All posts in Web Services

The Challenging Chore of Enterprise Content Maintenance

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With the continual growth of multi-device web browsing, everything we once knew about web content has changed. So there’s a lot of discussion these days about content strategy. Web experts preach best practices for publishing to multiple channels, making content the priority, thinking mobile first, moving away from the WYSIWYG, and creating content chunks.

A lot of these principles are well and good.

They work swimmingly when you’re building a smallish website. Or when everyone contributing to your site has a solid grasp of web best practices. Or when your main goal is publishing articles, posts, or documentation that carries similar content structures—like news sites, blogs, and help forums.

But what about when you have a 20,000 page website with diverse and varied content requirements? What if you have hundreds of web contributors who are experts in finance, biology, or event planning but not necessarily web content management?

I’ve worked in enterprise content management at a university for six years. And I’ve found a lot of the latest web content theories to be useful and relevant on the super-micro or heady-abstract level. But, if I’m being honest, many of the principles just don’t seem to scale when you’re managing a big, complex content system.

Universities, government agencies, and other mega institutions likely get what I mean. Taking these abstract theories and trying to apply them in a highly political, messy, human environment is immensely challenging and maybe even borderline impossible. When you tack on the limitations of your CMS and available resources, it feels like you’re trying to drive a system as incomprehensible as the Starship Enterprise.

So which of today’s web management principles can we actually use in our big messy systems? Is there any way to make the theories more practical or grow them to a larger scale so they make sense for our kind of work?

Here are a few of the strategies I’ve used.

Extend content management beyond the web

One of my big pushes right now is to help people stop thinking of our CMS as a tool for building webpages. Instead, I want us to see it as a system for managing information.

The CMS should be the place to store as much content as possible—not just webpages.

Some info will end up on the web, but not all of it. Some might get sent out through emails or exported for use on print pieces.

We’re trying to take a huge step back and think of not only what’s needed on the web, but what info should be in the CMS that’s currently sitting in word docs on shared drives, Adobe files on desktops, or email inboxes.

For example, this spring we needed to update our print promotional materials for our undergrad academic programs. Instead of looking only at print pieces, we decided to include the websites and work on new content for both at the same time. That way we could identify what content would be shared across print and web and then build out the content requirements in the CMS to house all promotional info together in one place.

Now, when web authors update their site, they’re also keeping content for their print pieces current because it’s all housed in the same template. Next time we need to run a print job, we can pull fresh content right from the CMS and pass it along to a designer for new formatting. When we need a blurb about a specific program for a new kind of piece or an email, we know where to go.

One of today’s web best practices that makes this system work is separating information from presentation. If we think of content as the words and images (the information), and let the CMS take care of the formatting, then the information becomes more portable and useful. The content becomes pieces of information, rather than designed elements stuck to a webpage.

It takes some work on the backend and lots of conversation and planning, but once structures are in place it becomes a lot easier to maintain information going forward. And don’t worry about doing it everywhere. Start with one small section or a single content type and see what you learn.

Find a balance between structure and flexibility

The harsh truth is that you can’t give everyone equal attention. There’s no way you can dedicate the same amount of time and skill and funds to every piece of information when you’re working in enterprise content management. And that means you’re going to have to say no and make tough decisions and prioritize.

I spend a lot of time thinking about content priority. At our institution, all information falls into 5 different content levels.

Assigning content levels to all of our information helps us determine things like:

  • How much time we should spend planning and developing
  • What information needs to go through editorial workflows
  • How much training and support we can provide
  • What tools should be used for building and maintaining content
  • What permissions we should assign to authors and contributors

Content levels also help us find the balance between structure and flexibility.

Top level content gets more flexibility. We spend more time crafting unique layouts and content treatments for higher level information. It receives more design finesse and development magic.

But that means lower level content must have more structure and follow more rules. It’s housed in similar templates and uses basic tools so that we can distribute content production to authors who don’t work with web content all day. Because turnover of web authors is high, structured systems also allow us to streamline training and make it easier to replace authors who have moved on to other roles within the institution.

Finding that balance between structure and flexibility will be different for every institution because of politics, clout, business process, and resource availability. But at the very least, it’s important to spend time prioritizing where you should invest the time to make a splash and where you need to say no to unique requests so that you have time for the projects that will make a bigger impact.

Plan for the life of your content

When you’re dealing with content on such a large scale you have to plan for maintenance. There’s just no other way to keep your sanity. And then you have to do the tough work and carry out your maintenance plans.

This is a huge challenge for us humans. We like to create, but we struggle to sustain because it’s tiring, draining work with little reward.

Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.

- Kurt Vonnegut

There’s no slick trick for ensuring your information is maintained. It’s just a lot of work. But there are some strategies we use to make it a bit easier.

First, we don’t create or publish new content unless there is a dedicated author for the information. Our web team members are not information experts. They’re here to set up web systems that work for the institution. They’re not here to know when information is out of date. All content needs someone looking after it once it’s created.

Second, everyone goes through training. We try our best to not only train people on how to use tools but also on how to create good content—from information architecture to heading structure to linking best practices.

Third, we meet regularly with those responsible for maintaining content and give them new information. Through monthly meeting ups, our authors have an avenue to ask questions, connect with each other, and build their skills.

