A surprising number of Web sites larger than a few dozen pages are a hopeless tangle. They may look fine from the visitor’s point of view, but behind the scenes, beleaguered Web slaves struggle with intricate controls or sites so stacked with outdated content and broken links that the whole mess threatens to tumble like a house of cards.

Content management systems (CMSes) are specifically designed to help you get a handle on sites with dynamically changing content. All of them now separate content (text, images, and so on) from presentation (HTML templates), so CMS users don’t need to worry about code. But the leading products, produced by vendors like Vignette and Interwoven, only offer industrial-strength solutions for organisations willing to invest hundreds of thousands or more (often much more) in licensing, customisation, and hardware.

For many customers, these behemoths have proven overwhelmingly complex to deploy and manage. Other companies, appalled by the cost of big-ticket software and consulting, still grapple with home-grown CMSes or hit-and-miss manual procedures.

Of course, a growing number of packaged, mid-market CMSes provide simpler and less costly solutions than Vignette or Interwoven, including software sold by Infosquare, Macromedia, Microsoft, PaperThin, Percussion Software, RedDot Solutions, Reef, Starbase, and many more. But for mid-size businesses that want to awaken as quickly as possible from their current Web nightmare—or launch a new site fast without stretching internal IT resources—a new breed of application service provider (ASP) is emerging that promises fast relief.
With this ASP model, you provide the content and they host the content management system on their server instead of yours. This system allows you to manage the whole site from your browser. And, using relatively simple tools, end users can produce, manage, and update to their heart’s content—without having to spend weeks in CMS training. Moreover, IT staff never need experience the hassle of installing and maintaining specialised CMS software.

Who’s driving?

John Girard, CEO of ASP Clickability, says there are many driving forces behind the ASP based model for CMS.

-First is the issue of cost. We typically provide CMS solutions that are 30 to 50 percent less expensive than non-hosted solutions,” he says. -Second is the issue of complexity: by providing a hosted solution, we can eliminate the need to deal with hardware and bandwidth leasing and the associated costs of maintaining hardware and software.

-Finally, hosted solutions allow for rapid integration (an average of three weeks for us as compared to three to six months for non-hosted equivalent) and rapid innovations—customers who need enhancements don’t have to wait for the next version of the software to be packaged and shipped.”

While it sounds appealing, most Australian companies have not even considered ASP-based CMSes. For example, Jim Fisher of Computer Associates Australia admits that his company’s content management system is not currently offered as a hosted solution. Nonetheless, he sees the possibility of Computer Associates’ Clever Path portal being taken up by ASPs in the future.

-I do see hosted CMSes having the potential taking off. The market just has to figure out where it’s going first—whether it goes to the fat client side or to the standard where you have a hosted application somewhere that you just access.”

Jim Howard, CEO of ASP Crown Peak Advantage, is even more adamant about the future success of this model in Australia.

-There is no question that this model will become a popular one in Australia, it almost makes more sense there than it does in the US,” he says. -The reason I say that is because Australian business has no less need for content management systems and in many cases actually has less cash resources for going out and buying hardware and software.”

While it may make sense for Australian companies to use a hosted CMS, for the moment they will have to turn to mainly American partners for ASP hosting.
As such, latency issues are paramount—if an Australian company is hosting its content management system on an overseas server, will there be significant delays when posting content? If something goes wrong, is someone always available to help?

Not surprisingly, the US-based ASPs we spoke to for this article (see ASP reviews in the -Who’s out there?” sidebar) say latency is not a problem. Clickability’s Girard says his company circumvents any potential issues by conducting a thorough series of tests before it deploys a system in a new area. And, if a problem is discovered, it -simply deploys more servers”.

As far as the time zone problem is concerned, most well known CMS ASPs have someone constantly on call.

-We have 52,000 customers in more than 100 countries,” says Vanessa Camones, Marketing Manager for ASP Atomz Publish. -No matter where they work or live, we can deliver our services to them right through their browser or over the phone. If someone has a question we get back to them within an hour.”

While latency and different time zones may be the most immediate concern when it comes to outsourcing CMSes, as with any outsourced service there are other issues to consider.

-[With an ASP model] companies do not fully control their environment. Security is up to someone else, which is risky.” says Adam Ginsburg, Director of content management specialist company, Presence Online.

Content Management Features

Once you’ve decided to go with an ASP model for content management, it’s important to understand what you’re looking for.

