Life would be fantastically easier if all it took was a moderate investment in the right tools to get a job sufficiently done. Imagine walking into a hardware store, buying a wet tile saw and a notched trowel, taking them home, snapping your fingers, and bamo! Perfectly laid travertine flooring wall-to-wall in your kitchen.
As silly as this sounds, we often have this kind of expectation for content management systems. However, much like a wet tile saw, a CMS is more or less useless without a skilled operator behind (and can actually be a bit dangerous when left in inexperienced hands).
Correspondingly, and almost invariably, a content management system will not cure content management problems in and of itself. The reason? No matter which CMS you use, it is a merely a tool, albeit a potentially powerful (and empowering) tool. But without some kind of strategy for what to put inside of it, not to mention a strategy for how to refine, expand, curate, and cull content long after the fireworks of a launch day have dissipated, a CMS is about as useful as a pet rock.
The intention of implementing any specific content management solution should be to make it easier for people on either side of system work with content—creators to create, consumers to consume, sharers to share, etc. In a world where technology doesn’t require you to know a lick of HTML to add content to a website, and where it’s possible to build sites that allow people on the other side to instantly and easily find the relevant information they need, everybody should win.
But all too often everybody doesn’t win (especially the people on the other side), and the label “content management system” seems to be more and more of a misnomer. It’s very easy to attribute a magical quality to the “M” in CMS—one that doesn’t necessitate human intervention. Yet, when the marvels of modern technology make something previously complex and time-consuming suddenly much easier and faster, thoughtful human intervention is needed more than ever.
Though this topic could very easily warrant its own book, here are some quick bulleted take-aways to keep in mind when selecting a CMS, and managing your content within it over time:
What You Should Do Before You Select a CMS
(In no implied order…)
- Conduct a content audit and determine content requirements
- Determine what kind functionality your site must/should/could offer (e.g. Should site visitors be able to comment on content? Does an administrator need to approve new internal content or external comments before they’re posted? Is sharability a priority? How will the site enhance discoverability of content?)
- Consult present (and possible future) content creators regarding their usage needs and wants
- Evaluate the pros and cons of potential CMS solutions (there’s a lot of love for WordPress out there, and I dole out a reasonable amount of it, but I can also attest that it’s not always the best solution)
- Outline what overall gaps exist between the functionality of your current CMS (if you have one) and your present/future needs, determine what will be critical for a new CMS to support, and finally which evaluated solution will be best suited to meet these requirements
What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Expect from Your CMS
- Expect your CMS to make your content creating and maintaining life easier (and absolutely not harder)
- Expect your CMS to support your content publishing workflow
- Don’t expect your CMS to independently govern your content—you’ll still need a person for that
- Don’t expect your CMS to fix your website if content has been indiscriminately transplanted from a previous iteration of your site… on a similar note, don’t expect a CMS to effortlessly make content previously developed for print applicable for web-based contexts
- Don’t expect internal content creators adhere to best practices within the CMS unless they’re provided with adequate and ongoing training
Ultimately, the key thing to remember is to never mistake the tool for a strategy. Unless something akin to Skynet finally takes over, were still going to need people running the machines.