The end of the year is always a great time to review and reflect on the year behind us, and resolve to adjust or amend our path forward.
Sure, for most of us, that means we’ll eat a little less (for a while), maybe join a gym, and so forth. But this post isn’t about what we have to do as individuals to better ourselves. I want to focus a bit more on the people who benefit (or suffer) from CMS implementations.
Yes, I’m talking about you, the client.
We talk to hundreds of prospective clients each year. From those conversations, a number of patterns emerge. Web design and development is an odd industry, filled with firms who have less-than-expert skills, yet represent themselves as industry leaders. It’s filled with many choices of technologies, design directions, and strategies. And it’s totally unregulated. Unlike other service industries, there is no licensure or oversight.
As a result, buying creative or digital services is difficult. There always exists a risk that you’ll lose your entire budget and have zero to show for it.
Even worse is the CMS space, where your choices are between open-source software created by a community or large, expensive bloatware from larger companies where your unique needs will likely never be given a second thought. The CMS industry is a mess, where the largest players are peddling outdated technology and the little guys have an uphill battle explaining why their software makes a lot more sense (and I’ll throw myself into that group).
So first of all, let’s resolve that in 2018—or whenever your next CMS development project is—you’ll resolve to not be taken for a ride again. This one is a no brainer. But there is more: What else will help you navigate the muddy, turbulent waters of digital agency services procurement?
Let’s start with these resolutions for 2018 and beyond.
1. Resolve to Learn and Be Educated
This is the most important thing that an individual should do before undertaking any project, whether it be a kitchen renovation or a CMS implementation. You have to learn. This sounds easy—download a few white papers and set up some calls with vendors or consultants, right?
The truth is, it takes much more than that. It takes time to determine what your true needs are and commitment to unearth the unbiased answers to the questions you have.
Learning is why we are here; it’s why you will become the expert at your organization about CMS options, and it’s how you’ll be able to make an educated, fact-oriented decision about the best pathway forward. Education isn’t sitting on calls with vendors and working with the one that gave the best presentation, nor is it downloading white papers and choosing based on the design of the document.
Education is digging into the depths, rather than combing over the surface.
How do you do this in the CMS world? In my mind, you have to focus on these key areas:
By this, I don’t mean how a CMS’s user interface looks, but rather the technological architecture of the software itself. This means learning words like “decoupled” or “headless,” and understanding the difference compared to “integrated” or “monolithic.” It means understanding how the content is created, cataloged, and distributed.
Architecture for software is much like it is for a building—something with a flawed foundation will crumble (just ask the owners in the Millennium Tower in San Francisco).
Technology is often a major deciding factor for an organization, but often for all the wrong reasons. More often than not, a company will choose the platform most in use by others without any other legitimate reasoning (more on this in a bit).
Technology should be the area where you spend the majority of your time learning and investigating, because the right choice in this area will determine the success or failure of your project and, as I’ll address next, the ultimate cost.
This is such an important topic, and yet consistently, we see customers make the same mistakes over and over. All software has costs. There are upfront costs such as license fees; implementation fees, which include design and development; and finally, the ongoing costs of hosting, management, monitoring, and maintenance. That’s not to mention continuous improvement—after all, websites and apps that stay stagnant never evolve or improve. All of these costs have to be researched, and as a client, you have to spend time learning what the costs will be.
Take WordPress for example. So many customers are excited that it’s free with zero license fees. Large corporations’ marketing teams are happy to ditch licensed software to plunge into the open-source world. But they don’t really understand the true cost. First, the cost of security and safety (WordPress is the least secure platform you can choose), then the cost of maintenance and updates. This is the reason WordPress VIP, a service offered by the team behind WordPress, costs $60,000 per year at a minimum—and goes up to $300,000 from there!
Learning is fundamental. Clichéd, but true. The best way to reduce your risk in taking on a new project is to learn before you commit. A nice side effect will be your evolution into the role of being the subject matter expert at your company.
2. Resolve to Question the Establishment
Interruption, disruption, anti-establishment. We’ve been hearing those terms tossed about in the media both politically and referring to the world of tech for what seems like years now.
Have you thought about doing it? Have you thought about questioning what the mob is doing?
The CMS space is inundated by technology that is antiquated. There isn’t any other way to put it. The largest player is WordPress, my favorite punching bag, which dominates the web CMS space. Some say it powers 40% of the websites out there, some say 70%. The point is, it’s the largest player by far. But why?
Is it because it’s the most secure platform? Nope. There are literally 10,000 known vulnerabilities within the platform, its plugins, and its themes.
Is it the architecture? Nope. That was created 15 years ago for bloggers. The core software still has Posts and Pages.
Could it be because of performance? Please…
The reason WordPress is so popular is comfort. People know it, they’ve used it, and the masses create a level of comfort. It’s soothing to know you aren’t alone, or that if things go wrong, you have an entity that can take on the burden of blame. It’s also fast—you can have a site running in an hour.
And there is one other reason it’s so popular: price-conscious buying. It’s difficult to compete, as a developer, with WordPress from a pricing perspective because the technology is so ubiquitous. There are too many lower-tier agencies who will undercut true developers. All of these factors make it the most popular choice.
But again, popularity isn’t always indicative of usefulness or efficacy, nor is it an indicator of what someone should decide.
So resolve to begin digging deeper. Look at the newer solutions out there. Evaluate the actual reasons WHY one package is the preferred solution. It doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist or even an early adopter. It means you took the time to compare your requirements against what’s out there and logically determined the right fit for your situation in particular.
Remember, the reason there are so many technology packages available is because there are that many use cases in existence. How can one single piece of software manage so many different technical scenarios? Question it.
