Open Source as a Strategic Advantage for Business Software

When I started working in digital in 2006, open source software was all the rave. Whether your organization was in need of an enterprise CMS, e-commerce solution, CRM, ERP, or LMS, there was an open source solution that could be customized to meet your needs.  Companies were drawn to open source solutions because their values were in line with those of the open source community, as well as their customization options over proprietary solutions.

Looking at the landscape from the agency/consulting side, I saw many organizations disseminating RFP’s requesting open source software solutions over proprietary ones. Open source, and the value it brought to an organization, was a regular part of conversations from sales through execution of a project. There was an apparent value proposition that open source software offered to organizations, a competitive advantage that many of these systems had over their proprietary counterparts.

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The Problem with Recommendation Engines

I was just reading a blog posts on why brands should build recommendation engines to create better content platforms and improve the overall experience for users. While I tend to agree “pushing” content to users is a better strategy than “pulling” them in to consume content, I don’t think the technology is ready to truly support these type of experiences.

Below is the comment I posted.

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What is digital content?

I worked on a few projects in the past year where the question of “what is content?” came up. To give some more context, we were designing content management systems, and client’s were confused by all the different ways you can create content within the software we were using. To the content editors we were designing the CMS for, a page was not a collection of blocks, views, and nodes, but a series of images, content listings, videos, and calls to action.

Digital content can be simply defined as codified information that is transferred from one entity to another via some digital mechanism, but that has little meaning to content editors. They see content as the components they need to build experiences that engage their site visitors. For your modern-day content editor, that content is the collection of parts that make a whole (videos, embeddable tweets, slideshows, etc.), rather than the whole (a rendered HTML page).

The content model within a CMS should be defined by the components content creators need to build their content – a collection of content elements and components that live independent of each other, but can be grouped in the most effective way to present information to an audience. These components can follow structured content best practices, but should allow a content editor to create content how they want to create content.

As content strategists, we need to be cognisant of the negative effect overly rigid content models have on the CMS’s that we design. Content models that do not conform to our own target users perception of content leads to low adoption rates, misuse of content creation tools, and technical debt gained by content editors finding workarounds to the limitations we build into the system. Structured content is important for portability, but that portability means nothing if your users don’t even want to use the CMS :-)

I see this componentized approach to content creation as a trend in this sector. The reality is content is getting smaller. This trend is reflective in the componentization of long-form content pieces like NY Times’ Snowfall and Pitchfork’s Glitter in the Dark. These components – banner images, slideshows, videos, etc. – are now pieces of content in and of themselves that people want to engage with and share with their friends.

Content management systems need to be more flexible in how they handle content. Content types should comprise of those smaller components that can be compiled to make up a rendered page delivering a message or series of messages to a targeted audience.

Content Strategists Are Facilitators of Human Communication

I’ve been working on an article for a trade publication for information scientists that explores how they can use journey mapping to source information from the social interactions of internal stakeholders, turning those interactions into knowledge that can be shared with organizations at large. My general argument is that as information scientists/content strategists/user experience designers, we are facilitators of human communication. Whether we are trying to deliver content to customers to try to get them to buy ski boots, or designing better tools to allow communities of practice to share best practices, our role is to step back and analyze how people within a certain environment communicate, then design systems, processes, and content that brokers the transfer of information between people.

Knowledge sharing is the basis of human communication. When we have conversations with others, we are transferring knowledge from one person to another, that they internalize and may use at some other point in life. The format of the information being shared – verbal, written or visual – doesn’t matter. As content strategists, we make knowledge transfer more efficient and effective.

We too often focus on the minutia of content strategy – data models, user flows, editorial processes, content management systems, etc. But, the core of what we do is facilitate human communication. If we focus more on understanding how people communicate and receive information, we may see more innovation in the content strategy field.

Are Today’s Content Management Systems Holding Back Content Strategy?

I have been doing content strategy and working with content management systems of all kinds (WCMS, SMMS, MCMS) for the past seven years. I have worked on websites and applications that use almost every popular open source solution, and had the misfortune of working on some that use proprietary systems as well. When I look back at all of those CMS’s and see how they have evolved to meet the evolving needs of content creators/editors, most are not keeping up with the times.

We are in a period in this industry where content management is multi-channel and multi-platform (bet you have read that in a few dozen articles). It’s cliche to say, but true. Yet, most content management systems do not support the need for organizations to publish a blog post or report to their website, and repurpose some of that content for Tumblr and Twitter.

The needs of content creators have evolved beyond the need for systems that enable them to publish content to a website by filling out a long web form. Content management systems of the future will enable organizations to publish content to any channel they have a presence on; repurpose content for multiple channels; give content creators greater insight into how their content is performing and why; and help organizations curate content that will resonate with their audience.

Imagine if your CMS were smart enough to tell you that you can drive 10% greater engagement on Twitter if you continue to repurpose your long-form video into 10-second clips and tag them with specific hashtags. Or, your CMS automatically recommends articles and Youtube videos that you could share with your followers on social media that support a new article you published to your newsroom.

Content management systems of the future will not just help you more easily publish content to all of the digital platforms you are on. They will make you a smarter, more efficient content marketer.