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How to Manage It All

  |  July 17, 2001   |  Comments

What exactly does a content management system do? Sue rarely takes readers on technical tours, but indulge her for a moment. Besides, it's not that technical at all.

I love original, provocative Web site copy. I love the stuff that sticks with you all day and leaves you wondering, "What more will that site offer when I tune in again?" Now that's the best definition of "sticky" that I know.

But there are many in this world (and most reside in your IT department) who implore you to make order out of the wonderful fare you are posting on your site. They tell you it has to be better managed. They tell you that you must have a dynamite content management system.

Think of it this way. Your site may start with a couple of junior staffers experienced in HTML. But that solution doesn't last long. The average large organization's Web site has millions of pieces of content and keeps expanding all the time -- sometimes faster than we'd like. Just think if the Mayberry Country Fair suddenly received 5,000 entries for the annual pie-baking contest. While all those piping hot apple and rhubarb treats may be viewed as a godsend, they would also have the fair organizers scurrying off for a shot of Aunt Bee's "recipe."

What exactly does a content management system do? Now, those who've paged through my past articles know that I rarely take readers on a technical tour, but let me indulge for a moment. A good content management system should be able to do most of the following:

  • Enable easy modification and customization of content

  • Make it easier to add new functions or make changes

  • Support the development of new elements (e.g., text, tables, graphics, streaming video)

  • Establish standard template formats that can be used by multiple contributors

  • Schedule copy so that it is released and/or removed from your site at the right time (Imagine, no more Valentine Madness postings in July!)

  • Coordinate simultaneous publication of similar, but somewhat modified, information (e.g., multiple language translations of the same press release)

  • Accommodate templates for quick responses to user queries and for personalization
Perhaps most important for those charged with editing a site is that a good content management system will allow others to contribute copy but provide the editor in chief authority to polish, fact-check, and green-light all content before posting. Some systems will even shoot copy up to a vice president or equally important person, put a limit on his or her majesty's response time, and then pass the piece through the rest of the approval system if nary a word is heard from the castle tower.

The big problem with getting into the content management purchasing arena right now is that you'll be fighting off a lot of very aggressive vendors. You'll probably have to suffer through multiple presentations and demonstrations before you find the right match and a system that will accommodate your site's growth.

At the risk of becoming snowblinded, check out the blizzard of content management white papers on the Web. I started to print these out but came close to mortgaging the house to pay for ink cartridges. I also found these practical considerations for purchasing a system courtesy of Jonathan Briggs of OTHER media:

  • Decide if you want to purchase software or rent month by month with an application service provider (ASP) model.

  • Look for a system that will support contributors as well as an easy-to-manage approval process. This will ensure everyone is in line with the process you set up.

  • Investigate the system's potential for supporting content on different platforms, such as Internet on TV, kiosks, and wireless. This may not be a concern right now, but it's good to know that you have these capabilities for the day you get the memo to "go wireless."

  • Choose a system that has been used by others in your industry. In other words, if you're a large retailer, you want to know the system can support your company's types of demands.

  • Know what's bundled into your costs. Some suppliers will demand a large up-front software payment but bundle in support and training for the year. Others will separate out design work. One effective way of costing the project is to estimate the entire cost over a two-year period.

  • Look at a few of the sites supported by the system you're considering. If it appears that you'll be locked into a cookie-cutter design, you may not be satisfied a month or two down the road.

  • Don't be a captive buyer. Make sure you can reuse your data and design if you want to move to another system.

  • Be confident that all your contributors can easily manage the system without returning to school for post-graduate education. Have them take a test drive.

  • Make sure you can use existing data instead of starting from scratch. This may be a deal breaker for more mature organizations.

  • Choose a system that will quickly show positive results. Squeezing a monetary return on investment (ROI) out of a new system purchase isn't always easy, but you at least need to show positive changes after implementation. For example, will the site become more content rich, will process be streamlined, and will people be generally happier with the way they're working?
So there you have it, folks. Now you can write that great copy and manage it, too. Pass the "recipe," Aunt Bee.

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Susan Solomon

Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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