Here's a funny little secret: a bad content management system (or a good one that's not well managed) will lead to a bad website over time.
The perfect content management system on day one, if it is not managed, adjusted, tweaked and supported, will eventually lead to a site that nobody likes. For sites that change frequently, this can happen quickly. It's sadly ironic that the system put into place to enable a site to be managed can be that site's eventual downfall.
The number one mistake people and organizations make with content management is that they spend most of their time and money picking and enabling the software and almost no time and money on support, management, and adjustments to the software over time.
The key to success is…well, here are 10 keys to success:
1. Don't build custom software to do content management.
And this includes open source. Not never. Not ever. The cheapest thing about a content management project is the cost of the software. The most expensive thing is failure through inflexible systems and poor support. Reinventing the wheel is expensive, prone to failure, and in the end very costly.
2. Don't over-engineer.
Not every website needs a content management system (CMS). For those that do, keep it as simple as possible. It is tempting to go for a huge win. Instead, pick a system with a good interface and a team who has implemented the system dozens of times.
Question: Do we need a content management system?
Answer: Websites need content management if:
- There is a lot of content (1,000 pages plus)
- There is a high velocity of content change (a change a day or more)
- If the content needs to change quickly (needs to be live in minutes or hours, not days or weeks)
- If there are a lot of content contributors (20+), or if the company needs to have an archive of previous versions of the site for regulatory or legal reasons
3. Support is more important than software.
Websites change. Content management systems need to change with the website. Even the best CMS will fail over time if it prevents the website from changing to meet the organization's needs. Plan and budget for support to work with system users, train new users, and modify the system over time so that the CMS changes with requirements. For example, when a new ad campaign requires a new site section with its own lead forms and tracking capability, the CMS probably wasn't built to create that. The support group should be ready to quickly create that capability in the CMS and modify the training documents.
Define the system "owner". Somebody needs to own the system over time. They will be the one to train new users, manage the reports and administrative interface, and work with the support team to make ongoing system modifications.
4. Organize your site properly.
Plan for expansion. A good CMS product will give a bad CMS implementation if the web site isn't organized to accommodate growth and change. Work with your CMS team during redesign to make sure they have input. A well-thought-out content organization system saves a world of hurt later. The larger the body of content, the more important it becomes to organize the content around a taxonomy so that site navigation and organization remains viable.
5. Make sure the basic user interface is basic.
Remember that some content contributors may only use the system every few weeks or months, so they have to be able to figure it out again when they come back. Other content contributors might be a bit techno phobic. Plan for that.
Before you roll out the CMS, take it for a spin. Implementing a section of the site and running a few end-users through the authoring and workflow process can give valuable feedback prior to CMS rollout. Do this before training. It is surprisingly common, how feedback on the system during training can be so surprising.
7. Training and the user manual can determine success.
If no one uses the system, it is a failure. Training is the key to system adoption. Make the training in-person and hands-on, if at all possible. Don't send out product documentation to people. Build a custom training manual and go through it in training. Update the manual whenever the CMS gets modified. Then, as new people begin using the system, they have a step-by-step guide to learn the system.
8. Don't forget email, search and RSS.
They are tightly related to content management. Plan for how you will use them and build them into your CMS project. Search is part of site navigation. If your site is big, definitely do search as part of your project.
9. Analytics and reporting (on the site, the CMS and the search system) tell us how to manage the site.
It's not hard to use them if you use them. So…use them!
10. Integrate your online advertising planning with website planning.
The visitors from campaigns are different from standard inbound traffic. Treat them differently. Some content management systems enable the creation of "landing pages" and lead forms. The contents of those forms need to be managed as well. Treat your sales leads as if they are the lifeblood of the company-- because they are!
As CEO, Jim Howard is focused on advancing CrownPeak's leadership in the software-as-a-service market. Under Howard's leadership since its founding in 2000, CrownPeak has become the market leading company in the content management software services sector.
Howard's professional background combines extensive startup experience with years of software development and professional services delivery and management. He has spent the past nine years working with web content management and search technologies. Howard previously held senior executive positions in professional services management, sales, and operational management with companies such as USWeb, MarchFIRST, and successful startup, W3-design.
Building a Center of Excellence
A successful approach is the concept of driving SEO-best practices around technical construction, content management and link strategy into the brand management function itself at both the product and geo-marketing levels in large companies. Essentially, this requires anyone who touches the site -- marketing and web management -- to be held accountable for SEO-related results. This is very similar to the "Center of Excellence" concept used to drive CRM best practices.