The basic principle of content management is to separate content from its presentation. A CMS stores plain text and images in a discrete repository (either in a database or in a separate file system) to be plugged into HTML templates on demand. You can then update content without having to touch the HTML—or change the look and feel of the site without affecting the content. Content that appears several places on a site can be updated in one place, without fear of inconsistency. The upshot is that once the templates have been built, non-technical users can publish content to the Web and update it without help from IT staff.

Most CMSes also play a role in content delivery—that is, in serving content to the user’s browser and supporting some level of interaction. Such features as page caching, personalisation, and syndication all fall under the rubric of content delivery.

Here’s a brief rundown of the groups of features you can expect to find in most CMSes, with an eye toward the trade-offs of opting for a low-cost, ASP-based system:

Setup. ASPs typically charge a one-time fee for setup, which includes opening an account, assisting with user management, and building a custom back-end interface to the system. Some ASPs also provide assistance in building the front-end templates and may hook you up with design partners. But, of course, you don’t have to worry about installing the system or even client software, since everything happens through the browser.

Metadata. To fully exploit the power of a CMS, content producers need to tag content elements with keywords. This helps produce meaningful search results on the site. But it also lays the groundwork for personalisation and syndication, where only certain types of content are shown to certain users according to their profiles—or end up being sent to certain content partners according to their needs. The ability to select meta-tags from a list, in order to ensure consistency, is highly desirable.

Workflow. The idea for CMSes grew out of enterprise document management systems that included workflow and process control tools. In large enterprises, workflow can be half the reason to implement a CMS, as managers, legal departments, copy editors, and Web producers must sign off on pages before they go live. This is where the big-ticket players excel. A common CMS mistake, however, is to create complex workflow models that are too procedural and hard to modify as needs change—one reason a lower-end system may be a better idea.

Security. For better or worse, large enterprises may give hundreds of users access to a CMS. The packages are designed to meet this challenge, offering customisable levels of authorisation with many different groups of rights tied to many different types of users. With fewer hands involved in producing Web content (which, many would argue, is a good idea) the ability to handle such complexity becomes less critical. For smaller companies, or for those that simply wish to automate only the latter phases of content production, an ASP-based CMS should work fine.

Personalisation. A Web site can deliver a mix of content targeting an individual visitor based on either explicit personalisation (where users register and state their preferences) or implicit personalisation (where a log of user behaviour helps determine what will be served up next). A more common type of -personalisation”—automatic detection of the visitor’s browser, device, and operating system, so content can be served in an appropriate format—is highly desirable.

Syndication. Large sites primarily concerned with online publishing often need to export many articles, parsed using XML, to a variety of different venues. This can get quite complex for any CMS to handle. More commonly, many companies export press releases, distribute content via e-mail, and save content in PDF files. Most low-end packages should be able to handle these tasks at the least.

Reporting. Software such as WebTrends and ASPs such as WebSideStory now offer great tools for analysing site traffic patterns—where visitors come from, how long they stay, where they go, and so on. An ASP-based CMS should either offer similar functionality or allow you to use commercial analysis tools.

One last word

Finally, again remember that outsourcing always has its risks. A large e-commerce site is not the best candidate for an ASP-based CMS, due to special security, administration, and integration demands. But most sites still produce thousands of pages of non-interactive brochureware that need constant management and frequent updating. As long as an ASP uses a standardised XML schema to hold your data and the data is stored separately from the HTML templates, you should be able to retrieve all your content and port it to another CMS if the need arises.

Who’s out there

In this report, we review three ASP-based CMSes and discuss what you can expect if you decide to outsource your content management.

ATOMZ Publish

Atomz is best known for its hosted search service, now used by more than 50,000 Web sites. The company’s CMS, Atomz Publish, reflects an understanding that many customers just want to get a CMS rolling fast—with role-based security and workflow and XML-based separation of content and presentation. Anyone with a working knowledge of HTML can use it to set up a system that non-technical folk can update easily. And—partly because Publish is built on open-source technology—the price is right. Customers typically pay between US$15,000 and US$75,000 per year, depending on the number of users and the number of pages.

Atomz doesn’t include hosting your site in that fee, because the Publish system posts flat pages to your server. This has several advantages: you don’t have to worry about your ASP scaling sufficiently to meet increasing traffic, since it’s up to you to add hardware. And, a static site will be available on your server even if the ASP goes down.

Typically, Atomz customers take existing HTML pages and convert them to templates by inserting special tags around the areas in which changing content will be plugged in dynamically. Simple WYSIWYG layout tools aid in design. The tagging process automatically creates content entry forms that non-technical users employ to post content to the site. Atomz provides a full range of options for administrators as they set up and assign tasks for site editors.

