Part 1: The CMS, Why It Matters, and How You’ve Ignored It
This is a multi-part post aimed at helping CMOs understand the CMS and its technological implications, as well as how to procure the best CMS platform for their organization.
Let’s start with a fact.
Being a CMO is hard. The role is often not well-respected within an organization.
Product folks don’t understand the finer points of a well-oiled marketing machine. IT sees the urgency of marketing requests as a burden. Sales guys blame marketing for lax lead generation. And worst of all, executives have unrealistic expectations—all KPIs must be improved in a short timeframe.
On top of all that, it must be done at the lowest manageable cost. Every year, you’ll be expected to show that performance is increasing and expenditure is decreasing.
Did you really sign up for this?!
Yet what you know—and what everyone else is failing to realize—is that digital marketing today is more complex than ever. You have more choices, services, and possibilities than ever before.
10 years ago, it was easy. You had a website, you had a mailing list, and you tied those together with some old-world techniques to measurable effect. Analytics were just barely registering as something to lose sleep over, and there was no such thing as a “marketing stack.”
Today, your ecosystem is more than just a website. It’s a suite of technology tools. And the market is flooded with them. Several years ago, an analyst at Gartner made a prediction that by 2017 the CMO would spend more on technology than the CIO.
Well, sure enough, it’s come to fruition. Indeed, the role of CMO is more important than ever, and the success or failure of a CMO’s tenure today will ultimately be traced back to the technology decisions (and implementations) that they make.
Today, the marketing technical stack contains more than just a website and a mailing list. It contains complicated automation software, social media management and analytics, a CRM system, SEO and optimization, and advertising campaign management and analysis. I could go on and on with that list, as there are about 4,000 vendors of marketing technology tools touting how their solutions are invaluable to your organization—and the list is growing.
So why should the CMO care about the CMS?
Well, before I answer, let me explain my understanding of the unfortunate perspective many CMOs have on the CMS.
The CMO and the CMS: Background
For the most part, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that of all the technologies available to CMOs, the content management system has become the ignored middle child in a family of overachievers.
The CMS isn’t necessarily a new concept. It’s boring. It hasn’t evolved much. After all, the CMS does just one thing, right? It manages content—that means adding, editing, and deleting stuff. So why give it much bother?
Most models of the marketing stack have even gone as far as simply relegating the CMS to one equal part of the equation, making it an equivalent of lesser applications such as social media management.
Sadly, this is how many CMOs view their marketing stack:
This theory of the limited usefulness of the CMS has been accelerated by the commoditization of the systems themselves, mostly by the onslaught of open-source platforms that have made it possible for CMOs to see cost savings on license fees and implementation, albeit at what is sometimes a significant level of risk.
The CMS is so lacking the sexiness of other marketing technologies that marketers often just outsource the selection process to their tech teams, as shocking as that may seem, leaving the selection process to individuals who have no sense of content modeling, marketing goals and objectives, or analytics.
Why bother when everyone is talking about marketing automation, CRM, and the marriage of sales and marketing, right?
I’ve seen companies running their marketing websites using Squarespace and then spending months debating the strengths of one marketing automation suite versus another. Duh!
There is only one arena where CMOs believe that the CMS actually IS sexy. This is in the hyper-elite playing field of expensive, licensed CMS packages, which have smartly chosen to market only to the Fortune 1000 CMO, eschewing the technical people who would all too quickly spotlight the flaws and lack of flexibility these systems allow.
But this is a different world, where a CMO isn’t even going to actually view the demo of these platforms—rather, their deputies will. And in this upper-class scenario, a million-dollar CMS implementation is being compared against other million-dollar budgets and not thought too much of.
Most CMOs don’t live in this world dominated by billion-dollar corporations. Most of you are fighting tooth and nail for influence and budgets. CEOs think these things cost nothing, right? Even our president said he can build a website for $3!
The fact is, as the technology in use all around the CMS has evolved and updated, the CMS has remained tried and true as the best possible center of your ecosystem, the hub of your entire suite of marketing tools. And this concept is what a CMO has to spend some time pondering. The CMS is the centerpiece of your digital efforts, not some other tool or interchangeable part. And when you realize that this platform is the lynchpin of your digital efforts, you’ll start to realize just how important the CMS is, and how a level of influence over platform and performance will matter greatly to your organization.
Taking the above model and shaking things up a bit, you can see that in reality, this is how your marketing stack should be assembled:
Now the CMS is in its rightful place as the centerpiece of your digital marketing universe. Do other components communicate with each other? Definitely! But the CMS stands at the core of this community of applications.
