How Would You Design a Content Management System?

Rendered Concept of a Digital Content Lifecycle.

By Cathy Hodson

What is a content management system (CMS)? According to Wikipedia, “A Content Management System (CMS) is a computer program that allows publishing, editing and modifying content as well as maintenance from a central interface. Such systems of content management provide procedures to manage workflow in a collaborative environment. These procedures can be manual steps or an automated cascade. CMSs have been available since the late 1990s.”

In other words, a CMS allows multiple content creators (frequently called “authors”), a managed workflow (approval process), and either automated or manual features.

I have experience with two content management systems: Ektron and SharePoint. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. I have also kicked the tires on other CMSs, and they too have the good, the bad and the ugly. Recently I asked the members of the Web Editors group, “If you could design/develop your own content management system, which features would be ‘must haves’?

Must Have Features
The responses were interesting. J.D. desired more project management features, “The CMS should know that nothing goes public until an assignment of copyright agreement has been executed.”

He also recommended staging features, workflow integration (“you should get a view of works in progress”) and annotation, in particular, fact checking and documenting the fact checking.

Barbara wanted “True WYSIWYG. Period.”

Ken wanted to “work on a system that has all the parts that were promised. Twice this week I’ve been told…’Oh, that’s scheduled for the next version.'”

If you were designing your own content management system, which features would you want to include? For me, there are a few, and they have to do with control. Being able to control the style (rules and guidelines used for consistency across a website) within the CMS so authors not well versed in your company’s or your website’s style cannot stray from it. Another feature I’d like would be to have the HTML view of your content be color coded, such as in Dreamweaver. It makes it easier to pick things out when you’re looking for something rather than having everything in black type on a white background. In Dreamweaver, if there’s a problem in the code, the color coding stops where the problem is so you can find where the snarl is a little easier also. (If you’re colorblind, however, that may not be as effective.) It would also be nice to be able to use a global replace in the HTML view.

There are times when it seems that developers of content management systems don’t understand what a content editor or author does. They are not aware of the publishing process that a writer or editor goes through in order to add or maintain content on the website. This disconnect can be a major issue at times. For instance, when my company was going through its most recent redesign, we expressed our desire to the developers that, as all content funneled to me for approval, I needed to be able to see what had changed on each page. I needed a redlined version, in other words. Our company, at the time, had several thousands of web pages. There was no way I could possibly memorize each page and instantly recognized what an author had changed in an existing page when it came to me for approval. Because we have such a high volume of content, I didn’t have time to dig through everything on every page that was submitted to me to try and figure out what the author had changed. Had they deleted any paragraphs? Had they linked to something new? Was there an update to the photos? It would be helpful to see only what had changed so that I could review those changes and then send the page on its way to the website, or back to the author for more work. There was great puzzlement on the developers’ part, not understanding why this was so critical. We finally got across to them why it was so necessary, and were able to implement a customized tool that allowed me to see what an author had done to a page.

Gibberish code
About the time we were discussing this topic, I received an email newsletter, Fierce Content Management, and read the Editor’s Corner: “Content Management Systems drive me nuts!” by Ron Miller. I read with particular interest, “Last week for instance, I tried to drop in some code for the content marketing infographic we published. Typically, it’s like dropping in the code for embedding a YouTube video. You access the source code, paste the embed code, and presto, you have an infographic in your post. But lately our CMS has decided to spontaneously add gibberish to the infographic embed code making it virtually useless and forcing my co-worker, Emily Poe, to have the added work of dropping it in as an image instead.”

That hit home with me, as our CMS also will add gibberish when our authors copy and paste from a Microsoft Word file. Sensing a kindred spirit, I contacted Ron and asked him for his “must have” features. He sent the lists below:

Back End:

  • Make sure it supports multiple writers easily.
  • Make sure it’s easy to update the CMS. (WordPress is drop-dead easy).
  • Make sure you set up a good set of tags ahead of time.
  • Leave a place for the writer to include a one or two sentence excerpt and encourage writers to create this for you.
  • Make sure it’s easy to add alt text to your photos (very important for disabled community).
  • Make sure it’s easy to embed content like video and inforgraphics (easy access to HTML code)
  • Make sure it’s easy to add and edit photos. (visuals are really important in my view).
  • See if you can find a plug in for creating a weekly newsletter and linking it to a mailing list app like MailChimp.

Front End:

  • Accessible contact info.
  • Some sort of comment security like Disquus. Doesn’t prevent morons, but helps.
  • Prominent search box.
  • Resources like white papers and ebooks.
  • Include all your site’s social media info
  • Make it easy to subscribe
  • Make it drop-dead easy to share across all major social networks.
  • Easy to copy and paste text from outside sources and maintain style

None of the CMSs will be perfect. They all have their quirks, and web editors must find work-arounds and solutions we can live with. But it sure would be nice if we could design our own, or at least catch the ear of the developers and have them truly understand what our needs are. Anyone?

Next time: Editor vs. Programmer


Questions and Answers with Heather Ratcliff

The Web Editors blog would like to introduce you to some of the incredible talent we have in the LinkedIn Web Editors group. Today we present Heather Ratcliff, Web Communications Specialist, U.S. Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C.

