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CM And Customers, Managing Relationships

Bob Boiko
President, Metatorial Services Inc.
Affiliate Professor, University of Washington iSchool

The typical Web redesign results in a better looking more usable site where your information resources are easier to find. But so what? The typical Content Management System (CMS) implementation results in a more efficient process and better organized information. But so what? What does all that really get you? The sad fact is that very few people who install a CMS or redesign a site look beyond these simple justifications to the real reasons why they should organize information and create publications. It's not that these justifications are not important; it's that they are enablers of the more important justifications for managing and delivering content. The ultimate reason your organization manages information is the same reason your organization does any activity-to advance toward its goals. As obvious as this conclusion is, it amazes me how few CM and Web initiatives really address it. In this article, I'll outline one simple, powerful way you can go beyond the immediate efficiency and usability justifications to tie your CM inextricably to the foundations of your organization.

The approach is quite easy to state. Any interaction between an organization and an individual (or a group of people) should benefit the individual and the organization. It's a simple exchange of value. The exchange of money for product or service happens all the time. But the exchange of value is not limited to money. It can happen in any medium including content.

Our organization gives you the content you want and in return you do something for us.

The simplest example is the exchange of money for information. Many news sites now say "You pay for a subscription and we will give you premium information." But more importantly, news sites also say "You pay attention to us and think more favorably of us and we will give you premium access to news and events." The user wants to know and the organization wants to be loved.

The exchange of value to simultaneously satisfy the needs of both parties is the fundamental driver of your organization's success. It can be the basis for how you design your CMS and all the sites and other publications it produces. If you can figure out who your audiences are and what they want from you and also figure out what you want from them, you can overlay the two based on the kinds of information that serve both purposes. Your sites can link content in a way that brings the user and the organization closer to their goals. Let's take the process one step at a time.

Create lifecycles. Most commercial organizations have some notion of what they want their customers to do. Often calling it a "lifecycle," the organization charts the mindsets that a potential consumer will generally move through from the first awareness of a product or service to their eventual purchase. Regardless of the kind of organization you are in or who your audiences are, you can do the same. For example, a college might have as its goal the eventual enrollment of new students. They might reason that a potential student progresses from awareness of the college, to putting the college on a short list, to committing to the application process and finally to committing to enroll.

Link lifecycles to content. You can chart the key content types and items that indicate that a user is in a particular stage of your cycle. For example, the college might decide that a potential student is in the "short-list" phase when she is looking at detailed departmental requirements. You can also decide what users might do to enter the state, dwell in the state, retreat to an earlier state or advance to a later state. For example the student might show that she has entered this stage by visiting an application checklist page. They might show that they are remaining in the "short-list" stage by coming back to the site multiple times per week and dwelling on course and housing information. As I'll discuss later, it is far less important that the college be right about these assumptions than that they get used to making and testing such assumptions.

Figure out what your audiences want. Use every available source of information to know what your audiences want from you. Read your server logs to figure out what they actually do on your site. Interview them. Decide what tasks and processes they most want you to support. Decide for each audience what content is central to their feeling that they are progressing toward their goal. What content do they enter your site from, what content do they exit from? At the same time try to characterize your audiences using personas, scenarios, use cases or whatever other user analysis tools you can muster. For each audience, prioritize your information from their perspective and chart their information-seeking strategies.

Overlay your lifecycles and their strategies. Find the overlaps between the content your audiences see as key to success and the content that indicates motion through your lifecycles. Are there key content types or particular items that appear on both the organization-centric and the user-centric lists? Are there ways of framing user-key content such that it motivates users to the next lifecycle stage? For example, potential students might really need to calculate the total cost of attending (TCA) in order to decide where they can afford to go to school. The college might feel that a student who is ready to chart expenses can be considered at the end of the "short-list" stage and almost ready to enter the 'apply" stage. In response, the college might focus heavily on drawing potential students who are looking at detailed course offerings (those that are midstream in the "short-list" stage) to content that allows them to easily and confidently calculate TCA. From the TCA content it would be foolish for the college to equally present links back to the courses with links forward to the "apply" stage entry content. Instead they should heavily emphasize forward links with both visual cues and incentives to click.

By following these simple steps, your organization can:

  • Know specifically what their site should accomplish.
  • Develop a strong idea of forward and reverse movement through your site for each audience type.
  • Develop clear precise instructions about how to link content for maximum effect.
  • Prioritize content types and focus most heavily on those that drive both user and organizational success. Priority content types can get more resources (better editorial processes, better tagging, deeper coverage, and so on).
  • Organize content based on its purpose to the organization, For example, "entry" content helps people make the transition to a new lifecycle stage. Depth content helps people solidify their commitment to a stage, and exit content points them to the next stage.
  • Develop specific points in the site where they can measure success. For example, the college might use the number of people who come to the TCA page as a measure of how many or few people are getting to the "short-list" stage.

Define the best CMS and Web site. Most importantly, this attitude can drive all your CMS and site design efforts. The best CMS is not the one that most efficiently organizes the most content. Efficiently organizing a lot of content is a given. The best CMS allows you to most effectively identify and assign key content types and items, segment your audiences and link them to the content they should receive (and not just on the Web). The best Web site is not the one that is most useable or beautiful. Those too are now a given. The best Web site is one that most effectively advances a user's goals while simultaneously advancing the goals of the organization that created it.

The best CMS and Web site has one more essential element. As I said earlier, it matters much less whether your assumptions about audiences, lifecycles and content types are correct and more that you begin to make such assumptions. This is because no matter how long and hard you work, you will never know your users and information well enough to fully anticipate how to connect them. Furthermore, even if you could figure it all out, it would change by the time you could implement it. So, the best CMS and Web site supports not only the linking of audiences with information, but the continual evolution of your understanding of how to do so. It also supports your ability to experiment with novel approaches to moving users and helps you track the results.

For example, the college might decide to present half of the potential students with form A of the TCA pages, and the other half with form B. By controlled variation of the differences between A and B they can continually evolve their ability to move users from "short-list" pages to the "apply" pages. They might try varying the position of the links to depth content relative to exit content, and they might play with wording. They might introduce links to two different kinds of exit content. Of course, they will do many experiments that I or they could never anticipate from a distance.


So what will you do when the next Web redesign or CMS purchase comes up? Will you keep company with the same old justifications and design paradigms of efficiency and usability? Or will you revolutionize the way you argue for resources and design your systems and sites?

Just as importantly, what will you do today to evolutionize your system and sites? What is keeping you from choosing two pages that seem to mark a lifecycle transition for at least one audience? How hard would it be to try three different forms of the first page and see which yields more links across the boundary? How excited would you be if one of them clearly increased the crossings? How hard would it be to continue the experiment extending it to other pages, slowly beginning to "instrument" your site and quickly beginning to argue for new content, features, and systems based on hard data about what works for the user as well as for your organization?

Copyright 2006, The Rockley Group, Inc.