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August 23, 2021

Life with a content management system (podcast)

In episode 101 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Elizabeth Patterson and Sarah O’Keefe talk about what life is like with and without a content management system (CMS).

“You have to decide, by looking at your particular organization, whether you need what a CMS will give you. You will get improvements in consistency and automation for formatting and traceability. You can get improvements in translation because you have more consistent content and better workflows.”

– Sarah O’Keefe

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Elizabeth Patterson:                   Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk about what life is like with and without a content management system. Hi, I’m Elizabeth Patterson.

Sarah O’Keefe:                   And I’m Sarah O’Keefe.

EP:                   And today we’re going to dive into the world of content management and CMSs. So I think it would be great to start with a couple of definitions. Sarah, could you tell us what content management is, and also what a content management system is?

SO:                   Content management is, according to Wikipedia because that’s always the right place to go, is a set of processes and technologies that support management of information, basically. So collecting, publishing, managing, editing, delivering. A content management system or a CMS then is software that helps you do content management. So how do you create, how do you modify, how do you deliver digital content? Within the CMS world, we then distinguish, there are hundreds, if not thousands of CMSs with different kinds of sub-features or sub-specialties, learning content management systems for learning content. But in our world, there are a couple of important ones. One is the distinction between a back-end content management system and a front-end CMS. A back-end CMS is where you park the content that you are creating, editing, reviewing and approving. And a front-end CMS is where you park the content that you’re delivering.

SO:                   So a lot of today’s websites, maybe most of today’s websites, run on web content CMSs. So it’s a delivery system of some sort that controls the display of what we’re doing and what we’re dealing with. Now, in addition to all of that, in our world of structured content, you also talk about a component content management system or a CCMS, and that is a specialized back-end content management system that lets you manage typically XML, but structured hierarchical content. It typically does not have formatting associated with it. That’s the job of the front end delivery system, whatever that may be. But a CCMS is there to help you manage modular, smart, intelligent XML content. If you’re involved in any sort of content operation, if you work in content and you have any scale at all, then you know that managing the content that flows through your operation is just an enormous challenge.

SO:                   Keeping track of who’s writing what, and what’s already been written and, “Was this delivered, and is it up to date. And when is the next time that we have to update it, and when does it expire? This thing should go away once a certain event happens or after a certain amount of time.” So a CMS can help you keep track of your content and do a lot of the heavy lifting around that sort of governance, but also around authoring, delivery, management, all the things.

EP:                   Right, because there’s so much involved when we’re talking about content management. And so really what I want to talk about today are some of those different things that you are going to deal with when it comes to content management and what those might look like with a CMS or without a CMS. So I think a good place to start would be traceability. This is really important because, especially if you’re in a regulated industry, there’s a lot of legal stuff associated with that. So we can start with a definition of traceability.

SO:                   So traceability means that you can connect the change that you’re making in your content with the reason that you’re making that content change, or possibly with the person that made the content change and the person that approved it. So you want the ability, and as you said, especially in a regulated industry, you want the ability to say, “Hey, somebody reported a mistake in our documents on this date. And we tracked that mistake. And then we went over to our content management system, or over to our content corpus, and we made a change related to this defect that was reported. And then we published it on thus and such date.” So traceability means that you’re following that change from the request to the content change that was made to the approval to the publishing and delivery, and possibly expiring the incorrect version that was in there. Now, traceability without a content management system, almost certainly means that some very depressed person has a spreadsheet.

EP:                   A big spreadsheet.

SO:                   A big spreadsheet. And I’ve said this before, but people say, “Who has the number one market sharing content management systems?” And the answer is Excel. That is the number one way that people manage content. It happens to be a really painful way of doing it, but that is in fact by far the most common way of doing this. So you create a terrible spreadsheet, you track the inbound request, you track who you assigned it to, you track when they made the change, you track when they publish the change. And somewhere there’s somebody with a full-time job of just keeping track of that in the spreadsheet. If you have a content management system, then what you can do is you can embed the request for the update or the correction or the change into the content itself.

SO:                   Or you could give the change request, which if this were software, we’d be talking about bug tracking, you could insert that ID into the CMS or into the content itself. And then when you publish the change request, the idea is carried along. So when you look at something, you say, “How was this paragraph modified?” You can trace back to what happened. “Why was that paragraph modified? Who modified it? When did they modify it? And also why?” So that’s traceability. And if you’re doing video game documentation, then traceability is probably not your top priority, but if you’re in a medical devices or pharma, or potentially machinery that people operate and can get hurt if they don’t operate correctly, you do develop a pretty solid interest in traceability.

