The Content Management System: A Blessing Or A Curse?


Chart data from Media Bistro

When I hear clients ask for a Content Management System (CMS), I know they are asking me to give them something empowering, that cuts costs, gains audience and just makes their jobs simpler. A great CMS is all these things, but that’s assuming a client already has a great content strategy in place — and is producing content.

A great website is a great deployment tool.

A great website is a tool to deploy content, measure results and engage audiences. This amounts to work, especially in the form of publishing. However, once content is ready, a great CMS makes publishing and deployment easy, logical, and magnifies the effort exponentially (esp. when linked up with social media channels). Often, organizations are spending resources on other channels, including print, and/or are just broadcasting instead of engaging to the detriment of their brand and return on investment. Some clients may even be blessed in content but cursed in efficacy because they have made online content publishing a low priority.

And yes, you’ve got to create content.

Sadly, some clients’ new website initiatives get deflated when they hear the site will require that they make something to publish very regularly. That’s not a CMS curse, that’s a brand problem. If you don’t already have something relevant to say, something authentic, engaging and valuable, you are sunk. A wise friend once said that a website that sits, static, without any fresh, regularly published content, devoid of a voice or a variety of things to offer, is like ‘an open can of dog food’. Every brand needs an engaging website — a place to attract, engage and empower every audience.

So is the CMS a blessing or a curse?

So while a CMS is often seen as a curse more than a blessing, a CMS is neither. A good CMS is only as good as it was built to attract and engage an audience, deploy content and empower the admin user and other content producers (who may hate it — at first).

A CMS is also doomed when the content and admin are too complicated for admin users. This creates bottlenecks, and therefore stagnation, and ultimately can lead to a sorry online Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and customer engagement degrade / brand death.

However, a content strategy is a blessing, because it sets your organization up to succeed and delivers on not only an audience reaction but also on producers’ addiction. When content makers get a taste of freedom to publish, of being noticed by a new audience by measuring results, they often find publishing hard to resist and publish more often.

When considering a CMS, stop.

Start by considering that critical strategy phase — brand strategy and content strategy, or else…

A ‘Brand Channel and CMS Cautionary Tale’

Company X is a well-known brand with a lot going on. There’s a museum, a policy group, an educational offering, a business development group and a ‘lifestyle’ offering. When building their first CMS, they wisely chose an open-source CMS, Drupal, for it’s ability to manage a lot of content and users. While users often complain that Drupal is complicated to use, plans to train the staff where set to the launch time line. Another of Drupal’s advantages resides in the systems’ ability to manage many sites under one admin, and with one group of design templates. This is, of course, your IT department’s dream. At Company X, the website committee, with representatives from all the company departments and groups, chose to put all the very different brand offerings into one admin, to save some money and resources by using one set of templates for all to deploy each groups’ unique content.

Big mistake.

Simply, no one was happy, and each group struggled to make the new site work for their content and audience engagement.

Question: Is the content and audience engagement for a museum the same as an educational institution or business development initiative? No. So naturally, shoving all the content types into one narrow build of a system did no group any justice. In addition, the architecture treated each group destination, the museum, the business group, the educational space and lifestyle, as a main navigation button, placing each groups’ individual and complex navigation down one level, – awkward UI (User Interface design) – terrible UX (User Experience design), but also disadvantaged SEO by adding a layer of un-needed complexity for search bots. Drupal wasn’t the curse, a lack of content strategy and planning was.

Sure, there is a tremendous value in seeing all things Company X at-a-glance, but there is a time and a place for that. “All that we are” is not the concern of the audiences of Company X. The audiences of the one brand have 5 mutually exclusive reasons to engage the different brand groups. They aren’t interested in the corporate structure. Save the bird’s-eye view for your Board. To each audience, the other groups are a side story, at best.

In Company X’s case, each group deserved it’s own site from a content, CMS, UX, UI, SEO and many other perspectives. Each of those sites deserved to be architected and designed to deploy and disseminate that property’s content appropriately. In order to hold the brand together with 5 sites up, rather than a redundant and limited set of templates, a solid graphic design system was called for. Such a system should reflect all the qualities of the brand and be consistent across all properties with rich secondary brand variations appropriate to each sites’ audiences and content.

