Putting the CMS (content-management system) in context

Any web designer or developer who’s been working a few years has seen this scenario play out many times:

  1. A client asks for a content-management system — to lower costs, simplify content management tasks, or to add features like social media notifications, RSS feeds, keyword search, publishing workflows, etc. (all excellent reasons)
  2. The developer recommends/installs/configures a CMS (typically a popular, free, open-source tool like WordPress or Drupal)
  3. The developer adds, organizes, and formats content, taking care to optimize accessibility, user experience, and search engine friendliness
  4. The developer trains the client in the use of the CMS software, and provides pointers on content development
  5. After an initial flurry of activity — and sometimes not even that — the site and its content languishes, sometimes for years.

None of this is the clients’ fault. (A common reaction to this situation, though, is to blame the developer and/or the CMS, and switch them out, making the same mistakes all over again.)

I think this happens because the biggest challenges around publishing content aren’t software problems, so there’s no software — no CMS — that can solve them. Unfortunately, both the CMS development community and web designers all-too-often present content-management systems as solutions to these problems.

A CMS doesn’t give you a publishing strategy — it solves mundane workflow problems

Content-management systems exist because web developers found themselves bored with the process of making and managing links between dozens, hundreds, or thousands of pages — because it’s mind-numbing and error-prone to do by hand.

Content-management systems can be good at managing image- and document-based assets, managing on-site keyword search, and enforcing publishing workflows and style manuals.

If your expectations are in line with the strengths of your CMS, then you’ll be pleased with what it can do for you.

Skill + time + a plan = stronger site

  • A CMS isn’t a strategy, it’s a tactic — and it can be an important one — but it won’t set your site’s marketing direction or business goals, it won’t write (photograph/videotape/record) or edit your content, and it can’t tell you how to solve your customers’ problems.
  • A CMS won’t set your site’s message or tone. Copywriters, editors, and translators will.
  • A CMS won’t magically create time in your schedule to generate your site’s content updates
  • A CMS won’t set a publishing schedule for you or help you stick to it
  • A CMS won’t sort out your internal politics and content governance challenges
  • A CMS won’t lay out your pages optimally or choose which templates work best for what content.
  • A CMS won’t point out when your photography is poor or when your site is disorganized and frustrating your customers.

You define the problems of publishing content once you understand your business goals and challenges. Then you can generate and publish content that benefits your audience. Having a sound strategy and executing it well is vital, but none of that will be done for you by your content-management system.