Content management systems are for content, not marketing

Over the past 15 years, in roughly reverse chronological order, I have worked with the following content management systems (CMS):

Adobe ECM, Kentico, Terminal Four, Fatwire, Drupal, Perch, Alterian, Episerver, Typo3, Squiz, Umbraco, WordPress, Immediacy, Morello, Rhythmyx, Tridion, RedDot, DotNetNuke, Contensis, and Plone.*

And that’s ignoring the other platforms that sometimes try to do content management, but aren’t inherently built for that purpose (Sharepoint, Hubspot, Magento, etc).

I’ve used all of these as an admin or editor, and for nearly all of them I’ve been involved in the development of new websites. So from that experience I can roughly put them into one of 2 categories:

  1. CMS built by and for developers to play nicely and experiment with, that try hard but ultimately fail to offer a good user experience
  2. CMS built for big organisations to satisfy IT, security, marketing and procurement requirements, that are over-engineered, over-complicated and never seem to deliver against promises

Who’s actually using your CMS?

Now, the very obvious issue here is that not a single CMS is built to address the needs of the real every day user, the web editor or manager.

In larger organisations especially, IT and/or marketing are often the route to procurement, so complex technical infrastructures, digital asset management, email marketing, and marketing automation are what’s being sold nowadays, with the art of content management being forgotten.

In contrast, the web editor or manager has one key concern: updating the website with new content that helps deliver against the objectives of the business, while keeping the web presence in good order. Typically, this means adding new pages, blog posts, uploading images and video, and occasionally restructuring a page or even the whole structure of the site.

The limits of a Content Management System

By their nature you have to build templates into a CMS for them to work, which means editable areas have to be defined.

Yes, there are platforms that give you flexible drag and drop style templates and widgets that promise you endless flexibility, but at the end of the day there is still a coded template behind it with limitations and restrictions – want to change the size of your hero image? Want a new template with a pull out quote? Got a load of images from an event but your gallery doesn’t handle different proportioned images well? The list goes on.

These are the real problems the modern web manager has to deal with and content management alone can’t solve them.

Over the years, the web editor/manager has evolved to be a predominantly editorial and marketing function, with limited technical skills. The assumption is that CMS platforms alone can fulfill all their needs, but the truth is all they are really good at is maintaining the status quo, updating basic content and publishing new content of a fairly fixed generic format.

Plan to develop

The only way to solve all these problems is to understand what you want your website to be and how you want it to evolve, and then plan for that, because you WILL want it to change at some point.

To achieve this, businesses would do well to look at how publishers manage their websites. Knowing they need to constantly develop engaging and innovative content to stay relevant, they form strong multi-disciplinary teams to support the publishing function, with in-house UX, design and development skills.

The BBC has its own CMS – it built a bespoke one just to be sure it was right – but if there’s a story to tell using video, infographics, or whatever, the Beeb has designers and developers on hand to do that, because it’s just not something that you can standardise.

This is something every business should plan for. Your content will change – you won’t just have new press releases getting churned out forever. Your content management system will need someone to help you make those changes.

So, my 3 top tips for picking a CMS are the following:

  1. Pick a CMS that your web editor likes using and won’t make them scream at their monitor on a daily basis
  2. Pick an open source one, because it’ll be free, simpler to use, and you won’t struggle to find developers to work with it
  3. Make sure you have either an ongoing relationship with your agency, or your own in-house developers, so you can plan for change and act upon it.

And most of all, please, please, don’t pick a CMS just because it comes with a load of bells and whistles. Pick it because it manages content well.

* A final note

This asterisk is here just to make you read all the way to the bottom. And in case you were wondering, the best of all these CMS I have worked with was Immediacy, which is sadly now long gone. Sure it was a bit crashy and fatally slow for very large sites, but editors loved it – simple, understandable and – with the basic licence – unencumbered by other unnecessary features.