Yes, there might have been more than one Drupal install, but each would have been easier to use and administer, (and Drupal is free). Each url could have been a great SEO and brand positioning opportunity. Each admin would have been simpler to use. Each brand group empowered. Each site designed for it’s best UX.

Would the IT department have had 5 instead of 1 website to manage — yes — but with a minimum of internal and external users’ frustration to mitigate. Each brand child would be blessed with the kind of love it needed instead of the curse of one factory approach.

Also, the required design and content system to make a great CMS should have depth, such as section and category modules. Many typographic options should be designed to their function (i.e. title, sub title, by-line, author, excerpt, tags, intro, body, related, call outs, lists, sidebars etc. ). Images should not be treated uniformly either — again, the CMS should provide options, but not arbitrary ones, designed and considered options, because admin users should not be making a ton of decisions about style hierarchy. Instead the system should be modular and, to some extent, should self-organize and self-deploy to all devices and relevant external (including but not limited to social media) venues.

The CMS is NOT a design tool.

Even though a great CMS has many options, it’s not a free-for-all. Once a brand, content strategy and a deep design system are in place, there is one great expectation to manage, (to be seen as a blessing or a curse depending on where you are coming from). It is critical to understand that the CMS is NOT a design tool.

Some admin users might curse you that they can’t make some random copy purple or centered when they feel like it. That’s too bad. The greatest blessing of a great CMS is that the brand design standards are upheld so that the brand doesn’t ever look schizophrenic, and also, so that the style sheet never deteriorates into something that cannot be re-skinned or upgraded in the future.

While keeping these parameters, a CMS should also set the content free. There shouldn’t be a tech vendor adding content to a CMS – it defeats the purpose of having one in the first place. If the CMS was developed as a design system based on a solid content strategy, all the tools are there for the admin users to publish easily. If there is still a (cursed) bottleneck, the internal review process is the likely culprit. Rather than have one over-taxed higher-up bless it all, train content creators in editorial and design guidelines, and then let them publish, publish, publish and re-purpose, re-purpose, re-purpose. Your brand will bless you for it.

When considering a CMS, here some questions to first consider:

  1. Who wants our content? Use-case scenarios are a great exercise to understand who the audience is and understand what motivates/attracts them.
  2. What content is wanted? This exercise is many things, including a keyword research exercise and hash tag research. Don’t assume you know how your audience knows or will come to know your brand.
  3. What content do we have? An audit of all content the organization currently has, for the purpose of fresh new deployments, not only on the website, but also on social media channels and other properties or affiliates, is an effective way to repurpose the blood, sweat and tears of content efforts past. Just because it’s out there, doesn’t mean anyone saw it the first time around, but don’t resurrect old stuff that’s lost meaning or wasn’t done well in the first place.
  4. What will (or should) our content be in the future? If the brand message is not getting a great multi-channel narrative for users to engage, and if there is only sales content without engagement, and/or if the content comes only in words and not photos, info-graphics and videos, a very new plan needs to be mapped out. This brings us to the most important question…
  5. Who will generate content? This may be a combination of in-house resources, third party resources, or may even be audience/user generated. In any case, the content isn’t going to create itself, and content needs to go out in a targeted, focused and regularly-scheduled way.
  6. Who will review content? Ideally, no one. A strong editorial and content guideline manual, that each content producer is thoroughly trained in, empowers users to get it done and up. A monthly or quarterly review of how those standards are holding up is wise, but a review process of each and every post will likely create bottlenecks.
  7. How will we measure content response and react to it? Your site tracker, comments, local site search query data and other feeds will tell you a lot about what your audience responds to. If your content strategy is smart, it includes a provision to create content as a response to these trends, giving the audience what they want. The audience in turn will reward you for ‘hearing’ them.

Do you have a CMS tale to share? Let it rip.

One Comment
  1. Great article Christa. I’m a huge believer in CMS system for almost all small businesses and, as your article mentioned, there are opportunities for many larger organizations to use a CMS if they plan ahead with a content strategy. Developing content people actually want to view and share takes a lot more time than people think, so taking time in the beginning, BEFORE developing the site is a great step.

    I love CMS for small businesses because of the cost savings and useful plugins. If you aren’t careful they can obviously slow your site down quite a bit, but with careful execution, you can build your own site quickly and effectively.

    Thanks for the share!

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