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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

Why You Hate Your CMS

21 Oct 2011

written by Michael Fienen

Why You Hate Your CMS

I know why, and I’ll tell you. Obviously the timeliness of this post owes some debt to our revisit of the higher ed CMS survey (which you should join the more than 200 schools that have already taken it this year). After reading some of the preliminary responses, talking to some other folks, and thinking about what we saw last year, I think there are several things to keep in mind – whether you’re looking for your first CMS or switching to your fifth.


The problem – the reason why you hate your CMS – is you. I’m not saying that there aren’t bad CMSs out there, but realistically, any of them making a go of it now, and making money, must have something working in their favor. Sven Aas said it pretty well in a comment on the matter:

We realized at some point fairly early in our recent CMS search that nearly any decent system would be capable of producing [nearly all of] our site—and as a corollary that there are aggravating details with every tool. A big part of the search was about choosing among different sets of pros, cons, and risks.

When you go out looking for your CMS, there are a ton of considerations to keep in mind. You have technical limitations, logistical considerations, funding constraints,etc. You can’t escape that no matter how hard you try. And frankly, to think you’ll meet all your needs is unrealistic. Small sites with defined scopes and well understood needs can manage it, higher ed can’t. And so what happens is you settle, and ultimately get caught up in what your system can’t do, or what it doesn’t do well. But the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side because all systems are going to have quirks and bugs – the only thing that changes is where they impact you.

What Sven was talking about above was the idea that you need to balance pros and cons. Understand your needs. But most importantly, understand that many of the CMSs out there are really good when used right. Now, regardless of what side you’re on (this is like the Mac vs. PC war), I think we can all agree that WordPress and Drupal are both extremely capable, popular systems. Personally, you may prefer one over the other and probably do (for instance, I’m a WordPress guy because Drupal sucks). But even if you don’t like one, you can’t get away from the fact that they are good, robust(ish), mature systems that, in the right hands, can work magic. That said, if your dev shop has a dozen guys in it that are all WordPress guys, why would you chose to put your site into Drupal? All the power in the world won’t take away your developer’s frustration in the matter. The best you can do is hope they adapt. Problem is, in higher ed people don’t really adapt well.

Culture mismatch is one of the biggest reasons why I think people are unhappy with their CMS. They pick their software strictly based on specs, without thinking about how it meshes with the team. Your CMS is almost like an employee – it needs to play well with others and be on the same page as everyone else. It’d be like hiring someone based solely on their résumé. Lots of people look good on paper. The classic example is accessibility. “Of course our system is accessible,” the vendors say. In reality, what they mean is their system is garbage in/garbage out with respect to page output. It won’t do it for you, and odds are the CMS itself isn’t accessible on its own. But you don’t notice things like that if you don’t get off the paper.

The technology also plays a part. Last year, satisfaction ratings for Contribute were pitiful at best. This year looks to be the same. Why? Because it’s dated software designed around a maintenance model that no longer exists. The average school has had it’s current CMS for over three years. That’s a notable period of time in the tech world, and it’s compounded if you’re not keeping up on your patches and updates. That’s less a problem for open source CMS users – but those using enterprise software occasionally decide to stop paying that annual maintenance fee. Or folks on open platforms will modify things so much that they can’t run with the standard update process. Suddenly you’re coping with bugs, using outdated code, and dealing with system rot. Software ages, some better than others. CMSs age badly, and the problem compounds the bigger the site and the more people that are using it. If you’re like a lot of schools, you probably aren’t as diligent about your maintenance cycles as you should be, and that’s a problem.

Lastly, your website strategies can potentially come in to direct conflict with how your CMS works. Be cautious when people start talking about dynamic features, content resuse, and portal integration. If the system isn’t already facilitating those features, you’re setting yourself up for failure by not making sure the strategies are working in concert with your technical capabilities. For instance, if it comes down the chain that all departments should refer to the same source for program descriptions, yet they get their own pages for it, if you can’t reuse content across pages without duplicating it, you’re going to get very tired very quickly of trying to maintain parity in the information. Maybe IT has mandated that all systems go to single sign-on, but your CMS lacks native LDAP functionality. Whenever you’re talking site functionality and strategy, make sure someone that knows your CMS inside and out is in on the discussion. When that breaks down, you end up working against the grain to shoehorn requirements into your CMS, which again will make you want to crush puppies into puppy juice.


So, I may have been a little unfair in saying that you are the reason you hate your CMS. Honestly, there is some room for the blame to be passed around. Higher ed folks, take a break – I want to talk to our vendor friends for a second.

