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What to look for in web content management software

Content management systems can help an organization support the entire content creation process, from production to delivery -- but there's much to consider in WCM systems.

Web content management describes a class of software for creating and maintaining content for websites and mobile applications. From an IT perspective, content management tools have a simple business purpose -- support line-of-business users and ensure that they can manage all the information they need to produce compelling digital experiences. With web content management software, nontechnical users can effectively manage the volume, velocity and variety of digitized information to do their jobs.

WCM software explained

Anyone maintaining a website manages content. Once a site is set up and running, nontechnical users need to be able to create, organize, store and distribute content on their own, without depending on day-to-day support from IT specialists. Similarly, anyone supporting web-based or native mobile apps must have the ability to create, source and produce content. In fact, many firms now begin with  applications to support mobile content delivery first.

How WCM software works

Web content management (WCM) software supports the complete content lifecycle for information assets that appear within webpages, mobile apps and third-party enterprise applications. It extends from content production to content delivery and includes capabilities for organizing, curating, aging and archiving. These platforms also provide tools to maintain content within a multiparty digital ecosystem as well as mechanisms to assess results.

From a technical perspective, WCM systems rely on the capabilities of a shared repository where individual files or information assets are stored, managed and distributed to multiple digital touchpoints. The capabilities of this repository determine the power, flexibility, security and reach of the WCM software.

Content sourcing begins with the creative and editorial processes for creating the information assets. Content creators -- be they writers, photographers, videographers and the like -- rely on various digital tools to create information assets in the first place. Whether they're text-based or rich media, these assets must be managed.

That's where WCM comes into play. Web content management software captures the information assets at their source -- most frequently by ingesting files and associated source metadata into a shared content repository -- and proceeds to organize, store and maintain the content. This repository provides a single source of truth and tracks and manages all the updates and revisions made to an information asset throughout its lifecycle.

Features to look for

A digital asset management (DAM) system is a specialized kind of WCM tool, tailored to the unique needs of high-value rich media such as photos and videos. Look for WCM software that makes it easy for line-of-business staffers to both manage content and launch creative digital experiences that meet, or exceed, business goals.

When it comes to content production, eight key features include the following:

  1. Library services. WCM manages editorial processes -- edits, rewrites, photo touch-ups, etc. -- through a set of library services that control the ingestion, review and approval activities. Typically, authorized individuals can check in and check out draft assets. The repository keeps track of who's working on which asset as well as what the current state of the asset happens to be.
  2. Security. WCM software manages the underlying security. Once users are authenticated, they have access rights to create, modify and delete assets within the repository. These access rights can include just the items themselves or extend to collections of items within a predefined folder.
  3. Workflow. WCM often supports workflow capabilities, the ability to sequence the steps in an editorial review and approval process. This ensures that all items produced and distributed by the WCM software are being edited and updated through a set of predefined steps. Individuals performing tasks at each step are identified by either their user name or role. Supervisors can track the status of individual items.
  4. Content types. Web content management software should be able to manage multiple content types -- not just text and images that appear on full-screen webpage displays. Others include rich media such as audio streams, video streams and 3D images.
  5. WYSIWYG editing. A WCM platform is often designed to hide the computational complexity from end users. It can provide a WYSIWYG editing environment for both full-screen and mobile displays. WCM can also have capabilities to incorporate special purpose repositories for digital asset management and digital rights management.
  6. Descriptive metadata. WCM software includes varied capabilities for tagging individual information assets. Tagging helps describe what particular information assets contain. Tags can also be related to one another, and thus identify relationships among different assets. Tagging may be done explicitly or implicitly. Editors may select predefined keywords from a list of terms. Many organizations maintain formal taxonomies and controlled vocabularies. Additionally, the best content management solutions also support automatic tagging using cognitive computing algorithms. Once defined by the information architecture, the ways in which content is tagged occur semiautomatically or automatically, with little or no human intervention.
  7. Syndicated sourcing. WCM supports capabilities to assemble content from disparate external sources, including news feeds, social channels and third-party product catalogs.
  8. Multilingual capabilities. Web content management software varies widely in its multilingual capabilities, depending on the number of languages, the character sets for different languages, text directionality and other factors.
WCM can be used to structure the flow of content from content producers to networks of affiliates.

Web content management used to refer to content delivered through full-screen browsers to laptops and desktops. WCM software no longer assumes that; content must also be delivered mobile first to both mobile web apps and native mobile apps, in addition to webpages.

