In Defense of the CMS

A couple of weeks ago, an article on The CMS Myth called “Stop Letting People Use Your CMS” made the rounds on Twitter and content-related blogs. The author’s frustration clearly resonated with a lot of people who wrangle content, and some of his points are great:

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen organizations buy a CMS, take their same content structure, and simply distribute authoring ownership to every far flung corner of the organization. And let’s not entirely blame the organizations. It’s how CMS is sold.

Yup, that’s a problem.

And another:

You have dozens of users in CMS tool 101 training sessions with no idea why they are there, no familiarity with the publishing model and no incentive to learn how to keep their piece of content up to date which rarely needs to be updated anyway. This never ends well.

Indeed. (Though the “rarely needs to be updated anyway” part describes less and less content as more organizations begin to take content publishing seriously.)

But then we hit the proposed solution to these problems:

Stop letting people use your CMS unless they are an integrated part of your web and editorial team and need to be in it on a regular basis. Even then, they may not need to be in the tool.

Seriously, don’t let them in. Even if they beg.

I admire its cheekiness and empathize with the central content publishing problem it’s intended to fix, but this is a misguided recommendation.

If you’re considering banning everyone but your editorial/IT staff from using your CMS, you almost certainly have one of two problems. Neither is that too many people can log in to your CMS.

Problem A: Broken Workflow

If people in your organization are publishing bad content or aren’t publishing enough content or are publishing too much content, it’s probably because your editorial processes are broken.

A good editorial workflow

  • gives everyone a clear update schedule or editorial calendar,
  • helps content creators write efficiently by giving them useful guidelines and templates,
  • makes everyone aware of what happens at each step of the publication process and how long each step should take, and
  • ensures that nothing goes live without appropriate editorial review and approval.

If your editorial workflow doesn’t do those things, it’s failing you.

Start from scratch and get outside help, if necessary, but develop an editorial workflow that does the job. Teach everyone who works on content what it is, why it matters, and how to use it. Make sure the lines of authority are clear and that your editorial and brand guidelines are practical and widely read. And ensure that someone is paid or otherwise compensated for the work of editorial review and content revision, because done properly, it’s a lot of work.

Expecting a CMS to replace a sturdy editorial workflow is like buying a backhoe and calling it a construction foreman. Don’t blame the backhoe when the crew builds an expressionist birdhouse instead of condominiums.

Problem B: Bad CMS Implementation

The CMS Myth article acknowledges that publishing trouble often springs from badly organized content management systems:

They typically expose all the functionality you need to build pages and sites, but they are not organized around supporting task-based content entry.

This is indeed a problem, but again, the answer isn’t to wall off your CMS. If you have a great editorial workflow established and people are using it and you’re still hitting obstacles, you may need to work on your CMS as well. (This is a common problem when a CMS is expected to replace editorial processes, rather than supporting them.)

A good CMS is a valuable tool that can help you save time and produce better content by

  • helping content creators understand what to submit and how it will look,
  • getting raw content to your editorial team with less hassle, and
  • providing a framework (including version control) that supports editorial review, multiple rounds of revision, and your approval process.

If your CMS doesn’t do those things, either refine it or replace it with one that does.

Don’t Stop Believing

So: Review your editorial strategy and processes. Create a workflow that works for your organization. Make sure your CMS supports that workflow.

And remember, we started using content management systems because the old way sucked. No one wants to go back to the bad old days of 4,000 Word docs, manual “version control,” and nightmarish email-based approval processes. Get your editorial processes right and your CMS working correctly, and you won’t have to.

8 thoughts on “In Defense of the CMS

  1. Hi Erin – Thanks for referencing my post on the CMS Myth. This is one of the best articles I’ve seen on the intersection between editorial process and CMS. While we may argue some subtleties, I find myself in fierce agreement with nearly everything you say here. Nicely done.

    Jeff Cram

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Oh, great — I love it when that happens!

    I know you guys are very interested in process, and I think we share the underlying assumption that what makes content management systems succeed or fail is mostly people stuff, rather than tech stuff.

    Thanks so much for writing your post and getting this conversation rolling.

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  5. I’ve actually been on a tech team of a CMS implementation which involved doing exactly that. Users were not allowed in, or at least only on rare occasions. The end result was that the tech team members were the only ones who knew how to use the CMS, and they (we) ended up being copy-paste monkeys.

    I’ve also been on a team which opened the doors wide and gave access to (by which I mean “forced access upon”) any user whose job title could be interpreted as something to do with content. The end result – a majority of users who used the CMS so infrequently that they couldn’t remember their password, let alone how to use the system. And a tech team who spent many hours solving the casual users’ problems.

    Both were in a corporate environment – marketing content, not a true publishing model – but neither way had any real editorial process built in. The former was a way to get out of having to do it, the latter just ignored it completely (or more accurately, assumed it would be done “offline”, i.e. outside of the CMS).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be a middle ground. Perhaps only let in users who are truly regular content creators and who have a vested interest in contributing (i.e. it’s their job). A method for casual contributors to get their content out there would be nice, but it might be quicker and less painless to have a small dedicated team to just do it for them. A hybrid approach so to speak.

    One other problem I’ve seen time and again is that that as soon as anything – including but not limited to a CMS – starts to bloat the accepted editorial process, people will circumvent it any way they can. It’s a neat trick to incorporate a new method into an accepted process in a way that gets widespread adoption.

    I agree that a CMS can be a useful tool, but it needs expert – business, as well as tech – guidance from the start and a relentless focus on supporting and simplifying the existing processes. Too many implementations just make everything more difficult.

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