There’s a lot more I could say about enterprise content management because it’s a huge, challenging task not for the faint of heart.

Be encouraged that there are others out there trying to figure out how today’s best practices apply to the complex work you do. There are likely times when you dream of being able to build and support a 50-page website focused on a single product or service, but know that lots of people appreciate and rely on the work you do behind the scenes to keep your giant systems running.

Keep up the good work, and know that every small step moves you forward.

Fitting a Square Peg into a Round Hole

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Throughout the past year, Bethel’s been making plans to replace Silva with a new content management system (CMS). We’ve been working with our new system, Cascade, for about a month, and after countless hours of training, reading documentation, and experimenting, I think it might be safe to say we’re starting to feel confident.

You might might be thinking both Silva and Cascade just put words onto the internet, so how different can they be?

Great question.

It’s almost like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. On the inside, they couldn’t be more different. Silva is a square cartridge and Cascade is a round hole. It’s our task to move over parts of Silva until they are square and work “The Cascade Way”.

So far I’d say we are off to a good start. In the last month alone we have:

  • installed a fresh copy of Cascade
  • integrated it with Bethel Single Sign On
  • integrated basic pages, forms, and videos

To make things more complicated, each piece in Cascade is built using a ton of different parts (more on that in another post…). This means we’ve have to read, plan, experiment, and then read some more, all before we could even try and set up the most basic page we could imagine.

The good news is that if we set it up right, it will be simple to use. All the burden is on us to do things well so we make creating and editing pages as easy as possible. We’re excited for the task. And we’ll keep you posted on our progress.

 

Done Is Better Than Perfect

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I was listening to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In on my drive a couple weeks ago. Lots of things to think about in her book (and not nearly as controversial as I was led to believe), but one small section stood out from the rest. At one point, she discussed a poster that she noticed shortly after starting at Facebook:

“Done is better than perfect.”

Interesting, I thought. Truth be told, I’m a recovering perfectionist and am perfectly content being quite type-A. But for some reason, I found myself resonating with what she was saying.

Is done better than perfect?

This summer I spent a good amount of time working through a few projects. Due dates were getting pushed back as we worked through the nuances of a word choice, a photo selection, or a slight color tweak. If I’m honest, it was a little draining at times. But more than that, I found myself wondering, is this extra time worth it?

I think that’s why I resonated with Sandberg’s comment. Our projects didn’t seem to be significantly more “perfect” even though we had spent an extra couple days or weeks.

Done is better than perfect.

But I still wasn’t sold. Embarrassing projects of the past floating into my head. Let’s just say, I’ve had my fair share of unfortunate typos, incorrect URLs, and email blunders. I may or may not have sent an email an incoming class of students, greeting them with the wrong name. Were these mistakes preventable with a little more time? A lot more time? How many rounds of proofing? How many rewrites and design comps? Where do you draw the line?

After some time to think and forget the mistakes of the past, here’s where I ended: Done is better than perfect—when something is done right. And something that’s done right is different than something that’s done perfect.

Here are the 3 keys to something being done right.

1. It accomplishes the goals/objectives

At the end of the day, the communication needs to do what it is intended to do. If an event postcard doesn’t entice people to attend, it’s not accomplishing its objective. What if there aren’t clear goals for a piece? Well, that’s a problem.

We need to have clear goals for our work, but also be willing to try new ideas and methods for accomplishing them. Some days our ideas won’t be right, but we need to try new things and new ways of communicating. In 21st century communication, “Tried and true” is rarely an accurate statement.

2. It’s within our brand and personality

Bottom line, what we do needs to sound and look like Bethel. No matter if it’s a prospective student, an alum, or a church partner, the recipient should feel like they’re hearing from the same Bethel.

Our new brand highlights a lot of great keys to making this happen, but here are two important ones—be inviting and not complex. Be inviting—I don’t care if it’s a gift receipt, a thank you note, or details about a financial aid package, the message needs to invite others into the conversation. Talk with others—not at them. Avoid complexity—people read, but they’re not going to read a novel disguised in an email, letter, or postcard (novel postcards are the worst!). Get the point, make it understandable, and be done with it. My wise colleague Kelsey Lundberg always suggests writing your content, cutting it in half, and then cutting it in half again.

Our new brand is just as much about design as it is content. It’s important that our visual representation reflects Bethel well and follows the same guidelines. So, when royal blue, navy, or Bethel gold get’s old—they’re still our colors and being consistent makes for a better brand experience.

3. It launches when it’s time to launch

Everyone suffers from some buyer’s remorse and a little bit of nervousness when it’s time to launch something—but that’s why we set deadlines. We could always edit, rewrite, redesign, and reimagine every webpage every day. But if we did that, we’d never have time for new projects. More challenging—would those webpages (or print pieces) be significantly better? Would the improvements justify the additional time spent?

Harvard Business Review did an article on What Really Happens When You Extend a Deadline and I’d encourage you to read it. Spoiler alert, more time isn’t as great as we think.

So, I’m going to try it. We’ll have ambitious timelines and some days will feel like a constant sprint. But I think it’s worth it. The message we are communicating is that important. As my high school math teacher would say, “Ready? Go!”