What is involved? Most Center of Excellence initiatives start with a preliminary 90- to 180-day project. With respect to SEO, the purpose of this is to:
- Select a section of the website and execute the initial optimization of that site section.
- Document the process from keyword research, keyword selection, site design, etc., and make the information on the implemented processes available to others in the organization through a knowledge-sharing system like a wiki.
- Develop a certification program for those who go through the process that can be used to certify other knowledge workers for future projects.
- Identify key metrics of success and document achievement toward those metrics for the initial project (basic improvements to "crawl-ability," content, link strategy on the site, rank changes on the engines, increase in traffic, increase in conversions, etc.).
- Pinpoint the technologies necessary to deploy the program at scale across the organization, and identify changes that need to be made to existing technologies (usually the web analytics systems) to track results from organic in the context of the program.
Once the initial project is completed, two important outcomes have to occur. First, the program has to be sanctified by the senior marketing leadership as a priority and as something other brands need to embrace. The metrics from the initial project (e.g., indicators of SEO-health for the site, rank analysis and conversion analysis) need to be benchmarked for other sites and goals for improvement set systematically. Brand and geo-marketing managers need to be held accountable for improvements once the initial benchmarking is completed and for getting their groups certified on best practices.
Second, the work on the initial site needs to be expanded to continue improvements. Most organizations experience degradation in SEO performance after about 90 to 120 days. This is why SEO is most effective as an ongoing process. Degradation is usually the result of competitive action. Search marketing is a zero sum game: There is a finite amount of inventory available and being successful at SEO comes at the expense of a less able competitor. Competitors will notice improvements and respond.
The Center of Excellence concept is designed to be scalable as it is viral. It builds the best practices into the daily processes of the employees working on the site and ensures they are educated, motivated and measured to excel at SEO.
Let's see how it works.
Studying the Center of Excellence approach
To determine the effectiveness of this approach, Covario conducted a study between March 1 and October 15, 2007 with approximately 300 global brands to measure how leveraging the Center of Excellence concept improves performance. More than 85 percent of the brands involved in the study belong to Fortune 500 companies with their websites operating in multiple languages and on many search engines.
The goal of the study was to assess whether the metrics that had been built to measure SEO health of the websites could be used to predict results in rank improvement on the major U.S. search engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN). The study used changes in rank for the participating Fortune 500 brands as the metric of success.
The results were impressive. To help educate the SEO knowledge workers in the brand and geo-marketing divisions, a proprietary technology titled Covario Organic Search Insight developed by my company, Covario, Inc., was used to identify what aspects of the sites were well optimized on 48 different criteria.
Changes to these site factors were then statistically measured against changes to rank on the engines. During this study period, the average brand experienced an improvement in its average rank position for the keyword it was trying to optimize by 4.5 rankings.
To put this into context, on "cheap airfares," moving from position five to position one on the engines means a difference of $2.5 million in commerce per year, based on analysis of data from comScore Marketer Search Data.
Most importantly, the relationship between the changes made to the websites during the test period had a very strong statistical relationship to changes in rank on the search engines. This means that the statistical links discovered by Covario can be used to predict improvements that other sites may experience given similar changes. This is key as ROI on SEO for these organizations can be reasonably estimated, helping to justify the expense of the programs.
What is more, the reactions of the engines were very different. Google was 15 times as sensitive to technical issues as Yahoo, and twice as sensitive as compared to MSN. Specifically, Google was far more reactive to link improvement strategies than Yahoo or Microsoft -- by eight to 10 times. Yahoo was much more reactive to changes in content than Google or MSN -- up to 50 percent more reactive than Google.
The reactions are part of the complexity that many large advertisers find hard to corral. However, with the right processes in place, insights like these can be used to determine which aspects of the site will provide the best ROI for brands and geo's by engine, by product, by site, etc. This is a great example of the development of the science of SEO, which presents large advertisers (and their vast, complicated web properties) a process-driven, data-based method to manage their brands' presence on the organic side of search engine marketing, and do so in a scalable and efficient way.
So how do this information and the Center of Excellence for SEO concept get actualized in a large company? Let's see.
Putting SEO into practice
SEO daunts many organizations because they get paralyzed by the number of things they could do, and do not know which two to three things they should do to drive the best results per engine. This is the big challenge organizations have -- the prioritization of the work and building that prioritization into the web management process.
The study above suggests a solution to this problem. With empirical evidence on what drives SEO ranking results and understanding the differentiation by engine from operational website changes, large companies can ensure that results can be driven in the short term while their long-term continued improvement is also scheduled and managed.
