Content Management Systems Ease Web Updates for Non-Technical Users

CMS software enables end users and subject matter experts to keep Web content fresh and accurate

If your company is one of the millions that has a presence on the Web, you know one of the most time-consuming aspects of a Web site is keeping product and service information up to date. Most companies, however, don't have a well-defined and efficient strategy for making site updates. The process is generally informal and tends to sharply divide the roles of those providing the new or updated content from those actually making the changes to the site.

For example, if the marketing department has a great idea for a site feature, typically, it telephones or sends an e-mail to the IT department requesting the update. The lack of structure to this type of request quickly leads to work backups and incorrect prioritization when multiple requests come in from different departments. The problem is that by the time the update is made, the window of opportunity has passed for maximum impact of the suggested site feature.

"Most companies fully realize the importance of a well-maintained Web site, but the process behind keeping the content up-to-date isn't being seen as a priority," says Jason LaFollette, a Project Manager with Tallán in Herndon, Virginia. Tallán (http://www.tallan.com) is a professional services firm based in Glastonbury, CT.

"If the information presented on your site is out of date, your online audience will move on to your competitor's site. That's where Content Management Systems, or CMS, comes into play." LaFollette notes that in the last several years, many companies have realized this software makes the job of updating their Web site easier and allows them to have a more effective site.

In its most basic form, CMS is software that simplifies the management of a company's Web site and provides a standardized framework for making future updates. CMS breaks down the usually complex task of Web site management into a process that allows anyone familiar with standard word processing and desktop publishing programs to get in on the action. Your company is no longer dependent upon the "geeks" in the IT department to maintain the site.

"A good CMS opens the Web site maintenance process to every level of an organization. It eliminates the corporate red tape that can get in the way of a properly maintained Web site, and also forces a company to adopt proper Web site design practices," says LaFollette. "CMS uses WISYWIG (what you see is what you get) editors when making changes. Those involved in updates will never need to see or manipulate code. CMS moves the process of updating a site content closer to desktop publishing or word processing."

By using cascading style sheets (CSS) and page templates, your company can make simple changes to the appearance of your Web site within minutes. While it's true that a company doesn't need CMS in order to use CSS or templates, CMS will encourage these good design practices.

How CMS Works

After installing the software and importing its current site, a company creates a workflow that lays out the organizational hierarchy. Decide which users can edit which page(s) and who has authority to publish changes to the live site.

"The person put in charge is usually a higher-level, non-technical manager or marketing person," says LaFollette. "Because CMS strips away the HTML and code that a Web developer normally sees, the individual overseeing the content doesn't have to be a technical person."

Once the workflow is in place, the process for updating the Web site content is fairly straightforward. The process works in both a downward and upward direction. First, the manager can assign tasks to users farther down the chain to make updates to content and submit them back to him for approval and publishing on the live site. Second, if an employee has an idea for an update, they can make the change on their own initiative and submit it to their manager for approval.

"The key to the success of CMS is the fact that all of these updates are done using a well-defined workflow and editing interfaces that resemble word processing software," LaFollette notes. "So when an upper level manager wants an update of the quarterly numbers from the accounting department, the manager can assign this task to an individual in the accounting department." After receiving an e-mail notification of a pending task opens the CMS and replaces last quarter's figures with this quarter's, then marks the task complete. In CMS, this triggers a notification to an upper-level manager, who can review the change and publish it to the live Web site.

A similar process is followed for a bottom-up update. If the marketing department wants to make an update, it opens up the CMS software, goes to the area of the Web site that needs the update, makes the change, and saves it. A notice is e-mailed to the manager in charge of keeping that Web section current; the manager reviews the content and posts it to the Web.

LaFollette points out that all edits are done off-line, so if a mistake is made it isn't live on the Internet. Should an update be mistakenly published, most CMS tools have a rollback option so a manager can easily revert back to the way the site looked before the offending edit.

Choosing a CMS Package

LaFollette suggests a company first review the options available for CMS packages. As with most software, each package will have pros and cons for your company's needs. Costs can range from free all the way up to $250,000 for large enterprise systems.

"Open source solutions are popular because they are free and easily customized. I think it's important that companies realize CMS doesn't have to be expensive," says LaFollette. "Macromedia's Contribute is another popular CMS costing around $ 150 per install. Some solutions, like Contribute, must be installed on each user's local computer so the cost of ownership increases with each additional user. Other solutions are web based and will generally have a fixed cost, independent of the number of users. As with most software it's important for a company to fully analyze and compare the solutions available to them and see what options are out there."

One concern that many companies have is what can they do with their existing Web site that was built without CMS? Will that site have to be re-invented for implementation? LaFollette says thankfully no.

"If a company wants to stay with the same look and feel of their current Web site, they can still institute CMS, they will just have to make a few adjustments to the site. They'll probably need to have a technical person break the existing pages down into templates, content, and a Style Sheet," he says. "But once that work is done, future updates can come easily and quickly.

LaFollette says he thinks all companies should be updating their Web sites on a regular basis and if they are finding this is too difficult to accomplish, then they should consider purchasing a CMS solution. "I'm currently working with a client who has been hearing complaints from customers saying they can't find up-to-date data on their Web site. The management is frustrated because they can't dedicate more IT resources to making site updates," he says. "They realize that by using CMS, they can get around that roadblock because the Web site updates will now be done by people outside of the IT department. I think as more and more companies realize that CMS helps take IT out of the loop and puts the Web site content maintenance in the hands of non-technical people, we'll see CMS continue to grow in popularity."

About the Author

Chris Watts is a freelance writer in Bloomfield, CT and is a former editor for the Associated Press in Washington, DC and Bureau Chief for Metro Networks in Hartford, CT.