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  • Laura Stringer

Know your content

A content management system (CMS) can be a significant investment of time and dollars. The key benefits are that it puts content editing in the hands of the people who are experts in that content, and that developers can work more efficiently to create one set of functionality. Those benefits only materialize when the right resources are in place. In this CMS Foundations series, we’ll explain the most important elements and activities to help you get the most from your CMS.

Getting the most from your CMS

Content management systems work by providing templates for editors to populate. When determining which templates to create, and then when designing them, it’s critical to know what the content is going to be.

That seems obvious, right? But many marketing leaders fail to account for the diversity of content their site needs to accommodate. That can lead to a lot of problems, including an unprofessional-looking website, frustrated editors, and worst of all: confused visitors. Fixing those issues requires a lot of additional design and development time, and you don’t want to be the website owner trying to justify that extra investment! Avoiding these problems requires some up-front planning.

Ask everyone about their content

Talk to product managers, customer support reps, field sales & marketing folks, communications staff, technical support staff, trainers – anyone who may have content to publish. Find out what that content is, and ask questions:

  • How much content is there? Is it likely to grow?

  • How is it formatted today? How might the formatting change for the web?

  • Is it text-heavy? Image-heavy? Video-heavy? Tables? Document downloads?

  • How does this content relate to everyone else’s content?

The answers to these questions will inform a website’s information architecture, but they will also tell you what kind of templates to create and what spaces need to be available on those templates.

Got a template for case studies? Do your case studies have images? How many? How long is a typical case study? What kind of headings does it need? Will you want callouts, and if so, should they be in a sidebar or part of the main copy? Does every case study have the same sections?

These questions may seem a little excessive or overly detailed. However, if you don’t accommodate all these needs, editors will either make up their own way to present content, or just won’t publish it at all.

Ask early and often

The best time to gather all this information is before you actually purchase a CMS. Why? Because different systems accommodate different needs, and you don’t want to over- or under-buy.

Assuming you’ve already installed a CMS, the next best time is before any template or website projects get underway. You need details about content to drive the rest of the project. You’ll be better equipped to identify the best agency and negotiate the most appropriate statement of work if you know what work actually needs to be done. You’ll provide better timing and cost estimates to project sponsors. And your content experts will feel respected and engaged throughout the process.

Keep in mind that change is a constant in business.

The training department may decide to discontinue a category of training next month. The product management team may decide to create a promotional video for each product – that video needs to be accommodated on the product detail template. You’ll want to keep in touch with all the content owners to stay on top of their changing needs.

This is another reason why it’s important to engage content owners early: now they know they should keep you in the loop on any upcoming changes.

Content editors fall into one of two categories

Ok, so gathering lots of information about content can help a template design project go more smoothly. But aside from saving the project manager some headaches, how will it help customers see us in a better light?

So glad you asked.

Most folks fall into one of two categories: Either they don’t want to use a CMS (because they feel intimidated, or because they don’t think it should be part of their job – more on that in a later post), or they embrace it with open arms and run with the “content editor” role.

For the latter groups, lack of sufficient templates is not a barrier. If their needed template doesn’t exist, they’ll simply find a relatively open-ended template and shove their content in there any way they can make it fit.

That “make it work” attitude is fantastic! Unfortunately, it also means everyone’s page looks different.

Bob put his product specifications table at the bottom of his page, and used a bunch of tabs to make it sort of appear in a table layout. Jane put hers in a sidebar, and used an actual table. Now customers can’t be sure where to look when they need specs, and don’t easily recognize a specification table when they see one.

If you’d talked to Bob or Jane up front, you would have known to design a product page template with a definitive spot for specifications. You may even have created a component for exactly this purpose. Then every product specification table would look the same, and be in the same place on every product page.

And not everyone is so eager to make it work.

On the other hand, there are those editors who would rather not use the CMS. They will generally look for any excuse not to use it, and give up as soon as the system seems “too hard”. So while Bob and Jane found ways to get their specifications on the page, Susan exclaimed that she simply can’t create a product page, and you’ll have to do it for her!

Either way, what results is partial and missing content, and lots of headaches for the website owner.

The work is worth it

You’re bound to run into some snags during this exercise. Some folks are oddly possessive about their content and their jobs and won’t want to tell you about it. They will take some coaxing, and likely some networking, to come around.

You’ll also uncover some turf wars. Departments may argue about who owns what content, or even what content can be posted. Maybe field sales wants dedicated space to promote their local discounts; corporate marketing doesn’t want to give them that much leeway.

In every case, it’s far better to identify and work through these issues now, when it’s all just paper and whiteboards!

Getting input from everyone is a lot of legwork. There are some valid reasons why a website owner or sponsor may not want to do it. But I promise, making the effort up front will create happier, more engaged editors. It will stave off headaches and training issues down the line. It will save on design and development costs over time. And best of all, your site will look professional and organized, so that customers can find what they need and will want to come back.


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