Vendors. Vendors, vendors, vendors… where do I start? I know a lot of you these days, like, a lot. And you know I have mad respect for what you do. Like I’ve already said, most of you have pretty awesome systems for the most part. But, you do some things that drive people up the wall – intentionally or not.

  1. Understand that customer satisfaction is directly tied to your support model. That goes beyond the people paying you for help. Helping out someone griping on a mailing list or Twitter is damn important. Having people that are responsive and knowledgeable is not an option. Think of investing in your pro bono support model as a good marketing strategy. You’ll turn users into evangelists that way, and that’s worth more than a cold call any day.
  2. Be a good community member. This extends the first point. Be present in the channels where your clients are. Listen and engage. Respond. Use that opportunity to grow and improve. There’s almost no reason every member of your staff can’t have a role in this as well. They need to know who they are working for and what their issues are, whether they are a developer, salesman, or accountant.
  3. For God’s sake, please stop overselling your systems. It’s okay to say “No, we don’t really do that well.” Time and again I’ve heard salesmen comment on how their CMS can basically do anything you throw at it. What is technically possible is different from what is reasonably possible. On top of that, the people you are talking to are getting smarter, and can smell a lot of that bullshit now. I know you don’t want to look weak compared to the competition, but truth now is less painful than an 8:00PM support call in 6 months. That person will be really angry.
  4. This is the big one: accept that your system isn’t perfect for everyone. If you start working with a potential client and you see issues in their workflow or IT model that you’re pretty sure will cause problems, walk away and offer to refer them to someone else. Don’t sell it to them anyway and milk them for support later. That only breeds discontent amongst your clients. And trust me, they do talk about you behind your back. A lot.

In Closing…

OmniUpdate is frequently held up as a darling of the higher ed world when it comes to CMSs. Rightly so, they’ve earned that reputation. They didn’t do it by having the best CMS out there. They’ve done it by being a good community member, by facilitating their customers’ needs, and helping work their system into the workflow of their clients. All the same, I know folks who haven’t been happy with them. “How can you not like OmniUpdate?” their customers defend. It’s simple, and goes back to one of my first points. No system is right for everyone.

Yes, the platform you are using may frustrate you. Yes, there are things that you think could be improved. But understand that the situation isn’t any different anywhere else. Focus on what you can do, and work around the issues. If you let your frustrations get in the way, you won’t be able to use your CMS to its full potential. It will feel like a chore, and you’ll grow to resent it. Point is, don’t just blame the software, it’s just the hammer. You gotta swing it.

The content of this post is licensed: The post is released under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license

About the author

Michael Fienen

For six years, Michael served as the Director of Web Marketing at Pittsburg State University. Currently, he is the Senior Interactive Developer at Aquent and is also CTO for the interactive map provider nuCloud. When it comes to web communication, he focuses very heavily on interpersonal communication components of websites, as well as content considerations that must be taken into account when building usable sites.  He is an active supporter of the dotCMS community, accessibility advocate, consultant, internationally featured speaker on web issues, and general purpose geek who wears many hats.

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This post was written by - who has written 99 posts on .eduGuru

  • Anonymous

    Nail on head. I couldn’t agree with you more. I have looked at or been involved with most all higher ed CMS systems. I have had a demo by most of them and I totally agree. It is the selling ketchup to a guy in white gloves idea. I agree on the community part, I would gravitate to the CMS that is already active in the community and helpful. I wish sales teams got this idea. I have had a CMS for years and I still get cold calls. Spend the time to know that I already have a product in this market therefore I dont need your service.

  • lgekeler

    Ha! What is interesting to me is that when I settled into reading, I thought the “CMS” you were talking about was the old LMS/CLE term for COURSE management system and I was nodding along in agreement. I continued reading in amazement after recognizing you were talking about CONTENT management systems (the use of “Contribute” was my first clue) .
    The article truly could be read both ways. I think higher ed needs to hear the message in both cases: it is not our systems that need to change, but our expectations and management thereof!

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    I’ve been telling everyone, CushyCMS is the CMS of the future! Once it gets a little more light shed on it, it’s gonna be a huge success!
    Break free from your bad habits in 30 days.

  • Terry Patterson

    Well said, Michael. I like your like statement – it is just a tool, a hammer, and we just have to swing it.  Of course, the hammer must be built right and have a good ergonomic design – otherwise, we won’t be able to grab it and go at it… :) 

  • Ultrasound Technician Schools

    i like manual php coding.

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