Updating content is simplicity itself. Each site editor has his or her own task list, which is a jumping-off point for using forms to create or edit content. Designers and administrators can navigate what amounts to a mock version of the site, with little icons flagging dynamic areas of the page. Administrators can also easily create pick-lists to add metadata keyword to content. In addition, content can be flagged for cross-posting, so the same text or image appears in multiple templates. Atomz also supports infinite versioning, where you can save and roll back to any number of previous versions of pages.

Recently, Atomz rolled out a major upgrade to Publish’s workflow features. The software can now extend its access rights management to user groups, tasks can be reassigned, and you can add comments to tasks and trace them through various stages of a project. Best of all, the new version adds e-mail notification along with support for parallel approval processes, an invaluable feature when multiple departments are involved.

Clearly, HTML jockeys can use Publish to whip up a template-driven site quickly and easily. You won’t find site traffic reports, personalisation features, or anything sophisticated on the content-delivery side, since the site is hosted on your server. But Atomz Publish is a fine, quick-to-market solution for those already adept at publishing flat pages and whose needs for sites with dynamic interaction are minimal.


Clickability CMware

You’ve probably used Clickability’s Save This, Email This, and Print This utilities without knowing it, since these ASP-based services appear on over 140 Web content sites.

Clickability’s first ASP-based Web publishing solution, dubbed CMWare, is part of an ambitious, modular suite of services called the Intelligent Online Publishing System (I-OPS). I-OPS collects and interprets data about visitor interaction, so you can change the mix of content accordingly. With this degree of interactivity, it’s no surprise that, unlike Atomz or CrownPeak, Clickability hosts your Web site as well as the CMS.

To launch a site, you don’t need all of I-OPS—or even all three components of CMWare. If you like, you can stick with CMWare’s core content management solution, CMPublish, or you can add CMCreate, a content-sourcing and aggregation service that feeds CMPublish—plus CMDistribute, a syndication service for publishing to multiple servers and devices.

Clickability’s CEO John Girard claims ROI on his product is high. -Our pricing is very-aggressive—a complete solution is typically only a small multiple greater than what the publisher is currently paying for bandwidth. This means that our customers can show a positive ROI in less than three months.”

To get rolling, you simply hand over the graphic design to Clickability, and the company does the rest according to your specifications, from creating the templates to building the content-entry forms. (In future versions, the company plans to supply a complete library of templates and self-service tools, but for now Clickability does it all.) CMPublish throws in a generous helping of high-end features, including versioning with rollback, an advanced content search function, dynamic previewing, and fully configurable workflow. You can also have Clickability run staging and production servers in parallel, enabling you to develop a new version of the site using live content—and even push new templates live without taking the site offline.

Unlike Atomz Publish, which lets you click through a mock version of the live site to find editable content, CMPublish opts for a conventional, forms-driven user interface. The basic work area is logically divided into content entry, media placement, destinations and scheduling, and a history of previous versions. The content-entry forms lack WYSIWYG features and hyperlinks must be inserted manually. But the destination screen, which lets you click through an expanding site tree to place content, is pretty slick.

The most unique aspect of Clickability’s publishing solution is IMWare, the other half of the I-OPS package. This bundles together Clickability’s Save This, Email This, and Print This utilities—and reports the number of times visitors use them to rate the value of content, rather than relying on traffic numbers alone. (In a future version due out this year, IMWare will feed this data back into CMWare, which will automatically elevate high-value content in your site’s rotation.) IMWare costs an additional US$350 to US$5000 per month, depending on the features you choose to implement and how much customisation you need.

The completeness of Clickability’s offering—plus the sophisticated feedback mechanisms made possible by a fully hosted solution—make CMWare an appropriate solution for big, elaborate content sites. But the modular nature of I-OPS also lets you start small and add functionality as you need it. The cost starts a bit higher than other services, but solid content management, innovative interactivity features, and the luxury of not having to maintain server hardware make Clickability’s solution worth a serious look.


CrownPeak Advantage CMS

CrownPeak’s Advantage CMS is a sophisticated product that reflects the extensive experience of the company’s management team. In Advantage CMS, you’ll find many features offered by high-end systems, including document versioning, support for multiple languages (including Chinese), slick WYSIWYG content editing, and workflow with e-mail notification. As you read this, the company should be rolling out a development environment to support do-it-yourself template modifications and even custom extensions to the CMS itself.

