Technology is our friend: Why managers need a new CMS more than their editors
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February 3, 2015

Why managers need a new CMS more than their editors

Everyone who publishes digital content for a business purpose is currently struggling with the high fragmentation of audiences on a big variety of hardware and software platforms. You can reach a user via Facebook on his smartwatch or with your email on an iPad, with your app on an Xbox or your content integrated in another app on a Television, via Twitter on a desktop or welcome a user on your web destination in a browser. This last case used to be the main case in the past, with Google typically delivering the largest part of your audience, then direct traffic, then social – one of those “software platforms” like Facebook being present on a variety of hardware platforms with different operating systems; when we have presences there, we can call them “managed platforms”, in distinction from “owned platforms” like our websites and apps.

While there are extreme examples in the market like BuzzFeed or Upworthy who get the vast majority of their traffic from social, and to a large degree from their “managed platforms” there, the general trend applies to virtually every “owned platform” – direct traffic may be stable in the best case, but the traffic sources shift from search to social (with Facebook leading), and in case of apps, where search is still dysfunctional, push notifications and social are the major traffic sources.

There are a number of implications here which I tried to point out in another post on this blog, “5 things we can learn from the likes of BuzzFeed about successful digital publishing”. Many of them are hard to implement since they are either costly, or against the current customs, processes and organizations, or all of it together. This makes implementation and innovation an uphill race; my experience with clients is that the more tangible things are described, the more likely it is to get buy-in from stakeholders – especially for an expensive but necessary new CMS. The editors are always in favor - their working environment typically is rather an obstacle to productivity than a help, takes ages to load, makes easy tasks difficult and provides no extra value besides the technical process of publishing content in a template and storing the data in an archive. Management buy-in is harder to get - they are used to employees complaining about everything, coming up with costly demands instead of working harder and better. As often as this may be true, in our current phase of developments in the digital age, not in the case content management systems. Being in this situation a few times over the past one, two years, I have made some experiences in how to get management buy-in for necessary updates in the production environment for digital media.

One important part of making the case more tangible is to promote and explain the concept of cards. Many think they may be “the future of the web”, and the whole concept is perfectly described in this article from Ex-Googler, Ex-Facebooker Paul Adams. Cards are basically a technical unit that carries content and interaction features, and therefore are a metaphor for the whole future of successful digital communications: Merge technology and content, both on the product as well as on the employee and processes side. The great thing about cards is that they adapt to the software platform and device they are delivered on; if you are late in the game, you may leapfrog that whole “responsive” idea as the variety of devices will grow and it will require a different delivery of stories, not only with regards to how they are displayed visually, but also how much of a story and engagement features are shown.

This whole concept makes a few things about content very clear that may seem to be obvious, but older, diverging concepts are so deeply planted in our minds that actually realizing what they mean (and act accordingly) becomes a hard thing to accomplish:

Stories and articles become “atomic units”; they may form a molecule together with others on your “owned platform”, but may also form completely different ones, uncontrollable for us, on “managed platforms”. On a physical newspaper, an article makes it to the front page together with others, like one stone of a mosaic. On a homepage, a similar thing happens; there’s a selection of articles, a certain mix of video, photo and text content, although increasingly put together by algorithms based on data and not by editors based on gut feeling. The developments described in the beginning of this blog – more social traffic, less direct traffic, less search traffic – lead to a significant drop in “share of homepage traffic” on our owned platforms. The mosaic still exists, but it has less and less exposure – our audiences get to article pages right away. It is as if they open a newspaper exactly on the page the one article of interest is published on, and they are basically blind for everything else that newspaper offers on that page. So even on our “owned platforms” we have to consider the nature of content being an “atomic unit”. It has to live on its own, find its own audiences, and we cannot rely on other articles delivering audiences to it. Our best bet are “related articles”, “you may like” etc. on an article page. But to be displayed there, the article referred to must promise a commercial potential by itself. Subsequently, an article, a story, delivered on a card, will find its audiences (big or small) by travelling through software and hardware platforms, being shared and distributed by others than us – even on our owned platforms, decided by algorithms. This raises the bar for every story with regards to relevance and “shareability”, but it also means that we, as publishers, have less and less control about which of our contents are consumed. We are still used to the thought that “placing something at a prominent place”, like in the newspaper days, “will get it a bigger audience”. To some extent, we have this influence with our managed platforms, giving a content that we want to promote more exposure on Facebook, but even this extent is directly bound to the story’s (or headline/image) direct appeal to audiences; ultimately, every story becomes a business case in itself.

Therefore, the article page as such has to get a lot more attention than being “a template stored in our CMS”. Often enough publishers include (internal and external) articles served by third parties like Taboola or Outbrain because they simply perform better than own recommendations, or sponsored links and ads by Yahoo, AOL, in Germany Plista and these services.

Huffington Post: Upper Row are "internal" recommendations, lower row leads to somewhere else, but is paid by click.
When every story, every article is a business case, we should consider the cost side as well. Putting together a BuzzFeed style “listicle” – "21 things you want to avoid when you’re drunk" – is not going to give you BuzzFeed style traffic, if you are not able to give this story exposure on every platform, wherever its potential audiences may be (for example by using cards); but even if you manage this, it won’t give you any profit if it took seven editors a week to assemble and publish it. When every article is seen as a business case, and according to the mobile shift, social sharing and user behavior, your number of daily published articles should be on the rise, your CMS is the major leverage to influence the cost side of things on a large scale. The more technology supports an editor in a meaningful way, the less manual work has to be invested, for example in finding and embedding social media contributions to a story. Additionally, a CMS should collect and display data about the success of an article, so editors can learn and adapt:

Very much like a Facebook fanpage (that basically is a CMS, because the stories are perceived in the newsfeed and not on the fanpage itself): for an administrator (editor), it shows for every article additional information about how many people were reached, how they engaged, how the article was shared and how the shares engaged audiences.

Although most Facebook posts are not considered as a business case, I made the experience that editors who publish a lot on Facebook develop a very good feeling for their audiences on this specific platform, how they will react, how many will like, share or click – very much unlike editors on websites who do not have that constant, visible feedback, but have to stare on a chartbeat screen that shows very general information and get an exhaustive PDF file from a department sitting somewhere else with a vast amount of web stats every four weeks. As much as cards will merge technology and content, the need to bring editors and analysts together is equally high. The closer editors get to managing a business case, their article, the more they become "media producers" rather than writers. But they need tools to produce.
In this era, where technology meets editorial and articles develop a life of their own, becoming completely independent from their original publishing place, with shrinking influence of this place on how big the audience will be, where articles will travel on cards to a huge variety of software and hardware platforms, getting exposure to people who did not search for it, in this era a story truly is an “atomic unit”, a smallest business entity, be it for a publisher or a company that publishes digital stories to advertise their brand, their products or their services. A CMS that is suited for this era is not just the thing that editors use to publish stuff, but basically a fundamental steering mechanism for the productivity and profitability of publishing content with a business purpose, enabling an organization to treat every article like its own business case. It should be the managers who advocate a new CMS.