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Managing “debt”

Quick fixes versus Long term results

A common but easily overlooked aspect of the Content Management work within your CMS can be seen as “managing debt”. We borrow this metaphor from 37 signals’ book “Getting Real” (…). When applying it to content management, we get the following concept.

Tasks within the CMS that are done in a good-enough-for-now manner, instead of in a really good (i.e. smart, efficient) way, increase your “debt”, as they will require extra fixes and corrections later and make maintenance of the system increasingly tedious and time-consuming.

A few examples of getting into debt include:

  • Not fully finishing projects: for example publishing or rolling out projects to only a part of your sites, and then forgetting about it, leaving loose ends
  • Setting up a project poorly in the back end, but accepting this as on the front end it appears good enough, waiting for it to get back at you at the next update cycle when it will take even more time to correct;
  • Publishing pages directly to live without checking them in the test/staging environment first, as probably it will turn out alright, thereby not only running the risk of creating issues on the live site, but also creating a chasm between staging and live content which will cause confusion and waste of time later;
  • Not reviewing thoroughly in your staging environment, which will cause all sorts of little issues to trickle through to your customer-facing live site, over time creating piles of them and having more and more customers click away from your site probably not to return.

In their daily work, content managers (CMS users) often face the need to make a trade-off: use a quick fix to get the job done good enough for the immediate need (e.g. time pressure), or spend a bit more time today to apply best practices, for example to set up the system in such a way that it can be easily maintained and requires less workarounds and fixes in the future.

In other words, do we optimize for the short term, saving a few hours now? Or do we optimize for the long term, putting in just a bit of extra effort now in return for the long term benefits of efficient maintenance/updating, improved visitor experience, and less “open ends”?

The content manager will face the need to go with a quick solution every now and then, which can be a sensible choice in certain situations. However, do we also spend the time to clean up the mess later? In other words, do we “pay off our debts”?

The big risk of choosing for the short-term quick-fix route is that the organisation ends up with a chaotic and unmanageable CMS, forcing the organisation to spend lots of time for even simple updates of the web site. In such case, the organisation does pay “interest” every day on the debt, but paying off the principle gets further and further out of reach.

Somewhere between the extremes of doing work of low quality (letting your asset degrade) and doing a lot of valuable work (increasing the asset’s value), there is a certain minimum amount of effort that is required for maintaining the current status quo (see the graph below).


So where on the scale is your organisation?
To avoid getting to deep into CMS debt, the best approach is to prioritise quality of work over quick solutions. This means working with professional content managers who understand the system and the implications of each little action and choice that is made.

The interest payments on an inefficiently managed “run-away” system can end up being very costly. Paying off the principle of your debt requires a conscious investment and dedication to stick with it, but this investment can pay itself back within a year. For an example of how to get out of debt, see our case study here.

The most important thing is to raise an awareness that managing content is like managing an asset rather than just performing a minimum set of tasks to some short term end. That is, if you do not continuously invest in it, the business value of your content and systems will degrade. Inversely, following the right processes combined with an unrelenting focus on quality in all aspects of the job is the key to managing your content wisely.

Smart content management is not easy and yes, it requires taking responsibility for the long term well-being of your CMS as well as for the visible end result on your website.

Maarten Fokkelman and Marcel Legerstee