CrownPeak claims that customers typically spend US$60,000 for the first year. However, CEO Jim Howard told us that he aims to make the pricing in Australian dollars similar to US.

-So if it were US$60,000 we could make it about $60,000 Australian,” he says.

The initial implementation fee includes training, integration (with LDAP directories, for example), and template creation (you provide the design and CrownPeak does the HTML). The remaining first-year cost estimate goes to the subscription, which buys you ongoing CMS support and maintenance. Sounds reasonable, especially considering that Advantage CMS is built on Microsoft technology (Windows 2000, SQL Server, VBScript, IIS, and so on) rather than on open source.

The standout feature of Advantage CMS is its mature DHTML user interface, which makes editing template content a breeze. To update content, you navigate a version of the site that flags editable page areas and even enables users to add annotations. Click through, and Advantage CMS delivers knockout content update features similar to Microsoft Word’s default editing and formatting toolbars, spell checking included. Moreover, unlike most CMSes, you can add links to other pages on your site using pick-lists instead of inserting HREF statements and cutting and pasting URLs.

The administrative features are just as slick. Access to the system is role-based, which administrators can craft from scratch. Users can even play multiple roles, with a table to keep track of who can do what. A different workflow can be assigned to every asset, and a complete version history enables you to roll back to any previous version. Those who place a high priority on integration with other systems will like Advantage CMS’ support for SOAP, XML, and ODBC.

The new developer toolkit for Advantage CMS gives customers access to the templates, which are treated as documents—so ordinary business users can edit them or change their layout using WYSIWYG editing and formatting tools. Among other things, this enables you to work on a site redesign while people are still using the system and push the new design live without affecting content. In addition, a new HTML import feature makes it easy to suck an existing site into Advantage CMS. And more advanced developers will enjoy several amenities, including the ability to create interactive forms and syntax highlighting and checking.

If you want an ASP-based CMS that publishes static pages to your own servers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a solution with more power and usability for everyone from content editors, to template designers, to administrators.


Calculating ROI

As today’s economic downturn cuts deeper into IT budgets, CIOs often have to justify investments in more expensive initiatives, like a content management system (CMS). Buying and building the technology for a CMS is the (relatively) easy part. The hard part is justifying the business need and getting upper management to shell out the significant investment needed to get a CMS off the ground.

After you’ve determined that a CMS will fulfil a true business need, often the next thing that upper management will want to see is an ROI. Here are some factors you should consider when determining the cost of a CMS effort.

-It’s critical to do a broad-based business justification for the project as a whole,” says Tony Byrne, founder and managing editor of CMSWatch, an independent information and analysis site that focuses on Web content management. For organisations where content is the business, investing in better management is an essential infrastructure cost—the cost of doing business—just as the cost of a phone system or a firewall is for the enterprise.

Byrne advises companies to consider three factors when estimating the costs of a CMS:

Software licensing (including databases, search engines, and other ancillary packages). -Watch out for cost creep as you add additional servers and content contributors,” says Byrne. -The most important thing to remember is that software licensing may well turn out to be the least of your expenses.”

Integration, customisation, and extension. Industrial-strength CMS doesn’t come out-of-the-box: hiring a professional services firm to help you put everything together may set you back one to three times the cost of the software licensing alone, depending on the scope of the engagement.

Data cleaning, normalisation, organisation, and migration. -CMS buyers typically need to do most of this themselves; everyone usually underestimates the level of effort involved,” advises Byrne.
Byrne offers a simple formula for calculating ROI. The first step is quantifying costs and then adding up all the hard dollars and cents your company will see in:

  • Increased sales.
  • Expanded product/service deployment.
  • Greater return from other IT investments (eg, ERP, portal).
  • Accelerated time to market.
  • Process efficiencies.
  • Reduced Web production costs.
  • Reduced paper/mailing costs.
  • Reduced human errors.

Then, quantify and add up all the “soft” benefits, which include:

  • Putting business people in control of online communication.
  • Maintaining brand consistency.
  • Enhancing customer satisfaction.
  • Improving content security and reducing legal liabilities.
  • Maximising internal skills through greater specialisation.

-Compare your costs laid out above against the benefits you expect to gain from a CMS,” explained Byrne. -Although the benefits may be difficult to quantify at times, at some point, your company will simply decide that, ROI or not, it can’t live any longer with the (likely growing) pain of not effectively managing your content.”

Geoff Choo contributed to this article