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10 Tips for Surviving a CMS Switch

Make the switch to a new content management system as seamless as possible.
University Business, Oct 2006

I'm a WCMSS: a Web Content Management System Survivor. Are you? In the small world of higher ed web professionals, you have either already implemented a CMS or you will at some point in your career. With so many target audiences, strategic goals, and content contributors, long gone is the time when a single person could efficiently manage an institution's website. While some institutions still rely on a centralized approach to web content producing and publishing, more and more are turning to content management systems. As a result, a CMS implementation has become one of the most important rites of passage for higher ed web executives and teams.

Factor in that your
content contributors don't like to change the way they work.

Whether you're just contemplating the idea, you're about to start your implementation, or you're in the middle of the nightmare such a project can turn into, these tips from other WCMSSs should help ... and could save you from a few sleepless nights.

Don't think of a CMS as the silver bullet that can solve all your website problems. It can help manage and update the website, but it won't write excellent copy, draw qualified leads to your web pages, or make your home page navigation user-friendly overnight.

"Know the specific business problem you are trying to solve," advises Mark Greenfield, director of Web Services at the University at Buffalo, part of The State University of New York system. "Are you looking at a CMS to give non-technical staff the ability to update content? Do you need editorial workflow? Do you want to syndicate content? Look at implementing different solutions for different needs. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't necessarily work well at a university."

With content management systems' total costs of ownership in the five- to six-digit range, a CMS implementation can draw a lot of attention. Add to this the fact that content contributors, scattered in different offices and departments, don't like to change the way they work, and it makes sense that a CMS implementation will always be a high-visibility project even if it didn't cost a single penny. That's why you need as much buy-in as you can get.

Use a variety of communication channels-such as the web, in-person, campuswide "town hall" meetings, e-mail, blogs, a survey, a teleconference, or a video conference-to get input during the decision-making process, suggests Brian Phelps, web manager for the University of the Pacific (Calif.). "Document who contributes to the process, by whatever means. As the project progresses, the weight of buy-in from a larger number of participants and contributors will bring along others who are less excited about the changes."

Find out what your content contributors need, if you want them to use the CMS. How do they update their area of the website? Do they cut and paste directly from Microsoft Word? Do they work their way through pages and pages of code? How long does it take? What would they like the CMS to help them with? The earlier you can involve your CMS end-users in the project, the easier it will be to make your implementation a long-lasting success.

Content contributors' wish lists can be used to define institutional requirements. Marketing and IT department staff should review this list and fill in any obvious gaps. And don't forget workflow processes for managerial approval and LDAP integration for single sign-on. When these steps are skipped, "there's a temptation to spend more time comparing systems than matching them to your needs-and vendors will have an easier time convincing you that you need features you really don't," says Rose Pruyne, a programmer/analyst and member of a university-wide group that evaluates CMS products at The Pennsylvania State University.

There is no scarcity of CMS products on the market, from do-it-yourself or do-it-with-some-help open-source solutions to full-blown, high-end enterprise applications. Evaluating the different options can be a daunting task. Use a requirements/features grid. When you're done with all the feature lists, the two or three best matches will stand out.

Would you buy a car without doing a test drive? Probably not. So don't select your CMS without doing a proper demo. Ask selected vendors to demo their products on your terms, suggests Nancy Jeanne Mustachio, application development director at Seton Hall University (N.J.). "Conduct an 'apple-to-apple' vendor review. Create a feature and IT requirement grid, which each vendor must adhere to when presenting," she says.

Invite a few "crash-test dummies" (non-technical users) to perform a
content update, and then look at the resulting code.

Don't forget to invite a couple of crash-test dummies, or non-technical users who should perform a regular content update, by cutting and pasting from Word, for example. Then, have your forensic expert-that would be your web person-look at the resulting code or run the web page in an online validator to see if the CMS can output standard-compliant code.

After selecting the right vendor, get to work on a project plan. Don't skip the planning stage. Ever. If you do, you probably won't survive to tell your CMS implementation horror stories. You should plan more time and resources than you think you'll need. Don't forget to identify potential risks and set up an ad-hoc mitigation strategy. Shy away from aggressive timelines. You might be able to pull off a successful CMS implementation in a few weeks, but you could lose your health in the process. These projects take time, so set up a realistic timeline.

Follow your plans and update everybody about progresses and changes. Keep the communication channels open. "Create a website/blog that documents project progress and archive all relevant documentation. Keep it fresh," Phelps says.

In the end, they are the ones who can make your project a success. As soon as you've selected your CMS application, plan their training. If you've done your homework, the learning curve should be a breeze.

Then read all the survivors' tips gathered in preparation for this column at

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.

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