Road map to the extranet

There are numerous good extranets in the field, and a few that can serve as benchmarks for your efforts.
Posted October 29, 1998
By

David Strom

David Strom


Are you considering building an extranet? It's easy, to paraphrase sportswriter Red Smith: You just sit down and open a vein.

Fortunately, yours isn't the first company that's had to build one. There are numerous good extranets in the field, and a few that can serve as benchmarks for your efforts. Take a look at how Coopers & Lybrand built its Tax News Network (TNN), for instance, and you can spare yourself some spilled blood.

We've drawn you a map to give you a clear picture of how a typical extranet works. To get on the example extranet, point your browser at Taxnews, home of TNN. As the home page resolves on your screen, you are now cruising an extranet.

Extranets have been around for a while--as long as firewalls have existed. With an extranet, a company can freely participate on the World Wide Web; give employees access, via browsers, to internal databases while keeping the public out; and provide customers and suppliers with password-protected access to selected parts of the same data.

Good extranets are designed to be exquisitely simple from the users' point of view. But balancing the company's needs against the needs of all those users--that's where the bloodletting comes in (Red Smith's comment was about writing, a similarly "easy" undertaking). Before you build your own extranet, you'll need to answer some questions about your audience, purpose, and scope:

What's the niche? Is your extranet intended for executives, middle management, people in the trenches? Will the users be people you know well or don't know at all? People with whom you communicate often or infrequently? Will visitors to your site be customers? New prospects? Or is your purpose mainly to increase your company's ability to communicate with the rest of the world?

Coopers & Lybrand knew its audience: TNN began life as a service for corporate tax professionals, and Coopers has kept its focus on that niche market.

"Our typical member is in his or her mid-40s or older, and is a tax director at a Fortune 1,000 corporation," says Jack Teuber, Washington, D.C.-based director of TNN. "We don't get a lot of 25-year-olds living in New York City's Soho district and reading Salon magazine."

TNN's forerunner was an on-line service that Coopers introduced more than four years ago, and ran on DOS-based computers and dial-up modems. But with the Web explosion, says Susan O'Neill, director of Coopers' Knowledge Strategies Group, "it became clear that we had to move to a more robust platform. The Web was attractive because we could increase the access to TNN."

Inexpert experts

In one respect, building an extranet differs from building any other network. All roads lead to the end user. This means the extranet should be designed so that users can access whatever they need without being conscious of the quirks and turnoffs along the way. While TNN's end users are experts, they're not experts in using the Web.

"These tax directors usually have the least amount of hands-on computer experience," O'Neill says. "When they began their careers, there wasn't much in the way of desktop computers. This means we have to provide a certain level of comfort and make our services easy to use."

Coopers wanted to create a one-stop information source for tax professionals and hoped the increased level of service would make Coopers stand out from the competition. "We have tried to be true to what the market of tax professionals has wanted, and also provide a single place for these people to turn to. We try to present a complete package," says O'Neill.

Deep but narrow

You'll have to decide how far you want your users to range through your data. This will determine what has to be connected to the extranet at the back end. In the case of TNN, the site had to be narrow but deep: It had to contain lots of content while remaining focused on specific areas relevant to corporate taxation. For example, information about general legislation regarding not-for-profit corporations is outside TNN's scope, but information on legislation dealing with corporate gifts to not-for-profits is very germane.

At the same time, Coopers made use of one of the Internet's strengths: integrating external--and in some cases competing--resources. "We have always included information from a wide range of information providers, such as Dow Jones," says O'Neill. This makes for a powerful combination of information, including the full text of various tax analyses, legislative tax codes, and business newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

TNN is a members-only site: To use it, visitors must fill out a Web form. Access to the site, via a user name and password, isn't granted until the application is approved by a Coopers staffer. An Informix database sitting on a Sun Solaris server manages the member data, including subscriber profiles and access rights. The purpose is to make sure the service reaches the intended users.

"Our subscribers are clients and potential clients, people with which we have other relationships," says Teuber. "This service is designed to enhance that relationship. We can't afford to be in a situation where we treat people automatically. We like to have a real feel for who are our subscribers."

You've done this before: setting up a business for specific types of customers. But on the Web, you have to offer options within the narrow world created for the user.

Flag down the traffic

Parts of TNN are open to the public, including a home page of news on corporate tax matters. This drives traffic to the site--and you can always use a lot of traffic at your home page, whether you're selling space for advertising banners or promoting the site itself by making it popular among Web users.

