Content Management: The Missing Link

Martin Bauer
15/06/2006

Content managing has only recently been recognized as a profession. And through the growth of the Internet, the need for content management has become increasingly important. The catch is that very few people know how to do it well. It’s not that the technology is poor or that we lack processes for implementation and ongoing management of content management systems  CMS); rather, it’s a lack of people with the right level of understanding to do the job.

Content managing has only recently been recognized as a profession. And through the growth of the Internet, the need for content management has become increasingly important. The catch is that very few people know how to do it well. It’s not that the technology is poor or that we lack processes for implementation and ongoing management of content management systems  CMS); rather, it’s a lack of people with the right level of understanding to do the job.

Publishing content on a Web site or intranet has become a simple job, so why is it that such a large number of Web sites and  intranets are so poorly structured and maintained? Why is it that what seems to be such an easy task produces such inadequate results? The answer is quite simple: although it is easy to manage content, it’s hard to do it well. Most people can use a word processor, but very few people can write well.

REQUIREMENTS

Content management is multilayered; it requires an understanding of the following:

  • How to shape content to suit the medium of the Internet

  • Visual layout, information design, and information architecture

  • All content within the site, in order to manage interlinking between the content

  • Metadata and how search engines work

  • The tools that are used to publish the content

  • The business drivers and objectives

  • Different media types (e.g., text, images, video, audio) and how best to employ them

  • Accessibility

  • Information formats (e.g., HTML, XML, RSS)

  • Different devices used to view the content (e.g., computer, handheld, mobile)

  • Version control, workflow, business processes, and system integration

Clearly, content management requires an understanding of many things. Let’s look, for example, at a simple media release to be  published on a Web site. The following media release has been written by the inhouse marketing department for an international organization:

Smith & Jones International brings accessibility and consistency to health services for rural Australia.

Adding the media release to the Web site is straightforward; it’s as simple as cutting and pasting the copy into a CMS and  licking the submit button. However, for this Web site, the most recent media release is used in various ways (in bold text below), resulting in the following problems:

1. It’s published as a link on the homepage. The problem: The homepage only allows for titles with fewer than 100 characters, and this title is 104 characters. Because the title is too long, it forces other content down and breaks the layout of the page.

2. It’s published on the media release page as subnavigation. The problem: On the media release page, the titles of the media releases are displayed as secondary navigation in the lefthand column, which allows only 45 characters per line. As the title is 104 characters wide, it requires three lines to display. This makes the secondary navigation long and difficult to scan.

3. It’s published in the monthly newsletter. The problem: The CMS uses friendly URLs, which is useful for searching but is problematic for the newsletter, as the link is displayed in full and some e-mail clients break the link when it wraps over two or more lines. For instance:

http://www.smithandjones.com.au/news/media_releases/health_services/2006/march/Smith_&_Jones_International_brings_accessibility_and_ consistency_to_health_services_for_rural_Australia

4. It’s published on a version of the site cut to CD for archiving and backup purposes. The problem: Although it is easy to use a Web crawling program  to create a static version of a site, a CD in IS0 9660 format can only handle file names up to 64 characters. Since the full reference to the media release is 151 characters, the link on the CD won’t work even if the file is present.

The person entering the media release into the Web site needs to be aware that it’s being published in four different places in  different ways. He or she needs to understand how to edit the content so it is meaningful in the different contexts; how the system will render the content; and what will happen if the content is viewed in different mediums (e.g., CD, speech reader, wireless device, PDA).

It’s a rare person who understands all these different elements. And you can’t separate them out. You can’t have a person entering content into the system without an awareness of where the content is published. You can’t have a person writing content without appreciating how it will be viewed. The long title is a perfect example: it may be meaningful when viewing the full content of the page, but it’s problematic when used as a link. The problem is that we are crossing traditional borders. In the publishing world, creation of content and layout of content are separate roles. The writer writes, the typographer flows the layout of the text, and the art director sets the visual design. In content management, you can’t separate out these tasks as easily. Visual design overlaps with information design, which overlaps with structuring the content classes to store the content. Creativity and sensitivity for the audience intermix with presentation logic and site structures.

SOLUTIONS

Two things need to happen for this dilemma to be resolved. Both are people-related.

The first step in solving this problem is understanding: (1) understanding on the part of management that content is important and that how it is managed impacts business success; and (2) understanding on the part of the people managing the content, who must realize the importance of what they are doing; think beyond the task at hand; and see the bigger picture of the creation, input, and display of content in the context of business objectives. This understanding will come about as people realize the value  of well-prepared and well-managed content. When trying to find a document on the intranet becomes a simple task and the  intranet becomes an indispensable tool.

The second step is the realization that content management requires a particular type of person: a person who understands technology, business processes, writing, and visual design and who has an appreciation for how people interact with different mediums. This person needs to have both right- and left-brain skills; he or she needs to be trained in technology and be able to both recognize quality writing and know what type of visual layout is appropriate for the content.

It is inevitable that the discipline of content management will grow in importance. The more content we have, the greater the need  to manage it effectively so that we can easily get to the content that’s important to us. To make this happen, we need to understand the nature of content management and have the right people doing the right job. It’s no different from any other discipline. But right now for content management, there is a lack of understanding and a shortage of the right people to do the job. Until we see this problem for what it is — a people issue — we will continue to have poorly managed sites with poorly  structured and presented content that fails to achieve the business objectives and fails to meet the expectations of its intended audience.