Avoiding the CMS Death Spiral

We’re on the receiving end of a lot of calls and requests from companies that, frankly, find themselves in dire straits over their web content management software implementations post-launch. (And when I say companies, I mean the web development manager or website owner whose job is on the line over a problematic CMS project. Their voice is one part frustration and one part fear.)

It’s almost as if they’re all reading from the same script, describing the same inexorable descent into a CMS death spiral that’s nearly impossible to escape from:

  • They hired an agency to re-do their website and implement a new CMS
  • The site launched but suffers from a variety of bugs, crashes, publishing and presentation problems
  • Their internal web developers were supposed to be able to keep things running easily post-launch
  • But with too many problems to wrestle with (and other jobs to to) they ask their agency to fix it
  • The agency (which helped get them into this mess to begin with) assigns developers to help where they can, but soon throws up its hands and beats a hasty retreat
  • Morale at the client company takes a dive; marketers and other users of the CMS system can’t live with it – and the CMS death spiral takes over

Then our phone rings. They’re looking for an agency to perform a rescue operation to salvage the six-figure project they thought was going to be a success.  They’re out of time, nearly out of money, and running low on patience. (It brings to mind my colleague Jeff Cram’s earlier piece, “The Five Stages of CMS Grief.”)

That’s where the frustration grows even greater. It takes a lot of hands (plus time and money) to troubleshoot a troubled CMS implementation. In our experience, it requires more than “jumping in” and addressing bug tickets. Addressing surface-level code problems is one thing, but the problems typically run deeper (often much deeper) than that. No one wants to hear that post-launch.

When we are asked to troubleshoot and fix a “broken” CMS, we go at it like a home inspector, performing a top to bottom audit of the site and the CMS to look for the underlying problems. We often end up find a lot of work that’s simply not up to code. Sometimes the tech problems aren’t tech problems at all.  It’s often the case that the project didn’t have a sound, strategic approach to begin with. Someone was trying to solve, with software, something that isn’t as easily and as quickly addressed. 

These organizations usually face two paths: forge ahead with addressable repairs and fixes (often investing a substantial amount of money to right the wrongs), or in extreme cases, rip and replace the CMS and start over from scratch.

Companies often ask us: Where did they go wrong? A lot of people voiced this sentiment — and gave warnings for others embarking on a CMS project – in our recent CMS Wisdom Report.

The truth is, CMS is a challenging technology to get right. It’s complex software that supports complex technical, business and marketing requirements. It alters processes.  It requires full-fledged vision, planning, strong execution and an experienced team that can recognize problems and ask the right questions before they become problems.

The organizations that cut corners up front (knowingly or unknowingly) are often the ones who are left paying the biggest price in a troubled post-launch world.  

With more organizations investing large sums on CMS projects, we provide caution when it comes to aligning with any agency to conduct CMS implementations. There are many competent, well-trained and responsible firms out there; so too are there agencies that don’t have the breadth and depth of experience on a particular platform, or they lack project management skills to see a CMS initiative through to (successful) completion. And more importantly, they often don’t bring the up-front guidance to set the right expectations with the organization which has never gone through this process before.

We’ve seen enough of this to be confident in offering this advice for any company that wants to avoid the CMS death spiral:

  1. Vet your implementation agency up front; do you really want CMS rookies building your site? Proven development skills on a platform AND the process- and project-management experience to build a new site matters. Success starts before you sign the contract.
  2. Evaluate your own internal commitment to the project and ensure you have empowered internal owners who can own it long after the implementation team is gone.
  3. Include clear and concise language in the development agreement for what constitutes a “finished” site, including the level of quality assurance and problem resolution that you and your agency can agree on.
  4. Be realistic on budgeting for QA and bug fixes during your project; it can take a lot to solve big problems and tweak the small issues; this can be 100% on your agency partner, or it can be a shared workload when it comes to testing and fixing.
  5. Realize too that if you invest in a CMS, you’re now in the software business – whether you like it or not. A CMS project is never “done”. Staff accordingly for post-launch maintenance and support, or be prepared to pay an agency to maintain the platform for you (to one degree or another).

Turning around a challenged CMS project is a project in and of itself. It can often seem like a futile exercise. If it’s going to work out, it takes a real commitment inside your organization to see it through and pull it back from the brink. And the skills and talents of outside helpers who know the right questions to ask, and the right answers to give.

Do you have any advice to lend? Any successful CMS turnarounds? Lend your advice to the discussion.

About the Author
David Aponovich

A former 'CMS Insider,' David is relentlessly focused on the gap between vendor speak and customer adoption. In addition to keeping a keen eye on industry trends, he works with clients on the cultural and process implications of CMS that are so often overlooked. David wrote for the CMS Myth during his time working at Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design).

More articles from David Aponovich


2 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. Great post.

    One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen with CMS projects is the failure to staff. Most clients but a CMS platform, pay a vendor to implement it and then expect ‘done’ to arrive one day.

    That day never shows up because there are always constant changes coming. Always new features and functionality for CMS driven websites. Done never arrives so clients always feel like they are spending way too much to ‘implement’ their CMS…when in reality they are just seeing the reality of the software business. Done never is.

    Part of a CMS selection process should be the staffing requirements for pre- and post-implementation. What type of people will be needed before the implementation starts? How many? The same is true for post-implementation…what type of people wlll be needed…and how many?

    Definitely something for people to think about when reviewing and selecting a CMS platform.

    • Excellent points Eric. I agree completely.

      The lack of staffing foresight continues to be one of the top defining factors as to whether web content management (and really, the whole digital house) stands on its own or comes tumbling down. I like what you say: Done never is. A website (and CMS) is a process, not a one-and-done project.

      Thanks for the feedback; keep it coming.

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