$10,000 in free CMS consulting that could save your next project


One of my favorite panels at Gilbane is Stump the CMS Consultant where the audience poses hard questions to a battle-tested panel of CMS experts. The 2014 edition was especially good, moderated by Jarrod Gingras of Real Story Group and featuring Praveen Ramanathan, Anne Casson and Deane Barker. Because these folks bill out at such a high day rate, I figure an hour with the three of them together is worth at least $10,000 in free consulting (if not more in what it could save you from taking a wrong turn). I live blogged the session below so we can all benefit from the wisdom, and see what is on the minds of Gilbane attendees.  Apologies in advance for paraphrasing the answers. Happy to correct anything that didn’t get translated right.

And bonus: My question (noted below) was selected as the hardest, gaining me a new pair of headphones. Awesome!

Question: What is the No. 1 thing to consider when migrating to a new CMS?

  • Praveen: Governance. Folks usually completely forget the whole process of making sure the right people in the organization can govern the content and systems. It’s a very big blind spot.
  • Anne: Detailed content model and structure that breaks down all the fields at the component level.
  • Deane: Taking into consideration the new system and the fit to the specific purpose, as well as the competence of the integrator (if you are not building it in-house).

Audience winner: Deane
My choice: Praveen (because this is almost always missed. The others are valuable but commonly understood in my opinion)

Question: What do I do if my brand name CMS has been off the upgrade path for ~10 years?

  • Anne: I see this a lot. Do an assessment, but eventually you will need to switch.
  • Deane: Find a new CMS, but if you have to live with it, understand how malleable your current CMS is and see if you can find an integrator that can work within the system and it’s limitations. But really, you probably need to find a new CMS.
  • Praveen: This isn’t a tech problem if it hasn’t been upgraded for 10 years. 10 years is like 100 years in this industry. You probably have a people and process issue. Take a step back and look at the landscape.

Audience winner: Praveen
My choice: Praveen (this was especially insightful. Praveen comes out of the gate strong)

Question: What are the tools to integrate offline/web/and database for multi-channel purposes?

  • Deane: WCM should be the integration hub, but have them integrating into an integration level and then pushing into channels.
  • Praveen: This is a systems integration challenge. You need to abstract a service layer. But you also need to look at this from a customer perspective.
  • Anne: Have never seen a scenario where clients have used once tool to do everything with digital content. Need to abstract data layer.

Audience winner: Anne
My choice: Deane (he’s spot on here and has been talking about this in more detail than most for years)

Question: Why should we pay for an expensive proprietary system when we can get just as good with a free/open source?

  • Praveen: It’s a choice. Some is cultural. IT may lean toward proprietary because they feel more safe and get official support from the source. Generally a fan of open source and encourages it in the startup
  • Anne: I’ve seen clients have success with open source, as well as expensive proprietary CMS. Proprietary platforms often offer more support. But open source can be a perfectly fine solution.
  • Deane: Depends on what your problem is. There are two big types of systems, content management and content marketing. The higher end marketing capabilities is not happening at the open source level.

Audience winner: Deane (in a landslide)
My choice: Deane (While Acquia would disagree with that POV — insightful Tom Wentworth comment in 3,2,1… — largely he’s right that the innovation on  the marketing side comes from commercial vendors, not crowd sourced development platforms. This is changing, just not fast enough.)

Question: How much training can you build into a CMS? What is better addressed through guides and in-person than you can build into the system?

  • Anne: Need to train in-context rather than generically. You can improve templates
  • Deane: This depends on how manipulative the user interface is. If it’s locked down it can be hard. All users aren’t created equally  (Admins, authors, developers, etc). I’m a big fan of channeled interfaces. You can solve training problems in a more targeted way for these tasked based folks that don’t need to be exposed to a CMS.
  • Praveen: Training should be part of an overall plan and launch strategy. Voice of the employee should be embedded into the system and end authors should be engaged in the process.

Audience Winner: Praveen
My choice: Deane (Maybe I spend too much time with Deane, but I’m a huge fan of task/channel based thinking with CMS usability. Few folks address this)

Question (This is my question): What are the biggest weaknesses/gaps that you see in the service provider landscape that prevent great outcomes on CMS driven projects? 

