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What to Look for in a Content Management System

By Burkey Belser
January 28, 2013
What to Look for in a Content Management System

By now, your website is probably run by a Content Management System (CMS). You may be surprised at how that system has become both the repository and engine of your dynamic marketing content—biographies, service descriptions, experience and thought leadership. You may not fully appreciate what kind of CMS you’ve got and what kind you’ll need in the future. In this paper, we want to explain what you need now and down the road.

A distribution tool

The Holy Grail for marketers is a single mother lode of marketing content; a way for biographies, service descriptions, experience and thought leadership to be distributed seamlessly across multiple communication channels. Unfortunately, a CMS needs another tool to feed proposals and yet another tool to distribute social media and even another to distribute client alerts or email. A CMS can be friendly to all of these tools. We discussed the broad distribution challenges in our most recent research, The Marketing Ecosystem. Today’s discussion focuses entirely on how to understand and select a CMS.

A focused tool

Industry verticals (legal, associations, higher education, etc.) are dominated by proprietary CMSs designed with the industry in mind. These CMSs reflect the business structure and vocabulary of the industry; e.g., a consulting-centric CMS that law firms or consultants or other experts might choose, will focus heavily on rich biographies with strong relationships to content elsewhere in the site. The interior structure of a consulting-centric page will pick out education, memberships and experience as related fields—fields a manufacturer, for example, would consider a waste of time and effort.

The industry-centric CMS is embraced because it reflects a deep understanding of the industry and research on industry behavior. The vertical CMS comes ready to launch wearing its industry hat. Open source or Sharepoint, for instance, do not pay attention to industry trends and adapt accordingly.

A system that stays current

We live in a fast-changing world. For over 10 years, feature wars raged inside the legal industry. One CMS battled the other: “CMS X can do this!” “Well, now CMS Y can, too.” You may have enjoyed the contest for a while, but the fight is now over, and you won. Whatever features you still need will almost certainly be incorporated into the next release. Therefore, making a decision on a CMS today based on features is short-sighted. The market drives this, not the manufacturer of the software.

Why should you wait for and pay for the next release? You don’t have to if your CMS lives in the cloud. Cloud? You’ve heard about the cloud but the idea may be fuzzy to you. Google calls the cloud “a supercomputer at your beck and call, thanks to the Internet.” In other words, there is software “up there” you can use to run your website while your content lives behind your firewall.

Greenfield/Belser’s CMS (called Point & Clique) lives in the cloud. It’s called software-as-a-service (SAAS). This means new features are pushed to you automatically. Improved picture editing tools? Got ‘em. That’s why the features war is over. Any software worth its salt no longer comes in a box. It lives magically in space, updated constantly in response to market demand. Where a CMS lives matters.

A flexible system

The features war may be over, but a different war is being waged for flexibility. For example, navigation once was fixed like the North Star. Your world revolved around it. Now it’s flexible. You can order your navigation however you wish. You can even change the labels from “professionals,” “practices” and “locations,” to read “animals,” “reindeer games” and “habitats.” In addition, you can match the interior structure to fit. Replace “education,” memberships” and “news” with “species,” “predators” and “diet.” In other words, the industry-centric CMS gives you more flexibility to change as the market changes. Old industry-centric CMSs cannot offer this adaptability, but but the latest versions can.

Where flexibility ends

Flexibility has a limit. The give and take between the Internet display (your website) and your database is strict. Let us explain. Your web page doesn’t exist, really; it’s simply pulled together when a visitor asks for it. McDonald’s, for example, no longer lets your burger age under a heat lamp; the burger is assembled when you ask for it. Same for your web page. A visitor asks for a biography and the database “calls” for the information to be presented on the page in the format of your page design.

But the database cannot call for tortilla wraps when you’ve specified buns. Nor can it call for grouper when a burger is in the fridge. In other words, a website design demands a template be created to display specific information—a path structure.

What’s the point? Your modern CMS will allow you to shuffle the pages around and rename them but it cannot allow you to change the page design (the template) at will. That’s where flexibility ends for every CMS.

Why all systems, even open source, are ultimately proprietary systems

We always find ourselves in competition with other CMS providers, but the most challenging competitor is not a traditional competitor at all. Drupal and Joomla are both open source software, free for the taking.

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away, developers created the concept of open source software in a defiant response to the archenemy, Microsoft and its Galactic Empire. Open source software is freely available computer software created by an unpaid community of developers. By using an open source license, the copyright holders provide the source code and the rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose (Wikipedia).

Some firms find an open source CMS an attractive alternative to proprietary software. Here’s the thinking: “I got burned before when a proprietary CMS was sold and its quality slipped.” Or, “They went bankrupt and I was left holding the bag.” Once bitten, twice shy.

When your website is built on open source software, you inherit the benefits of the community if you choose to use that community in the future. But let’s play this out. As soon as you build your website using Drupal or Joomla, you now have proprietary software. It’s fixed, cooked. If you want to change it to keep up, then you must go back to the developers for changes. Yes, the community of developers who understand the software is large (and that’s valuable), but you are still beholden to coders. Because the open source software was modified to meet your specific needs, you have essentially created a proprietary CMS.

Part of the attractiveness of open source is the initial cost (i.e., free) but the implementation costs and upkeep (with in-house coders or external consultants) adds up, and the end result is largely a compromise of cost ceiling, customization limit and design restriction. Also, the more you kludge and customize open source solutions, the less you can scale as your needs change. It’s not an obvious issue most folks would notice, but when you do, the choice of solution absolutely matters.

You may consider hiring a Drupal or Joomla developer—don’t. You will not have much use of their skill set once your software is built (see employee, sick days, vacation, quit and fired). If your website provider goes out of business, your website does not stop operating. It runs in place. Not ideal, but no disaster either.

It’s only the Point & Clique service that’s proprietary; it can be divorced from the site itself if need be. And you have a safeguard. Greenfield/Belser stores its code with Iron Mountain. You can buy into the escrow (pay an annual fee) and gain access to the source code should the worst happen. If the watch takes a licking, it keeps on ticking.