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What can a Content Management System do for you?
Written by Aba Maison
Many organizations now have Web sites, are keen to get one, or to redevelop an existing site. Lots of these Web sites will consist of static HTML pages and will require some degree of technical knowledge to update (e.g. HTML skills, knowledge of Dreamweaver, FrontPage, or some other Web authoring package).
Static HTML pages may be fine if your Web site is small, simple, has few interactive features such as discussion forums or polls, if content changes infrequently, or if you have staff with the relevant technical skills in-house. As Web sites increase in size and complexity, keeping track of content becomes much more difficult with static HTML pages. Bottlenecks can occur, for example, if the site needs updating regularly but only one person knows how to create or alter Web pages and upload them to the site.
Content in the context of a Web site includes things like images, documents (including reports, fact sheets, etc.), sound and video clips.
A Web Content Management System ( CMS) is a sophisticated tool that can be used to make the whole process of Web publishing much easier. The design and presentation of content on a Web page is separated from the content creation process. This is because Web pages and links can be dynamically generated from information held in a database.
By making use of technologies such as XML (extensible Mark up Language), a CMS can also allow content that is stored in the database to be repurposed for different devices such as mobile phones, handheld computers, kiosks and Web TV as well as PCs.
With a CMS, Web developers can concentrate on the site structure, navigation, look-and-feel without having to worry about creating and maintaining content.
The whole site can remain consistent since information is drawn from the content database and plugged into templates created by the Web developer for different types of Web page. Different templates can be designed for different areas of a site if needed; for example the layout of a news page may need to be different from the layout of a fact sheet page. Templates can be designed to meet any necessary technical and accessibility standards.
A CMS can also allow global changes to a site to be made much more easily if needed. The design of the template can be changed rather than having to edit each page individually.
Content writers can concentrate on writing content without having to worry about design issues. Content can easily be added to the database and displayed on a Web page by typing or pasting text into fields in a form within the CMS administration system. Information about the content (metadata) such as title, description, keywords, author, publish date, review date, etc. can also be added. This enables content that needs updating to be searched for easily when it goes out of date and needs to be amended.
A CMS can also be used to help manage workflow and maintain quality control by allowing an overall administrator of the system to set roles and permissions for authors, editors and publishers. For example, several authors may be able to upload new material to the CMS at any time. The editor can be alerted when new content is added to the system. The new material can then be reviewed, approved, and finally published to the Web site by an authorized person at the click of a button.
A CMS can therefore allow people without technical Web authoring skills to easily update and maintain a Web site.
What to Look for in a CMS
The needs of your organization and website will largely determine what you want from a CMS however important features to consider include:
- Web page templates (with the ability to update templates if needed): the templates should conform to current recognised standards for Web technologies and accessibility to ensure maximum compatibility across different browsers and platforms
- Security and access rights for different types of user: e.g. only those with the correct authorization should be able to publish material to the live site once its content has been approved
- Integration with existing systems: for example if you already have a suitable database could this be used? Do you need the CMS to convert your existing Word documents to HTML?
- Non technical content creation and publishing: perhaps your content authors should not be required to use HTML or other technical knowledge to create Web pages
- Facility to hold, edit and format text, and to link to and add other digital content such as images, audio and video to a Web page easily
- Ability to record information about the content (metadata) such as author, when it was updated, when it needs to be reviewed, etc., and the means to report on this information
- If the CMS is likely to have many simultaneous users, features such as record locking will be important to ensure that clashing changes are prevented
- Ability to add, remove and archive content: a CMS could also offer the means to specify when a page should be put live on a site, and when it should be taken down (e.g. for press releases and news items)
- Link management: so that when a new page is added or a page is deleted, links to or from other pages in the site are automatically created or removed. You may also require a facility to be notified automatically if there are any problems with links to external sites
- Tools to allow the CMS administrators to create online surveys and polls and to easily collect, store and publish the results
- Ability to run on your existing equipment
Content management systems can range from fairly simple to those with highly sophisticated workflow management processes built-in. Some systems may require users to know a few basic HTML tags to format text while others will only require simple word processing skills.
The more complicated your needs are, the more expensive the CMS is likely to be. Before identifying your specific requirements, it is important to:
- Determine which goals of your organization will be achieved by implementing a CMS (have a business case for getting one)
- Involve all the potential stakeholders in the process of drawing up your requirements; survey what information needs to be published via the CMS as this will influence the functionality you need
Once you've decided on your requirements. specify them in plain language in as much detail as possible giving examples wherever you can. This will help potential suppliers understand your needs better.
Options for a CMS
Once you've decided your organization needs a CMS, made a business case for getting one, and drawn up your requirements what are your options?
Build it Yourself
Unless you have the relevant technical skills in house this is not really an option. Most small- to medium-sized voluntary organizations are unlikely to have staff with these skills. Even if you do, you will need to ensure the system can be supported if the person who designed it leaves.
Commission a Developer to Build One for You
Many Web development companies have already built content management systems for other customers that could be adapted to suit your organization's specific needs. Alternatively, they may be able to build you a system from scratch. The advantage of this is that the company should be able to provide ongoing support for the system and you should get something that closely matches your needs. You could still run into problems if the company goes bust however. Selecting the company carefully -- including checking out its financial stability -- should help reduce the risk of this happening.
Depending on your requirements, you'll need to budget for severa hundred dollars upwards for a fairly simple text based system plus the cost of the Web site design. For a reasonably complex site with features such as discussion forums, images, user polls you're probably looking at upwards of $4,500 - $9,000 plus Web site design costs.
Buy an Off-the-Shelf Product
There are many products on the market. At the lower end, prices range from around $2,000 up to $150,000. You may also need to budget for someone with appropriate technical skills to install and set up the software for you.
Higher-end products that might be used on very large, or complex sites can go up from $150,000 to several hundred thousands of dollars or even millions. For this you can expect a system that is highly customized, and which will undoubtedly take several weeks or months to implement.
Off-the-shelf products often use proprietary software (although some are based on open standards such as XML) so you may be locked into using a particular supplier, or tied into an expensive support package and/or licensing fee. The company may also discontinue a particular product in the future and you may be forced to consider upgrading to continue getting support. On the plus side, the product is likely to be tried and tested, supported (as long as it hasn't been discontinued), and unless you're going for a high end product, it should be relatively straightforward and quick to get your site up and running.
Open Source Solutions
Open Source solutions can be just as effective as very expensive products and can be free or very low cost. Another advantage of Open Source solutions is that there will generally be a community of users developing and improving the product and willing to share their knowledge for free.
You will need to have access to someone with appropriate technical skills to install, set up, and modify the software for your needs (e.g. an external Web developer or someone in house), so this option is not without costs even if the software is free.
A CMS will not be appropriate for every site. A CMS can have the advantage of allowing non-technical users to maintain a Web site very easily and provide powerful tools for managing content and the Web publishing process. Although the initial outlay may be higher than for building your Web site with flat HTML pages, in the long run a CMS could prove more cost effective.
If you are getting a new Web site built or redeveloping an existing one, and your site needs updating regularly by users without the relevant technical skills, is large or complex, then a CMS is worth considering.
On the other hand, if your site is a simple brochure site that needs updating infrequently, or you have appropriate technical skills in house then a CMS may be over the top for your needs.