Thank you for letting us peer into your professional world. You are the Web Communications Specialist for the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. How long have you been there?

I’ve been at the Museum since June 30, 2008.

Can you tell us a little about what a Web Communications Specialist does?

I am currently a Web Communications Specialist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I divide my time between managing a variety of web projects that come into our department (Digital Engagement) and strategizing about what web content is needed by looking at the objectives of a project. I also help with many aspects of social media, including anything from writing posts about events to researching strategy and policy. I am currently also working on our website redesign.

How did you enter into the web world? How long have you been a Web Communications Specialist?

My experience in the web world probably dates back to 1999, when, after getting my undergraduate degree, I started an online magazine in Connecticut. That was around the time when everyone was starting their own online venture. I returned to school to get a Master’s in Journalism, with a concentration in new media, where I helped create a couple of websites. After some time reporting in Connecticut and a short stint in Cambodia, I returned to school for another two years.

When I graduated, I worked as an Information Manager at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that worked with community-based organizations around the world. I communicated with our partners and fellows in countries around the world to write and edit news releases, as well as provide social media and technical support. I also oversaw a website redesign, developed a plan for online website promotion and helped train our fellows in the field. Then, in July 2008, I began working at the Museum.

Have you ever had a mentor or someone who guided or inspired you in the web field? I’ve had a couple of awesome professors who have helped me.

Did you work in print journalism, communications, public relations or marketing before you became involved in the web? I have experience working as a print and online journalist, as well as working in public relations. Most of my experience can be found at

Which style (AP, Chicago, APA, AMA, etc.) do you use on your organization’s website?

We use the Chicago Manual of Style, but we also have our own style manual for items specific to the Museum.

How many people work on your organization’s website editorially?

We have a small online editorial team that is divided between several departments. We have one editor for the online encyclopedia and web translations sections of the website, and another editor for the rest of the website. We also have a few other editors who serve as backup support for the main site, and work on our three microsites (World Memory Project, Remember Me?, and our 20th Anniversary website).

In your work for the U.S. Holocaust Museum, what special challenges have you encountered?

One of the challenges we’re facing at the Museum is that we’re working on a redesign of our current website. Our current site was built in the 1990s, and has had one significant redesign and one refresh since then. For the past several years, there has been massive content growth, but we have just continued to build on the old structure. We do not use a content management system (CMS). Instead, most of our pages are generated using html, php, and some Javascript and Flash. Now we are moving most of our content into a CMS, and completely redesigning the website. We are hoping to launch this by the middle of 2013. We’re also working on setting up a web governance policy. These two projects alone have been very challenging.

Do you use a content management system? If so, which one?

We are in the process of moving all of our web content into a CMS (Expression Engine; for the first time.

Do you have a workflow (approval process) established for your organization’s website?

We have different processes in place for different areas of the website. For example, I manage a variety of client requests that come into my department from around the Museum. For these projects, I work with our editor, developer, and designer to optimize the content for the website and then I check back with the client to ensure what we’ve created meets his or her objectives as well. Nothing is posted live without final editorial approval.

The Museum’s online encyclopedia and podcasts are produced by our education department, which has its own processes in place. We also have three microsites, as I mentioned previously, and these also have their own separate approval processes.

As the Museum moves to a CMS and new website, we are working on an overall web governance policy.

Is any of your editorial work outsourced? If so, what do you outsource?

We outsource some of our email-campaigns, however, we still work very closely with our vendor in shaping the message.

Which resources do you read regularly to keep up with what’s going on in the Web world? (blogs, e-newsletters, magazines, books, etc.)

Here are a few interesting sites I read (no particular order):,,,

For podcasts, I’m also a huge fan of BlogcastFM, a podcast where Srini Rao interviews entrepreneurs about their online business.

For social media and other inspiration, here are some of the people I follow (alphabetical order): Beth Kanter and Claire Diaz Ortiz.

For writing and other inspiration, here are some of the people I follow (alphabetical order): Ash Ambirge, Mars Dorian, Megan Eckman, Ameena Falchetto, Alexandra Franzen, Alexis Grant, Penelope Trunk.

For travel, fabulous projects and other inspiration, here are some of the people I follow (alphabetical order): Scott Dinsmore, Chris Guillebeau, AJ Leon, Nomadic Matt, Sean Ogle.

For communications, marketing and other inspiration, here are some of the people I follow (alphabetical order): Tara Gentile and Seth Godin.

Do you attend seminars or webinars to keep up with your profession? Which one(s) have you found most useful?

In late 2012, I attended the Social Good Summit ( in New York. If you search, there are a number of videos online from the event. I also recently attended the launch of Beth Kanter and KD Paine’s book, Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, and a presentation on responsive web design by Clarissa Peterson.

Along the same note, have you taken or are you taking university or other classes that helped you professionally, and what are they?

I have a Master’s in Journalism and a Master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. In addition, I’ve also taken classes in CSS and html so that I can learn tips and techniques that I might not necessarily learn fast enough on my own. I’ve also taken several workshops in web content strategy, and I’m currently taking a course in copywriting.