EP:                   Right. And speaking from someone who has plenty of past experience with spreadsheets, it’s really easy to make mistakes when you’ve got a really long spreadsheet. And so when we’re talking about the medical industry, that can be very problematic when people’s lives are at stake.

SO:                   Right. And in addition to that, it’s just mind numbing, right?

EP:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

SO:                   The computers are really good at keeping track of stuff like this, and humans are really bad at it. So let the computer do it. I mean, I just don’t have any interest in having to manage the monster spreadsheet of death. I don’t want to.

EP:                   Right, work smarter not harder.

SO:                   Exactly.

EP:                   So let’s talk some about collaboration, because when you’re working in any team, you’re going to have to collaborate. Or if you want to be successful, you’re going to have to collaborate. When you have a team with multiple writers, things can get confusing if you don’t have the right processes in place. What might collaboration look like with and without that CMS?

SO:                   I think probably all of us, in days past have worked in organizations where the collaboration process was literally that you would say, “Oh, I need to update this piece of content.” And you would pop up from your cube and yell at the people in the cubes around you and say, “Hey, is anybody working on X, Y, Z document?” And they would all say, “Nope, you’re good. You can go work on it.” That works pretty okay in a group of, say three to four people who are all in the same location, working at the same time, and don’t have meetings where they might miss somebody popping up in the cube farm and asking that question. We need something a little more sophisticated than that to address A, you have 20 writers and we can’t have people popping up all the time.

SO:                   Plus your 20 writers are not in fact in the same location all the time or ever. And you need to just have a much more formal way of dealing with this. So if we need to collaborate, if you and I, just the two of us are working on a single piece of content, okay, we can create a Google doc and we can work in there together. And that would work pretty well. It gets a little weird if you get up to five or 10 or 15 people all in the same big document. At that point, you start thinking about like, “Oh, hey, Elizabeth, why don’t you take section one and I’ll take section two and then we’ll put them together later? We sort of chunk it down.” Or, “I’m working on a white paper and you’re working on a white paper, or we’re working on two different articles.”

SO:                   Okay. Well, now we have to think about, “I want to make sure that the changes that you make are reflected in my document. And by that I mean, whatever word choices you make or terminology that you choose, we need to be consistent about that. You might’ve written a really great product description, which I want to use in my document. And I don’t want to copy and paste because later you’re going to go back and change the product description and update it and correct it. And I just want that to cascade into my document.” So the collaboration becomes partly, “How do we author consistently? How do we establish a consistent voice and tone? How do we make sure our terminology is aligned?” And there’s not so much the content management system itself, but some of the things that you can layer on top of that. And then reuse, “I want to go and find that chunk of content that you wrote that I want to reuse.”

SO:                   And that’s much easier to do in a CMS versus saying, “Hey, Elizabeth, where’d you put that product description? Or where’s that logo?” What we don’t want is for people to write a bunch of content and stash it in their own private folders that nobody else has access to, because then you can’t share. So a CMS, they all of course are different, but they’re going to give you the ability to understand what content you have, where it’s being reused, what was changed recently, “Oh, I see that somebody touched the product description file. I should go look in there and see if that affects the content where I’m using the product description.” And again, lots of people are doing this with spreadsheets, and it’s terrible.

EP:                   So you just mentioned people storing that document in private locations. And that’s how you end up with different versions of the same document, which leads us to our next topic for discussion, which is consistency. So what might that look like if you have a CMS and if you don’t have a CMS?

SO:                   So versioning is a key part of that. If I can just be consistent about using the same bio for a person. Every time I publish a blog post, let’s say from one of our coworkers, we want to make sure that the same bio appears at the bottom of that page. We don’t want to copy and paste the bio in there a million times. What we want to do is just tell the CMS, “Stick the bio at the end of every single blog post written by Bill.”

EP:                   Right.

SO:                   Okay. And then that’s updated of course in a central location. And if you update it, the older posts get the updated bio, that type of thing. So you have some pretty straightforward version control over your content. Also, I mentioned terminology. So using the same words to mean the same things across all your documents. Terminology management is theoretically possible without a CMS, but in practice, it’s one of the things that people very often integrate into a CMS build. And then there are two other things which have to do with formatting consistency.

