How Digital Publishers Can Choose the Best CMS Platform

By Pete Czech

How Digital Publishers Can Choose the Best CMS PlatformNew Possibilities Group

The choice of a content management system is important for any organization’s digital presence. However, the issue is even more critical for digital publishers.

Think about it: Digital publishers are focused almost entirely on delivery of content via digital channels. This means that a CMS isn’t just a system to distribute content, it also serves as the central nervous system of the entire company. The CMS they choose will serve as the single-screen solution that every employee is tied into at every moment of their day.

Therefore, much care and consideration must go into determining what that platform should be. Should you build it from scratch or take something off-the-shelf? Can the system enable you to customize enough of its functionality to match your workflows? Will the new system provide the avenues to distribute your content across multiple digital channels? And what are the long-term ramifications of the technology—will it last for many years to come or be a maintenance nightmare?

These are just some of the concerns that should be considered as you mull over the possible technology and vendors to power the future of your digital publication.

How complex is your workflow?

This should always be the first consideration in choosing a platform. It is absolutely essential that whatever CMS you choose or build works around your workflow. The last thing a digital publication needs is to have to amend their workflow around a system. The change of production processes to match software can be catastrophic.

The best way to determine this is to properly document your process at the start. Build out graphical models such as flowcharts to properly present it. Then, work to build out another model that represents your preferred process, correcting any issues with your current workflow. You can then use these charts as guidance when reviewing new systems and frameworks.

If an off-the-shelf system is close, it may be a strong contender. If you realize that your process is proprietary, you may be a candidate for a custom CMS solution.

Either way, being clear about how your company produces content will enable you to make the right choice from the beginning of the process. Remember, you should do this visualization first, before you even look at a single possible solution.

How do you distribute content?

In the early days of digital publishing, a CMS’s primary function was to distribute content to a website. Today, content is distributed across a myriad of digital channels. The simple website has been relegated to a long list of digital distribution methods, including APIs, mobile apps, OTT devices, and more. The CMS of your future must be able to not only control content, but also distribute it to different sources via a variety of methods.

Many monolithic platforms such as WordPress are heavily reliant on their history as blogging platforms. WordPress, Drupal, and others in their class are all focused on distribution to websites, not necessarily alternative channels. While plugins and development changes can accomplish this task, the bigger problem is that they were developed, at their core, for one type of distribution—that is, their management tools are molded for Web delivery. Amending those platforms to work for the future of content distribution may not make the most sense.

The CMS to be considered by digital publications with advanced distribution requirements are the new crop of headless, also known as decoupled, CMS solutions.

Headless CMS solutions separate the admin logic from all display methods. This means that the front-end website, API, or other distribution is separated from the administrative portal. An architecture like this enables you to focus your content management process on the content itself, not on how the content should be molded to a specific front-end experience, much like WordPress or Drupal do.

The other benefit of a headless architecture is the ability to scale more easily. Since the admin is separated from the display, you can scale the display mechanism across alternative distribution networks such as CDNs or similar. And separating content management from display lets your display layer utilize much more cutting-edge technology. Remember, front-end technology iterates faster than back-end technology. As such, headless systems allow your CMS to remain consistent over the course of years while you can iterate and improve your front end over time without being forced to amend the CMS each time you do.

What other components are critical on your production dashboard?

Many digital publishing companies need their CMS to do more than just distribute content. This may include being a complete publishing and content-creation engine, in addition to other tasks. In this case, it’s important to isolate these requirements early to ensure that your system can handle these scenarios.

Some sample instances we’ve seen in the past may include tools such as a script builder. Video production companies and publications that concentrate on video production may need interactive capabilities for staff to build out the various parts of a video script.

Now, it’s been almost 20 years since I received my degree in broadcasting, but those who are video publishers know how a two-columned script works. It is broken into multiple segments where there may be areas for voiceovers, graphics, etc. on one column and the actual script segment on the other. This is a perfect scenario for a customized tool that allows this to happen in addition to gathering all of the required assets—images, videos, links, etc.—in one place.

Other requirements may be more team-based. We’ve seen customers integrate HR requirements such as vacation schedules and team members into their CMS. This enables them to collaborate in real time by having a sense of who is or isn’t currently available. And on that note, integrations to tools such as Trello or Slack directly into a CMS create even more powerful opportunities for collaboration.

How great would it be if your CMS allowed for markup from one user, such as an editor, to the original content creator? Or advanced versioning capabilities? These are great examples of how features that we are used to from desktop software such as Microsoft Word can bring massive value to your digital publishing platform.

Finally, consider how your CMS may serve as a way to consolidate many tools in current usage. We’ve seen usage of third-party tools in unusual, disconnected ways. Some producers utilize items such as Google Docs for significant portions of their development cycle, Band-Aiding together Docs, Sheets, and other third-party tools to accomplish specific goals. These use cases should absolutely be solvable by any new management system you consider.

In your planning phase, figure out what other requirements may be necessary within your new publishing system. If you require that many people can simultaneously work on one piece of content in a real-time fashion, you may see that the off-the-shelf solutions are not the right fit for you.

What user profiles will utilize the system?

This is such an important point, and one section of one blog post doesn’t do it justice. But it is important you consider this now. What users will use the system and what use cases will be performed by said users is as important as any other consideration you make during the discovery process for your new CMS.

The best way to determine what you need in this regard is to understand what your corporate structure is today. Break down your users into various roles. For example, writers need access to content creation tools. Editors need more of an overview of the entire pipeline of content currently under production with the ability to move from story to story as required. Executives have two concerns: what is in the pipeline and how content is performing?

It is essential that, during this phase of platform discovery, you outline who the users are and what they accomplish. The best, most comprehensive CMS system a digital publisher can utilize is one that will produce a customized experience for each of these roles.

Executives should log in and see a dashboard that serves as a 30,000-foot view of both past, present, and future stories. Editors should see what stories are assigned to them with an easy way to navigate between them. And writers should be able to focus on the stories they are creating as easily as possible.

The key here is to create a system that is on every user’s screen all day long. If you accomplish that task, then you have created the perfect publishing platform.

Solutions like this are possible. However, the more customized your scenario, the more likely it becomes that you are a candidate for a custom-build CMS solution.

Is your CMS an asset or just a tool?

Today, the largest and most celebrated digital publications are investing heavily in technology and process. The reason is because technology and workflows have a value to an organization. Having a customized digital content production system adds a significant upside when an acquisition comes into play.

Customized software serves as the foundation of many media company acquisitions. For this reason, it is important to ask yourself if this is of importance to your organization.

A publisher that takes the time to invest in a custom workflow (and the framework that accomplishes that workflow) and keeps investing in their platform will see a significantly greater level of interest from potential partners or acquirers in the future. There isn’t anything special about a publisher that has built on top of a hacked version of WordPress or Drupal.

However, if a publisher has invested in a system that improves throughput and can statistically prove that it streamlines the efforts of producing content, the value can be substantial.

Conclusion

Choosing a digital publishing CMS is a very complex process. Ultimately, it may be determined by what phase of operations your company is in. A startup may focus on customizing on top of an off-the-shelf platform to keep costs low. Upon scaling, they will then most likely consider moving to a more customized solution. An established publisher, on the other hand, may be running into bottlenecks as they scale their operations and, with a focus on improving throughput and efficiency, may seek a new platform or to build their own.

No matter who you are or where you are in the process, refer back to these points to build out a plan of attack. Focus on who your users are, what their roles are. Determine what outside tools you can consolidate. And finally, focus on what the value would be if you could do it all correctly under one umbrella.

With that information in hand, your next steps will be much easier to determine.

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