“The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today's column is written by Allison Mezzafonte, executive vice president at Bauer Xcel Media.
Media companies took notice when venture-backed sites such as Vox and BuzzFeed plunged tens of millions of dollars into their content management systems. With cool names like Chorus and Kinja, these systems were so sexy that they were used as recruiting tools for designers and writers.
Shortly after this “CMS renaissance,” The New York Times spent several years creating a new content management system called Scoop, only to announce this summer that it was adopting new technologies developed by Facebook, including Relay and GraphQL, to store, connect and retrieve data. In its announcement, it admitted that its existing version of Scoop can’t do it all and doesn’t even support all its websites.
Syndicating And Targeting Content Creates New Challenges
I applaud the Times for being public about combining tools from other companies with its own system. Unfortunately, it is all too rare to hear this kind of honest discussion about how to create the best content management stack, as many publisher development teams guard their decisions carefully and push too hard to create the whole technology in-house. The right balance requires compromise and collaboration from everyone involved.
Unlike with ad tech, companies can often get in a debate about “build or buy” for content management systems. As responding to fast-changing industry trends around distribution and monetization becomes such a huge part of content publishing, a CMS is bumping up against classic ad tech issues. The pace of change is now dictated by outside companies, and publishers are, to an extent, at their mercy.
Today, the typical content website generates a lot of traffic and about a sixth of its revenue from content distributed on social media platforms, a number that is likely to grow. Video has become a key revenue generator, and mobile has changed the nature of content templates and page design.
These changes are driven by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple – companies with assets that a publisher could only dream of. Add to that the need to customize and personalize content based on user behavior data across many screens and systems, and it starts to become apparent how even companies with lots of internal development resources like BuzzFeed or Vox may benefit from considering outside technology to make sure they keep up with the big dogs.
While small sites probably benefit from out-of-the-box solutions, the most scalable solution for larger publishers in a fast-changing industry is a micro-service, API-based architecture, where content input, content storage, monetization and templates are separate services. For each of the services, it should be the primary goal to leverage externally available technology that fits the business needs wherever possible and build in-house only if there is a competitive advantage.
Different KPIs For A Different Type Of Business
How do you know when there is a competitive advantage big enough to customize your setup? Comparing the net cost and benefit of getting the specifications desired now, compared to the flexibility of keeping up with change later, is an important part of the planning process.
The KPIs to determine if a content management system is working shouldn’t be too short-sighted. Companies that use common technical metrics such as time to publish, number of bug fix requests and up-time miss the larger revenue, strategic and growth metrics that dictate customization strategy.
At best, KPIs should be broad enough to allow developers to see how much revenue the system is generating as well as specific enough to highlight opportunity costs of CMS development decisions. Metrics such as scalability, ease of adding new features and long-term revenue growth potential must be evaluated by developers and business teams alike.
CMS Efficiencies For Everyone
At the end of last year, more than 75 million websites were using WordPress, an open-source CMS system that benefits from economies of scale that can keep up with the pace of change in digital media. The value of a few custom templates on in-house CMS solutions simply can’t compete with the availability of a free plugin for Facebook Instant Articles, among 17 other Facebook plugins such standardized service can provide.
When choosing to go the in-house route, large publishers with multiple brands can take advantage of efficiency opportunities in a similar way. For example, companies with several brands should require everyone to use the same technical platform, to benefit from all feature releases and updates across all brands much more rapidly.
For the very largest publishers, it’s true; customization can be an important competitive differentiator. But even then, there are options to create a “headless” CMS that centralizes and streamlines all data and makes API integrations much more standard, aiming to use common solutions wherever possible. The design elements for the website itself can be built on top of something that will allow for the site(s) to grow and change along with innovation.
Ultimately, the goal should be to have a framework that can keep up with the quick pace of change in digital media while still allowing for competitive differentiation.