Shopping for a CMS? Invest in a Content Strategy First

Posted: September 25, 2014

Matt Walters Chief Services Officer

My colleagues and I at VisionPoint Marketing spend much of the year traveling to higher education marketing conferences across the country. Along with giving presentations, we often set up an exhibit booth to chat with marketing and advancement professionals about their greatest challenges and opportunities. Gazing around the exhibit halls at several recent conferences, we can’t help but notice a trend: the booths getting the most traffic are companies selling Content Management Systems (CMS).

Everyone and their brother seems to be in the market for a new CMS.

At one recent conference, our booth happened to be sandwiched between two different CMS companies. The traffic was so relentless that I felt compelled to bring the sales reps glasses of water just to keep them on their feet. The reps did a phenomenal job explaining the intricate (and quite impressive) functionality of their various systems. To be honest, they had me excited.

Still, as I listened to the prospective clients’ questions, I couldn’t help but detect an undercurrent of wishful thinking that’s as understandable as it is unsettling: if we can just find the right content management system, all our content problems will be solved.

Time and again, we have watched institutions make significant (and often costly) investments of time and resources into developing and embracing a new CMS, only to end up stuck in the same content challenges that led them to change CMSes in the first place.

That’s because your CMS, like any technology, is a tool—nothing more, nothing less. It needs a master craftsman to wield it. No technology solution, no matter how intricate or easy to use, will automatically empower your content creators with the knowledge of what content to create, who’s responsible for creating it, and how to manage it over time. 

Your CMS is only as good as your content strategy.

So, if you’re currently shopping for a new CMS, I’d recommend first asking two critical questions, which are better answered not by your CMS, but by your content strategy.

1. Do we know what content should we be creating?

For all its perks as a facilitator of creating and publishing content, your CMS won’t tell you what content your users actually want and need. Far too often, institutions jump headlong into a website redesign or a CMS shift, throwing around the proverbial “Lorem Ipsum” content box and planning to “fill in the content later.” If you treat your content as an afterthought, though, you’ll never achieve a website that engages and resonates with the audiences you most want to reach.

Here’s a tried and true litmus test: if you’re not pleased with what your content currently is and you have no plan in place to achieve your vision for what the content should be in the future, then no CMS is going to substantially change your content’s findability, usability and enjoyability.

Before investing in a CMS, make sure to set clear, measurable goals for your content. Evaluate which of your current content is up to (clearly defined) creative standards and which needs to go. Identify your brand’s differentiators and proof points and determine whether your brand promise is being communicated clearly and consistently throughout your content ecosystem. Identify your target audiences and develop a plan for what content will be most likely to engage them, excite them, serve their needs and nurture their trust in your brand. Think about your relational goals with those audiences and how to serve the appropriate calls-to-action (like? visit? apply? enroll? give?) at the appropriate times.

Making those content strategy decisions will not only help you get the most of whatever CMS you choose, but it might even inform the choice itself.

2. Do we know who is responsible for creating and governing it?

Personally, I think this is the most important question for institutions shopping for a CMS to ask. One of the leading root causes of dysfunctional web content is a dysfunctional content community. Institutional websites are large, unwieldy beasts that serve dozens (if not hundreds) of masters. Some of those masters are probably exceptional web content creators who are perfectly comfortable working within your CMS interface. Most, though, have varying levels of understanding and confidence regarding their roles and responsibilities in creating and stewarding content.

If you’re a web content owner at an institution with a dysfunctional or disorganized content community, then of course a new CMS that promises to be “easier to use” and “more intuitive” with “robust customer support” and can sound like the silver bullet you’ve been seeking. Still, I’d caution you to “Ask not what your CMS can do for you, but what you can (feasibly, realistically, capably) do with your CMS.”

A new CMS can certainly help streamline the technical process of publishing and editing content. It can even help facilitate a governance plan, as certain CMSes allow you to flag certain pages for periodic review. It won’t, however, ensure that all the various content contributors across your institutional landscape are working together efficiently to produce the right content for the right audiences at the right time with the right resources and in keeping with the right budget.

Before investing in a CMS, make sure you can clearly define the various roles and responsibilities of those who compose your content community (creators, editors, publishers, owners, reviewers, senior leaders). Define and communicate the rules (workflows, brand guidelines, policies) each person should follow. Most important, develop an editorial calendar or publishing schedule that clearly assigns specific people with specific content projects, and make sure you have systems of accountability in place to ensure the work is done on strategy, on budget and on time.

Implementing a comprehensive content strategy that aligns your people and processes with the content products you hope to produce will position you to fully capitalize on the various technical supports a new CMS might offer your content community

The Bottom Line

Saying “don’t put the cart before the horse”€ doesn’t necessarily invalidate the need for a new cart. To be sure, choosing a CMS is an extremely important decision, and there are tons of great options, each with its own perks and foibles. We’ve worked with dozens of CMS platforms and we like things about all of them. 

However, the most important consideration in choosing a CMS is whether that particular technology solution best empowers you to achieve your strategic goals. Investing the time and energy to build and implement a clear, comprehensive web content strategy will not only help you define those goals but will position you to get the most bang for your CMS buck.

If you’d like to discuss the intersection between a CMS and your content strategy, shoot us an email or give us a call. We’d love to hear from you!