Without some form of web presence, it's easy to be ignored by potential audiences and to be overtaken by your competitors in today's internet-centric digital landscape.
Simply launching a website is just the beginning, however. Managing and updating the content found on the site is equally as, if not more, important. But for those without a web design background, how is this easily accomplished? The best option is web content management software.
Web content management is a class of software for creating and maintaining unstructured digital information within contemporary online environments. From an IT perspective, WCM software has a simple business purpose: to support nontechnical users and ensure that they can manage all the information they need to produce compelling online experiences for their audiences. And from an operational perspective, WCM software provides essential tools for delivering a total digital experience across full-screen and mobile devices and for tracking results.
Anyone who manages and maintains a website is managing content. Once a site is 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. WCM is designed to manage digital experiences rather than specific files. It leverages the native file system of an operating system, thereby making WCM more than just a repository for managing data files and rich media assets, which are managed by enterprise content management systems and digital asset management systems, respectively.
Increasingly, web-powered enterprise applications, such as contemporary customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation systems also need to deliver content. These systems often depend on WCM for organizing and managing the content they provide. WCM can deliver content to various enterprise applications, in addition to predefined websites.
WCM seeks to solve a business problem that is as old as the web itself. During the early 1990s, IT specialists needed to hand-code HTML into individual webpages. It didn't take long before software engineers began to add extensions to the popular word processing tools of the day, to transform familiar keystrokes into HTML.
Then, users needed the ability to create and manage a set of webpages for a self-contained site in a consistent and systematic manner. This need was addressed by, at that time, innovative, page-oriented tools. First-generation WCM software, which launched shortly thereafter, introduced techniques to maintain collections of webpages within a group setting, such as the newsroom of an online newspaper or a company branded website maintained by the marketing team.
WCM software continues to evolve and, today, includes many additional capabilities beyond supporting shared access to webpages. But companies and organizations of all sizes continue to face the core challenge: How can nontechnical users best manage the information they publish on their sites with only occasional assistance from IT?
Three questions about content, management and the web
The evolving capabilities of WCM software closely mirror the transformation of the web itself from a shared publishing environment to a venue for targeted digital experiences. Thus, any definition of WCM must address three questions:
What is content? Once just defined as text and still images, content has evolved to include any type of digitized information, such as audio, video, dynamic graphs and 3D shapes. Content types themselves are continually evolving. Today, a content element combines the core information chunk or snippet -- sometimes referred to as the payload -- and the essential set of metadata that describe this object.
What constitutes management? Our contemporary definition of management extends beyond publishing static webpages to include various approaches to dynamic content delivery. Increasingly, nontechnical users seek ways to develop and maintain their own websites, without IT to create the look and feel where content might appear. These nontechnical users want to personalize content delivery and target predefined audiences with a variety of information. Management also includes the ability to track results and account for content consumption.
What comprises the web, anyway? At the outset, the web encompassed websites that were accessed and viewed exclusively through web browsers. End users relied on full-screen content displays, usually powered by desktop and laptop computers, to access information on particular websites -- defined by their URLs.
With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, the mobile revolution has profoundly changed our expectations of the web and the digital experiences it creates. First is the simple matter of screen size. Without careful attention to design details, what looks great on a 14- or 15-inch screen rarely looks good on a mobile device. Then there's the question of the entire experience being delivered. It's one thing to provide content for end users sitting at their desks focused on single activities and tethered to servers on the internet. It's another when users are off-site, mobile, need access to only a few snippets of content or may lose internet connectivity while working.
A contemporary WCM environment must manage these three transitions: to support all content types, provide extensive management and capture multidevice digital experiences. The IT group must delegate day-to-day functions to users by providing the necessary software tools and technologies that meet, or exceed, business requirements. Concurrently, the IT group retains control over the technical details related to infrastructure, security and underlying enterprise architecture. Drawing the line between technical and the nontechnical aspects is a constant challenge.
Is WCM a system or a platform?
Both the technical capabilities and market expectations for WCM software are continually evolving. Initially, we referred to WCM as a system. The more contemporary categorization term, however, is platform. Why does this matter?
As the digital age has evolved, it has become increasingly difficult to circumscribe the capabilities of a website. As such, we now manage content through a WCM platform, which offers users a very flexible and extensible computing environment.
Rather than managing content on self-defined webpages, like in the first-generation WCM systems, content now comprises snippets or small chunks of information that are dynamically assembled and presented within page-oriented templates. These templates can be scaled and resized to accommodate many different device types, including smartphones and tablets.
Content can now be sourced from anywhere on the web, not just from specified repositories. A WCM platform supports the ability to dynamically integrate with and manage the links to any content source accessible over the internet. It's fully woven into the web-wide ecosystem and can readily access all types of content through predefined services.
The content being managed includes both the information itself as well as various sets of metadata that further describe the content. Metadata can include taxonomies used for categorization, tags added for search engine optimization, and predefined codes and markup essential for managing digital assets.
Finally, managed content can be distributed to multiple channels in addition to predefined websites. WCM can support content distribution to and syndication with mobile apps, enterprise applications, and the websites and publishing environments belonging to third-party business partners.
From managing web content to empowering digital experiences
In today's contemporary business environment, organizations are continually weaving webs of digital experiences based on the content that their audiences access, consume and even produce in the course of day-to-day work. These various pieces of content on websites are only a portion of more extensive and extensible digital experiences. Two major factors are influencing this: the mobile revolution and easy integration with enterprise applications.
The year 2014 was a watershed for the mobile revolution. More end users accessed web-based content from their mobile devices than from their desktops and laptops. Recognizing this trend, Google began to rank mobile-ready sites more highly within its search engine optimization algorithms. This means today's WCM software must be able to effectively deliver content to and effectively leverage the capabilities of both mobile devices and desktop devices.
Many firms are also implementing purpose-built enterprise applications, such as marketing automation and CRM systems, to solve operational and business problems. Each of these applications will access and distribute branded content. It's likely this content will be provisioned from sources external to the application.
This is where WCM comes into play. It provides a repository of branded and approved content that marketing automation and CRM systems can distribute. Key to the success is the ability to connect the content repository to the enterprise application. Fortunately, the modern architecture of web-based technologies makes systems integration must easier than in the past.
Who are today's WCM market leaders?
WCM software has emerged as a distinct product category with a wide range of offerings from enterprise and cloud-powered software vendors. It also features several open source projects, where the communities of developers freely license the core software and service providers deliver value-added customization, installation and support services. Key vendors that are delivering and supporting comprehensive (paid) WCM software include Adobe, Episerver, IBM, OpenText, Oracle and Sitecore. Each maintains its own support and partner channels. Two open source projects of note are Drupal and WordPress. Acquia, a unique vendor in the WCM market, delivers enterprise-scale support, hosting and development services for Drupal as well as its own paid WCM offering.
When content solves business problems
In today's business environment, content is the currency needed to remain competitive in the digital age. WCM is the means to an end, but not the end result in itself. The issue at hand is no longer simply maintaining the words and rich media assets that appear within webpages, but rather channeling their overall impact into the digital experiences they produce.
Read up on the many roles of WCM platforms.
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