10 problems your content management system will not solve and how to overcome them
Paul Boag delivering the closing keynote address at eZ Conference 2016 in Paris, France.
Content management systems are often perceived as a silver bullet that will solve all your content problems. In reality having a CMS is not enough. You must also address broader issues associated with the content of your website. So many website owners hate their content management system. This is often because it has failed to live up to their unrealistic expectations. Many organisations purchased their CMS hoping to solve a wide range of issues surrounding content production and delivery. In reality, a CMS is only capable of overcoming a few. In fact often a content management system will solve one set of problems only to create more. It is these new problems that I wish to address here. What follows is a list of 10 issues that are either directly created by content management systems or that a CMS will fail to solve.
1. A lack of editorial control
One of the primary reasons organisations purchase a content management system is to de-centralise control of content and therefore remove the bottlenecks that surround posting content to the web.
The consequence of this approach is a lack of central control to ensure the quality and accuracy of copy produced. This can lead to contradictions and varying styles of writing across the site.
Although many content management systems provide the tools for central editorial control, they are not always used and require somebody with the editorial experience.
The Solution: Get an editor
Unfortunately this is one problem that technology cannot solve. What is required is a content editor. Somebody who checks what is being produced and ensures it communicates a consistent message in a consistent tone. Ideally this should be somebody who has experience in writing and editing online copy. However, the most important thing is that this person feels confident in editing copy, and has the authority to remove inappropriate material. This person will also require a vision for the site and in particular what personality it should be projecting.
2. A lack of personality
Many websites lack real personality. They either ooze marketing BS or come across as singularly bland. This is largely due to the fact that they have been written by people more interested in communicating facts or selling stuff, than wishing to engage with users.
Websites with great copy that are full of personality, stand out from the crowd. They do more than convey information. They actively seek to make a connection with users in much the same way people do face to face.Unfortunately the distributed nature of content production through the use of a CMS undermines that.
The solution: Decide on your sites personality
The first step towards overcoming this problem is to define who you are. If your website was a person what type of person would it be? What words best describe your sites character? Is it playful, serious, enthusiastic, or friendly? Next put together a content style guide. This will include examples of writing styles that should be used on your website. It will also include guidelines in terms of tone and wording. This document should then be distributed to your content providers. Producing an effective content style guide is not an easy task. You might wish to consider employing a freelance web copywriter if you do not have somebody in house. However once it has been produced, it should provide everything your content providers need to add some personality into your copy. Of course that does still require your content providers to be committed to the cause.
3. Uncommitted contributors
One of the great selling points of having a content management system is that they allow anybody to post to your website. Unfortunately, just because your staff can edit the site, does not mean they will.
It is not unusual to find that content management systems go unused except for a few individuals. The belief that content management can be easily decentralised is false. There are two primary reasons for this.Firstly, some people do not see it as their responsibility to provide web content. They see the website as a marketing or sales tool and so should be managed by marketers.
The second reason is that most people do not have the time. Writing web content is often seen as a low priority and constantly gets pushed out by "real work."
The solution: Recognise the importance of the web
The solution to this problem has to come from senior management.
The website needs to be seen as a critical business tool and job descriptions must reflect this by making site maintenance a key component of people's job. This should include website duties being apart of employee assessment. There is however another reason people do not use the CMS - they don't know how to use it.
4. Poorly trained authors
When an organisation rolls out a new content management system they almost always offer some form of training. However, in many cases it is not enough.
Normally training consists of an intimidating manual and one off training session. For the few people who are updating the website regularly this is probably enough. However for more infrequent content providers, this is inadequate.The trouble with one off initial training sessions is that by the time the content provider comes to update the website, they have forgotten what they learned. Admittedly the information they need may well be contained in the manual, but who reads those? This can easily lead to only a few people capable of making updates to the site, thereby undermining the very reason for having a CMS in the first place.
The solution: Provide video training material
The combination of occasional users and new employees, means that most organisations need a long term strategy for training people in the use of their content management system.
I have found that a series of short video tutorials covering key functionality works much better than training sessions or intimidating manuals. I still run training sessions for frequent users. However, the video tutorials allow users to work through the material at their own pace. Also, unlike a training course they can learn only the parts of the system they actually need. However, training in the technology is only half the battle. Content contributors also need to know how to write compelling copy.
5. Bad copywriting
The harsh truth is that not everybody can write good web copy. Even somebody who writes brilliantly in print, does not necessarily write well for the web. There is an art and science to writing good web copy that many people are unaware of. Copy written by content providers is often verbose, un-engaging and hard to scan.
The solution: Provide a structure for content production
The solution is three fold:
First, the introduction of an editor means that content providers do not have to worry about writing perfect copy. It should be the job of the editor to take the raw copy they provide and re-write it for the web.
Second, the training provided with a content management system should extend beyond the functionality and also include advice on writing good web copy.
Finally, by producing a basic template for content providers you can help them focus their writing. A content template should ask questions such as who is the audience, what is the key message for this page and what is the call to action? However, the problem is not just limited to the quality of content but also the quantity.
6. Bloated websites
Much like this post, most websites end up far too bloated. This is a problem that content management systems only serve to exaggerate.