3. Resolve to Contemplate the Future
I’m not saying you have to be a futurist, nor be a fortune teller. I research CMS platforms all day long and even I can’t be sure where everything is going to end up in 10 years. What I am saying is that you need to start looking a bit down the road and determine how your company will adapt as time wears on.
For many types of businesses, this is a relatively benign issue. If you are a B2B services company and have an informational site, there isn’t much to worry about. You’ll probably keep distributing content to the Web and not care much for other options.
However, for those who are either already distributing to multiple channels or contemplating it, it’s time to consider how you will future-proof your content to facilitate that requirement.
One simple example is how web content is stored today on these monolithic platforms. Content organization within the most popular CMSs is focused on web delivery. This means the content may not be clean; it could be laden with mark-up or code that is inline with the content. As future mediums present themselves, porting over that content will be a massive headache.
Ever move from one CMS to another? How did that go?
Exactly. Because the content is so embedded into the architecture, you can’t get out of it. This is one area where, with a little planning, you can be ahead of the curve in the future. And there are more areas of concern to focus on: future tech advancements, future distribution channels, and possible additional monetization strategies.
4. Resolve to Evaluate Risk vs. Reward
If I could give one piece of advice to potential clients, it is to carefully weigh risk versus the reward. It’s often hard for me to explain this concept, as it is self-serving to an extent.
I’ve never claimed our agency is the cheapest resource you can hire, but I do make one hugely important claim: we’ll do what we say we’ll do at the price we say we’ll do it—guaranteed. That is just one area in which you face risk when hiring a developer: will you actually get the project done?
Then there is the quality of how it gets done and, even more importantly, the post-launch implications. Is the site secure? Can you be sure? What is the cost to you if your company’s site is hacked? Would that embarrass the organization? What does that mean for you and your career?
Remember, the Web is a place that never forgets. One slip-up can affect your reputation for years to come. All of these are risk areas that deserve some careful cost-benefit calculations.
5. Resolve to Challenge the CMS Cycle
We all know how it goes. You want a new website design, so you start evaluating the project. It’s been two years since the last redesign, so it’s time. You lay out the way you want the site to work and where the content will go. You talk to vendors and begin getting quotes.
But you discover soon enough that it’s easier to start over with a fresh installation of your CMS rather than migrate what you have to the latest version. If you stay with the same platform, it’s easier, after all. But you still have to reinstall, migrate content, etc.
Why does this even have to happen?
Well, first of all, it’s because most CMSs are not built with the front end in mind. They are built to handle the majority of use cases and as such, they limit the front-end capabilities. This means when you do design a new site (especially if you custom-design it), you’ll most likely be looking at a rebuild of your CMS as well in order to handle the new layout. Most of the time, the new and old will not be compatible.
Also, within those two years since the last redesign, the ancillary software may have changed. Plugins, extensions, modules—whatever you wish to call them. Perhaps there are new ones you want to use, or maybe they just have to be reinstalled and reconfigured for the new design. If you are changing vendors, you can all but be assured of a new installation, simply because there aren’t many vendors that want to deal with someone else’s dirty laundry.
Finally, there is the issue of technical debt. I haven’t seen a CMS installation that wasn’t riddled with technical debt after a couple of years of service. You know, those small, incremental “improvements” you made over the years that you didn’t want to spend any money on? They all lend to the instability of a platform.
And that is the cycle—a small redesign becomes a platform reinstallation and redevelopment. Then two years go by and you are at it again, forever doing the same project over and over.
How about this for a change: Instead of choosing a CMS that is so tightly integrated with the front-end, why not choose one that is completely decoupled, separated from the user experience entirely?
This is how the cycle breaks.
If you’ve read our blog, you know my feelings on what a CMS ought to do. It should be able to add, edit, delete, and organize content—period. Everything else is channel management, whether the channel is a website, application, or other distribution.
Headless CMSs remove all the garbage from your installation, allowing you to focus on clean, future-proofed content and innovative design in an environment that can provide stability to your company for MANY years. Think about having a CMS that can last through 2 or 3 branding-oriented redesigns. It’s now possible!
If you are planning a CMS project in 2018, remember that the cycle—with its roots dating back to 2004—can be broken by looking at new technology and having a willingness to adapt to change.
6. Resolve to Separate from the Pack
This point is similar to breaking the CMS cycle, but it’s about user experience. Can we all resolve to actually move the needle when it comes to user experience?
The web has become stagnant. The era of “sameness” is among us. And this isn’t because the technology available sucks. Nope. Today, there is better front-end technology than ever before. The reason sameness is a pandemic is because it’s easier, faster, and cheaper to stay in line with everyone else.
The majority of people that come to us for a web redesign ask for the same thing. They want their site to be “clean.” Literally, every customer asks for that. We almost ever get a customer that says, “We want to be edgy.” That’s a sad thing, considering that, as artists, we are here to do just that—move the needle while still accomplishing goals.
I’m not saying it’s easy to be creative. Nor is it cheap. In fact, given the economics of web design, I believe this chart summarizes the problem of sameness:
As you can see, being unique costs a premium. And most companies want to put those dollars towards other initiatives, but end up stalling behind their competition anyway.
So in 2018, I challenge you to be different, avoid sameness, and come up with a new experience for your company that isn’t based on the principal of being exactly like everyone else.
I sat down to write this post figuring it would be a quick topic to discuss. But as I worked through it, not only did I dig up a series of ideas for future blog posts, I also realized just how important it is to challenge our current thinking and our understanding of website design and development—most importantly, CMS technologies—in the coming year.
The existing cycle of CMS implementation just isn’t advantageous to consumers. Marketers shouldn’t have to rebuild their company’s sites every couple of years simply because the technology isn’t capable of longevity. And they should be able to build experiences that move the needle because that is something they want to achieve without being hindered by the architecture of a platform everyone has crowned as the standard.
We can do better.
Best of luck in 2018!