Why Do So Many Content Management Systems Fail?

by Jeffrey Veen 02 Apr 2004 · 5 minute read

So many of the companies I’ve spoken to lately have complained about the content on their Web sites. They say it’s woefully out of date, growing out of control, and generally a complete mess. Almost unanimously, these companies have chosen to solve the problem by handing it to their IT departments.

“Find a way to manage content,” they demand, “and don’t break the bank doing it!” Companies swallow the enterprise software pitch of decentralization. They think that by distributing content creation they’re empowering business units to manage their own areas of the site. They do this hoping that the units can satisfy audience needs without requesting IT help for every little site change.

The CMS Myth The idea is enticing. Empowered departments of a big enterprise, all publishing content directly to their customers through standard templates. The site continues to grow, but in a controlled way. And these business units have complete control of what is and isn’t online.

Sounds good, but just try putting it into practice. In a report published last year, Jupiter Research uncovered some startling findings. “Of just under 100 companies … only 27 percent of companies surveyed planned to continue using their Web content management systems as they do now.”

So why do these CMS projects almost always fail?

People Problems

I’ve spoken to a number of Web teams that have used a CMS with varying levels of success. One problem I heard repeatedly was that the project worked fine, but nobody used the software once it was available. I call this the Stupid User Argument, and it’s a favorite of IT departments. The techies did their jobs, after all: They diligently gathered requirements, scoped out the solution, carefully selected a vendor, and managed the project to a mostly on-time and on-budget conclusion.

So how come nobody actually uses these systems once they’re in place? The answer is easy: People don’t like to change the way they work, particularly knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers spend years building strategies to accomplish their jobs, practices that likely date back to study skills acquired during their education. So changing those processes — no matter how valid the provided technical solution — is nearly impossible. Users will rebel, even after substantial training.

To have any chance of success, a content management project must follow the same user-centered design practices as any other project. Task analysis, rapid prototyping, usability testing — all of these methods are crucial to a CMS rollout. It’s foolhardy to unveil a mammoth, nine-month project to an unsuspecting user community and expect adoption.

But there is a larger issue at play. Even the most thoughtful projects may be misguided. Over and over I’ve heard the same complaint about these projects, “Turns out, after all the budget and time we spent, we really didn’t need a content management system at all. We just needed some editors.”

Editorial Process

Content management is not a technology problem. If you’re having trouble managing the content on your Web site, it’s because you have an editorial process problem. Your public-facing Web site is a publication. Treat it like one.

If you’re not in the business of producing publications, you won’t be able to do better by plugging in a technology and crossing your fingers. Rather, solve the problem with people. Here’s why:

How It Works

Set up a process something like this: An editor manages all content on the site. Give that editor a staff of writers to send out into your business units. These writers act like reporters in the field, working on stories that they submit to a copy desk.

The stories are then compared against editorial and corporate style guides, producing consistent, professional content. That content goes to your legal and marketing departments for approval if necessary. Only then does it go online.

Once you have a proven and smooth editorial process in place, and have a strong team managing that content, you can start to think about making them more efficient with technology. Outline your process, sit down with CMS vendors and say, “Look, here are the steps that we have in place to create and maintain our content. Here are the tools we use to do our jobs. None of this is going to change. Can you help us be more efficient and effective?”

You’re running the conversation, not them. Ignore their pitches for fantastic new features; those are just frosting. You need to get things done, and they need to prove their expensive software can do it.

A Sound Strategy This is more than just a way to manage content, it’s the beginning of a content strategy — a plan for how your site will respond to your customers, inform them, and help them make decisions that will ultimately increase their loyalty to you and your site.

And frankly, I could not care less what system you use to publish it.