Copy and paste content management

by + on December 10, 2012

Last week a personal favorite CMS myth surfaced on a list serve we follow and appeared in the comic strip leading off Jeff Cram’s most recent post about ‘The CMS Demo Myth‘ and I knew it was time to take a closer look. Aptly filed under ‘CMS Selling Point Myths’ it goes something like this: “Of course you can copy and paste from Word into (insert CMS name)”.

The reason I like this myth is because it cuts right to the heart of what makes content management so complex and important: the intersection of systems and users. But not just any users. Professional users who really need to get their work done. People who are on the clock and for whom a rich, friction-less user experience is about staying afloat.

TruthinessThe other great thing about this myth is, like all great misleading truthiness, it just ‘feels right’. The idea that pasting copy is no longer a hurdle just makes sense on a visceral level. And to be honest, in some cases it is ‘technically’ possible. There are content management systems with features to strip away formatting during this operation. But even in cases where the CMS does not include this capability…Users could always paste their content into Notepad or Textedit, and then copy and paste it from there to the CMS. However, if it’s not completely obvious, this approach negates the reasons why most content authors still edit in Word…And therein lies the rub.

That’s some messy orange juice

For a consultant with many years of building and configuring web content management systems, hearing a CMS vendor say ‘Of course you can copy and paste from Word into our CMS’ is like hearing a car dealer say ‘Of course you can use this car to make orange juice’. Technically true? Absolutely. Drive over some oranges in a pan and they’ll become juice. It’s messy, but it works. But is this approach practical in application?

To explore that question it’s important to consider the origin of this feature as a selling point. For a wide variety of very valid reasons, content writers — even those who write exclusively for the web — continue to use Microsoft Word. The point of this article is not to debate this fact. We Mythbusters share a point of view that the design of a technology solution should be informed by user’s needs. Thus, if your content authors must use Word, then it must be possible to move their content from Word into your CMS.

But that’s where things get really messy…And I’m not referring to unnecessary copy formatting either. Web content is not just a linear presentation of words on a page. It’s words, tables, images, media files, PDF documents, and more. It is optimized for search, cross-referenced, and related to other content in a variety of meaningful and important ways, including but not limited to taxonomy, navigational hierarchy and tagging. All this complexity often indicates structure of some sort. Word does many things well, but structured content for the web is not one of them.

The sad truth…

Unfortunately, this situation will most commonly arise when copy editors are creating content for a new website, or one which is in the process of a major design overhaul. Writing copy in Word under these circumstances further complicates the problem because many, if not all, of the pages are being created or edited and it is often the case copy writing is happening before the overall information architecture or user experience design is complete, let alone having a CMS ready for the editors to author in.

If you find yourself in the position of dealing with web copy written in Word, whatever the reason, take heart! There are steps you can take to reduce everyone’s headaches. One simple recommendation is to create a copy deck template for your editors to work within. We’ve attached an example, for consideration, but this type of project artifact should most likely be custom tailored to your project’s specific needs. As you’ll see, the goal is to make sure all the information necessary to build pages is provided with those word documents of body copy.

We’d like to hear from you. How do you deal with web content written in Word?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark Marsiglio December 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm

I include this feature in the list of things important during the sales/selection process but less important post launch. Prospects that are considering a CMS invariably have this on their list of must-haves but that is often because they really do think it will be the best way for them to work. In practice, writing content in the CMS interface itself may be just as easy or even easier.

On a practical note, we occasionally set up an import for Word feature where the user downloads the current CMS content object as a .doc that is a template that maintains the content’s structure. The CMS parses the structure on import into the proper attributes keeping everything clean.

2 Jake DiMare December 11, 2012 at 6:39 am

Thanks for the comment Mark! Downloading the entire site’s content into a Word document sounds like a really cool feature. Is this something you’ve developed as a plugin to a variety of CMS platforms or for your own custom CMS?

3 Clare Cotugno December 11, 2012 at 10:17 am

We have been customizing copy deck templates in this situation, too. The one up side to this is that it forces our customers to articulate page audience and page goal. This, in turn, helps some clients recognize when they are writing pages that shouldn’t exist, or when the page audience, goal and content don’t align in productive ways. By rolling out a “test batch” of copy in these templates with the right people in the room, I can sometimes get clients to take a step back and rethink their strategy before diving into content production. Better late than never!

4 Mark Marsiglio December 11, 2012 at 8:03 pm

It is part of ezpublish – using the ODF Import extension you start by exporting a page from the CMS as a word or openoffice doc which sets up the structure. Then you edit offline (or create a new one via save as) and reupload and the content replaces the previous content matching the attributes to preserve the structure. This video shows a demo of it (in italian though).

5 Christopher Burd January 4, 2013 at 11:16 am

“In practice, writing content in the CMS interface itself may be just as easy or even easier.”

Technically this is often true, but I’ve yet to see an editorial/approval process that works that way. I’m sure they exist, and I can imagine how one would work, but I’ve yet to find a client who is willing to follow one.

Word macros can simplify the process. It’s really not that difficult to set up macros to convert Word styles into standard HTML tags etc. while ignoring irrelevant formatting.

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