Making any design or structural changes after initial launch will require someone not only knowledgeable of J2EE technology, but familiar with Blue Martini's own architectural structure, coding schemas, and content delivery mechanism as well. However, Blue Martini's architecture d'es provide an easy-to-use-and-understand system of information assortments and folders for setting up and managing content structure. Additionally, it has been our experience that the company is also still small enough to provide good, timely technical support when needed.
One of the nice features of Blue Martini is that it is set up to accommodate constantly changing information so that new content and features do not have to be bundled together into one major release but can be released as soon as they are tested and deemed ready for publication. Another good feature is that the provision of simple dynamic content can be accomplished quite quickly and easily via an easy-to-use Web interface. Further, someone with little technical knowledge can set up this interface for decentralized content provision.

This ease of decentralized content provision has proven to be the key to Stanford's implementation success. As is likely the case at most higher education institutions, there are only a few key centralized data repositories and many smaller databases of information, which individual schools and departments have set up and maintain. These decentralized content providers, then, will have a variety of needs in terms of providing content to our portal system. The Blue Martini structure allows us the flexibility of receiving information in a variety of formats, including Extensible Markup Language, HTML, and plain text format. Blue Martini also offers a PeopleSoft Inc. adapter that we plan to implement to ease the transfer of data from this key system. Because the usefulness of any portal is expressed in terms of not only the information that is provided but the timeliness of that material, having a variety of data submission methods helps us achieve this goal.

Summary

Blue Martini has the potential to become a useful and powerful portal development tool for institutions of higher education. As with any enterprise software application, a learning curve d'es exist, but the flexibility and extensibility of the Blue Martini solution allows it to move from the e-commerce area to the education marketplace without significant effort.

I would recommend this product to higher education institutions that are looking for a way to provide targeted information and services in a decentralized fashion. You will want to do your homework before jumping in with both feet, but I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the breadth of possibilities Blue Martini affords.

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