Take "cheap airfare" again. For a travel company or an airline looking to optimize on this word, here is what the study would suggest for prioritization.
Focus first on content issues, meaning the usage of the word in the text on the pages in the site. These can be changed most rapidly by the agency or content managers and have a very significant effect on rank improvements. The study suggested the following:
- Adding the words "cheap airfare" to the URL of the page being ranked will have the most significant effect on driving Google ranking -- i.e., something like: www.companyname.com/cheapairfare.html.
- However, the study also showed that changes to the URL will have minimal effect on Yahoo ranking improvements.
- On the other hand, Yahoo reacted very strongly to the emphasis of words like "cheap airfare" in the content text on the site -- i.e, when the word is displayed as cheap airfare, CHEAP AIRFARE or cheap airfare. This had a smaller effect on driving Google rankings.
Content issues are also relatively easy to syndicate across a large site, particularly when the issues are made available to content managers. A best practice can be given to always emphasize the usage of "cheap airfare" in text, and to design URLs with the most important keyword that will drive traffic conversions.
The second area of focus should be on the link strategy; however, this is less simple to execute en masse across a large site. It is the quality, not the quantity, of links that matters.
What is a "quality link?" It is a link from a site or page that has a Page Rank (a statistical measure of relevancy that is available from Google on various pages) greater than three. So the question becomes: How does an organization drive multiple web managers to build a small number of links from pages with Page Ranks greater than three and distribute this information efficiently?
This is an area of intense study. There are very sophisticated ways to implement link building and a number of companies that specialize in this, both agencies and specialty consultants. For a large site, deploying these solutions can be cost prohibitive.
The above study suggests that building links from a series of authoritative sources such as .gov or .edu. for "cheap airfare" in order to get a link from the FAA would be highly valuable but very difficult. A link from .edu would be easier. Also, Technorati and del.icio.us sites are good places to start. In the study, Google reacted very significantly to sites with links from these sources, as did MSN, so this is a straightforward way to get sites started in an efficient way to build links. Again, one to two high quality links are better than 1,000 poor quality links, and Covario's study results strongly support this assertion.
The final step is to address the technical structure. This is listed last because technical issues usually deal with fundamental technical construction issues around site design. Changing these in large organizations is highly non-trivial and takes time and planning.
Technical issues can also be the most egregious as they may fundamentally prevent the mechanisms used by the engines to organize information from working. However, the above study provides guidelines on efforts that can be prioritized for the IT department or the web management team on how to deal with site issues and drive better rankings. There are essentially two major issues:
- The first of these technical issues is URL structure. One of the components that the Center of Excellence must develop is a best practice on site URL structure. The Covario study showed that long URLs and URLs that use mechanisms to track visitors to the site (called dynamic parameters) confuse the engines and drive significant rank decreases on Google and MSN. Yahoo seems better able to deal with dynamic URLs.
- The second of these issues is how the navigation is constructed, as the search engines use this to figure out how to find content on the site. Use of Java or Flash for the navigation prevents search engines from finding content. This was completely consistent across all engines in the study and is binary, so it's either a catastrophic failure or it works.
The technical issues are not term-specific. If there are technical issues, it will impact any keywords that an organization is trying to optimize, not just "cheap airfare."
What is important for a large organization is making sure that the business case for determining whether or not making changes to site structure is worthwhile, and that the right process can be developed by the SEO Center of Excellence. This is a change and very valuable in getting the appropriate attention and results from, what are usually, overburdened IT teams.
The rewards of building these processes are vast as more consumers use search engines to find information about their brands and services. A brand that does not do this can be assured its competitors will, thereby influencing consumers on brand choice through one of the fastest growing, most effective advertising media available. Establishing competitive advantage through SEO is no longer a luxury -- it has shifted from avant-garde to de rigueur.
2. Be clear on what is your reason for being
There are literally thousands of agencies available to brands. Setting your agency apart in that sort of environment is critical. All agencies try to do this, but you might be surprised by how many deliver virtually the same stories under the misconception that they are saying something unique.
In one of his very popular TED talks, Simon Sinek posits that people buy why you do something even more than how you do it. Doubtless there are lots of great things about your agency -- people, experience, past work, channel expertise, etc. But that's true of lots of agencies out there. To make yourself memorable, you need something bigger than a bunch of unverifiable attributes.
Why did you create your agency? Why did you join? What are you on a mission to do or upend or change? The best "why" I ever heard was years ago, from The Richards Group. They said that they existed to fill a key gap in the industry -- that they were all about persuading consumers "who lived between the I-5 and I-95."
