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How to perfect your CMS implementation

A content management system (CMS) is often a bittersweet thing; or more accurately a ‘sweet-bitter’ thing. You enjoy it when it’s new but your enthusiasm wanes over time: as the delivery team get yet requests for customization, CMS becomes a blocker for the team to further grow and refactor.
But it needn’t be that way. With a bit of planning, your CMS can continue to deliver the sweetness, without the bitter aftertaste. Here are the key questions that can help you get more from your CMS deployment.

What does a client really mean when talking about CMS?

Too often, CMS conversations start with: “The client wants a CMS, what do you suggest?” Don’t hurry to answer this question. There are lots of questions that need to be clarified before answering this one.
As Wikipedia tells us: “A CMS is a computer application that supports the creation and modification of digital content. It is often used to support multiple users working in a collaborative environment.”
That suggests it should be easy to establish what a client needs from it. The trouble is, when people talk about CMS, they don’t always want the same thing.
The client might mean they want to build/re-build their websites based on a certain CMS product. They might want an enterprise knowledge base or some eCommerce-like website. They could even want to handcraft a CMS themselves. For the sake of simplicity, this article focuses solely on the first type of requirement.
Just one final point on terminology. Some people use a specific term for CMS products as the basis for a website: Web Content Management System (WCMS). For the sake of brevity, I’ll continue using CMS in the rest of this piece.
What does the client mean by CMS?
Figure 1: What does the client mean by CMS?

What does your client really need?

Beyond the discussion about what CMS/CMS project is, there is an even more fundamental question: Why does the client want a new CMS? Obviously, there must be pain points in the legacy system. And we also need to understand what role the CMS needs to play in the digital context.
Today, everyone talks about being ‘customer-centric’. Every role is seen through the lens of being customer-centric. It’s a similar story with IT system. So, how does CMS fit in this trend? What does our client expect a CMS project to achieve?
This question could be answered from two perspectives.
From the customer perspective, they need access to information available at anytime, anywhere. But nowadays, simply providing information may no longer satisfy our customers. User experience is an increasingly important component of online delivery. And the bar keeps being raised to new levels by Internet giants and digital pioneers.
On the other hand, within organizations, there’s often a tension between IT and the business—particularly marketing—over the ownership of content. The business wants to be able to make CMS changes quickly. The IT department often complains about content work and the multiple systems they have to maintain.
When it comes to a new CMS project, both sides are involved and put their hope on a newly adopted CMS. Perversely, a new system usually makes things even worse. For example, new platforms means new capabilities, which take time for staff to master. And the introduction of a new CMS may result in two systems running in parallel—which means higher operating costs and infrequent updates for customers, at least for a short while.
In a medium to large size organization, solving these problems can be highly complex.  
My view is that any out-of-the-box product can’t be the silver bullet to solve specific problems. But a well-implemented CMS platform could become a good lubricant between business and technology, one that brings both economic and customer benefits to the organization.

What are we delivering on a CMS project?

Having agreed the client wants a website based on a particular CMS, the question becomes: What should our deliverables be? Is it only the website? It shouldn’t be—but it quite often is, when the delivery team make the mistake of ignoring the needs of the editor.
I’d argue that editors are just as important as end users in a CMS project. Who else spends as much time using the system? Editors can provide invaluable feedback—or they might have specific requirements that can catch the development team out.
Instead of thinking of a CMS as something we use to build a website, we should consider it a platform on which editors can manipulate content to build a website—one that provides users with a very specific and curated experience.
This is, of course, a simplistic view that omits some important details. But it helps us shape our thinking about which CMS platforms are suited to the clients’ needs.

How to make a choice?

When the time comes to sit down and choose a CMS product, be prepared to be shocked. At the time of writing, there are more than 1000 CMS products on the market. And every one of them claims to be the best. We definitely can’t try out every choice to come to a decision. So we need some methodologies to help us filter the massive choices.

Where does CMS fit in IT systems?

Firstly, we have a simple graph to help you position your CMS.
Which CMS is right for you?
Figure 2: Which CMS is right for you?
As Figure 2 illustrates, we need to consider the complexity of a business and the complexity of the on-site content to find out perfect CMS. The number of content types is one kind of complexity, usually every new type of content will need effort to design, implement and maintain. Here I roughly group them into three situations:
  1. Hybrid Solution. CMS only plays a pure content management role here and the whole solution needs to be well designed to avoid relying on any of modules in it.
  2. Full Stack CMS. A comprehensive CMS should fit for this situation and leveraging the specific functionality to solve your specific problem.
  3. Stand-alone. A lightweight CMS is good enough to reach the goal and save cost at the same time.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of large organizations will fall in the top-right quadrant and in this situation, the choice of CMS itself becomes less important than how the whole system is designed and implemented, which have a greater impact on the cost, usability and maintainability.

After the first step, now let’s take a closer look at what we want to build. Here are a few sliders to help you measure your idea.
Go deeper about your idea
Figure 3:  Go deeper about your idea
Take the main usage of the site as an example. Is it more functional, such as online tools? Is perhaps content-drive, such as media sites? www.thoughtworks.com could be a content example, as users tend to get information and technical news from it. A bank website, on the other hand, would be more functional: for instance, visitors might seek out the onsite loan calculators. The different use cases result in different CMS selection, even the conclusion that no CMS is needed.
Sometimes, clients believe that they need a CMS and therefore there has to be a CMS. But they might very well not need one. You also need to be mindful of requirements such as ‘flexibility’. Unless carefully defined, it could bring you unexpected troubles as the project goes on. By stipulating reasonable expectation for how flexible the system needs to be, you can reduce time wasted on arguing. This decision has to be made by business and IT together, because both business self-service and system maintainability are crucial to a CMS project in the long term.
It might help to take content types into consideration at early stage. This will enable you to predict the likely workload created, and make decisions on how much you can afford to spend on a CMS product. If you find out that although there are tons of pages to migrate, but only have two or three types of content or so-called templates, then major efforts will be spent on content migration or creation instead of development.

Is it really worth that much?

It’s true that you may decide investing in a CMS is worth it. But does it need to be a commercial one? It’s hard for developers to understand the point of spending millions of dollars on something that they could handcraft. However, we see many businesses have recently investing in commercial CMS products.
What do they get for their money?

Beware hidden costs

The money spent on CMS purchase is not just the cost of launching a website. It takes months to customize the product to make it fit for business requirements. Besides the development, there are also operation cost, training cost, maintenance cost, hosting cost and so on.
A commercial CMS is no different from a free one on this point.
The economic model behind CMS
Figure 4: The economic model behind CMS

What are we paying for?

By asking this question, the answer is definitely not ‘content management’ though it’s called CMS. You could get free “content management” from any open source CMS. What you’re really paying for is the additional functionality and support.
This could be a whole box of branded tools with comprehensive functionalities for a website. It could also be a full set of advanced content management process to help your organization optimize the process and structure.
Unless you’ve already taken these improvements into consideration before the purchase, you could miss the points of adopting a commercial CMS and pay big money on things that will never put in use.
In the end, a CMS project is just like any other projects, nothing works magically. We can’t say these tips are helpful universally but going through them before kicking off a project in a hurry may help you avoid possible pitfalls and spend time and money on more pressing issues.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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