Need some convincing? We’ll get to that in a bit. But, this new understanding of what the CMS does and where it falls in your digital processes makes procuring a new system an (albeit just slightly) easier task.
Explaining the Circle of Control
CMSs shouldn’t be considered a piece of software that you can constantly reinstall, replace, and switch in and out like it’s just another component. Why? Because it will be the only platform you will control. You won’t be controlling the roadmap or feature set of Hubspot or Marketo. Nor will you change the fine-tuned behaviors of Salesforce or any other third party software.
Your ability to creatively integrate, connect, and gain custom insights with all of those platforms will ultimately reside in the one area you can influence—your CMS installation. The CMS is your only area of functional influence, where your specific roadmap of features and capabilities can be managed and achieved.
Consider it according to this visual:
I love, LOVE this model. Why? Because it puts into perspective the things we worry about, the things we can only integrate or configure, and the one thing we can actually control.
Let’s face it, we’re all concerned about the end goal: building traffic and converting users. That’s the CMO’s job, regardless of what industry you are in. But this is an area of concern, something that results from your effort as a marketer, and the proper construction of your marketing stack.
The second layer represented is the center of configuration. These are the tools that you have no control over, but provide valuable insight. They are your CRM, your SEO tools, your marketing automation software, etc. These are almost always third-party, licensed applications. You can integrate them, you can configure them, but you can’t control them.
One thing you can control, though, is your CMS software. And this makes logical sense, because the CMS will power the actual web presence that will serve as the hub of your marketing. After all, everything you do points back to your web presence. Ad buys, organic campaigns, social media campaigns, email automation—none of this matters if the end destination is shoddy. And the end destination’s ability to move the needle, generate leads, and provide a genuine user experience (also known as an experience of value) will be tied directly to the capabilities of the CMS.
Not knowing that the CMS can be so powerful, many CMOs are leaving functionality on the table. Since the CMS is something you can iterate and control, the ability to build customized software on top of the platform to help manage your marketing efforts is available to you as an option. The plethora of third-party tools that are inundating the marketing stack have one issue, and that is how they work together. CMS platforms serve more than just as a content management hub, but can be a data and analytics hub as well—provided you are interested in investing in that potential.
Finally, one more point about control: Enterprises that invest heavily in licensed, commercial CMS platforms are effectively giving up all of this control. Commercial CMS products are not platforms—they cannot be extended and built upon to accomplish all of your goals. They are simply a product aimed at solving as many use cases as possible while generating recurring license fee revenue. Licensing these products means that for you to have any level of control or scalability, you’ll be entering a world of hacking products together as opposed to building actual solutions.
What the CMS Isn’t
The CMS isn’t something you can ignore for a long period of time. You have to dedicate to paying attention to it, to nurturing the software along its development path, and to iteratively improving it. Much like your office is the physical headquarters of your company, the CMS is the digital equivalent, a virtual space that you have to start treating as a central asset of your organization.
The CMS isn’t something you set and forget. Neither is your website, where consumers expect an experience that ranges from thrilling to functional, depending on what your core business is. As such, you’ll be forced to continually reassess where your digital properties are in terms of function and user satisfaction. UI/UX makes a big difference. The CMS will have to allow for this flexibility while maintaining its position of importance at the center of your universe.
The CMS is what allows for kaizen, or continuous improvement. The foundation you build on will determine all of your future digital initiatives, items of importance such as:
- Your mobile presence, whether it be an app or enhanced mobile features. The CMS will drive this.
- Distributing content across partners and other devices. The CMS makes this possible.
- Want to enhance functionality, whether it be e-commerce, user portals, or other interactivities? The CMS will be the centerpiece.
- Lowering your technical reliance on third-party tools and applications? The right CMS will be extendable and remove that burden.
Indeed, the CMS isn’t just a piece of software. It’s the heart and soul of the entire digital infrastructure.
One last thing the CMS doesn’t have to be: It shouldn’t be something you update every 2 years. It shouldn’t be viewed as a short-term commitment. A new CMS platform should last you 2 or 3 site redesigns AT MINIMUM. This means 5 to 7 years of useful life.
What Matters Most?
When you come to accept the role of the CMS in your organization’s digital success, then and only then can you begin to get a sense of what your CMS needs to do to be successful and help accomplish your mission.
If you read nothing else, read this. These are the top-level goals a CMO needs to achieve with their CMS installation:
- A stable centerpiece of all digital efforts that can grow and scale with the organization.
- A platform, not a product, that allows for flexibility and freedom to expand functionality as necessary.
- A system that can easily integrate other parts of your marketing stack either natively or via API connectivity.
