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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.

Aug 28, 2013

Step right up and watch me change this page! Blindfolded!

Over the years I have seen well over a hundred web content management system demos. I have even done a few myself. But it doesn't take watching many demos before you notice that they all follow the same general patterns. "Watch me change this page." "This is how I find the content I was looking for." "Doesn't this demo website look nicer than yours?" OK, the last one is more implied than said. In this era of Web Experience Management, there are some new elements to the story. "See how this page looks differently to different audiences with different intents on different platforms?"

Don't get me wrong. I still get excited by the possibilities of technology that can show a visitor the perfect content in the ideal format. The problem is that achieving this goal assumes that the user knows what the perfect content and ideal format are. But we don't — not by a long shot. The best we can do is preview a page pretending to be a visitor; and that takes a lot of guesswork.

The missing element in this story is the visitor. That is significant because the visitor is the heart of WEM. After all, the "E" in "WEM" stands for the visitor's experience, not the experience of the content editor previewing the page. How do we get the visitor into the center of the demo's narrative? It is hard to switch back and forth between the visitor and the editor without making the demo appear choppy and disjointed. Besides, as I said earlier, we usually don't know as much about the visitor as we would like to.

Perhaps a better way would be to use data to represent the visitor. Having done demos, I know that showing transactional data (like web traffic) is a real challenge. You need to have lots of recent data to make the demo look realistic. This is why the analytics segment of a WCM demo usually falls flat. The demo environment usually just has a few hits — not enough to see any real trends. That said, wouldn't it be great to go through a scenario that begins with realistic visitor traffic data?

I could imagine a story that started in an analytics area with the identification of an under performing section of the site. Perhaps, you are getting search traffic on the wrong key words. Maybe a lot of people get to the page but then you loose them. Maybe you dig a little deeper and you notice particularly low conversion rates within what you thought was a high potential audience segment. At this point you could show how you reconcile audience segments between the analytics package and the WCMS personalization engine. That is, the CMS might have a "big spender" visitor profile, but how do you see that same population on the analytics side?

From there, you might validate that these visitors are seeing what you configured them to see. Going deeper, you might notice that "big spenders" are predominantly coming from mobile devices. You preview the personalized page on a mobile emulator and, BAM, the answer hits you in the face. The graphic that you thought would be so compelling to this group doesn't scale very well on mobile and makes the page unusable. Only then do you start editing content.

There could be many variations of this story but the key point is that the platform is helping solve the biggest obstacle to engaging visitors: understanding them. I would argue that unless you understand your visitors to this level, you shouldn't even touch personalization functionality. You are not engaging visitors; you are stereotyping them and then ignoring them. You may even be making their experiences worse because you haven't really tested what they will see. You are flying blind. What kind of business value is there in tool that facilitates unproductive tasks? I would argue less than none.

Jun 26, 2012

Creepy Personalization

The New York Times has an interesting article about eCommerce personalization - E-Tailer Customization: Convenient or Creepy?. The big take-away here is that if you want to experiment personalization, you need to be prepared to adjust because the results may be the opposite of what you want. Before you implement sophisticated display logic, you need to build the capacity to manage it. Otherwise your visitors will probably be worse off than if you did nothing.

Sep 14, 2011

Context and the Future of Web Content Management.

Tom Wentworth, from Ektron, has written an inspirational article on Forbes called "http://www.forbes.com/sites/ciocentral/2011/08/30/context-will-drive-the-future-of-web-content-management/". The article describes a very legitimate strategy for achieving a goal that CMS customers all want: serving their audiences with the right content, at the right time, and in the right format. The strategy, which uses visitor context (location and device) to infer intent and other preferences, is something that a CMS can help with. Content management systems have been introducing increasingly sophisticated profiling and presentation functionality to implement elaborate display logic. Content management systems have always been able to capture the metadata and other configuration that drives this logic.

The right CMS will give you the capability. But that is only part (and a really small one) of what is needed to be successful in this strategy. The bigger, harder part is designing, implementing, and testing the rules behind this logic. How would you treat a visitor differently if you knew his context? The fact is that you still don't know the visitor and what he wants. Context may give you a clue or a hint, but you can't be sure. You can only make assumptions and these assumptions may be very wrong.

These assumptions are like any stereotype. Sometimes they are accurate and you look like you have some kind of sixth sense. But when they are wrong, you better be prepared for damage control because you can look like an idiot and frustrate people. Success with a context-based strategy, or any other personalization depends on 1) knowing the likelihood of being wrong, 2) knowing when you were actually wrong, and 3) recovering from a mistake.

Let's take these elements in a concrete example. Let's say you work for a movie theater company and have a theory that the mobile visitors to your website only want to see showtimes and directions. One of your customers sees a help wanted sign at one of the theaters with a link for information on how to apply. This young applicant's only computer is a smart phone (an increasingly common phenomenon). He goes to the website and is redirected to a mini-site that only has show times and directions. He can't get to the desktop version of the site with job information. You just lost a job applicant and embarrassed yourself.

Running through the tests.... You might think it was a reasonable assumption to only show certain information to mobile users, but if you were not absolutely sure, you could have put a link to the full site and suppressed the redirect logic. How would you know about this incident? Are you tracking clicks on that "desktop version" link? Was there a place to leave feedback? Or will that incident only be seen as a bounce in your traffic report? If you figured out what happened, what are you going to do about it? Do you have the resources to correct mistaken assumptions and continually improve the behavior of the site(s)?

