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From Traffic Jam to Easy Street

Content management systems allow communications offices to distribute the work of a Web site while maintaining some control

By Michael Stoner




Ask Bryan McNulty, Bates College's director of college relations, what he likes about the content management system Bates uses to manage its Web site, and he ticks off a handful of benefits.

First, he says, "It helps us ensure the pages on the site have a consistent look and feel."

Second, "It helps us house profiles in one section of the site, but have them appear elsewhere, too. For example, we can add student profiles to the profiles in 'Faces at Bates,' but also have them appear on the admissions pages and a multicultural recruitment page, where prospective students are more likely to see them."

He also likes how the CMS automates navigation. "We can add a new page and the CMS automatically adds a link to it on all pages related to that one." And, he adds, "The CMS allows us to fix typos in one story and have the corrections appear everywhere on the site that story appears."

Bates has used a CMS to run Bates.edu since August 2001, making the college an early adopter of content management systems in higher education. Prior to Bates implementing this system, one Web developer largely managed the site by himself; anyone who needed a change had to ask him to make it. The result: out-of-date content, bottlenecks, and plenty of frustrated people, including the Web developer.

In just 10 years, campus Web sites have evolved from a curiosity to a necessity. Back in the early days, enthusiasm often was more important than quality. Today, visitors have ever-growing expectations for a site's appearance, speed, comprehensiveness, accuracy, and ease of use, among other things. Poorly managed Web sites — those with incomplete, hard-to-find, inaccurate, or out-of-date information — can be serious liabilities.

In contrast, a well-organized Web site with timely content and a consistent look and feel can reinforce the institution's real-world image. Such a site should be a priority for campus CEOs and communications officers. Increasingly, they're deciding a content management system is the tool they need to reach that goal.

The Core of a CMS

A content management system, in essence, is a back-end database combined with a suite of software tools that give staff members without programming expertise the ability to manage, maintain, and change the content of a Web site. The benefits McNulty identifies are typical features of a good CMS:

Consistency of appearance. A CMS stores the content of a Web site separately from the presentation of the content. This means when a visitor comes to, say, the home page, the CMS pulls text from a database into the home page template, which includes the page header, navigation bars, menus, graphics, and so on. Templates ensure that the pages display on screen the way the designers intended. People who edit or add new pages can't change the overall look and feel of the Web site because it is controlled by the templates.

Repurposing content. Separating content from appearance also reduces the work involved in creating alternative displays of Web content. For example, to create a site compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, designers just build new templates that display the content in a format optimized for a screen reader or other assistive device. Similarly, a different template can present a site's content to a search engine in a way that optimizes the site's placement in the search results.

Syndication. Because a CMS stores content in a database, a piece of content is not tied to a single Web page. Thus, one content item can appear on many parts of the site and any changes made to it will appear automatically in every place the item does.

Distributed authorship. A Web-based CMS gives multiple people the ability to work on the site at once. Today, about 90 people at Bates have the ability to update areas of Bates.edu. A simple form they can access from any Web browser allows them to edit their pages, either working directly in the CMS or cutting and pasting content from Microsoft Word, Excel, DreamWeaver, or other software. The value of this function will depend on how easy the system is to use, however.

Workflow management. Of course, with more people involved in updating a Web site, quality control becomes a major issue. A good CMS will have built-in workflow tools, allowing various stages of editing and approval before copy goes live on the site. The dean of admissions can read and approve the work of her staff, for instance, or the news bureau director can ensure that copy is written in Associated Press style. And some content might need to go to legal affairs for review before it's published.

Workflow processes and built-in e-mail tools make this possible — and should allow the creation of custom workflows to fit the needs of each set of users. In addition, workflow management tools should give campus administrators the ability to restrict CMS access so staff members can work only on their parts of the site.

Publish and expire dates. A good CMS will give users the option of having content appear on or disappear from the site on a set date. This means a writer can create a story on, say, commencement and set it to appear on the home page on commencement day, disappearing when the event is over.

Management of multiple file types. Web sites are more than just text — they include audio and video files, PDFs of forms and documents, and photos, among other things. A CMS should have the ability to store and present these various file types as well.

Assessing Readiness

Campus managers who see the clear benefits of a content management system might want to jump right into building or buying one. But having a CMS does not guarantee a Web site's success. What makes Bates' content management system work is the college's commitment to managing its Web site. The staff had to commit to changing practices, policies, and procedures before the college spent a dime on software.

All campus Web sites originally were created by enthusiasts — students, faculty, staff, or sometimes consultants — who developed them out of a belief in the importance of the Web and an interest in learning how to use it. There are very real political issues involved in wresting control of sites from those who built them or invested in their development. While resistance to change can be expected, a CMS is such a simple tool to use that it can open up new possibilities for these enthusiasts; these new features can go a long way toward making the conversion palatable. Also, a consultant can help in developing an implementation strategy, setting priorities, and managing the implementation of a CMS. Someone from outside the campus community can be more objective and bring less political baggage to the table.

Like the rollout of an integrated marketing program, conversion to a CMS takes work and training. Staff members must understand the value of their contributions to the Web site and why they must keep the site up to date. This is a more team-oriented approach to site management than most institutions take currently, and it has its drawbacks. The team needs a strong leader who can lead by example and manage relationships with people in many departments at many levels. Such leadership requires interpersonal skills, not technical expertise.

