You Are Not Building a Website

You are not building a website.

Websites are Living Things

In the past, just having a website meant you were innovative. You took that scary first step into Internet world, perhaps when many companies were afraid to do so. Back then, your website was probably static. It was more like a billboard or a pamphlet than the rich web applications to which we’re now accustomed.

If you want your business to survive in today’s Internet ecosystem, your vision had better be grander than to create a digital billboard. Today’s Internet users expect relevant, timely information. They expect it to be clear and aligned with their perception of your brand. They expect rich interactivity. They expect more than a static website can offer.

To the modern marketer a website is a living thing. It’s a provider of dynamic experiences. If the marketer is the lion tamer, the website is his jungle cat. It requires constant attention, adjustment and growth. If it stagnates, so does the brand (at least from the customer’s perspective).

It is absolutely critical that the marketer is given a platform that allows him to navigate the market’s fickle waters. They need to be able to move fast -- to react. That agility is exactly what a content management system is designed to provide.

Agencies, integrators and marketing departments may get this theoretically, but when it comes time to implement the CMS, that theory is often not applied. People have a tendency to fall back to implementation approaches that they have always used. And, this leads organizations to drain the value out of the CMS in which they’ve invested.

The Customization Conundrum

Traditional web design is an evolution of traditional marketing design. The agency pitches design concepts, then iterates until everyone the design is finalized. Next, you build it, whether that’s a television commercial, a billboard ad or a website. It’s a Madison Avenue approach, shoehorned into digital marketing context.

During implementation, the process comes into conflict with the principle that your website should be treated as a living thing. Put another way, it conflicts with the principle upon which the content management system was designed. Even though it looks beautiful, you designed a website and not an adaptable web marketing platform.

This becomes an obvious problem when it results in a laundry list of customizations and one-offs, during implementation. Every time you violate your content management system’s paradigm, because “we designed this one page to be this way,” you reduce the marketer’s ability to react to a dynamic market. Every one-off function is digital marketing debt. Someday, the marketer will need to do something that they simply cannot do, because you hardcoded some other business requirement.

Here’s a simpler way to look at it: what good is building pages with templates if every page requires its own special template?

It’s time to start looking at content management implementation through a different lens. Fortunately, that isn’t as complex as it may seem.

Putting It Into Action

The traditional web design process is flawed, but it can be remedied. It requires a simple shift in mindset, and a new definition of “design.” Try following these tips:

  • Start with a design, then determine how to break that design up into logical building blocks the marketer can use to “build” the site.
  • Consider the ways you could break down your design and recombine those building blocks in different ways. Even consider ways that aren’t necessary right now.
  • Don’t forget that Lorem Ipsum text is not real copy. Your design should account for all variations of text length, image sizes, etc. Your design must be fluid.
  • The marketer’s experience, using the CMS, is just as important as the site visitors. Remember, it’s their toolset to react to the market. If their experience is bad, it’ll reflect outwardly.
  • Consider the technical aptitude of the marketing team. Give them just a little more freedom than they feel comfortable with. Then help them grow with the platform.
  • Be skeptical of every exception. Sometimes one-offs really are necessary, but be diligent in deciding where those one-offs reside.

At some point, someone told me that the goal of CMS implementation is to build “freedom within a framework” (I wish I remembered who, so I could credit them). You want to give the marketer as much freedom as he can handle to build a website, but restricted within the confines of the brand.

Finding this balance is more art than science, and it’ll be a different adventure for every company, every CMS and every project. But, if you want to maximize how your investment in content management improves your business, you need to approach it differently than traditional web design insists that you do.

Title image by Jamie Henderson (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license