Coopers provides answers for a variety of users. And the information is layered, so that when the user arrives, he or she can select a membership option and then proceed down the right path.

To attract new visitors, the site is free for all qualified new members for the first month. Free-trial members can use a portion of the site and get an idea of the kind of information and services available to fully paid members. After the trial period, they must become paying members or members of one of the private areas TNN makes available to certain tax trade associations. Coopers has multiple membership options, making it easy for potential subscribers. "Over 70% of our trial memberships are converted into one of various subscription accounts," says Teuber.

The exclusive membership, beginning with the confirming e-mail message from Coopers that welcomes a new member aboard, creates community--a sense of belonging in this neighborhood. "We don't want people coming into our system and soliciting business," says Teuber.

"We don't want our members to worry about someone selling them something." The idea, he says, is to "establish a relationship of trust with our subscribers."

The extranet reaches out

Once your specified customers have found you, the extranet not only takes them places, it can come to them. TNN members can receive daily e-mail updates of tax news and information, which helps to remind them to visit the site. TNN also has an address book of its members available for searching--this enhances the feeling of community and encourages members to e-mail and phone one another.

"Our biggest challenge was getting tax professionals up to speed, community-wise," says O'Neill. "They are very knowledgeable when it comes to preparing tax returns and doing on-line research, but having e-mail access to our staff and other subscribers was a big help in learning how to navigate the site and use the Web effectively."

Part of the effectiveness of the site goes back to ease of use. TNN implemented several ease-of-use features, including help systems and well-written documentation. The systems provide help, both on line and in follow-up printed mailings, on how to use the site and its features. A few days after a user registers, a packet of information is mailed through the U.S. Postal Service that contains a site map, instructions on how to set up both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, and other information such as toll-free support phone numbers and glossaries of Internet-related terms. The packet has just the right level of detail--not too much to be intimidating for users new to the Net. It also has just the right level of polish--it isn't typeset; it consists of copies of a printed document.

A minimum of clutter

Coopers used solid Web design principles in creating TNN: There are readily available links on each page that can take visitors to a site map, explanations of the various features, help files, and overviews of information sources. The links have a minimum of clutter and a maximum of information, and the pages work in a wide variety of browser versions. TNN helps members personalize their search terms so they can run the same queries as often as they wish.

Coopers manages to talk to its TNN users in a variety of ways. The company surveys users periodically to determine their likes, dislikes, and equipment needs. And TNN promotes repeat business through on-line forums in which members can discuss various issues with Coopers consultants and other members. The discussions further add to the sense of community at the site.

Engineering the extranet

How do you want to build your extranet? Coopers considered several strategies: buying a turnkey system from an integrator, building a system in-house from scratch, and leveraging the company's existing information infrastructure and augmenting it with key extranet components. Coopers chose to leverage existing IT. You can connect just about anything to an extranet, including legacy information that you've already built brings down the extranet's cost.

As it was moving ahead with TNN, Coopers was also standardizing on Lotus Notes for each of its 75,000 worldwide employees. It made sense to combine the efforts and redesign TNN to make use of Notes. "We wanted to run TNN with as few people as possible, and that means not using a staff of HTML coders marking up documents and everything that our research authors write," says Teuber.

Coopers assembled a series of automated Notes and third-party applications, so that internal documents are replicated across the company's Notes servers and published on the TNN extranet. "This way, our writers can post their stories within Notes, and the various document properties such as italics and fonts are preserved on the Web," says Teuber. The author and editor can control how the document appears without having to mess with HTML.

Coopers also set up database replication systems in Notes so that various portions of the internal Notes database would be transformed into separate Notes databases on the extranet. For example, Coopers' tax publications are freely available to the public from the firm's Web site, while the C&L news wire service is for subscribers only. Yet the two sources of information originate on the same internal Notes database.

In addition to Notes and the Informix database server, TNN's infrastructure includes two Netscape Enterprise Servers, which run the e-mail system for TNN members, handle proxy services, and control queries from TNN subscribers to the Notes data. A Sun server distributes catalogs of available information that are used both by intranet, extranet and internet users.

If the "keep it simple" rule applies anywhere, it's on the extranet. "You'll notice there aren't a lot of fancy graphics on the site," says Teuber. "We did that on purpose. We also didn't go about using various browser plug-ins for the same reason: We tried to take the burden out of using the Web technology."


David Strom writes for a variety of computer trade publications on Internet-related topics. He publishes his own electronic newsletter, the Web Informant.







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