Sooner or later, tech leaders learn that it’s far easier to screw up a content management system (CMS) project than to get it right. CMS is a risky endeavor because it is complex, costly, and involves a myriad of people and processes. CIOs also have to deal with the push and pull of conflicting ideology and conflicting business needs, and get people with diverse skills and backgrounds to work together side–by-side without killing one another.

The goal is not to let today’s risks become tomorrow’s problems. One of the best ways to avoid costly CMS mistakes is to learn from other tech leaders who’ve traveled the CMS road before you.

Putting the cart before the horse
“Our first CMS (and unfortunately my last) project turned out to be a disaster because we stupidly let the cart pull the horse. We got so enthralled with the CMS product that we based our purchasing decisions on what features and functionalities impressed us more, rather than on what our organization really needed. In the end, we had an excellent CMS platform, but it didn’t do what our organization needed it to do.”—Tom M., Business Manager

Once CIOs decide that they need a CMS, the main mistake they typically make is buying the “coolest” product before figuring out what they really need. While you certainly need solid technology to make a CMS work, it’s not productive to select a package before you have a created a comprehensive requirements roadmap that ensures that the solution you buy, build, or rent exactly meets business objectives, needs, and budget. Answer these questions before even looking at potential solutions:

  • Do you have a sound understanding of your business goals and objectives and a detailed understanding of functional and feature requirements?
  • Have you identified the critical content problems?
  • Do you know your content management, publishing, and technology integration needs?

If you select a product without first identifying what your company truly needs, the product inevitably ends up driving the system—your people, processes, and even the content itself—rather than other way around.

Why people and processes are so important
“We picked our CMS after a monthlong selection process that involved a cross-functional product selection committee; detailed requirements-discovery sessions with stakeholders; and a complicated matrix-based scoring methodology. Then we formed the in-house CMS implementation team by randomly picking people who we felt were capable of doing the job. The fact that they didn’t have a clue about content management didn’t seem relevant to us at that time. Six months down the road, and without a working CMS to show for our efforts, I wished we had put as much effort into choosing the CMS team as we had put into choosing the product.”—Linda C., Project Manager

The product factor in CMS will turn out to be the least of your concerns. According to Tony Byrne, founder and managing editor of CMSWatch, the actual product you select—with some exceptions—will not make or break a CMS project. Byrne recommends that CIOs devote some of the energy spent on conducting product due diligence to getting their own content house in order. CIOs have to know their own content, authors, processes, and business systems, and must not forget to conduct careful due diligence on the organizations and people implementing the product. This is where 80% of the time and money is expended, and it’s where most CMS projects typically fail or succeed. A strong integration team with a weak product will always trump a weak integration team with a strong product, according to Byrne.

The deep tendrils of a CMS
“We thought that once we had the CMS product properly installed and up and running, that would be the end of the story. The vendor sold us on the powerful features and functionality that would radically improve how our enterprise distributes content. But no one told us how difficult it would be to get our users to actually change their old habits and begin supporting the new system.”—Bill S., Content Manager

All organizations, big and small, are still resistant to change. Deploying the CMS product will be the easy part. The hard part is getting people to change their ways and start embracing a CMS as the smart way to create, manage, and publish content.

The CMS touches multiple parts of an organization, and all of those parts must pull together to maximize the project’s effectiveness. CIOs need to have a board-level project sponsor and involve the right people from all the affected departments. Prepare your people for the change, make sure they know what’s expected of them, and more importantly, tell them what they can gain in the process.

A good approach is to start with a small pilot team and get some early and easy wins.If the CMS goals are clear, and you set a range of intermediate milestones that deliver value, tech leaders can show senior management and affected employees that goals are being achieved. There’s no doubt that incremental change is less risky than the “big bang” approach, and showing concrete results during each phase of the project can add tremendous credibility. In other words, if you underpromise to begin with and over-deliver along the way, both you and your project will be a winner.

Don’t underestimate the content effort
“We had cutting-edge XML-based technology, the fastest database that money could buy, and the sleekest application server platform on the market. But no one ever told us that we would need a professional editor to organize and generate good content for us. We left it up to the Web designers and software developers to hammer out our content strategy for us. When our content got so bad, we had no choice but to hire a competent content manager to extricate ourselves from the mess we were stuck in. If only we had hired her in the first place…”—Thomas S., CIO

Many CIOs mistakenly believe that a CMS will automatically create, organize, and deliver high-quality, credible, and relevant content to the right audience at the right time. Nothing could be further from the truth: While a good CMS can get the content pipeline working, it can only organize and manage what is put into the system. A CMS can’t create great content; only people can. If you don’t know how to create great content (or what content is in the first place), you need to find an expert.

Creating great content involves three steps:

  1. Make sure that you have a clear vision of your content strategy and goals. “Content” is defined as “information put to use.” Information is put to use when it is packaged and published for a specific purpose. To create great content, you need to know what target audiences you want to reach, what content you need to create to satisfy their needs, how often and how much you need to publish, and how the content needs to be delivered.
  2. Create an effective and user-centric information architecture that makes it easy for people to find their personal paths to knowledge within your site. Spend time mapping the structure of your information, and organize your content using a classification system, or taxonomy.
  3. Focus on the mechanics of professionally written content with the fundamentals of good writing, like rigorous proofreading for correct spelling and proper language usage, careful copyediting using a style guide for clarity and consistency, and so on. Things like these are the bread and butter of a professional editor, so make sure you hire a good one.

I didn’t know it would cost so much
“No one said [a] CMS was going to be cheap, but I didn’t know that installing it would turn out to be so expensive. I was under the false impression that the product would be the most expensive part of our CMS implementation. We spent nearly 80% of our budget on buying the product. We unfortunately discovered too late that we didn’t have enough money left over to actually get the CMS to work.“—Mike M., CFO

Software licensing could be the least of the expenses, said Byrne. The cost of integrating, customizing, and extending a CMS can easily set you back one to three times the cost of licensing alone, depending on the scope of the engagement. Departmental installations of midmarket packages tend to run toward the lower end; enterprise projects will certainly edge up or above the 3X ratio. Another hidden cost involves the work of cleaning, organizing, and preparing content for the CMS. CMS buyers typically need to do most of this themselves; everyone usually underestimates the level of effort and cost involved. The moral of the story? Budget accordingly.