What a CMS Does
Let’s break down the core functions of a CMS. In broad terms, what is the value proposition? Why are we better off with a CMS than without?
A CMS allows us to get control of our content, which is something you’ll understand well if your content is out of control. A CMS keeps track of content. It “knows” where our content is, what condition it’s in, who can access it, and how it relates to other content. Furthermore, it seeks to prevent bad things from happening to our content.
Specifically, a CMS provides core control functions, such as:
Who can see this content? Who can change it? Who can delete it?
- State management and workflow:
Is this content published? Is it in draft? Has it been archived and removed from the public?
How many times has this content changed? What did it look like three months ago? How does that version differ from the current version? Can I restore or republish an older version?
- Dependency management:
What content is being used by what other content? If I delete this content, how does that affect other content? What content is currently “orphaned” and unused?
- Search and organization:
How do I find a specific piece of content? How do I find all content that refers to X? How do I group and relate content so it’s easier to manage?
Each of these items increases our level of control over our content and reduces risk – there is less chance that the shareholder report will be released early, or that the only copy of our procedures manual will be deleted accidentally.
Allow Content Reuse
Using content in more than one place and in more than one way increases its value. Some examples:
- A news article appears on its own page, but also as a teaser on a category page and in multiple “Related Article” sidebars.
- An author’s bio appears at the bottom of all articles written by that person.
- A privacy statement appears at the bottom of every page on a website.
In these situations, this information is not created every time in every location, but simply retrieved and displayed from a common location.
This reuse of content was one of the original problems that vexed early web developers. Remember the James Bond site I discussed earlier? One of the great frustrations was creating an article, and then adding it to all the index pages where it was supposed to appear. If we ever deleted the article or changed the title, we’d have to go find all the references and remove or change them.
This problem was mitigated somewhat by Server Side Includes, which allowed page editors to insert a snippet of HTML by simply referring to a separate file – the files were combined on the server prior to delivery. Later platforms tried to automate this even further; Microsoft FrontPage, for example, had a feature it explicitly called “Shared Borders.”
The ability to reuse content is highly dependent on the structure of that content. Your ability to structure your content accurately for optimal reuse is highly dependent on the features your CMS provides for you.
Allow Content Automation and Assembly
Having all of our content in a single location makes it easier to query and manipulate it. If we want to find all news articles that were written last week and mention the word “SPECTRE,” we can do that because there is one system that “knows” all about our content.
If our content is structured correctly, we can manipulate it to display in different formats, publish it to different locations, and rearrange it on the fly to serve the needs of our visitors more effectively:
- We can allow users to consume content in other formats, such as PDF or other ebook formats.
- We can automatically create lists and navigation (more generally, “content aggregations” – see Content Aggregation) for our website.
- We can create multiple translations of content to ensure we deliver the language most appropriate to the current user.
- We can alter the content we publish in real time based on the specific behaviors and conditions exhibited by our visitors.
A CMS enables this by structuring, storing, examining, and providing query facilities around our content. It becomes the single source of information about our content; the thing that has its arms around the entire repository; the oracle we can consult to find information about our content.
Increase Editorial Efficiency
The ability of editors to create and edit content quickly and accurately is enormously affected by the platform used. It’s rare to find an editor who has unconditional love for a CMS, but the alternative, editing a website manually, is clearly much less desirable.
Editor efficiency is increased by a system that controls what type of content editors can and can’t add, what formatting tools are available to them, how their content is structured in the editing interface, how the editorial workflow and collaboration are managed, and what happens to their content after they publish.
A good CMS enables editors to publish more content in a shorter time frame (it increases “editorial throughput”), and to control and manage the published content with a lower amount of friction or drag on their process.
Editorial efficiency has a huge impact on morale, which is intangible but critical. Many editors have a historically antagonistic relationship with their CMSs, and nothing destroys editorial efficiency more quickly than a clunky editorial interface and flow.
What a CMS Doesn’t Do
Now for the bad news: there are things a CMS doesn’t do. More specifically, there are things that a CMS doesn’t do but that people mistakenly assume it does, which leads to problems and unfulfilled expectations.
A CMS simply manages content, it doesn’t create content. It doesn’t write your news articles, procedure documents, or blog posts. You must still provide the editorial horsepower to generate the content that it’s supposed to be managing.
Many times, a CMS implementation has ended with a group of people looking at each other and thinking, “So…now what?” Every web development shop in the country can tell you stories about the shiny new CMS that was never once used by the client because they never changed their site after the day it launched. Occasionally, my company has taken calls from clients years after their sites launched wanting to know how to log in to their CMS for the first time.
Related to this, a CMS won’t ensure that your content is any good, either. Although a CMS might offer several tools to minimize poor-quality content from a technical standpoint (ensuring that hyperlinks are valid, or that all images have
ALT tags, for instance), a CMS cannot edit your content to be sure it makes sense and meets the needs of your audience.
The best-laid plans to create massive amounts of quality content often fall through when confronted with the hard reality of schedule pressure and business deadlines. You need to ensure that your content creation process exists apart from your CMS.
Create Marketing Plans
Even assuming your content is created consistently and managed well, that doesn’t mean it actually provides your organization with any value.
A CMS doesn’t “know” anything about marketing. While some systems have marketing tools built into them, they still depend on human beings for direction. Effective marketing is a uniquely human practice involving a combination of aesthetics, sociology, psychology, experience, and intuition. A CMS can make executing your marketing plans easier and more efficient, but those plans still need to be conceived, created, and analyzed by a competent human.
A CMS doesn’t take the place of a creative team that understands your marketplace, your customers, your competitors, and what you need to do to differentiate yourself. No software can take the place of a good digital marketing strategy or team.
Effectively Format Content
While a CMS can structure content and automatically format it during publication, there is still an unfortunate amount of room for a human editor to screw it up. Most CMSs have a rich text editor or some other interface element that allows editors to format text and images. This can lead to things like:
- Too much use of bold and italics
- Inconsistent alignment of content
- Random and inconsistent hyperlinking
- Poor image placement
Editors have never seen a button on an editing interface that they didn’t want to press. The only way to limit this seems to be to remove as many editing options as possible, then try to withstand the hailstorm of editor complaints that will inevitably follow.
“Governance” describes the access to and processes around your content: who has access to what, and what processes/steps they follow to make changes to it. For example:
- If Bob adds a news article, who needs to approve this, and what does that approval look like? Does someone copyedit and someone else edit for quality, voice, and tone? Can you diagram this process out on a piece of paper?
- If John wants to change how the news archives are organized, and the CMS allows him to do this…can he? What process does he have to go through to do this?
- If Jennifer wants an account on the CMS to start creating content, how does she get that? Who decides who is allowed to become an editor?
Every CMS has some method to limit the actions a user can take, but these limits have to be defined in advance. The CMS will simply carry out what your organization directs it to do. These plans have to be created through human interaction and judgment, then converted into the permissions and access limits the CMS can enforce.
Governance is primarily a human discipline. You are determining the processes and policies that humans will abide by when working with your content. The CMS is just a framework for enforcement.