I really like Tom and what he has done at Ektron since he joined. In particular, Tom has helped focus Ektron and elevate the discussion about serving audiences. Buyers should definitely listen to these ideas but be aware that supporting context-aware visitor experiences adds cost to the initial implementation and ongoing maintenance. There is more logic to test before you launch the new site; but the real effort is after deployment when you have to constantly test and tune the logic as you see it respond to real users. You have to accept that context-driven logic has the potential to worsen visitor experience and be prepared to make corrections. This means having a team with the time and skills to monitor and adjust the logic. If you have access to that talent, you should be able to use context information to help deliver great visitor experiences.

Jan 12, 2011

Another tough year for personalization

While I generally don't enjoy 2011 prediction posts, I really loved James Hoskins's article (20)11 predictions from the CMS coal face. I found it thoughtful, pragmatic, and meaningful. One of my favorite predictions is #8 Personalisation falters again. I have had similar challenges with personalization. Most content organizations do not have the maturity, discipline, and energy to fully leverage this kind of technology. Interest and investment inevitably subsides after irrational expectations are not immediately gratified. Investment is higher than expected: you have to manage more complex technology, you need to develop more content, and you need to test a lot more. Return is lower than expected: most companies don't even know how to measure the value of the return.
There are, of course, exceptions. The importance of display and placement are ingrained in retail culture (online and offline) and small tweaks can lead to big returns. Customer extranets are inherently personalized so I am not including that here.

Traditional media companies (magazines, newspapers, and television/radio stations) would like to personalize but they don't have quite the upside eCommerce sites do; on a media site, an extra click means a few more ad impressions rather than a potential sale. Most media clients find that the volume and turnover in content makes the cost of tuning personalization greater than the return. Showing articles that are related to the current article brings the biggest bang for the buck. Marketing sites are more campaign driven than personalized; you put up different pages with different URLs rather than creating a personalized user experience.

As problematic as it has been in the past, I think that succeeding with personalization is only going to get harder. First of all, multiple device support is going to eat up your development resources so you will have even less time to test and tune complex personalized views. Second, unless you are lucky enough to be one of the premier social networking sites, most of your audience will only be on your site for a page or two — if at all. Most visitors will follow a deep link to your site, scan the content, then go back to the conversation about it. Some visitors will take snapshot of the page using a service like Read It Later or Instaper. Some visitors will just read the conversation and never click through. The upshot is that most visitors will not hang around long enough to implicitly or explicitly build a profile that can drive personalization logic.

I think that the greatest potential for personalization will be to use a service like Facebook Connect like Levis is doing. When a visitor comes with Facebook Connect, they bring some additional context that can be used to drive personalization logic. Most web savvy people find Facebook Connect creepy (and will try to avoid it) but the vast majority of web surfers are either unaware or unconcerned with privacy issues. I would look for a major uptake of Facebook Connect. In particular, I expect to see recommended content display components that can be used in different presentation channels. In the near term, however, I the greatest returns will come from the "make every page a home page strategy" where each page promotes content that is related to the current page. That's not personalization. That's just good content re-use.

Dec 17, 2009

Are content managers ready for personalization?

I have been catching up on product demos recently and have seen some really elegant functionality for marketers. Several products have introduced modules that allow CMS users to plan, implement, and measure multivariate testing, search engine optimization, and personalization without the continued support of a developer. A developer has to put the tools in place but, after that, the CMS user can fully control the behavior of the site and optimize its business impact.

It is easy to get excited by this functionality. But then you think of the difficulty your average organization has with even the basic aspects of content production and you wonder if they ready for these tools. How can you do an A/B test if getting someone to write option "A" is a struggle and option "B" would be a miracle? Of course, not all companies suffer from these issues. The more sophisticated publishers and eCommerce companies have been doing these advanced site management activities even when the technology stood in their way, much less facilitated them. But your average marketing site is still in the dark ages when it comes to managing content.

Will your average marketing group be able to leverage this functionality? Or will it be yet another unused feature that clutters the user interface? My hope is that once contributors and site managers start to experiment and see results, they will rapidly evolve to be more committed and proactive in the same way social media participants started to embrace tagging when they saw their work start to surface in more prominent places. A tight and accurate feedback loop is important in any learning process so maybe access to testing and metrics has been the missing feature rather than usability-oriented functionality like in-context editing. It is probably more effective to make a task interesting and rewarding than to make that uninteresting work easier to do. The former strategy will cause a user to overcome any obstacle he is faced with. In the latter strategy, there will always be some excuse not to do the work. I touched on this idea in an earlier post called "What your intranet needs is a publisher!"

That is not to say that all you need to do is drop in personalization functionality one day and your organization will immediately change. I have seen many organizations fail with this approach because they didn't have the content to support it. I saw a slide from a Sitecore (below, click for a larger image) demonstration that shows a gradual maturity process that begins with understanding your users and your content and ending with real time personalization.

Sitecore's model for incremental success in content personalization

I very much agree with the model but I think that the trick to success is being able to see real results at every step of the way. Most organizations will not have the commitment to sustain a continuous effort through long periods of no results. Results are easy to felt from the conversion tracking step onward. Getting to that point, however, will require organizations to aggressively push through traffic analysis, experience analysis, and content profiling. Perhaps there is room to get some intermediate outcomes along the way that can keep an organization hungry for more. These outcomes can't just be in the form of a spreadsheet that is out of date by the time that it is presented. There needs to be some tangible business impact like being able to make a small change to the website that yields some measurable result. If this is not possible, the best one can do is time-box this period of no feedback and have faith that the results will be worth that fixed investment.

They are just coming on the market now but I am really looking forward to seeing the organizational response to these marketing tools. The early adopters will certainly benefit from the functionality because, by being early adopters, they have already shown their commitment to improvement. It will be really interesting to see examples of this functionality transforming mainstream organizations that have struggled in the past.