Web Content Management: Still No Silver Bullet

By Allen Bernard

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When the World Wide Web hit the scene some eight years ago, many business leaders thought it interesting but didn't really know what to make of it, or what to do with it. By 2000, that had all changed and companies were lining up to get in on the Web site game.

The result was many companies purchased Web content management (WCM) systems without realizing what it was they were actually buying or for what purpose. And the result of that? Expensive, underutilized, "silver-bullet" solutions that really don't do what they were sold to do. At least that was the finding of a March 2003 report by JupiterResearch (which is owned by JupiterMedia, the parent company of this Web site).

Fast forward to today and the situation really hasn't changed much. Many companies are still grappling with how to get the most out of their earlier purchases. That's the bad news (especially if you're one of them). The good news is the vendors have woken up.

Partly due to poorly performing installations and customer dissatisfaction, and partly due to the general downturn that has put the kibosh on IT spending these last few years, WCM vendors are now offering systems that, if implemented correctly, will do what earlier installs couldn't -- increase productivity while lowering the burden on IT, says Eric Peterson, Site Operations and Technology analyst with Jupiter Research.

"Some of the big-ticket vendors have openly come out and said we haven't been responsive enough to our customers. We acted like 800-pound gorillas," says Peterson, "...and we've definitely heard from them that that was a mistake."

Wiser Buyers

What's changed isn't necessarily the technology, although that is improving with new features like in-site editing offered by Atomz, a feature which enables editors to change content on the Web site and have that reflected in the databases instead of vice-versa, Peterson says. Rather, he says, it is how systems are sold and what questions are being asked by potential buyers.

During the Wild West days of the late '90s and early 2000s, few people really knew what the Web was all about -- they just knew they needed a "dynamic" Web site, and "dynamic" WCM systems sounded like it fit the bill, said Ann Rockley, founder of the Rockley Group and author of Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy.

Where many failed was in conducting due diligence. Few did enough homework to realize WCM is just the starting point of keeping a Web site fresh, or "dynamic." And even fewer looked at the difficulties of integrating current workflows, approval processes, legacy achieves, intranets and extranets, etc. into a Web site -- the very things people thought they were spending budget dollars to get.

"They were buying solutions to manage their Web sites and, certainly, there are a lot of features in a lot of these products," says Rockley. "But one of the biggest issues is technology is not a solution -- technology is only a piece of the solution -- and organizations, for the most part, didn't think through all the different aspects of content management."

So what people got was a system that actually required more input from IT than before when it was supposed to eliminate, at least partially, IT's role in the day-to-day Web site operations (outside of ecommerce activities, which work on completely different and independent systems from WCM). At least that was what was being promised by the vendors.

The differences today though are great and many. Budgets are gone, along with the "must-have-it-now" attitude of just a few years ago. So people are back to making informed purchasing decisions and doing more thorough due diligence. Companies have also realized that making WCM work isn't about magic bullets -- it's about all the little, mundane things that always seem to fall through the cracks, said Jim Howard, president and CEO of Crown Peak, a hosted WCM provider.

"So this is partly a vendor failure but also partly an IT organization failure in that there has to be a lot of commitment once the system is live -- updating and managing that system and continuously training and retraining the users to get them to use it. Which is hard," he said. "That's why most content management systems fail: Mary ends up giving up, not using the system and emailing the content into the IT guy who then logs into the content management system and updates the page."

In spite of this seemingly intractable problem when it comes to IT and people, there is more good news: prices are dropping below the $100,000 mark, said Peterson, while the quality of vendors offerings, especially in the mid-tier enterprise offerings from the likes of Atomz, Crown Peak, FatWire and Red Dot are improving. This is a far cry from the days when six-figure deals reined supreme.

Still, though, if your goal is to eliminate your IT department's role in maintaining your Web presence, said Ed Rogers, vice president of WCM vendor Ektron, you might want to think again. Yes, offerings are getting better but IT will still be responsible for the overall look and feel of the site, its security and things like style sheets.

So, if productivity is your goal, WCM today will probably help. If it's lowering the burden on IT, then WCM will probably help but not as much as you hoped it would, said Peterson.

WCM systems are "all designed to be very, very effective but we both know a lot of the time there's a big disconnect between what we say and what we do," he said.