Three Groups that Matter Most
To assess your web publishing capabilities, you must consider three unique constituencies:
- Your internal content producers and managers
- Your human audience -- those people who use, consume and potentially enhance your content
- Your machine or software audience -- those devices or applications that will consume machine readable forms of your content
Group 1: Content Producers & Managers
Editorial staff and content managers continue to be responsible for many of the same tasks and processes. Yet like everyone who uses Web-based tools, their expectations of the tools have changed markedly over the past few years and their set of operational tool sets have expanded to include new devices –- such as mobile browsers and Blackberry phones -- and new client applications -- such as RSS readers and mash-up aggregation applications.
If a content management system fails to address the new demands of this audience, frustrations develop, workflow slows, content quality can potentially suffer and knowledge can end up locked away in simpler to use, but isolated repositories. Here are a few things to pay attention to:
Focus on Interface & Workflow Simplicity
To quote Ward Cunningham, inventor of the Wiki, "What's the simplest thing that could possibly work?" You and your team may not want the simplest thing, but Wards perspective clearly has merit and those who seek tools that best manage Web 2.0 services and websites would do well to keep his ideas in the fore.
Just imagine the shock your average 22 year old would experience going from Flickr, Blogger or Twitter to a stodgy run of the mill Enterprise CMS management console.
Sure, your enterprise software does so much more. But does this new generation of business user with simple needs really care or understand? What if posting a document on the intranet was as easy as uploading a photo on Flickr or a video on YouTube?
Part of the problem is the software that has not been sufficiently paired down to optimize simplicity. Equally at fault are assumptions that users will be trained and compelled to use the software to some greater corporate good. Unlike other enterprise software, you cannot always force your employees to use software that they do not like. People can avoid using your CMS by resorting to the ultimate unstructured tool: email.
The latest entrants into your workforce are probably setting up Wikis, blogs, and other simple tools on third party sites or on hardware they can scrounge up internally.By not responding to their initiative and their needs of simplicity, you are pushing their good intentions underground. You also risk multiplying the number of isolated content silos in your enterprise, thereby missing an important opportunity to leverage evolving forms of knowledge management.
Companies like Google and 37signals are revolutionizing the field by applying consumer-oriented design values to enterprise-oriented software. They have resisted the feature clutter that has become the plague of enterprise software.They hide the complexity rather than boast about it.
Keeping things simple does not mean that the work of the content contributor is easy.It takes time to create content that is good both as an informational resource and as a reusable content asset.Extra effort by the content contributor will make the content more valuable and usable to your human audience and systems that try to re-use it.Still, tens of metadata attributes and many tier taxonomies will discourage the content contributor from making this effort.Sites such as Flickr and del.icio.us have realized great success by relying on community based tagging and fast auto-suggest features. These are important lessons your CMS vendor should be attuned to and learning from.
Traditionally, security and access control in companies tends to follow the policy of "guilty until proven innocent."User privileges are kept to an absolute minimum with the expectation that if a user really needs to perform a function they will follow protocol and apply for permission and resume their task when permission is granted.
Complex workflow models that put several approval layers between a contributor and publishing do the same thing.This does not jibe well with user expectation of immediacy. Users like to be able to perform an action and see a result. Any delay discourages participation.
Look for a content management platform that provides flexibility in the workflows and leans toward lighter weight processes and quick publishing operations. If a task can be completed in one sitting, it is far more likely to get done and the tool that allows for this will be much more rewarding for your team to work with.
Where possible, look for products that support "trust but verify" policies. Ask yourself what is worse: inaccurate or undesirable content on display for a short time, or preventing a user from posting something useful.
Heavily regulated industries may not have this option.But if you can, allow a user to do more while monitoring what they do. This, of course, requires you to have functionality to report on what changes have been made and also have the staff to run the reports and review the results.In the command-control world, under staffing the editorial role leads to bottlenecks and stagnation, in this new world, it leads to chaos.
Provide a Rich Experience
While the browser has become the preferred method of delivering a UI, the Web 1.0 page-submit model really breaks down for complex tasks that require lookups and building references between assets.
Rich Internet Applications (RIA), built in Flash or leveraging AJAX technologies, solve this problem by supporting interactivity with the server between page refreshes. Many CMS vendors are doing a good job of modernizing their administrative interfaces. But don't take this for granted. Related to Simplicity and Immediacy, a tool interface that is usable and rich is going to both increase the probability of content getting published and be more rewarding for your team to use.
