The changing face of Web content management systems: new uses, issues

Beth Stackpole

Not too long ago, Web content management (WCM) systems were all about the content, featuring an array of library-type services to help companies publish mostly textual information on their websites. WCM systems also were highly complex and expensive, not to mention difficult to manage, and they were primarily aimed at technically savvy users.

What a difference a few years can make. Today's Web content management tools can do a lot more than manage the flow of static information to websites – according to analysts, they're morphing into platforms for engaging customers and sales prospects via interactive and multichannel content delivery. New capabilities in areas such as content targeting, social media integration, rich multimedia content, analytics and support for mobile devices are helping to reshape and broaden the role of an enterprise Web content management system.

“The basic library services portion of WCM systems – check-in/check-out, workflows and permissions – has become commoditized,” said Stephen Powers, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “WCMs are evolving into a component of a technology ecosystem that supports the customer experience and moves them through the marketing funnel.”

A recent survey conducted by Forrester bears out the transformation. Of 260 content and collaboration professionals with decision-making roles in Web content management software selection, 54% said their organizations planned to tap new functionality for delivering content to mobile devices, while 47% reported plans to use their WCM systems to target content based on the browsing behavior of website visitors. And 33% of the respondents said they're looking to roll out new user-generated content features, such as comments, reviews, threaded discussions, ratings and polls, in an effort to better engage visitors on their sites.

There's no lack of functionality to take into account in the latest generation of Web content management systems. Real Story Group, an Olney, Md.-based consulting company that focuses on content management technologies, counts a total of 24 core WCM components, which fall into three categories: technical services for systems administration and performance management; content services for creating and publishing material and managing content workflows and lifecycles; and site services for making websites more engaging and interactive.

'A lot of moving pieces' in Web content management systems
“Depending on the scope of what you're trying to do, there are a lot of moving pieces,” said Tony Byrne, Real Story Group's president. In addition, the Web content management market is highly fragmented: By Byrne's reckoning, there are more than 2,000 vendors offering various types of WCM software, resulting in a potentially confusing landscape for buyers to navigate.

With so many features and product options available, the biggest challenge for many organizations is deciding “what types of experiences do you want to support and how do you do that in the most effective way,” Powers said. That often boils down, he added, to balancing the desire to deliver "a really specific experience" to individual website visitors with the need to continue presenting content in an effective way to all visitors and across all delivery channels.

From the delivery channel perspective, the ability of Web content management systems to support mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablet PCs, is shaping up to be a big story this year, according to Powers and other analysts. In the Forrester survey, 19% of the 218 respondents who are using their WCM tools to manage customer-facing sites said they want WCM vendors to improve mobile-related functionality, and the consulting firm expects that number to increase as more organizations look to tap the mobility features of their systems.

Powers noted, though, that the mobile push requires more than the ability to modify content to fit individual mobile devices. What's needed is the ability to create a multichannel delivery architecture that can support current mobile devices and whatever comes down the path in the future. And that's still up in the air for many users: Of those 218 respondents, 41% cited supporting website visitors across a large number of mobile devices as a key challenge.

Social media capabilities are seen as another top priority for many organizations, both to elicit feedback and input from website visitors and to enable them to share content on social networking sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Built-in analytics are also becoming a must-have feature, allowing Web content managers and other corporate users to track the activities of site visitors so they can create more targeted and personalized content.

As Web content management systems take on a broader role in marketing and customer engagement, it's important to “get your ears up and hear what visitors’ responses are to the content you’re putting out there, so you’re better informed for the next conversation,” said Scott Liewehr, lead WCM analyst at Gilbane Group, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass.

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.

View the next item in this Essential Guide: Lots of talk, little movement toward cloud Web content management or view the full guide: Web content management systems roundup

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