By removing the barriers to putting content online, you encourage people to add more. However, more is not always better.Content providers often approach the website with entirely the wrong mentality. They look at the content they have or can easily produce, and decide to put it online because "somebody will find it useful." They are driven by what content is available, rather than user's need.
The problem is that the more they put online, the harder it is for users to find the content they want. It is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
The solution: Focus on users and remove
The best solution is to prevent this from occurring in the first place. This is done by fixating on user needs. Before putting anything online ask two questions:
- Is the content aimed at your primary audience?
- Is the content essential for helping those users complete their objectives?
If you cannot answer yes to both questions, then seriously consider whether putting the content on your website will cause more harm than good.
Of course, you may already have a bloated website. If this is the case then you need to review each page of your site and apply the principles above. If a page fails to cater for a specific use case of your primary audience, then it maybe time for it to be removed. The problem is that most organisations have people responsible for adding content to their websites. However, few have somebody charged with removing it. This is an important role and one your web editor should have the power and time to do.
But, user need is not the only criteria for judging the worth of content. There are also calls to action.
7. No clear calls to action
As I have already said, most content providers are focusing on conveying information rather than meeting user needs. However, they are also neglecting the business needs too.
With the exception of marketers and salespeople, few content providers are thinking about calls to action. What is it that you want users to do next? How do you wish them to respond? Even when content providers are thinking about calls to action, they are focusing on the big actions such as "contact us." Until the user is ready to take those major steps they are left to wander around the website.
The solution: Always guide the user to the next action
It is important to consider the main calls to action for the entire site. Typically they consist of one or two major actions such as buying a product or completing a contact form. However, there is also a need to think about the calls to action of each page. Avoid leaving your user with no obvious next step.
Take for example a post like this. There are a number of possibilities of what a user could do next:
- Leave a comment.
- Provide feedback.
- Read a related post.
At no stage should the user be left without a next action. A big source of next actions is your information architecture. Unfortunately most navigation is not focused on users needs, let alone business objectives.
8. An organisational focused IA
An unfortunate side effect of running a content management system is that it encourages information architecture built around organisational structure rather than users needs.
If you look at most organisations CMS driven websites, their information architecture closely mirrors their internal structure. This is because it is easier to divide up responsibility for updating various parts of the site if it is structured along departmental lines. The problem with this approach is that users do not think in terms of organisational structure. They are task focused and so often an organisational IA is entirely inappropriate. It leads to confusion and frustration among users.
The solution: Focus on user tasks
The only solution to this problem is to stop structuring sites around organisations and start focusing them on users.
Although it is easier in most content management systems to allocate permissions based on a per section basis, there is not normally a specific need to do so. It is just as feasible to give access on a per page basis making it unnecessary to organise around internal structure.
Ultimately your site should be about your users and that includes your IA. However, it does not stop there. The community you build around your site is important too.
9. No sense of community
Increasingly, content management systems come with some great community tools. They have forums, comments and integrate with everything from Facebook to Twitter. However, great technology does not build great communities.
Many organisations implement these community features on their site and are disappointed when they are not used. Worst still some organisations launch these features but moderate so heavily that users respond negatively. Eventually the functionality is removed entirely.
The solution: Build relationship not functionality
It is important to realise that online communities are about relationships and not technology. If you want to build a successful community around your website, you need to actively and regularly engage with users. This involves having people within your organisation who are constantly talking to users, asking and answering questions, and getting to know people through open and honest relationship.
Of course, the problem here is the same as content production. This is not seen as an official role. Instead it often falls to enthusiastic individuals. If you want your community to succeed you are going to require passionate people who have the time and resources to sink into that community.
And it is a lack of resources that leads us to our final problem that content management systems cannot solve - single language content.
10. Single language content
The majority of invitations to tender I see for content management builds, request multi-lingual support.
In the end few of the sites built actually make use of that functionality. In effect they are paying money for something they will never actually implement.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is aspirational. Many organisations request multi-lingual support because they have dreams of expanding in the future and unfortunately those dreams do not come true. I can at least respect this viewpoint. There is nothing wrong with planning for functionality you might need at some point in the future. However, the second reason is not so admirable. A lot of sites fail to implement their multi-lingual support because they have not fully thought through what that involves.
Implementing a CMS with multi-lingual support is easy. Creating a multi-lingual website is hard. You have to decide what content is going to be translated. You need to find a translator and then you also need to maintain that content over the long term.
The solution: Think twice before requesting multi-lingual support
There has to be a good business case for implementing a multi-lingual website. Unless you are sure that you are going to make money from a foreign market, it is probably not worth investing in language support. If you aren't serious about supporting other languages do not add it to your ITT, at least not as a primary requirement. There is no reason to rule out a CMS for not supporting multiple languages unless you are sure you are going to use that functionality.
You could interpret this post as a criticism of content management systems. That is not the case. I believe content management systems are a valuable addition to most websites. However, as I said at the beginning they are not the silver bullet may perceive them to be. The success of your CMS is largely reliant on you being aware of its limitations and being prepared to deal with these restrictions. If you do then a CMS could be the best investment you ever make.