What a year 2023 has been in CMS. Both buyers and investors keep pouring money into the space, everyone is busy adding GenAI, and if you do a Google search for “headless CMS,” you’ll see how digital marketing (still) works.
While all of this is exciting, what about the content producers? Your faithful colleagues working in communications or marketing are tasked with creating successful campaigns and content in your corporate tone of voice. They work tirelessly, and do their very best to help you and your company stand out. Content matters, right?
At the end of the day, you buy a CMS for the content producers, yet how far have we really come in the past 20 years to make their working lives better?
As I look back at this year and look towards putting the final touches on the program for CMS Kickoff 24 in Florida in January, allow me to be a critic of most content management vendors out there: You urgently need to improve content production!
The editor experience is the next frontier in making a better Web. It will happen, so it’s up to you to determine how to meet customer expectations and stay ahead of the competition.
Let’s start with the bigger picture and then look at the different dimensions of content production.
A common theme (at probably all conferences in all industries) is the perpetual “what’s next?” question.
While some speakers look far into the future, my focus has always been on what’s on the horizon. Let’s take some insight, some innovation, some hard-earned experiences, connect some people together, and use this mix to make things better.
Perhaps with experience (or is it age?) I've also started to make historical parallels from earlier in my career. As the famous quote goes:
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
What’s headless CMS really if not just a less smart, but sadly more widely adopted way, to say decoupled as it was called in the late 90’s? What’s really new about composition or even orchestration, if not just confusing you as a buyer even more? I know I sound cynical, but I’m deeply interested in improving things, and cutting through the deafening hype is not for the faint of heart.
Look at the interfaces of a CMS in the past and in 2023, and to be fair, you’ll see clear design improvements when it comes to the authors, but we still have a long way to go.
At a recent CMS Experts group meeting in Sacramento, Adam Kalsey and Deane Barker did a double act, showing us good old Movable Type – a weblog publishing system initially released in 2001. Adam magically still had a circa 20-year-old version up and running. It was big back then, and the interface remains powerful and useful today.
Last week in Hamburg, Germany, we brought some of our European community together and looked more broadly at 2024 digital trends. In a refreshingly honest session given by a product leader at CMS vendor CoreMedia, we saw how their interface looked 15 years ago. The iPhone was just out back then, and that also changed design. Most, if not all, CMSs are now responsive – yet the 15-year-old screenshot also showed a system that’s widely adopted, useful, and still in production worldwide.
So what’s happened with content production in the meantime? Where print has faded, digital content production has become big money. But for some reason, the action really hasn’t happened in the CMS. Look at the seemingly ever-growing MarTech vendor landscape, and I would argue that the CMS category (or Web Experience Management as it is also called on the landscape) is probably one of the older statesmen of the many categories, but it’s not growing as quickly as some of the more emerging ones.
If you look at the content journey, from creation via composition to delivery, the CMS marketplace in recent decades has clearly focused on what today is called omnichannel experiences (that’s delivery) and then also on technical innovation (foundational stuff, new frameworks, going cloud), and perhaps recently on composition (the middle part), but unfortunately not much on the creation. Consequently, other categories, like content marketing or digital asset management tools, have been eating away at the budgets and the content production problem.
It’s tough to say that the requirements of authors (content contributors) are ignored, both in the CMS selection process and, sadly, also in the implementation that follows. But I’ve seen how it happens working in this field since the late 90’s.
Yes, many requirements specifications, request-for-proposals, and similar documentation include editorial and content production requirements. But what tends to happen is that at the end of the day, buyers and CMS vendors alike overfocus on making the developers happy, creative, and productive – rather than also considering the needs of everyone working with content.
A simple explanation is that developers tend to be in much higher demand and require substantially bigger paychecks. In addition, there’s this perception that code is something very few can create, like a unique masterpiece of innovation, while content is something everyone can easily do. That’s a sad way to look at things, particularly now with an explosion in content thanks to GenAI.
Will it be your code or your content that makes you stick out?
Actually, the best copywriters, content creators, editors, and whatever you call them in your organization are what will set you apart from the competition in 2024. It’s a long-standing misconception, perhaps a relatively privileged one, in the CMS space that you stand out by just shouting louder than the others. That might work in a fast-growing sector like CMS, but most of customers are not positioned like that. They need to stand out from the competition genuinely. They need to deliver services and storytelling that work for their students, staff, customers, and fans – and to do that, they need good content.
So, what’s a content failure? For some reason, many are far more worried about code failures than content failures, yet poor content quality is likely to slowly and effectively undermine your brand trust.
It gets worse: It can happen quicker and be more painful than that. A content failure on Black Friday is likely to be very costly.
I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Content that can’t get pushed out, some seemingly minor important outdated text on a corner of the website, a missing translation, and the list goes on… and it’s all very bad news.
As Deane has passionately argued at multiple sessions this year, including at the Web Summer Camp in Croatia, to succeed, you need to:
In other words: Your content team wants to be creative, and if your current CMS restricts them too much, or just genuinely isn’t supporting them, you can count on them to get increasingly disengaged – and the best ones will likely seek new opportunities.
While you can probably find another developer who knows this or that framework, how long might it take to find and train someone who will excel in creating content in your tone of voice?
Let’s go almost 20 years back in time. In 2006, Deane Barker wrote this post: The first 85%.
To quote from the opening:
“Content management is a process. It starts when someone gets an idea in their head that they want to publish (or change) some content somewhere. It ends when that content is actually published. This is the entire length of the process.
At what point does the content management system come into the picture? Well, with most middle- and lower-end systems, it’s not until very late in the game. There’s an exception explained below, but in most cases, no one actually opens a content management system and tries to enter any content until about 85% along in the entire process.”
In his current role as Global Director of Content Management at Optimizely, Deane published an updated version with some more insights in 2022: Why the first 85% of content production is a must. In it, he compares it to the famous Seine River in France:
“We tend to get myopic around things like content modeling, editorial UIs, content aggregations, templating, and such. These are the mechanical details that enable the management of content.
But all this assumes the content exists. Where does it start? Think about the Seine River. You’re probably thinking about where it flows past the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, right? But…that’s just the part of the river that runs through Paris. The Seine is 432 miles long. The waters start at a wellspring several hundred miles away in Dijon.“
So what’s the missing 85%? If you don’t know what it’s like in your organization, then ask around. Inquire about what it takes to get content on their website. What has to happen before something gets published? Might it be some research, meetings, an initial draft in some other tool (Google Docs, perhaps), a review, some more meetings, additional illustrations, social media planning… and the list goes on.
Let me just finish with one example, which was really a running joke back in the late 90’s. Every CMS back then also had content workflow. While a nice demo, it was rarely, if ever, used in production. Today, does anyone really use workflow in CMS? As far as I know, the content workflow happens in other tools.
Content production is indeed what matters. Understanding and supporting this better is what will set any content technology apart.
CWI researcher and Internet pioneer Steven Pemberton recently pointed out that we are still in what you could call the days of the “paper Internet.” The Web is imitating the old, as he said in a lightning talk at the Boye Aarhus 23 conference.
Think about it for a moment: With responsive design, we could have truly escaped the page-based paradigm. But have we really? So many things we do on the Web still resemble previous technology, and this also goes for content production, where we type into forms. Innovation is needed!
PS: A content model that really works could be a good place to start. At CMS Kickoff 24, Mike Wills, VP of Technology at BlueModus, will host a session on this topic titled “Content That Connects.”
PPS: For more on what it means to truly manage content, read my piece from 2022: Will this be the year where CMS is finally about managing content?
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