Etelos Aims for Fast, Good and Cheap

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Fast, good and cheap. It's been said that where food is involved, you can have any two of the three. The same applies to Web sites: You can get a simple one easily enough, but something sophisticated either costs a lot of money or takes a long time to build.


Yet as technology improves, the product received for a given investment of time and money does get better. Today, even low-end software can build Web pages that are as attractive as anyone might reasonably want. The challenge, at least for marketers, is personalization based on customer data.


Etelos Communication Platform (Etelos Systems, 877/665-4609, www.etelos.com) tries to greatly reduce the cost of sophisticated Web personalization. The system is a work in progress: It currently offers a rich set of capabilities but requires a relatively skilled user to implement advanced functions.


This is changing as the vendor makes more functions available to non-technical users through a graphical user interface. And even the existing system lets developers create advanced Web pages more easily than conventional programming methods. Being HTML documents, these Web pages can be used in a Web site, electronic or printed newsletter, e-mail message or other applications.


In more concrete terms, Etelos provides tight integration between Web pages and highly flexible customer and content databases. As sophisticated database management is essential to effective personalization, Etelos' strength in this area is critical. Most other products either limit users to simplistic predefined data structures or provide no integrated database at all.


Etelos has two main types of databases: contacts and content. For each, users can view, add and remove database fields through a simple tree view. The vendor provides prebuilt structures for contact records, newsletters, Web pages, surveys, articles, e-mail messages and other common entities. Users easily can extend these structures or connect them to detail tables such as transaction and contact histories.


The underlying Web pages typically would be built outside of Etelos in a standard Web authoring tool like Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver. Users copy pages from those tools into the Etelos development environment, then embed code in the Etelos scripting language. This connects the page with the Etelos databases for tasks such as validating users, searching for keywords, selecting items from a list, displaying content, adding records and updating data.


Other Etelos functions execute non-database tasks such as sending e-mail messages. Writing Etelos scripts is much easier than creating the same functions in a standard programming language like C or Java. But it still takes a well-trained user. Etelos makes things a little easier for developers by providing prebuilt script strings for common tasks, accessible through pop-up menus.


Fortunately for the rest of us, Etelos also created several prebuilt applications that let utterly non-technical users perform sophisticated tasks solely through filling out forms. Existing applications can add articles to a Web database, create personalized newsletters, run e-mail campaigns and build interactive survey forms.


The survey capabilities are particularly impressive. Users can create structured or unstructured questions, have the system generate messages when a survey is completed, issue alerts when customers give particular answers and import survey answers directly to the contact database. The system can summarize survey results with Web-based reports or extract the results for further analysis.


Users can send surveys or newsletters to individual contacts, to contacts sharing a specified set of characteristics or to members of preexisting groups. Group membership typically is recorded as a flag on the contact record. Transmission can be immediate, on a specified date or on a recurring schedule such as monthly. Multi-step campaigns can send a series of messages at predefined intervals.


Newsletters can be personalized by assigning different articles to different contact groups. Articles also can be filtered based on expiration dates and on membership in multiple groups. The system can prioritize articles to ensure each contact gets the most relevant messages, but this usually takes some custom development. Newsletters also can include forms to send opt-out messages, update recipient profiles or forwad the newsletter to another recipient.


Etelos also developed a Web-based sales automation system similar to a Salesforce.com or Salesnet. It provides a reasonably complete set of functions, including a customizable home page for each user, user-maintained contact lists, appointment scheduling, call history, task management and personalized e-mail.


Sales management can track multiple sales opportunities per contact, associate multiple sales reps with the same opportunity and consolidate sales forecasts at divisional and corporate levels. The enterprise version of the system also supports threaded discussions among team members. Since all Etelos applications share the same database, sales automation is tightly integrated with the Etelos e-mail, newsletter and survey applications.


Users can access Etelos forms with only a Web browser, but the development environment is a piece of installed software that runs on a Windows, Unix or Linux workstation. The Etelos application itself runs on Linux servers, either hosted by Etelos or on a hardware appliance provided by the company. The current version of the system uses the PostgreSQL relational database, which the developer found was more powerful and economical than the common alternatives.


Data typically are loaded through batch file imports or e-mail posts, though one client implemented real-time updates via SOAP. End-user interactions with the system are also transported through XML, so they could be integrated with external applications if desired. The largest databases on the system manage up to 500,000 contacts, though most installations involve 2,000 to 20,000.


So much for fast and good. What about cheap? Pricing for a single-user hosted system is $100 for setup and $50 per month. Corporate Web hosting starts at $275 monthly. A single-server hardware appliance costs $12,500. Most implementations involve additional cost for custom development by Etelos or a reseller.


The system was introduced in 2001 and has about 200 clients with many thousands of individual users. Most are individual sales reps belonging to large organizations.


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