In Search of: A System-Agnostic Set of WCM practices
I’ve been involved in content management on the web for going on 15 years now but only recently did I come to the realization that I was never really taught about the job. I’ve been taught many times about the tools to do the job, but the job itself, the actual practice of managing web content, I learned by doing, over time, and with plenty of missteps and stumbles along the way. I think it was around year-eight that I was finally pretty sure that I knew what I was doing, and why.
It was also around then that I stopped worrying about what content management system (CMS) I’d be asked to use on the next task, project, or job. I even stopped worrying about whether I knew how to use it. For me, that was a critical turning point. I finally began to think of the CMS as it is – as software. And, given enough time, almost anyone can learn the software. That marked the point in time when I started feeling truly confident that I knew what I was doing rather than just knowing how to do it.
The Tools Don’t Build the House, the Builder Does
Web content management (WCM) is not simply using content management software. And, as a practice, as a professional discipline, it’s much more reliant on soft skills than most people realize. Web content management is concept and principle driven, system-agnostic, and platform-independent. Being a WCM practitioner is fundamentally about understanding your stakeholders and your audience (and, frankly, the quirks of how your organization does things). Again, just using the CMS is not really the job. Even knowing how the CMS works is not really the job. The software we use is simply a tool to facilitate the practice of managing web content.
As I began formulating my thoughts on web content management practices, I kept this in mind. And so, one of the constraints I placed on myself was that any ideas presented should also be system-agnostic. Therefore the common “content management topics” like: the process of choosing a CMS, or which CMS is best, or how to best utilize CMS-X, Y, or Z, were all off the table this time. I wondered, though, if there was some sort of recent, fairly definitive, guide or list of The Things To Do as a Web Content Manager – something I could recommend, or just use as a starting point. And with that in mind, I set out… and furiously Googled.
The Quest for a Foundation
As you might imagine, there are deep, meandering rabbit holes one can travel down when reading about the process for choosing or using a given tool. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds regarding how CMS-A or CMS-B behaves, or what utilities each offers for content authors and managers. And, of course, I found lots of good advice, strong opinions, plenty of listicles, helpful blog posts by marketers, and statement pieces by content-marketing companies. You name it, I found it. But none of it was quite what I wanted.
The problem was that most of the writing – while very informative – was either dated, or focused on choosing and using a certain CMS, or written specifically for marketers, or part of a pitch from a digital marketing agency. There was also a great deal of focus on smaller businesses and sites where the WCM person also ends up being a content writer or where the marketing person ends up being the de facto WCM.
This focus on the integration of separate-but-related roles and tasks makes sense. That kind of sole-practitioner content creation model is among the most common, and unsung, ways of getting things done on the web. It is often a sacrifice to necessity or expediency, or simply a labor of love, but it’s not ideal and it cannot scale.
I thought it best to focus on what to do when things are “done right” – for instance, in a firm with a deep bench of content and marketing specialists. I also wanted something concise to serve as a foundation, framework, or maybe a lens through which we can view WCM, some concepts and principles. I had hoped the basics of strong WCM had been summarized and distilled down to a very few fairly simple practices.
Too Much of the Wrong Information
I found a lot, but if I was looking for simplicity (and I was), I did not find it. Still, I’d come to believe that there must be a few driving principles and concepts that reside behind or beneath all the advice I saw online and my various experiences in WCM. With that, I began parsing the good information I’d gathered. At some point that it began to seem overwhelming, so I approached it like a content re-mapping assignment and tried to come up with buckets for the information I found:
>>Gather hordes of loosely related information and data (reading, notes, ideas, input) on a topic
>>Group loosely related, roughly correlated chunks of similar information
>>Determine actions or ideas that represent those chunks
>>Note principles, goals, or guidelines that drive the actions / support the ideas
>>Distill simple concepts that represent the principles, goals, or guidelines
Ultimately, I came up with the five principles below. They are neither definitive nor are they universal. (I can’t speak for a whole industry, or a subset of web workers, or any firm that I am not working directly for or with.) I’m also not in a position to call them best practices. That said, these concepts are based on my experiences and a distillation of the advice I have read and been given. I am hopeful I can at least say, “You can’t go wrong, if…”
So, here are some operating concepts that can be utilized as a framework for the betterment of your WCM practice. Below each one is an example manifestation of that principle in context.
Example: Be (and stay) plugged into what marketing is doing – Advocate to be included, and integrate deeply, with your content strategy and marketing teams. Understand what they are doing and why. Be present and involved when the deployment of marketing content is discussed.
Example: Example: Consider the point of view of the end users whenever you can – Take the end-users’ point of view into account when doing your work and when you have the opportunity to offer input to content strategists and marketers. These insights will not supplant use data and analytics, but you can offer observations and details that may not be picked up in site metrics, especially if you interact with a user community or user-generated content.
Example: Be an expert on the totality of site structure and content – Get to know the site content and content presentation intimately and completely. In large sites with many disparate content owners, the WCM may be one of the few people who will see the site content as a whole.
Example: Use your insight and experience to systematize WCM practices – Operate on a schedule; develop a routine; institute processes where they don’t yet exist; advocate for the improvement processes that are not working well; keep a list and set aside time to perform an ongoing series of small, thoughtful content changes and optimizations.
Example: The content you manage is often “the last mile” in the customer journey – Much of the customer journey, experience, relationship with your firm likely happens at a distance, and mostly on the web. The presentation and upkeep of this critical aspect of the process often falls at the feet of the WCM. Take full ownership of that responsibility.
Whether it’s the quality and consistency of content presentation, ensuring customers feel supported, or another aspect of online engagement, WCMs maintain the face of the enterprise at the customer level. It is not glamorous, though, and there can be repetition and drudgery at times. But, like many front-line roles, it’s critically important work and it’s critically important that it be done thoughtfully and well. The idea of the above principles is to offer a framework for WCM teams and individuals to think about their place in the content lifecycle while leaving room to accommodate unique processes and workflows within any system.
In the future, we hope to explore each these concepts further and offer additional practical recommendations for how a web content manager can leverage their role for the benefit of both the enterprise and the end users.