Underwriters Laboratories Overhauls Its Web Presence

By Peter Moutvic  |  Posted 2009-12-08

Underwriters Laboratories (UL), with U.S. offices in Northbrook, Ill., is an independent product safety testing and certification organization with a brand name that’s synonymous with public safety. To extend its commitment to excellence out to the digital space, UL needed a more unified global online presence that better reflected its brand and growing business offerings, made finding relevant content easier for online audiences worldwide and could be readily managed by an internal team.

UL had to evaluate how its global operating units presented themselves on the Web, how internal constituents managed and published content, and, most important, what the overall online experience was like for visitors. Pete Moutvic, UL’s global director of technology advancement and innovation, discusses the details of the organization’s online overhaul.

Since its founding in 1894, Underwriters Laboratories has been investing in research and investigation to promote product safety certification for protected living and working environments. Consumers come face to face with the UL mark many times a day. It is on their digital cameras, laptops and MP3 players, and it annually graces approximately 21 billion products worldwide.

Our service providers and operating units span 64 facilities worldwide, with customers in 98 countries. In 2008, the UL organization reached more than 1 billion consumers in North America, Asia and Europe with its safety messages.

Successfully accommodating our growing global customer base required a new digital strategy that included enhanced communication and interaction capabilities to better serve our customers and business partners. Our global Web team’s goal was to make UL.com a global touch point for strengthening our brand, promoting services, capturing interest and providing expert information.

The team’s vision included developing capabilities that would deliver on that strategy and ultimately define UL as a market leader online. However, our online presence was outdated and underutilized. The last major UL Website update was in 2001, with slight modifications in 2004. By March 2007, we needed a global Website redesign.

Challenges existed on many levels. We had several sites hosted in various regions in several languages, and each region’s autonomous control resulted in an inconsistent online experience. We needed consistent brand messaging across all operating units in different countries. Unifying messaging meant aligning our regional sites in North America, Europe, Latin America, China, Japan, Korea, and several other Asian and emerging market countries. Additional challenges included significant changes within UL, and several market factors, such as industry consolidation, aggressive competition and growing consumerization of the business-to-business Web.

Our old content management system (CMS) was decentralized, making it difficult to share and retrieve information globally. The dated user interfaces and aging technologies made it hard for visitors to find what they wanted. The revamped Website had to deliver streamlined navigation, enhanced usability and solutions tailored to different audiences.

In addition to a visual redesign, our site had to provide an enhanced user experience with more functionality and usability in terms of search, Web 2.0 capabilities, analytics and dynamic content. We needed an easy way for multiple business units to update and create content that complied with UL branding. The new site had to be managed efficiently, and the venerable UL brand had to be consistent across all platforms. To accomplish all this, we needed a comprehensive online strategy that would incorporate design and content, while also creating workflow and governance processes.

Taking the First Steps

To tackle this daunting job, we enlisted digital services firm Acquity Group. Partnering with UL leadership, the company’s first objective was to engage in a global Web assessment and planning initiative, and develop a multiyear road map. Together, we developed a business case to persuade our investment committee and board to approve the multiquarter initiative.

To ensure the involvement of all our business units, the rebuild project team took a “tour around the world,” interviewing key stakeholders from various business units and international communities. The goal was to identify requirements, obtain buy-in and enable the global teams to understand the business drivers. The tour also helped the team identify and define “perspectives” (site-user archetypes) that allowed the project team to better understand audience/visitor drivers and develop optimal experiences for all.

During the global tour, the team discovered that while some regional business unit sites were following best practices, we were not universally leveraging intra-site and cross-site tactics to maximize our presence. This insight led to a vendor/platform selection process, in which we chose Autonomy/Interwoven for a CMS, Google Search Appliance and Google Analytics.

Following the platform selection, we worked to develop and optimize the new UL online identity through additional tracks of work: user experience and visual redesign, content conversion, quality assurance and the deployment of the new Web platform. The initiative was a major success and set up UL for expanded benefits once the site was fully deployed globally.

The new UL.com is better positioned to reinforce UL’s brand identification; promote our services to the world, offering details on the value we provide; capture interest and provide a platform for engaging visitors to enable further interaction; provide access to expertise in a compelling, scalable way; and convey UL’s rich heritage, unique legacy and commitment to safety.

We improved the site architecture and indexing, and enhanced the description tags and internal linking. Working with Autonomy/Interwoven, we also extended the platform globally to reinforce brand identification and empower UL business owners to target, engage and capture customers.

The content management platform increased internal efficiencies and gave ownership back to our internal Web team. It allowed UL business owners to leverage content editing tools, enabling more than 60 global UL content owners to review, edit and update more than 1,000 pages of content.

The content owners attended one week of formal Autonomy/Interwoven training. In addition, Acquity Group created user guides and how-to instructions to help our Web team understand customizations made to the CMS specifically for UL. After four two-hour sessions walking through these documents and a week or two to test-drive the system, we became comfortable with creating and editing content.

The implementation of Google Search Appliance and Google Analytics allows us to easily monitor and track the users visiting our site. These tools will also support further enhancements to our branding and marketing strategies.

The external site runs on a SunFire V490 machine from Sun, hosted by CSC. The internal sites, which we use for authoring and previewing content, run on Sun’s Netra 440 machines.

We have a scheduled update once a week, where approved content is sent from the publish environment to production. For emergencies, there is an option that enables an administrator to push the approved content for immediate deployment into production. It’s been an excellent implementation—one that significantly accelerates site updates.

Building on a Strong Foundation

The digital strategy and robust technology platform worked to provide us with a strong foundation for the heavily trafficked UL.com site. We have experienced an increase in the number of site users and leads. For example, the number of MyHome@UL (customer portal) activations has more than doubled since our site’s launch, and UL’s request for quotation (RFQ) forms have become the leading avenue for current and potential clients to receive quotes and submit projects to UL.

Additionally, the Web team now has much more control over content upgrades. Prior to the changes, the CMS was a static tool. Acquity Group also worked with UL to define requirements for Website templates and internal processes, resulting in standard governance and approval procedures and an automatic process for content publishing.

Ivan Ewert, the primary Web content manager for UL.com, used to have to go manually into the HTML file for each page to make content edits. Creating new pages, modifying images and changing site navigation took up most of his time. With WYSIWYG editing, a digital asset management system and an easy-to-manage site map, Ivan is able to spend less time on site maintenance and more time helping to strengthen UL’s messaging to customers and contributing to new Web initiatives.

The new UL.com is better equipped to engage unique constituent groups through secure portals (such as MyHome @UL), which enable custom access to information. Our site also contains a widget area that allows users to obtain specific content, as well as social media tools like Digg and del.ic.ious that make it easy to share content. The design facilitates the creation of industry-specific microsites for campaigns and promotions.

We’re working on a phased global Website rollout. We plan to enhance the features and functionality that will continue to define UL as a market leader in the Web space.

Pete Moutvic is the global director of technology advancement and innovation at Underwriters Laboratories. He is responsible for building and directing global eBusiness/Web functions, technology innovation, enterprise architecture, IT strategy and user experience design, and is also deeply involved in new-business development.