  • Deane: We try and bid on projects too early. We have people come to us too early and they want a number. Too often, we’re willing to do that before we should.  I believe we should have a paid project that defines the scope and cost of this. Our number is too low, or we need to pad the hell out of it. It’s disingenuous and we try hard not to do this because we provide numbers that aren’t accurate.
  • Praveen: Don’t push enough for the big picture and the success factors and outcomes.
  • Anne: Communication between creative team and tech team. We can be sitting right next to each other, but we don’t always speak the same language. We try so hard and it’s still a challenge .

Audience Winner: Anne (landslide)
My choice: Anne (Anne nailed it with Deane a close close second. Connected expertise is huge gap and hard even when everyone trying hard)

Question: As we move toward a more multi-channel/omni-channel world, how do we deal with the authoring challenges? 

  • Praveen: Pick a CMS that has good support for Omnichannel experiences. The real trick isn’t the form factors. That’s solvable. It’s how you get the message across at the right time to the right customer ton the right device.
  • Anne: Forms aren’t the issue here. Solving the authoring challenges is important for consistently, but we’re not going to ever completely do away with the need of having slightly different needs. Training goes a long way here.
  • Deane: Granularity and forms based editing do get along. Preview is the biggest challenge here. You can’t say, hey how does this look. In what? And for what audience? You may have 30 different versions of how content gets delivered. We need systems that provide multi-channel preview which can be a big differentiator for vendors and we need to build these in for our editors.

Audience Winner (Deane)
My choice: (Deane — we need more from vendors here. It’s not easy to solve, but can get better)

Question: When does it make sense to go with a best of breed solution vs. one single vendor suite?

  • Anne: From where I sit as a content strategist, the problems I deal with aren’t solved by the specific systems. Don’t have the right perspective to answer this question.
  • Deane: be honest about what you are trying to do. The industry is so far ahead of where folks are. if you believe that your needs are truly unique and high-end, you should go best of breed. Most aren’t there. Mostly, they need to integrate.
  • Praveen: Has what they call a SMAC stack which looks across social, mobile and [didn't catch the other two] to evaluate if you need a best of break solution.

Audience winner: Deane
My choice: Deane (Although I thought Anne’s opt out was the right reflex. We need to make the systems we have work better.)

Question: How do you define content strategy and get consensus on the definition within your company? 

  • Deane: Content is what goes in containers. We’re good at defining containers, but not defining what goes in them. If you get too wrapped up in the containers, it’s a problem. Content strategy addresses this.
  • Praveen: Content strategy starts with user experience and information architecture. Start with your user personas and understand who your users are and what content is important to them.
  • Anne: Content strategy is about surfacing the right content to a specific customer at the right time. And it needs to meet very specific business, and brand goals. The way to get the group behind content strategy is to understand how the artifacts fit into other disciplines and how it impacts decision making.

Audience winner: Anne
My choice: Anne (runaway winner, she owns this topic)

Nice work to everyone involved, including the audience. Great questions and great answers.

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

More articles from Jeff Cram


3 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. John Field says:

    I’m going to beat Tom to the punch here – Acquia’s “higher end marketing capabilities” are not Open Source, they have acquired technology that they own/sell

  2. Thanks Jeff for the $1000 free consulting.
    Actually very interesting.

    My comment is on the question “Why should we pay for an expensive proprietary system when we can get just as good with a free/open source? “.

    Surprised that people still think open source is a free (as beer…) option. Wether you go for a commercial open source vendor or for a pure FOSS software, you will have costs to cover your needs in software services. I believe this question should belong to the Gilbane 2004 conference, not the Gilbane 2014. It should be rephrased.

    Beside that, I tend to agree with Dean, innovation in Digital Marketing came mostly from closed source vendors, in Content Management from Open Source vendors.

  3. Tom Wentworth says:

    @John Right and wrong. Acquia Lift is a SaaS application, but the Drupal front-end components are indeed open source e.g. https://www.drupal.org/project/acquia_lift. For example, someone could take our UI components and plug them into a different personalization/testing engine.

    @Roland Agreed, the value proposition of open source stopped being about free/cost a long time ago.

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