One additional internal step most staffs should undertake before choosing a CMS is to take a good, hard look at the current Web site. Is its organization sound? Is the content relevant, well written for the Web, and up to date? Are the messages appropriate? Does the site need new features or special areas — a news site for accepted students, perhaps? Is the interface design reflective of the institution's identity and brand? Answering these questions will speed the development of interface templates, navigation sets, and templates for the CMS implementation.

Build or Buy?

There are only two ways to acquire a content management system: build one or buy one. Both approaches are valid; both have benefits and drawbacks.

Building a CMS can work if the campus has the right mix of commitment, skill, and time. This approach is not for those who need a robust CMS quickly, though. It requires a programmer or a team of programmers (or perhaps a consultant) to create a system with the desired features. They might be able to build on top of one of the existing "open source" content management systems — those written with software whose underlying code is available for programmers to copy and customize.

An advantage of building a unique CMS is that it will contain only those features the institution really needs. The designers can optimize it for campus hardware and link it closely to existing campus systems. Building a CMS also can provide an interesting challenge for IT staff and serve as a retention strategy, providing an incentive to keep a skilled developer on staff.

Finally, if a campus uses staff programmers, the direct costs usually are lower because the primary investment is in salaries. Of course, that will not be the case if the campus hires a consultant to build it. Campuses considering this route should be careful to specify what the product should do and then check the consultant's prices against the prices of commercial systems. (My company worked with one client who was using a CMS written by a consultant — and it cost twice as much as the commercial system we recommended.)

Several institutions have built their own content management systems successfully, including Hamilton, Lewis & Clark, and Boston colleges. But building has serious drawbacks. A good content management system, with fully developed security, workflow, and other features, is complicated. And like any software, a CMS is never truly finished. Once the system is built, someone must fix bugs, add new features, and keep it up to date.

Institutions that are not prepared to make a real, long-term investment of staff time in software development should not take on this project. Not many campuses have the talent on staff they can divert from other pressing information-technology needs to build their own CMS. And what happens if the developer leaves? I've seen instances where the developer on a CMS project takes another job and leaves behind a system no one else understands or can modify.

Kari Chisholm, creative director for new media at Lewis & Clark College, built a content management system for the college's Web site several years ago that it is still using successfully. Last fall, when the college redesigned its site, the CMS deployed the new look across 1,500 top-level Web pages simultaneously.

"There's a wide variation in content management systems, in features and in the underlying logic — as well as in cost," Chisholm says. "When we built ours three years ago, there really wasn't a CMS on the market that we could afford that had just the right mix of functions. Today, there are more options at better price points, and I'd look long and hard at some of them. That said," he adds, "we're very happy with how far we've come in three years."

As Chisholm indicates, fully featured content management systems are available at reasonable prices today. The license for a high-quality, mid-market commercial CMS appropriate for many campuses is about $50,000 to $60,000 with ongoing fees of about $10,000 a year. Implementation can cost another $50,000. (There are also systems that cost more than $100,000 to license and are complicated to implement. In general, these systems are overkill, and not worth considering.)

If a CMS seems expensive, consider this: At one university, my firm estimated that implementing a commercial CMS could result in savings of about $185,000 a year in wages for student workers and others who were updating various university Web sites. Some of the savings were the result of allowing programmers to divert their skills from Web maintenance to software development and integration of other campus systems such as portals and e-commerce applications.

Licensing a CMS means the vendor who created the system is responsible for updating it, adding new features, and fixing bugs. These systems often include features that are time-consuming to build into home-grown systems. Also, because various industries have tested them, they have fewer bugs and more elegant features.

Vendor Selection

Choosing a CMS can be a complicated, politically charged exercise. I recommend that, to explore their options, campuses create a small task force with a variety of representatives: editorial, communications and marketing, admissions, alumni relations, and IT. And they should be sure to include some end users: Staff members who will be using the system have a major stake in ease-of-use issues, and their voices should be heard.

When evaluating vendors and systems, here are some particularly important questions to ask:

  • Does the system separate content from presentation? This feature protects usability, navigability, and the brand.
  • Does it come with tools to promote coordination and make the task of managing a Web site easier, including workflow management, publish and expire dates, and even spell check?
  • Does it allow restricted access so people can see and work on only their areas of the site?
  • Is it easy for nontechnical people to use? Admissions staff members should be worrying about recruiting the best students, not about updating their site. The average staff person should be able to learn the system in about an hour, although the technical people who will actually manage the CMS will need much more intensive training.
  • Is it built on open standards? Open standards are publicly available, as opposed to a proprietary standard such as Microsoft's .Net technology. Using open standards helps ensure that the product will not become obsolete if the vendor goes out of business or chooses to no longer support it. Products that use open standards also are easier to connect to a variety of other systems, enhancing their flexibility now and in the future.
  • Is it XML-native, meaning it's written in Extensible Markup Language? This will future-proof the system: XML — a flexible language for describing and storing content — is a de facto standard for exchanging data among systems, which means the campus will be able to use content in ways that people haven't thought of yet.
  • Is it built to manage content, or is it an add-on component to another kind of system? Many of the add-ons will work, but they are somewhat poor content management tools.
  • Has the vendor been around — and in the education market — for several years? Such vendors are more likely to understand the campus environment and listen to each campus's needs and respond to them.

A CMS is not a magic bullet. It provides an array of tools that make it faster and easier for motivated staff to manage the content of a campus Web site, however, and that makes for better and more timely content. And a CMS allows people to focus on strategy, not technology. More campuses are deciding that's what they want.

About the Author Michael Stoner Michael Stoner

Michael Stoner is the president of mStoner, a Chicago-based communications and marketing consulting firm.

 

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