We were recently asked to build a new web site for a reseller of CAD software, the vendor's main site had the wrong messages for a UK audience so we decided to essentially start again and reuse as many of the assets as we could. The original site had a CMS built with Wordpress, so we spoke with the vendor.
"What will you use?" they asked.
This was an easy one to answer, "We can't answer that now because we don't what the content strategy looks like yet."
There was nothing evasive about our answer - in order to avoid compromising ourselves we need to fully understand the content requirements. Only then can we know what tool is best suited to supporting those specific requirements. For example:
- What kind of content are you creating?
- Who's going to need to edit this content?
- How often will they need to do this?
- What's the editorial plan?
- Who has ownership?
Once we start shaping the content strategy we can consider how best to provide something that will support these aims in an ongoing and sustainable way.
So what's the big problem with CMS?
In the words of the eminent Content Strategist, Erin Kissane in her excellent book "Elements of Content Strategy":
“Since they first appeared, content management systems have looked to many companies like a way to buy and automate editorial processes that actually require a lot of time from skilled, paid human beings.”
True life tales of woe
Oh how I could regale you with tales of CMS woe: the product microsite with a popular CMS engine hastily shoved in that was simply not fit for purpose; the business manager who was tearing his hair out because he had to go to an expensive 'specialist' for his needlessly complex CMS; The manager who inherited ownership of a school web site and was so frustrated with the CMS that she considered rebuilding the whole site less than a year after the new site had gone live. These systems aren't solely to blame, but have you ever used the corkscrew on a Swiss army knife to open a bottle of wine? It'll do it, but you wouldn't want to use it too often.
Beware the box marked 'enterprise'
Back in 2007 Jason Fried wrote of enterprise software that it basically sucked. The nub of it was this:
"The people who buy enterprise software aren’t the people who use enterprise software."
Anyone who's used an 'enterprise level' CMS will know this only too well. Clay Johnson, after seeing too many large organisations waste money on trying to make their CMS work, wrote back in 2009:
"At the end of the day, you're probably going to want to do something that Content Management System can't do or worse—you're going to run into something that your content management system can do and does poorly."
Sites with a bad CMS are easy to spot, the information architecture suffers badly, then the overall user experience gets a hammering and ultimately the whole thing becomes an unwieldy mess.
Johnson goes on to say what we've been saying for many years: "One competent developer using [Ruby on Rails] can weave together a content management solution and constantly be developing tools inside of this solution that make sense for your organisation." We've had first hand experience of this. We used to work at a large company with many products and different distribution channels and certain products were available only in certain markets. We were able to design and build a CMS with Rails that was entirely built for purpose, and then we developed it further as the needs of the organisation changed. It's impossible to imagine how that could have been done well using Drupal, Joomla, Wordpress et al.
Treat your content well
Managing your content deserves better than to be at the whim of an arbitrary decision taken either too early or too late in a web site project. A CMS is a tool not a strategy and deciding on which tool before you know what you're going to make is not a recipe for success. Too many organisations believe the answer to all their content problems is to get an all singing, all dancing CMS, that's best answered by Erin Kissane again:
“Hoping that a content management system will replace this kind of human care and attention is about as effective as pointing a barn full of unmanned agricultural machinery at a field, going on vacation, and hoping it all works out. ”