SO:                   So if you think about just pushing content, you want to publish a document or an article or a book or whatever, you want to have some formatting consistency. You want all your notes to look the same. You want all your warnings to look the same. You want all of your little summary paragraphs at the beginning to look the same. Because if they don’t, you make my life much harder for the person who’s reading the document. I mean, if I read a magazine article, I slowly learn that the byline for that author is always at the end of the document, those kinds of things. With CMSs, now the ones that we work with, the component CMSs has pretty much stripped off all the formatting and apply that upon delivery.

SO:                   So that gives you a really actually rigorous degree of consistency in terms of formatting, but even an unstructured, more of a web CMS, does have the ability to have template-based publishing. So you have a magazine article template, or you have a blog post template, or you have a knowledge-based article template. And that means that your document formatting, when you deliver it is going to be consistent. If you live in the non-CMS world, in a file-based workflow, then you probably know that rebranding happens, right?

EP:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

SO:                   So your company gets acquired by another one, or you just decide to change your logo, or you decide to change your company name, and you’re looking at the set of 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 files in some word processing or page production software, and you have to rebrand them all. You have to go through there and replace all the logos and replace every mention of your product name, or your company name with the new one. That is-

EP:                   Lot of work.

SO:                   … it is crazy expensive. And so we’ve had cases where actually moving into a content management system with all the headaches and all the costs that that entails, was justified because it was actually cheaper than going through and rebranding thousands of InDesign files one at a time.

EP:                   I think this has been a very insightful discussion, and I really want to close things out with something that everyone is going to ask. You can tell them about, of the great things about a CMS and why they should have one and how it’s going to make their life easier, but they’re going to want to know about cost. And a CMS does cost money. So why is the investment worth it?

SO:                   Yeah. So I guess we should. And this is probably a good point to mention that we at Scriptorium do not get paid by the CMS vendors, all appearances-

EP:                   Yes, correct.

SO:                   … to the contrary. And it’s also probably worth noting that there are actually CMSs… I mean, there’s a wide range of cost, from zero to millions of dollars.

EP:                   Right, depends on what you’re looking for.

SO:                   Depends on what you’re looking for. And there are open source CMSs, not so much CCMSs, not so much component content management systems, but there are open source content management systems. So that’s at least theoretically free, right?

EP:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

SO:                   Except of course it’s never free. It may be license free, but there’s going to be cost. So why is the investment worth it, or is the investment worth it? You have to decide, by looking at your particular organization, whether you need what a CMS will give you. You will get improvements in consistency and automation for formatting and traceability. You can get improvements in translation because you have more consistent content and better workflows. So you can look at those issues, but you have to basically look at those issues and those costs and then decide is the investment in a CMS, of course, all the pain of getting there, worthwhile to get those improvements. Among our customers, the most common justification that we hear for moving into a content management system for the first time, there are basically two. One is mergers. And I would put rebranding as a sub-issue underneath that.

SO:                   But with a merger, what typically happens is that you have two or three or five groups that each have their own content workflow. They were all doing things different ways because they were two or three or five different companies. And what you can do is you can consolidate. Now you could of course consolidate onto a single file-based workflow, but usually when you merge, you end up with a much bigger group. If you had five groups of three people, and now you have one group of 15, if you have 15 writers, you can probably justify a CMS on efficiency alone.

EP:                   Right.

SO:                   So mergers is a big one, to allow you to consolidate your tool set, not have five different tool sets that you have to support. And then the other one is localization and translation. As your organization gets bigger and has to go global, you have to start… First, it’s like, “Oh, we’re going to have to do Spanish. And oh, we’re going to have to do Canadian French. And oh, we’re going to Europe, but we’re only going to do four languages in Europe. We’ll do FIGS, French, Italian, German, Spanish.” And then, “Oh, whoops, we’re shipping into Russia and Turkey.” And, “Oh wait, we’re going to East Asia.” And next thing you know, you have 20 languages. The inefficiencies in a file-based workflow on two or three or five or six languages get multiplied. Every time you add a language, you add inefficiency or you duplicate or replicate that inefficiency. So when you have 20 languages, it gets really painful. So localization, which means streamline the content development so that the translation workflow goes better, is the other big justification that we see for moving into a content management system.

EP:                   Well, thank you, Sarah. That was a lot of valuable information.

SO:                   Well, thank you.

EP:                   And thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.