Moreover, the goalpost for WCM systems is shifting from digital publishing to "digital experience." This distinction is more than semantical. Expectations change. With relevant information in hand, the audience not only reads the content, but also takes action. Useful content, delivered in context, empowers business tasks.

When it comes to content delivery, there are four key factors to consider:

  1. Webpage templates. At minimum, web content management software delivers content through predefined templates that provide the look and feel for how information is displayed within a webpage. Tweak the template page design so that it looks good -- and works well -- both on full-sized and small-screen web browsers. Large-surface graphic displays, including big icons, large images and banner text, improve tap and swipe navigation on mobile devices.
  2. Responsive website design. Most WCM software supports responsive website design templates. The content and navigation layouts initially designed for full-screen browsers dynamically adapt to displays on smartphones and tablets. Content is published once to a single template; software then accommodates the screen sizes and display resolutions of various display devices.
  3. Microsites. WCM software does more than collect content into a series of webpage views. It can power multiple experiences, each hosted by a different website. WCM can manage a collection of related websites, or microsites, in a systematic manner. Each microsite can have a different template, complete with separate navigation experiences.
  4. Headless WCM. "Headless" WCM -- sometimes referred to as decoupled content delivery -- introduces a variety of innovative capabilities for distributing content across multiple enterprise applications, such as customer relationship management and marketing automation systems, as well as providing content to native mobile apps and third-party connections. Headless WCM features RESTful APIs for distributing content to external applications running within an enterprise ecosystem.

WCM manages tag sets and semantic metadata that characterize information assets. For example, an article published on a website usually has a title and a set of descriptive index terms. The title and the terms are useful for categorizing the asset.

Key capabilities of WCM software that help navigate the digital ecosystem include:

Search engine optimization tagging. Google and other web-wide search engines have bots that scour the web, indexing and cataloging content being produced for multiple websites. The more descriptive and precise the index terms that these bots find, the more optimized the results that the search engines can deliver. While this might seem like a foreign concept to some content creators, it's not: When content producers and publishers want to be found, they need to tag their content with relevant keywords and make it easy for search bots to correctly index their information assets.

Third-party content connections. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media platforms maintain their own environments and feature various ways to ingest content being managed by a publisher's WCM platform. WCM software features tools and techniques to push, or syndicate, content into these social environments on a scheduled or near-real-time basis. Then there are business-specific digital ecosystems. Different trade associations, franchises and other kinds of organizations maintain business relationships and expect to share published content. WCM can be used to structure the flow of content from content producers to networks of affiliates and thus reinforce these relationships.

Analytics and tracking. WCM software often provides A/B testing as well as tools that can test on multiple variables. WCM presents alternative versions of particular content displays and tracks the results to determine the best option. Web content management software can also interconnect with business environment-wide and web-wide analysis engines to determine how content is being used and with what results. Third-party tools track content usage as part of an overall framework for determining results.

The bottom line

It takes a village to compete with content in the digital age. Business leaders are continually looking for new ways to connect to customers and prospects, reduce operational costs and deliver high-value digital experiences. The IT team within an organization must be able to respond to ever-changing needs and recommend the technology investments required to accomplish business goals.

Both line-of-business and IT should focus on three factors when making investment decisions:

  1. Begin with the content inventory that creates the experiences -- the documents, articles, product listings, images and other kinds of rich media. List the different types of content. Identify the single source of truth for storing and managing each content type. Make sure each source is stored in and managed through a shared repository that line-of-business users can readily access and easily utilize. In the long run, expect to build an extensible repository that can manage and store all content types.
  2. Assess options for content delivery. Designing for mobile first is the right place to begin. Identify high-value content displays that are best delivered to smartphones and tablets. Determine how to present the needed content either through mobile web apps or native mobile apps. Then consider a tethered experience relying on laptop or desktop devices. Identify the added value content displays and interactions needed to produce business results.
  3. Identify the team-level tasks and business processes for originating and sourcing content -- the ways in which content creators, editors and producers interact with one another to create and categorize new information. Expect to leverage a range of creative tools -- such as text editors and word processors, photo- and video-editing applications, image and object-capture environments, and many more. Be sure that once finalized, works in progress are automatically added to the shared repository.

Here's the essential challenge facing the content-creation village in the digital age: Determine and simplify the content flows for moving creative assets into shared repositories that become the sources of truth for making digital experiences.

Next Steps

Learn more about the role of headless CMS in WCM

Does your organization need a WCM system?

The evolution of web content management software

This was last published in July 2017

Dig Deeper on Enterprise Web content management software

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