Unlikely Foes: Custom Publishing and Enterprise Search

Here’s a mind-expanding idea: what if the reason you couldn’t find something was because it didn’t exist?

This occurred to me the other day when speaking with a friend who works in a big company’s market intelligence department. He faces the same problem every marketing team does. The lament goes something like this:

  • Their customer (the sales department) doesn’t appreciate their work
  • They have very smart analysts who write lots of brilliant documents, but nobody reads them
  • Nobody reads them, he supposed, because they can’t find them

Since this sounded like a technology problem, they ran off to IT to solve it. The solution? Deploy a new enterprise search engine. If the existing search engine wasn’t working then something had to be wrong with it. So get a new one. (If this dime isn’t good at turning screws, then get a new dime. Don’t consider the possibility of a screwdriver.)

In thinking about this problem, and in applying my years of marketing management experience, I had a deep thought. The reason sales couldn’t find the desired information had nothing to do with the relative efficiency of various text search algorithms. It was simple: the document any given salesperson actually wanted simply didn’t exist.

Marketing departments typically produce documents like:

  • Product data sheet
  • Product technical overview
  • Industry applications sheet (e.g., telecom applications)
  • Customer case study (e.g., how our products helped GE)
  • Problem solutions sheet (e.g., improving customer retention)
  • Problem white paper
  • Competitor business overview
  • Competitor technical overview
  • Competitor selling strategies

That’s not what a salesperson wants. Salespeople, as they say, are both coin operated and me-centric. They don’t want to read 15 different documents and extract the relevant bits for any given situation. They want a document that contains all the information — and only the information — they need for that situation.

Put concretely, they want a document that includes:

  • Competitor business overviews for the competitors in a given deal
  • The most powerfully differentiating features given both the problem the customer is facing and the competitors under evaluation
  • Customer references — not in general — but specific to the industry, problem, and ideally competitor set for the deal
  • Selling strategies relevant to the situation at hand
  • Supplemental technical information, again, relevant to the situation at hand

This document doesn’t exist. It can’t exist. There are too many combinations. Well, I ask, if a document doesn’t exist, then can a search engine help you find it? No way.

This is a custom publishing problem dressed in enterprise search clothing. Instead of assuming the desired document exists and then framing the exercise as a quixotic search quest, assume the desired document doesn’t exist and provide a system to help someone build it.

Our customers in the publishing industry have already figured this out. One customer is building a custom publishing system that lets professors build custom course readers on top of MarkLogic. (Instead of searching for the perfect course text, you can build the one you want.) But we’ve yet to a see a publishing function of an enterprise, such as marketing or techpubs department, make the same leap.

Hopefully they will. It’s certainly not obvious to see that custom publishing and search are indeed unlikely foes. But once you realize it, you never see things quite the same way again.

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