Your CMS as Bad Cop

By Deane Barker

Content management systems thrive on consistency. In a lot of ways, they’re kind of like a database table. In a table, you get rows and columns. In a CMS, you get content types and properties, and they fit together the same way whether you have three pages or three million. At least, that’s the idea.

But when you’re not using content management, you can do anything you want. You could make every single page just a little bit different, if you wanted. Sometimes, it happens this way accidentally. Often, it happens because a content owner just wants something different.

They say something like this:

But, you see, this content is special and I want it handled this certain way… It can’t be handled like the other content… It needs to have navigation like Web site X.

However, in most cases, some limitation is actually a really good thing. The problem with being able to do whatever you want, is that you often do just that.

We’re working with a client now who has a large site which has grown organically over many years without the guidance of a CMS. The site has been built in flat files in a WYSIWYG editor (or 10). Additionally, it’s been worked on by dozens of different people, all bringing their own idiosyncrasies to how they wanted to set up a specific page.

I was on-site a few weeks ago, and we were walking through the site as a group. It seemed that every mouse click would elicit a chorus of groans, and comments like:

What is this content? I don’t even remember this.

Why is the navigation so different? Who authorized this?

Are we even still on our site?

Oh, geez, remember this? This is like this because Bob over in Department X wanted it done this way.

Moving from non-CMS to CMS is always hard for clients to adjust to. They have to get in a mode that content management systems feast on consistency. This isn’t to say you can’t one-off a few things if you need to, by, by-and-large, a CMS wants consistent page types, consistent navigation, consistent relationships, etc.

So, when working with this client, I was prepared for a battle. I explained that to put their site into a CMS (Episerver, in this case, but any CMS would be the same, really), we were going to have to make quite a few changes to the underlying content to get it more consistent.

To my pleasant surprise, they were really positive on this idea. Once they understood why things had to change, they were all about consistency. They suddenly didn’t want to make any exceptions, and they started doing mass re-arranging to fit their content in.

The impression I got was that they were just looking for an excuse to be forced to clean things up. There were so many content owners inside the organization, and each one of them had their content managed their own way that the Web site had become a veritable case study in different navigation and page styles.

And now I can’t get this concept out of my head – the CMS as “bad cop.” (What is a “bad cop”?) When a content owner comes to you and says…

No, no, we have to handle my content special. It just has to be navigated with the Uber Flash Craptastic Dynamo 5000.

…you can just shrug your shoulders and say:

Sorry, man, the CMS won’t let us do that. Everything has to be consistent.

Does this sound constraining? My feeling – and the feeling I got from my client – is that it’s actually liberating. Instead of re-working navigation and page styles for the millionth time, and collecting tons and tons of technical and content debt, you can instead concentrate on the content itself and the message.

If the navigation and layout are constants, that just leaves the content. And therein lies the whole point, really. So, let your CMS play bad cop, sometimes. You might be awfully happy with how that works out.

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