Are You Overpaying for Content Management?

Companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on software to manage their websites and other documents — and getting dubious returns. There’s got to be a better way.


The numbers aren’t pretty. According to a Jupiter survey of chief information officers at companies with more than $50 million in revenue, 53 percent will have deployed new content-management systems by the end of this year. Given the expense involved — a high-end CMS like Vignette can cost upwards of $100,000 for the software alone, plus another multiple of that in installation costs — you’d think these companies would be choosing wisely and getting exactly what they need. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Content-management systems help companies produce and maintain all their textual information: marketing copy, help files, customer service FAQs, and the like. The information can appear on websites, but it doesn’t have to — if your company uses manuals, books, press releases, or brochures, you can probably benefit from the kind of functions a CMS will offer (an obvious example would be, say, the ability to alter the copyright notice at the bottom of every page of a website or book with just a few keystrokes).

Vendors such as Vignette, Documentum, and Interwoven came to the forefront during the Internet boom because websites often required a large number of people to manage more information than ever, frequently posting new content to a big site daily or even hourly. With a CMS, the people who write copy can update the site easily using simple, Web-based forms, without having to muck around in HTML, while others take care of the site’s appearance, organization, and underlying code.

That sounds great on paper (no pun intended), but in the real world, all the expense and effort involved in deploying such a system often results in disappointment, says Jupiter Research senior analyst Matthew Berk. Companies pick the wrong software for their needs or underestimate how much time and money the deployment will take. “Nothing works out of the box,” Berk says, “period.” He adds that CMS deployment costs are usually two to six times the software’s purchase price.

As a result, he predicts that many companies will abandon high-end CMS vendors and start building cheaper, homegrown versions based on open-source software, such as Cocoon, Mason, and Zope. However, that’s a less-than-ideal approach as well. “It takes an organization a long time to duplicate the bells and whistles that are available in an off-the-shelf product,” says Ann Rockley, president of Toronto-based content management consultancy the Rockley Group.

What’s the solution? Actually, there are a few. First off — and this may seem like common sense — you should be clear at the beginning about what you need, and approach the purchase from a business perspective. “Organizations have a tendency to buy the tech first, and then figure out what it is they’re going to do with it,” Rockley says. Instead, she advises, determine exactly which employees are going to produce content, what the existing work flow is, what kinds of documents they’re creating, and where the content will be used. Bill Rogers, CEO of CMS vendor Ektron, agrees. “You need to sit down and figure out how you manage content today, who should be in what work groups, and how you manage the approval process,” he says.

Second, include all types of content in your analysis, not just text on your website. The more you can reuse common elements (product descriptions, for instance) — instead of having to rewrite them each time — the more efficient you can be with the company’s time and money. The savings get especially dramatic when you need to have copy translated into other languages, Rockley says, because a CMS can save you from having identical text translated more than once.

Third, if you’re building a homegrown CMS, tread with care. A better approach may be to use low-end commercial CMS software, which can give you a basic framework for as little as a few thousand dollars. The high-end systems will handle large volumes of content better and often have more sophisticated options, but these features may be overkill for many companies. Berk estimates that there are more than 200 CMS vendors in the market now, including Ektron, Atomz, Percussion, and Red Dot.

Fourth, make sure that business managers, not IT, are in control of the CMS project. It’s the business side that understands how content is produced and what kinds of processes really work — aspects that are critical to a successful deployment. “If you have an IT department that’s simply automating bad business processes, you can see why it gets very costly,” says Scott Abel, a content-management strategist for Nims Associates, an IT consulting firm in Indiana. Business managers can also stick up for the needs of the nontechnical staff who will actually be using the system to create content. “Usability for the nontechnical users is critical,” Jupiter’s Berk says. In other words, you need to keep it simple for the sake of the editorial staff.

Finally, do a dry run before you build out an entire content-management system. Many vendors will provide a low- or no-cost evaluation version of their software for pilot projects, Rockley says. That can give you invaluable feedback on whether the software (and the business processes you’ve set up) is going to work properly. After all, if you’re going to drop a few hundred thousand dollars on a critical piece of your business infrastructure, you should be 100 percent certain it’s what you want.

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Are You Overpaying for Content Management?