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What is Portal Software?

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Y’all know what a portal looks like.

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A portal provides selective access to information and people. It features, at a minimum, built-in content management functionality including document management and search.

Here are some things you might want to put behind your portal:

  • E-mail
  • Customer relationship management (CRM) tools
  • Company/organization information/news
  • Workgroups
  • Electronic bulletin boards
  • Group chat
  • Calendars

Here is an overview of what portal software is, what it does, where it’s going, and what to ask your vendors.

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Portal software vs alternative kinds of software

Some people use intranet software for portal functionality. But portal software often offers more options, automation functionality, organization help, and interactivity, according to SearchCIO.

Many IT departments are looking accomplish their portal goals without using traditional portal software.  Similarly, vendors are abandoning the “portal” terminology. “The term ‘portal’ is outdated and holds negative associations for the many organizations where the portal initiatives have failed, or grown old or stale,” according to Gartner researchers Jim Murphy and Gene Phifer, writing in Elevate Your Horizontal Portal to a Digital Experience Platform.

“In addition, ‘portal’ lacks any appeal to an increasingly business- (versus IT-)savvy audience.” In Build an Enduring Portal Strategy for a Wave of Change on the Web Murphy points out that a “portal” doesn’t offer any inherent business value itself. Plus, many vendors don’t want to compete with established portal players.

More and more portal software vendors are using qualitative terms such as “experience” and “engagement” to describe their products, according to Murphy and Phifer.

Some organizations use web content management systems (WCMs), social platforms, and e-commerce platforms to create portals. “A WCM product is often a better choice as the anchor technology for an enterprise portal,” Murphy and Phifer write. Others use and extend other software, including ERP or CRM. The rest build their portal platforms using a multiple open-source tools and components. Murphy and Phifer recommend a digital experience platform.

Gartner no longer includes portal software in its Hype Cycles. The Hype Cycle for Human-Machine Interface, 2016 includes digital experience platform (DXP) frameworks, which evolved from portals and WCM. The change from portal to DXP began in 2009, when software vendors began to offer platforms for creating the digital experience because “traditional approaches for creating web, portal and mobile assets were not meeting end-user or IT needs.”

Whatever you want to call it, there’s still demand for an easy, reliable, authoritative, and accessible way to store and access relevant information to support decisions and activities.

Who’s buying portal software?

Many “digital experience” and “engagement” vendors are reaching out to chief marketing officers, heavily promoting the marketing use case because digital marketing is making the investments in digital experience.

The two types of portal software

Gartner categorizes portal software into “lean” and “robust.”

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Murphy and Phifer contrast lean portals with comprehensive, robust suites. Lean portals can often pay for themselves with increased efficiencies faster than portal products from larger, more-established vendors. “While organizations adopting traditional, heavyweight portals or emerging UXPs may take years to avail themselves of even 20% of the full range of capabilities, organizations adopting lean portals employ 80% of the functionality they need within months,” Murphy and Phifer write.

However, if you’ve got complex, legacy systems in place that must integrate with your portal, you may not be able to go lean.

Questions to ask about portal software

It’s important to remember that, ultimately, your portal project will fail if it doesn’t add value for end users. “Poorly adopted portals are often the byproducts of business-sponsored steering committees gone awry,” Murphy writes. “Too many portals are devised for business stakeholders with the purpose of gathering information from employees, customers, citizens, or partners.”

Murphy offers some tips for building a person-centric portal:

  1. Understand your end users’ expectations.
  2. Build the portal for end-users, not the stakeholders at the committee meetings.
  3. Make sure using the portal is inherently, measurably rewarding for end users.
  4. Make sure the end user can personalize their portal.
  5. Make sure the end user can use the portal on mobile.
  6. Choose a platform that supports person-centric portals.

Here are some questions to ask when evaluating portal software platforms.

Can end users customize their portals? Can they create pages and choose what shows up on each page? For example, some portals show the stock market. Can you choose between Dow Jones and S&P 500? The other option is setting up rules for who sees what. While this is important, it’s insufficient for a few reasons.