Now that's a why! It built on an idea that was already in prospects' heads: that agencies can be too focused on what will play with hipsters that work at ad agencies and awards show judges. It also celebrated what other shops might disdainfully call the "flyover" customers. What TRG said was, "We don't disdain them, we celebrate them."
3. Tell them what you're really good at
One friend currently in the middle of a review told me that when he asked prospective agencies what they are really great at, they all said "everything," or words to that effect. C'mon. Emphasizing that you can do everything is different than explaining where your true expertise lies.
No one expects you'll be great at everything, and when you say you are, you lose credibility. Explain your core strengths in the context of what is most important -- now and in the future. This is the high-level "what" that flows from your "why." It needn't be focused on a channel or device, though it could be.
Here are a few examples that impress me:
Anomaly's focus on creating "IP that changes the game"
Traction's focus on creating participatory marketing
OgilvyOne's focus on using data to give more than just lip service to understanding and shaping customer engagements.
4. Engage the customer in a discussion
You will never be as interesting to anyone as they are to themselves. So put some tight limits on the "about us" slides. I once worked for an agency that had more than 40 slides devoted to itself and how great it was. You need clients to get to know you, not revere you.
Over and over, clients have told me that the best pitches evolve into conversations about their business issues. And what's most interesting is that while some clients seem reluctant to reveal their issues, the most successful agencies figure out ways to get those conversations going.
Even when clients aren't forthcoming with business information, your teams should be able to make educated inferences about a brand's business issues. If you think high level, most brands have one of three business challenges -- awareness, trial, or repeat purchase.
And even if you are wrong, 99.9 percent of companies will appreciate your effort to make your pitch about them. This is one of the core ideas behind The Challenger Sale, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson's bestseller on successful selling strategies. Providing a thought-through opinion changes the nature of a sales pitch so that the client speaks to you like a partner, instead of one of four interchangeable vendors.
5. View every communication as an opportunity
Usually, clients know little about you when they RFP. Therefore, it's natural that they use every communication as a heuristic to understand what it's like to work with you. When you respond rapidly to every request, when you meet that no-later-than-5-p.m.-Eastern-on-the-12 deadline without begging for an extension, when you submit pitches that don't bounce back because of file size, when you show up early for phone calls and meetings, you tell the client a great deal about yourselves and what working with you will be like.
6. Build bridges, not walls
In many agency searches, there are a handful of people who collectively have the power to choose you. But lots of agencies forget that there are others in the company that can strongly influence the decision makers to say no (or yes).
One such situation is when there is an internal creative or media team, and you are being considered because the marketing team is dissatisfied with that team's work. They may even denigrate that team in your discussions with them.
What's your move? You may think it's to distance yourself from that team as much as you can, and to ice them out of conversations. Nope. The marketing team wants more creative firepower, but won't pick you if it increases the internal political mess they experience every day.
Whatever they say, what they really want is for you to find ways to collaborate with that internal team and make it better. Having the internal creative team feel good about the decision to hire you will go a long way toward ensuring you get the assignment.
Similarly, in large orgs, one group or division might hire you to help them elbow another division. The key in situations like this is to figure out a way to give your clients what they want while creating greater harmony between groups. Many times, all that requires are ears that work and a will to do the right thing.
7. Don't forget the relatability
There are lots of intangibles in a pitch process, and one of the most important is the extent to which you can build immediate rapport with client decision-makers. Sounds sort of elementary, I suppose. But I cannot tell you how many pitches I witnessed in which one or several of the agency people were so busy massaging their own egos and proving their superiority that they forgot that people like to work with people they like.
Here's an example of what not to do: A friend of mine, part of an all-female brand team at a paper company, was part of the search committee for a new agency for a line of feminine protection products. A male creative director presented a campaign that -- the mind reels -- had a tagline that included a raunchy double entendre about "seeing red." When the brand team lead questioned whether dark humor was the way to sell tampons, the creative director explained to them that he had an instinctive understanding of what women wanted, and that working with him would be a "great learning exercise for them."
Beyond leaving the condescension at home, do a little homework. If you know who's going to be in the room when you pitch, research them. Look at their LinkedIn, follow their Twitter feed, and scan their Pinterest images. Look for points of common interest that break the ice and turn a stiff presentation into a rich conversation.
And never, under any circumstances, pitch a tampon brand with a raunchy double entendre. 'Nuff read.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.
"Businessman arms" image via iStock.