With that said, your evaluation should not be limited to what you see in the browser. Users want to both stay tuned to workflows and contribute content using other interfaces and devices such as email. Identify the key toolset your team will use and make sure your CMS vendor is headed in the same direction.
Group 2: The Participating Public
The public, previously known as "consumers," have become participants. A modern Web CMS must acknowledge this and demonstrate the ability to both integrate the public as participants and deliver the tools Web 2.0-savvy visitors expect. Here are a few things to look for:
Modern Organizational Tooling
When your website was just a static brochure, you had full editorial control over what your users saw -- just like the paper brochures stacked on your shelves.You made a lot of assumptions about what your users would be looking for and where they would think to look.
Of course, many of these assumptions were horribly wrong because as an employee, you had a very different perspective of your company and its products and services and your audience didn't speak your corporate jargon.The result was often an information architecture that was impenetrable to the people you wanted to welcome.
Faceted taxonomies or labeling systems allow you to both "hedge your bets" by allowing multiple paths to the same content and provide a richer Web experience by creating dynamic views of content based on what the user is looking for.Better metadata make search (internal and external) a more powerful tool to find content.
Content management systems with weak taxonomy support or ones that force rigid, one dimensional hierarchical organization are limiting. Watch out for systems that prevent an asset from appearing in two places on the site. More innovative WCM products support "placeless" assets with a rich tagging system and dynamic, query based navigation.
A key theme here is flexibility. Look for systems that do not lock you into top-down information design decisions.
There is a powerful trend of social bookmarking or tagging sites such as Del.icio.us, Stumbled Upon, Digg and Reddit. These services allow users to identify useful assets and categorize them in a way that the external world may have a better chance of understanding.
Sites like Toy Instructions that allow users to create their own resources with links to official documentation are also becoming popular.Of course, if you went overboard with enriching your experience with AJAX and Flash and didn't pay attention to maintaining good URLs, you have rendered these services powerless.
Community Generated Content Support
There are two primary forms of user generated content: primary content and content metadata. Depending on your goals, your CMS should support one or both of these.
If you plan to allow your audience to publish primary content assets such as articles or blog posts, among other things your CMS needs to have a flexible content data model and the ability to support public participation in the publishing workflow.
The many forms of metadata, including "voting" or "rating" systems, comments and tagging, help users promote and associate content that they have found to be valuable and make these assets more findable to other users with similar needs.
This functionality will also provide valuable information on how to communicate to your audience and what content needs to be improved. The technology itself is simple. The challenge is maintaining the commitment to use the information.
Maybe your visitor has found the most relevant content that you have but know that it is inaccurate or incomplete.Some sites are allowing users to annotate, comment on, or even edit content that they find.It is up to you to determine your threshold for trust (e.g., must she be a validated customer?Does he have to register with a valid email address?), and you need to institute practices and tools to monitor, acknowledge, verify and incorporate the feedback.For example, if the comment is a valid correction, it needs to be incorporated in the next release of the documentation.A frustrated tone may be responded to with a gracious response and an offer to help.
If you are trying to build and leverage an external community you need to give back.First, acknowledge participation, which you can only do by knowing who they are.Allow your users to create profiles.No, I didn't say the word "leads."Sales guys, you can fall back asleep.
In fact, if you treat these people like prospects, you will spoil the relationship.These people are your allies, not leads to harvest.The goal should be to reduce the cost of sales by having them call you when they are ready to buy.
As trite as it seems, the simple recognition of tying a contribution to a profile -- even an anonymous screen name -- is enough to motivate some users.Communities where members share their identities (including a picture) tend to be more civil and helpful.It is more comfortable to be snide from behind a cloak of anonymity.A feeling of ownership also creates an incentive for self-policing.
Second, consider rewarding major contributors with increased access and control.Put them in Beta programs. Give them moderator privileges on your forum.Share "insider" information (that you don't mind getting out) with them.They would love to be the first to blog about your news.Give them the opportunity.Their passion and excitement will be able to create more buzz than a stale press release.
Integration of Community Generated Content
Many Web CM systems are designed around a multi-tier architecture with a strongly secured management tier that pushes content to the read-only presentation tier for display.Some systems have the management tier pre-render (bake) content into formatted HTML.Others have a presentation tier that dynamically renders (fries) pages with each page request.
These architectures are very desirable for security and scalability.Content presented to the customer is essentially read-only so it can be optimized for rapid reads. This design also reduces risk that hackers are able to modify public content or access private content.However, when you actually want your external visitors to contribute and actively engage on your website, where does their content live?There are a couple of options.