First, IT often doesn’t know who needs to see what. Corporate directory information is often inaccurate and out-of-date. In addition, a person’s job title and department don’t necessarily dictate what information they need and the order of importance of that information. Amazon.com provides an example of personalization done right. Registered users see their recommendations by default when they log in. But through the “Why was this recommended?” link they can use the “Stop using this for recommendations” command.

Does is have permissions levels and role management? AKA, can you have it only show certain information to certain people? Does it offer delegated administration?

Can you set up a rules engine that pushes content to people based on their characteristics? The Perficient Blog offers examples of this including showing an article about the BBQ in Houston to people who work in the Houston office. Or you could show an alert about a recent policy change only to managers to whom it applies.

Does the software offer employee-to-employee (E2E) and/or customer-to-customer (C2C) communication functionality? Murphy warns that users don’t want business-to-employee or business-to-consumer (B2C) portals. “Users expect websites to provide interaction, not just information,” Murphy writes. “And they expect interactions to occur not just between them and the enterprise, but also among their peers. Push-only portals are unacceptable.”

Does the portal support images and video or only text?

Does the software help you create a portal that’s easy to use? “Nothing stymies portal initiatives more disastrously than the failure to attract and engage end users,” writes Murphy in Portals for Mortals: Eight Keys to People-Centric Portal Strategies. Researchers from the Nielsen Norman Group tested 215,942 people’s computer skills. They tested at least 5,000 participants in most countries. The result? Only a third of people in 33 rich countries can complete medium-complexity internet tasks. Only 5% of the population has high computer-related abilities.

Does it support workflow? For example expense reporting steps.

What’s the analytics look like? For instance, does it help reward employees for their work? Does it help connect employee action to business outcomes? Can you track how people are using the portal? For example, you can glean a lot about how well your recommendations are working by how many users took advantage of the “Stop using this for recommendations” function.

Think about how newspaper and magazine websites get people to take online polls. Or Twitter polls. You vote to see how others voted! “In the enterprise, users are more likely to provide higher-quality data when they themselves gain visibility into their own, their group’s or their organization’s performance toward goals,” Murphy writes.

Other questions Other things you want to know include whether the software creates a mobile-friendly portal and, similarly, whether it supports creating omnichannel and continuous customer experiences. You want to know how well the search capability works and how advanced the search is. You may be interested in a drag-and-drop UI. You might want to look into the templates on offer. And check for single sign-on capability.

Popular portal software vendors

According to SearchCIO, Corechange, Epicentric, Hummingbird, and Plumtree are leading portal softwares.

The Hype Cycle for Human-Machine Interface, 2016 lists Adobe, Backbase, IBM, Liferay, Microsoft, Oracle, Oxcyon, Salesforce, SAP, and Sitecore as sample vendors in the DXP space.

SearchCRM recommends that you spend some time and money on surveys and research to help understand the needs of portal’s end users. Just as an example, manufacturing workers need different things from a portal than office workers. You don’t want to spend money building a portal no one uses because it doesn’t make their lives easier.

Gene Pfifer, a Vice President, Distinguished Analyst in Gartner Research, advises companies to plan to spend serious cash on portal software. According to SearchCRM, prices range from the high five figures to the millions, depending on the size of the portal and feature set. Then plan on spending at least twice that deploying, maintaining, and extending the software.

Conclusion

Sometimes you gotta put stuff behind a portal. For a high-functioning, good-looking portal, you need high-functioning, good-looking portal software.

Have you used portal software? We’d love to know what you thought of it. Leave a review!

Looking for IT Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best IT Management software solutions.

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About the Author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz helps B2B software companies with their sales and marketing at Capterra. Her writing has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications. She has been quoted by the New York Times Magazine and has been a columnist at Bitcoin Magazine. Her media appearances include Fox News and Al Jazeera America. If you're a B2B software company looking for more exposure, email Cathy at cathy@capterra.com . To read more of her thoughts, follow her on Twitter.

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