The Three Ages of Content Management Systems

I have been working with content management systems for longer than I care to admit. I have built my own, rudimentary systems using PHP and I have selected and implemented large scale systems that powered business and consumer sites. I have done evaluations on some of the largest (and most expensive) CMS vendors and also worked with open source CMS providers.

Over the years, I slowly shifted away from the proprietary packages and embraced the open source platforms. But it seems that we have really had three separate ages:

  • The Age of Waving
  • The Age of Shouting
  • The Age of Sharing

The Age of Waving

Way back in the mists of time, content management was a complicated, expensive business. It was the time of the dot com boom – and specialist content management platforms began to emerge. Overnight it seemed that companies like Interwoven and Vignette took centre stage – it was the age of waving and we were all vying for attention.

From a business point of view, we knew already that hand crafted websites would not scale. There were too many pages to manage, too many authors to deal with and it was too hard to search. We needed a better way. Websites were a measure of innovation – and in a time when many businesses struggled to provide their employees with an email address, the launch of a website seriously aligned your brand with “new thinking”. Of course, we still measured website traffic in “hits” so the thinking may have been new, but it wasn’t very deep.

Meanwhile, consumers were reading these sites like brochures. We were looking for information, doing our product research and searching for local stores. eCommerce was in its infancy and we were still not sure whether we could trust the internet with our valuable credit card numbers.

The Age of Waving was about saying – “here I am”. But the next level of development transformed not just the technology, but also our expectations.

The Age of Shouting

Once we realised the power of content management, everyone wanted a piece of the action. I remember developing complicated matrices that compared the feature sets of the main CMS vendors and cross matched it to open source variants. I published white papers in PDF and put them on the web. I felt like my own miniature Gartner-Group-of-One.

Meanwhile, the shift had begun within the business, with marketing taking control of the web as a “channel”. This often involved a bloody fight with the IT teams who had lovingly nurtured the site through its infancy. But it seemed like there was money to be made, messages to be pushed and advertising to be monetised, so a coup was arranged and the messaging volume was amped up. There was flash, music and even some rudimentary video. It all needed to be integrated and managed by the CMS. We also needed brand consistency, templates and contact forms. We needed workflow and approvals. We needed “legal to be involved”.

It was during this time that I had a kind of a love affair with the Scandinavian platform ezPublish – it was “social” before we even knew what “social networks” were – but was built with enterprise scale in mind. There were access control lists, user management functions, publishing functions and scheduling and a shopping/eCommerce system that could be turned on with the press of a button. At the same time, I also loved Lotus Quickplace – precisely because it was quick (and quite pretty), though not as powerful as ezPublish.

Consumers were now reading sites like newspapers. We were expecting content – and lots of it. We wanted research information and ease-of-use. We wanted searching capabilities and bookmarking. We wanted our own profiles on websites – we wanted personalisation. Or we thought we did.

I remember working with the Koz Community Publishing Platform, talking to publishers like the Trading Post and the Chicago Tribune. The ground was shifting but we didn’t know where it was going. It was all gut instinct. User generated content sounded like a good idea, but raised many problems (database scaling, traffic volumes, user management, ad serving, revenue splits etc). We didn’t yet have the business models in place to take advantage of the opportunities (and perhaps we still don’t).

We were measuring unique visitors and crying about the fact that it seemed so small compared with “hits”. Every vendor and his dog were now providing content management systems – and if you looked closely, you could see these strange beasts – blogging systems – starting to appear.

Joomla and Drupal came along and shook the world again. These serious, enterprise grade content management systems came with all the bells and whistles, deep functionality and support from a great community of developers. There were plenty of plugins and extensions that could help you deliver the perfect web solution for your business or your customers. There were shops, templates, banner ad management, forums and all sorts of features. But it wasn’t a new beginning – it was the end of an era.

The Age of Sharing

Then, the web world became social.

The content management system has shifted from being a channel or vehicle for awareness and then broadcast, to being a platform for sharing and engagement. Where once the most important aspect of content management was on the “business” of managing content – it has now shifted to the business of managing conversations and conversation flows. Sure we want people to know about and find our content, and we want them to engage with it – but we also want them to share it, distribute it through their own personal publishing networks. We want them to recommend our products and services.  And we want them to engage with us beyond the web.

On the CMS front, vendors increasingly bolt-on new functionality. There are blogs and forums, there are plugins to manage users through Facebook Connect, and support for user generated content. Similarly, blogging platforms have continued to evolve, but being social at their heart, they have an intrinsic advantage. And now, with WordPress 3.0, it seems that the functionality, flexibility and scale offered by large scale CMS vendors is now available through this open source platform.

And interestingly, consumers are in charge. Even within the workplace. In many instances, we are seeing ourselves in more than one light – we’re no longer the 1990s worker, firewalled and locked-down. We’re empowered and demanding – wanting to push for results and ready to achieve them with enterprise, cloud or web based apps where ever they may be. Yes, this may be the IT groups greatest nightmare, but it indicates that “being social” no longer ends at the sliding glass doors of the workplace – and nor does it begin with the technology that we choose for our businesses. It’s all about attitude – and that is ageless.

5 thoughts on “The Three Ages of Content Management Systems

  1. Great post Gavin. The technology companies use to manage their web presence, ie their CMS, is really reflective of their level of online engagement isnt it. You’ve summed this up really well. Now companies need to join the Age of Sharing or get left behind.

  2. I’ve only been working with enterprise CMS in the last few years, so interesting to see how its evolved from a top level point of view.
    Its just so easy now to setup a blog or even a CMS. The barrier to entry has really lowered with blogs and easy to setup CMS’s enabling people and business to have an online presence.

  3. Hi Gavin
    CMS’s are something I’ve slowly been taking an interest in, I’ve chosen wordpress and I must say I feel like I’ve backed a winning horse.
    The other day I read the other day that there are now 30mill site built on Joomla and while it’s harder to assess how many wordpress installs are blogs and how many are site, it actually doesn’t matter as you point out there it’s about plugins and extensibility (which WP3.0 certainly has).
    My only question is how long will you stay on Typepad? or do you have faith in the TypePad evolution roadmap?

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