For baking style presentation systems, the most popular strategy is to manage community-generated content separately from the editorial content.This can be done on a separate, dynamic section of the site as in user forum area, or in-line using AJAX technologies embedded in statically generated pages.For example, you can layer in a commenting component using AJAX so that comments are entered and displayed on the same page as the article they refer to.There are a number of third party services that you can embed into your website in a similar fashion to Ad services.
Frying style presentation systems can pursue the same strategy but they have the option of dynamically sending visitor-generated content to the presentation tier.Of course, this is a more complex strategy that introduces issues that were not encountered a one way publishing system.You don't want user generated content to be overwritten every time content is published from the management tier. A read-write presentation tier will require clustering configurations to be more complex.Load balanced instances if the presentation tier will need to synchronize changes made by external users.
Regardless of where user generated content is stored, you need to manage it.You need to see what has been added and have the ability to delete inappropriate content. Captcha-based technologies are not enough to prevent comment spam.There are people all over the world with plenty of time on their hands who want to increase their page rank by having links to their site.They are perfectly capable of typing scrambled captcha text from an image.
When evaluating a Web 2.0 capable CMS, prepare your interaction requirements carefully and be sure to dig deep here with the vendor. Be wary of offerings that rely to heavily on third party integration. They probably do not have the CMS architecture to take you where you're going.
Strong Multi-device Support
The ubiquity of the web-enabled device has finally arrived. Most phones are now web enabled and wireless devices are everywhere.For some executives, the blackberry is the computer.While the browsers on these devices are getting better, the most usable content is still content that is published for the small screen.Publishing to different formats, such as wireless devices, requires better separation of content and layout and more manageable presentation systems.CMS that tightly bind content structure and layout will be at a disadvantage.For example, an in-site editing model, while intuitive, can mislead the user into thinking that is the only way the content will display.
Group 3: The Machines Who Read
Let your content live beyond the boundaries of your website and embrace the creativity of partners and strangers alike. Supporting machine readable content formats such as RSS allows the community of users to easily access your service and potentially use it to create new value.
Having an open syndication strategy and the technology to support it will extend your reach and open up new markets.In some cases, you will be able to directly monetize this value. But from another perspective it is just simply polite to allow people to consume your information or services in their own way, with their own tools and on their own time. Not addressing the growing community of machines and client software who read is a costly and serious oversight. Here's what to consider:
Syndicating with Web Feeds
Syndicating your content in standard format Web Feeds such as RSS or Atom is both strategic and well mannered. Feeds allow readers to stay informed without having to visit your website. They also empower users to cherry pick specific categories of your content or mash it with related resources thereby creating new information services.
Whether they know it or not, most Internet users use Feeds.Feeds populate most personalized portal pages such as My Yahoo!. Sites such as Bloglines and Google Reader are becoming the primary information portals for the digital elite.The rise of Feed-based services such as Technorati, Yahoo! Pipes, Google's AJAX Feed API, FeedBurner, Google Blog Search and countless others make it clear that Web Feeds are strategically important and must be clearly and robustly supported by a modern Web CMS.
Syndication is also something that should be on the marketing department's radar. Syndicating Feeds allows your content to be aggregated into high traffic resources such as My Yahoo!, MSN, Google Content Directory, any given company's Intranet and any other of the numerous Feed search engines and aggregation points. Your offerings of syndicated content should be viewed as a serious, high-impact and quickly evolving distribution channel.
Finally, new and innovative uses for Web Feeds are popping-up daily. In some organizations Feeds are being looked to tactically as a simple means for supporting Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) or more strategically as a key component of a services oriented software architecture (SOA).
Providing a Public API
Open API's create the potential of spontaneous partnerships through "mashups." Google Maps spread virally because of a simple API and a low barrier to use them. Ebay has had equal success with their developer network.
Supporting a good API is where the quality and structure of the content come into play.A printed brochure or a downloadable PDF can disguise poorly structured content.To be of any value to an API, or any re-use opportunity, the metadata better be good and the content better be structured.
A content model with one big blob of text is not going to cut it.At the very least you should have structured attributes for title and summary.If you want to enable mapping, structured address fields will allow a developer to use a mapping API.Event data should have date and location information.
If you capture more structured information, consider using Microformats in your rendered Web pages.This evolving standard specifies critical bits of information in basic standard markup so a machine can scan a page for information.
There are Microformats for contact information, events, reviews, and many other objects.A visitor using a Microformat aware browser -- such as Firefox with the Tails extension -- will be pleasantly surprised that you "get it." Of course, in order to publish your content using Microformats, you need structured content types to capture the appropriate attributes. First things first.