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Where content meets technology

Oct 15, 2013

CMS Adoption. Think Vertical, Not Horizontal.

"Adoption." For years that word has been on the top of the list of critical success criteria for any web content management initiative. "This project will fail if we don't achieve sufficient adoption." The goal of adoption instigated the CMS industry's usability crusade that brought us improvements like better rich text editors and in-context editing. Still, as I have written in "The Myth of the Occasional CMS User" (and Jeff Cram took one step further with "Step letting people use your CMS"), people don't clamor to use a CMS no matter how usable it is.

The truth is, most successful websites are managed by a proportionally small team of dedicated professionals. Gerry McGovern makes this point very eloquently in "Decentralized publishing equals amateur web management."

In most situations, the decentralized publishing model has been disastrous. The people trained tended to be relatively junior staff, for whom publishing to the website was just one more responsibility. The result was lots and lots of poor quality content that was never updated or reviewed.

Does this mean that we should give up on adoption? Hardly. But I do think our thinking about adoption has been all wrong. Most people measure adoption as the number of users who consent to using the platform. The more people using the system, the greater the adoption. I call this "horizontal adoption" and, like Gerry says, it is a recipe for failure.

Forget about horizontal adoption and focus instead on vertical adoption.

"Vertical adoption" is a measure of how much the CMS is used. High vertical adoption means using advanced features of the platform. Vertical adoption has always been pathetically low in web content management. Back in 2006, Lisa Welchman nailed it with her post "The Six Million Dollar WYSIWYG Editor." Nothing has changed. Most of those flashy features that you see in a software demo are hardly used and the problem is getting worse, not better. Most CMS customers are simply not ready to handle today's advanced Web Experience/Engagement Management functionality. I can't tell you how many customer references I have talked to that only use the most basic features. And the software vendors are as concerned as I am about this. At least they should be. If vertical adoption doesn't improve, customers will migrate to cheaper, simpler software.

Of course, vertical adoption isn't just about protecting license revenues for enterprise software companies. If we don't improve vertical adoption, we will never achieve meaningful digital marketing goals. The best that we can do with horizontal adoption is to have more people to fix spelling and grammar errors (and Gerry would argue that outcome is unlikely). If we want to truly engage an audience, we need power users that can get the most out of personalization functionality and uphold the company's side of the conversation.

How do we improve vertical adoption? That is the billion dollar question. There is certainly a usability component to vertical adoption but it is different from usability aimed at horizontal adoption, which focuses on reducing training by making things intuitive and point and click. Usability for a power user assumes expertise and focuses on power and efficiency. Look at an expert in any software. They use keyboard shortcuts. The user interface appears to dance in response to the slightest movements of the operator. But to the novice, these user interfaces can be inscrutable. Remember the Saabre terminals back when we went to travel agents to book our vacations? Is anyone else that old?

Achieving this level of expertise requires training and specialization. You need guidance from other experts and you need a lot of practice. This means that your marketing operations program has to have reached a critical mass where you are doing these initiatives more or less continually. Advanced functionality (like personalization or lead nurturing) is not something that you get right in the initial deployment and then put on auto-pilot. You only get results when you actively use them. Incidentally, most systems integrators are primarily focused on content modeling and template development. They are not very good at the using advanced functionality within the context of a real content strategy — like looking at the full lifecycle from planning to analyzing the results.

Most organizations are really far from this level of operational maturity. They probably know these truths to be self-evident at some level; but they are all too willing to suspend their disbelief when a software vendor tells them that, with their solution, advanced digital marketing is so easy that even the CEO could do it. On the other side, I can see the temptation of the software vendor. A lot of these customers are still justifying budget for software with an ROI based on cost savings. Better tools equals less effort equals smaller team. Would you risk being the only vendor in a selection saying that your solution will raise operational expenses by needing to hire more staff?

As an industry, I think we would all benefit if we focused on promoting vertical adoption by:

Until we improve vertical adoption, the CMS industry will continue to run around in circles and customers will never get the results that they hope for.