- A system that is secure from the risks of an ever-increasingly dangerous digital playground.
- A system that won’t be subject to the CMS cycle, relegated to obscurity in just a couple of short years.
- A system that is content-first and allows for portability, just in case.
This should be your number-one list, above all else. It should be above your IT team’s tech stack requirements and, dare I say it, it should be above your CEO’s budget requirements. Accomplishing these goals will mean a longer lifespan, more portability, enhanced security—all of which translates to cost savings down the road.
The CMO Technology Challenge
In a lot of ways, the CMO can still be handcuffed in terms of what they can and can’t use from a tech perspective. IT teams are still setting the goal post in terms of what is and isn’t allowed for technology used in the enterprise. It’s always amazing to me how fast an IT team allows their company to utilize an unproven, barely funded SaaS application for things as important as the CRM, yet they turn their back on more stable options such as open-source software. It happens all the time.
For the most part, IT requirements when it comes to CMS or digital marketing tools are pretty much useless and out of touch in relation to what marketers need and how quickly the CMS space has evolved. The most important thing a CMO can do for their future success is gain influence over the technology requirements the organization has in relation to marketing. We’ve seen countless customers who have a motivated marketing team that are not able to bring to market strategies already proven by so many others, simply because their IT department has blocked the usage of tools that could move the needle.
I see this often in the corporate world—a great example is tech stack preferences. Many corporate environments are relegated to technologies such as the Microsoft stack, or Java-based environments. When a CMO is stuck with these requirements, they have pretty much knocked out 80% of the options in terms of CMSs available.
Typically, there isn’t a great reason other than acclimation—their in-house teams are used to these platforms and they feel they can exert control over the process by stating that capability. These CMOs are now stuck, often finding refuge in a commercial CMS that may limit their flexibility and cost outrageous license fees (out of their own budgets, mind you).
Management doesn’t help. Most CEOs are tech-averse—that is, they don’t know what they don’t know. So, the argument by IT that they can manage and oversee the marketing tech stack better than marketing themselves makes CEOs comfortable.
In reality, the best way for a marketing team to succeed is to separate their technology from internal IT, removing it and hiding it as far away as they can take it. This decoupling of the departments will enable them to control their own fate, choose their own tools, and exert more control.
How so? Well, first, it lowers their dependence on internal tech resources. Internal IT departments are notoriously difficult for marketers to deal with. For internal IT, it’s a bigger deal keeping everyone’s local networks working, managing corporate guidelines, and dealing with being an enterprise helpdesk. The idea of day-to-day management of the web presence is not appealing nor important to them. And yet they can’t get themselves to let go of it, even when it’s to their own benefit!
The marketing teams that succeed most often outsource the technical needs of their team to create separation and exert finer control over the output. Outsourced teams have a much better work ethic versus in-house teams. An outsourced, retained technical team with experience in the CMS and digital marketing space can serve as more than just an order-taker, but also as a valuable asset in terms of knowledge transfer and being part of the team. Also, a retained team is more eager to please simply because their contract depends on it.
One final point about freeing CMOs technically. With responsibility comes risk, and technology is inherently risky. You have to worry about security, updates, capabilities of those you hire, etc. But with risk comes rewards, and with proper procurement of partners and a well-organized team, these risks can easily be overcome.
A Dose of Reality
I hate to burst your bubble, but there is a universal myth about CMSs that I want to dispel.
The fact is, CMS systems are never going to be a magical apparatus that will do 100% of what you want out of the box, solving all of your content challenges. Technology is just part of the equation—your in-house systems, procedures, skillsets make up a large component of the success or failure of your CMS implementation. As does planning!
As you begin your CMS selection or building process, remember a few things to stay grounded in the reality of how this world functions:
- CMSs don’t remove the need to understand how the Web works: Sure, you may not need HTML training to manage content in most CMS packages. But you need to understand the basic tenets of publishing content on the Web. You need to know best practices. No system will do that for you as well as a human can.
- All commercial CMS products demo well. That’s because they only demo for you the common use cases. When you actually work through implementation, you’ll start to realize the limitations—take demos with a grain of salt. More on this in part 3.
- Your implementation plan—including content organization, or taxonomy—will determine your long-term changes of success.
- Your implementation partner matters much more than you think. The best CMS in the world, when poorly implemented, can implode a project.
This is the first installment of a multi-part post—there is simply too much content to cover to publish it all in one article!
In Part 2, we’ll focus on what your actual CMS options are (license agreements, architecture types, etc.) and we’ll dig deeply into what your risk factors are. Part 3 will speak to implementation and hiring the perfect CMS implementation partner.