The Case for Including Content Strategy in CMS Builds

If you’re a content strategist, you have likely heard a lot about the importance of being part of designing and customizing content management systems. But if you’re a developer, you may not have the same perspective.

On a recent project, I witnessed this firsthand. I created content templates, identified content types, and designed governance practices. As I helped design content I kept the eventual CMS build in mind. But the (external) development team was not prepared for the same level of collaboration. They looked at my deliverables as options. And when my ideas didn’t fit, they unilaterally made decisions – never once letting me know. Unfortunately, the result was a CMS that didn’t fit the content needs or the editorial team’s abilities.

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I was furious. But once I calmed down, I realized that this is a recurring problem. It wasn’t a personal issue between me and the dev team. It’s a problem in the way content strategists and dev teams are used to working together. And the only way to solve it is to get developers on our side. We need to create a more collaborative process.

For starters, we need to convince dev teams that collaborating with content strategists is valuable. Here are a few suggestions to get started.

What’s the Benefit to the Dev Team?

Developers have been building and customizing content management systems for years. And they’ve been doing just fine without content strategists. How does it benefit a developer to discuss decisions with a content strategist, particularly given the additional time and budget needed?

  1. Content demonstrates functionality. Yes, the development work is important and difficult. And the content being put into a CMS is “just content.” But content needs to be formatted to appear on multiple devices, and the development work can’t properly be tested without content (or proto content) that fits the requirements.
  2. Success comes when editors can use the CMS. When the editorial team asks for something like a table, or a dropdown on a page, the development team can easily hard code it. But what happens when the editorial team needs a table after development is over? Content strategists can help figure out what content types and functionality editors will need in the future, so that developers can build it.
  3. It’s easier to develop with more information. Developers don’t want to be responsible for constant site maintenance. Content strategists consider future content needs and the governance models that will enable them. Content strategists can communicate those needs to the development team more easily if they’re involved in reviews.

How to Collaborate on CMS Builds

Even when development teams agree to collaborate, it’s a struggle to implement. Dev teams have daily scrums, weekly deadlines, and a process they’re comfortable with. They have teammates (often other developers) who they work well with. Content strategists add complications.

Here are some tips for collaboration:

  • Imagine that every CMS is being custom built. Don’t start by looking at the technology available. Instead, start by identifying the editors’ goals. Then determine how the CMS can be updated, customized, or best used to accomplish those goals as simply as possible. Lastly, match that to the available technology.
  • Outline the user (author) flows. Make a point of keeping each process under 5 steps.
  • Meet frequently, and ask questions. The biggest mistake you can make is waiting. Don’t assume things will make more sense after the next sprint.
  • Test with real content – and with the most likely content. We often design for the exceptions. But when it comes to CMS processes we need to make sure daily or weekly content updates are simple. Who cares if it’s easy to do something once a year, but takes 14 steps to make a weekly update?
  • Focus on simplicity of steps, not simplicity of systems. A great dev team understands the backend, and a CMS is often defaulted to be a simple system. But for authors and editors who have no experience with CMSs, a simple system means nothing. They need their steps to content creation to be simple.

Collaboration needs to come from both sides, and we need to do what we can to make it easy for developers to work with us, for the good of the author’s experience.

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