Do you have any editorial pet peeves?

Of course! I’ve been an editor since I was an undergraduate student (studying psychology and journalism). I appreciate it wherever I work when there is either a style guide in place, or lacking that, if I’m allowed to create one (I’ve created two at previous jobs, and it is quite fun). Once a style guide and best practices are established, I generally follow them unless there is an exceptional reason not to. I understand that style can change over time. For example, AP finally changed Web site to website within the past few years. But generally, I like to follow and stick to one style once it has been established.

What would you advise someone just starting out in the business?

Consume as much as you can — either by reading or listening. I’ve noticed recently that I read and listen to more blogs and podcasts than I ever have before. Network and talk with as many people as you can until you figure out exactly what you want to do. Along those same lines, try and find people in your field who are willing to act as a mentor.

Also, I’ve lately read the following advice from a couple of bloggers, although I can’t quite remember who off the top of my head, but I fully support it. I believe that it is usually best to over deliver, especially if you are a freelancer. No matter what you are submitting, always go beyond what they are asking for.

What do you like to do outside of your profession to relax?

Outside of my full-time job, I work on a number of projects. I volunteer with a growing guiding business in Arusha, Tanzania. I help Diamond Glacier Adventures ( with its communications strategy and website. I also joined the local chapter of Amnesty International this past year, and have worked on a couple of projects with my local chapter. I read a lot of adventure stories (a great deal on mountain climbing), fiction (like Jasper Fforde, Walter Moers, Deborah Harkness), e-books by some of the entrepreneurs I mentioned earlier, or something more in-depth (like an autobiography by Ingrid Betancourt or a book on genocide by Samantha Power).

What was (one of) your greatest successes (so far) as a Web Communications Specialist?

As part of an independent project at the Museum, I researched how organizations engaged in work similar to the Museum’s genocide prevention efforts are using social media. The goal was to assess which tools these organizations are using, which lessons they’ve learned from using them, and how they are measuring outcomes. You can read about some of my findings here:

If you have one lesson learned to share with our readers, what would it be?

Try and consume information or talk to people outside of the current bubble that you live in. Regardless of how much you read online and how many countless emails you respond to, try and find time at least once a week to read or learn something completely new. I try and click on something once a week that, at first glance, I have no interest in. If you do this, I think you will be surprised at how isolated we are online sometimes and at how things that are completely different from us can sometimes relate to us.

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Do you have anything else to add?

Not right now, but feel free to ask me anything else that comes to mind!

Thank you for joining us and letting us walk in your shoes for a little bit, Heather. If anyone has any questions, please add them in the comments below.

A Web Editor by Any Other Name

By Cathy Hodson

What on earth is a web editor? A web editor is many different things, but primarily, we are editors of website content. Some of us are also designers, some of us are also webmasters, but at our most basic definition – just as an editor of a publication is responsible for the content of that publication, so too is a web editor responsible for the content of a website or websites.

What on earth does that mean? What is an editor? Is an editor one of those crusty, deadline-oriented creatures peering at you over the top of their reading glasses perched precariously at the end of their nose demanding why your article is 3 days late? In some cases, perhaps; although I like to think that might be more apt to a newspaper or magazine editor. Because the Internet is more fluid, more immediate than most print publications, the editor of a website must be someone who can react quickly, provide content quickly, and be able to handle a lot of projects and put out multiple fires all at once. An octopus is a good analogy; so is a one-man band, or a juggler.

A web editor does wear many hats. The editor of a website is responsible for making sure there is fresh content on the website – perhaps soliciting articles, news, events, etc., from various departments within their company’s organization, or from experts outside their company – clients, members, affiliates, etc. Many of us come to web editorship from journalism (as opposed to a computer or designer background) and take great pride in being able to research and write content ourselves, as well as coordinate content from others.

A web editor is responsible for maintaining consistency across the website. This is done primarily through a style. Each publication follows a particular set of guidelines that governs what is capitalized, italicized, abbreviated, etc. See more about Style here. A governance policy is also recommended so that all contributors know what is expected of them. More about that in an upcoming post.

A web editor can be responsible for training others within their company on how to use a content management system, which is basically a publishing workflow system – used when the staffers might require some technical assistance in adding content to the site, or when someone needs to approve what a staffer is adding. A content management system also allows content to go up automatically (through the use of a start date – particularly useful when content has to go up on a weekend or when the authoring staff member might be out of the office at a tradeshow or on vacation) and come down automatically (through the use of an end date) and archive.

These days we are also strategizers – watching over our content and the traffic it generates to determine what our website’s various audiences are interested in, and creating or soliciting content to fill that need.

Web editors plan and coordinate social media activities – getting the word out through the many social media avenues on just what our company is up to, or what the latest news or website update is. We also react to customer service requests and feedback through social media, and in some cases, put out fires.

We are search engine optimizers – tweaking and monkeying with keywords and various other facets of our content to ensure we have optimal positioning under key terms in the main search engine results – both in our website’s search engine and the external search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo! and others.

Most of all, we are people who care about the message. How can we best communicate what we have to say in a way that will grab your attention and make you want to read more?

Stay tuned. You are about to find out!