Dissatisfaction is spreading through the world of web content management like an epidemic, and while it’s easiest to pass the blame off on the tools you use, chances are that good ol’ fashioned human failures are the actual culprit. In fact, changing content management platforms could be the most detrimental thing you do for your company this year.

If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Replace it

The truth of the matter is that unless you’re a total content management guru, you could probably be using the tools you have more effectively. And if that’s the case, you can save yourself from a virtual ton of expenses and risk -- as well as from the companies that prey on the misinformed.

As Ian Truscott so eloquently confesses:

"Having seen plenty of examples over the years of web content management replacement projects and a common perception that any problem is a tools problem. Also, I confess having been in sales situations as a vendor that have preyed on the fact that an organization perceived that their incumbent product couldn’t do x, y or z when, in truth you can be fairly sure something has gone wrong along the way."

So, before you go into vulnerable Web CMS selection process and turn your entire environment upside down, consider a system assessment that takes a holistic view of your tools and processes.

An assessment covers a lot of the same ground as the CMS selection process, but leaves open the possibility that the best platform may be the one you already have.

Grade Your Web CMS Implementation

A dip between what you were hoping for and what you’re actually getting from your content management system is almost inevitable -- it’s just a matter of amplitude. A great project may not dip below neutral satisfaction, but I have never seen a project easily achieve the loftiest of hopes for it -- at least not on day one.

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Your Web CMS Implementation -- Unlikely to Be a Smooth Road

Assessing an implementation is a matter of measuring that dip, and we do this in three dimensions: Vision, Execution, and Platform. Vision is what you are doing and why. Execution is your action against that vision. Platform is the tools that you build on:

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Assessing Your Web CMS -- Measuring the Dip

Vision

Goals: You should have defined, communicated and aligned goals, and at any point in time you should be able to tell if you are getting closer to your goals or moving away from them.

Strategy: Have information that is capable of driving behaviors and is wanted by a desirable audience.

Expectations: A CMS is like a hand-tool. The right tool will make a dedicated team more effective. If you thought you were getting out of hard work, your expectations were probably unrealistic.

Platform & Execution

Platform and execution are often difficult to pull apart. The platforms are so configurable that it is not easy to tell if an issue is intrinsic to the platform or if it was self-inflicted by the execution. Different elements tend to gravitate toward one side or the other but there is a big grey area.

The following elements of execution will make or break your solution:

Content Modeling

Content modeling is important because it determines how content is stored and managed in the system. This has implications in how content is authored and, more importantly, what you can do with the content. More structure means better reusability but it also makes the content contributor more dependent on the template developer to control what the visitor sees. You need a balance. In order to achieve that balance, your content contributors need to buy into the notion of separating content from layout and you also need to give them formatting tools where they need them.

Training

Training is the single most important component of any content management initiative. If your training program is successful, your users will know their roles and have the skills to perform them. They will be able to achieve their objectives no matter what obstacles are thrown in front of them. Unfortunately, training is an afterthought in most content management initiatives and is funded by budgetary scraps left over from earlier phases.

Workflow

Here I gave my Manufacturing/Legislation metaphors of workflow. If you want to increase efficiency with workflow you need to have specialists at the ready to help produce content. Workflows dominated by approval steps slow publishing down. Don’t aspire to the assembly line but create Congress.

Instrumentation

Instrumentation is more than just tracking hits and unique visitors. Those metrics can be useful for signaling major issues and trends but you really need to be tracking data that will tell whether your strategy is working or not. This gets back to my point that content strategy is based on Audience, Information, and Behaviors. Instrument your site to tell you whether or not your information is driving the right behaviors from your audience. Collecting the right data will help you refine your vision and strategy so you can iterate toward long term potential that your business case promised.

Presentation

Most of the technical effort of a CMS implementation is usually in developing presentation templates. This is where all of your display logic is. Any visitor-facing behavior is also coded in presentation templates. There are two ways to fail here. Inefficient code that does not use caching effectively or has sub-optimal content queries will cause your site to become unstable when under load. Sloppy, repetitive coding will be a long term maintenance nightmare.

It’s OK to Feel Like Crap About It

If it turns out you absolutely do need a replacement content management system, know that it isn’t going to be fun no matter which way you slice it, and turnaround certainly won’t happen overnight.

There are just too many unfavorable realities:

  • This is a time when you are supporting two sites: you need to keep the wheels on the old site as you migrate content onto the new site.
  • The new tools are unfamiliar to content contributors. They don’t know the short cuts and workarounds.
  • The content you are moving is not as good as you thought so there is unplanned work to improve it.
  • There is organizational pressure to show results for all the money spent.
  • You were probably thinking that you were crossing the finish line but now you realize that the real work is starting and it is going to be a real slog.

Help Save the Web CMS World!

OK, that's over-stated, but I am currently running a survey that aims to bring more realities and best practices to light. You can do your part by taking my quick online survey. I'll be sharing the results publicly once we have a critical mass of response. Thanks for sharing your experiences and tips.