The Distributed vs. Centralized Debate

When we talk about content management methods, we generally refer to two widely used and described models, and then inevitably, which model is better. So which one is it — the distributed model or the centralized? And like most questions of this type, my answer is simple and complex at the same time — it depends, and on a lot of things. Most importantly, it depends on you, and your own ability to make the critical cost/benefit analyses that determine what you’re doing with a content management system (CMS) in the first place.

If you’re simply running a portfolio site to show folks what you do you, and what you’ve done, you probably don’t even really need a CMS, much less a model of content management — it’s all you all the time, and that’s fine. But if you happen to be running a more complex business with your site — say… one that posts regularly occurring events with registrations, or one that has a significant catalog, or has multiple departments with various sub departments that all need to be marketed, you need a CMS, you probably need a Web Content professional, and if you have one of those, you probably need to choose a model for how content gets managed.

So which model do you choose?

Find out after the jump. 

Before we get too hard into the specifics of each method, let’s talk about the obvious dependent factors that go into deciding which model is right for you and your organization as these will help you see and understand a bit more about what each model is attempting to do:

  • Size — How big is your organization? Are you a university or a small business? And when I say small, I mean you have fewer than 25 employee.
  • Technical capability of updaters — Do your employees know how to use a content management system? Can they figure it out fairly quickly?
  • Purpose — What are you using your website to do? Are you simply marketing your goods and services, or are you providing member benefits that exist on your site? Which is to say — do your customers or members log in on your site to interact with it beyond purchasing things?
  • Goal — What do you want to achieve by enacting one of these methods? Are you trying to save time, money, manpower, or all of the above?
  • Investment — How much energy can you put into maintaining the site? Do you want to spend more time working to update the site on your own, or reviewing the work of others for consistency and accuracy?
  • Development needs — How much automation do you need? Does your site change frequently and rapidly? Do you need complex site functions to maintain freshness? Do you need to maintain a rock-solid brand and stylistic consistency on the site?

Having some of these factors in mind should help you understand what method will work best for you.

So with those things in mind, let’s talk about the models themselves.

Centralized Content Management:

The centralized model involves a VERY active content manager. She spends the lion’s share of her time reviewing proposed content changes or additions, editing and correcting those changes and additions for accuracy and stylistic consistency, and maintaining the freshness of the site.

First, the benefits of this method:

  • True gatekeeper — While the right way to handle content publishing in either model is maintaining a tightly limited number of people with publishing rights, the centralized model works best with ONLY one person, or maybe two people publishing site updates. This allows that single person to be a true gatekeeper who can make site updates on her own, but also take content submissions and massage them to fit the site’s style and maintain brand consistency.
  • Less style headache — This model is less dependent on a solidified style guide as the publisher/reviewer effectively IS the style guide. She knows how things work on the site from a brand and style standpoint, and ensures that the content she posts remains in line with those standards. She doesn’t have to fight with stakeholders to adopt and maintain standards.
  • Fewer adoption headaches — creators/owners aren’t forced to learn and adopt the CMS and its workflow methods. They simply submit content to the content manager/publisher who then edits and produces the changes and publishes them when they’re ready.
  • More accurate — Content tends to be very accurate as the content manager has reviewed everything that goes up on the site — one of her primary functions. Mistakes and inaccuracies fall directly on her head, so she’s motivated to ensure that everything is correct from the start.

And the cons?

  • Slower — It takes time for stakeholders to produce content, and it then takes time for the content manager to edit and massage the content for style, and post it to the website. Your speed to market is significantly reduced, especially if you have a wide array of stakeholders producing content to be published.
  • Less organizational — The content manager may be aware of what’s going on with the site, but stakeholders often are not, and the freshness of their sections in relation to others then suffers. It falls on your intrepid content publisher to coordinate with the various stakeholders to request updated content, and she’s often so busy maintaining day to day updates she doesn’t have time to think about content strategy in the long term.
  • Can become unwieldy — The bigger your site, the harder it is for your content manager to keep it updated. Without some significant automation, and process in place she can easily become overwhelmed with trying to keep the site perfectly fresh.
  • Less strategy  It requires the content manager to be extremely detail oriented at the expense of looking at the bigger picture, much less the future of the site and company’s marketing efforts. She shouldn’t be doing very much else related to the company’s Web presence. That means she doesn’t have a lot of time for meetings, and shouldn’t be producing email marketing campaigns, or addressing your Adwords spend when compared to your Google Analytics data. She’s focused on making perfect content updates and not much else.
  • No QA layer — Most of the time, the centralized WCM has no layer of quality assurance to ensure the work that goes live is perfect. More errors are likely to go into production without someone reviewing the produced work before it goes live. In most centralized model setups, the WCM is the be all, end all, and errors will happen under their watch. Like it or not, no one is perfect, and that responsibility can wear on a WCM quickly if they’re overworked and doing the job without a safety net.

Distributed Content Management

The distributed model implies that content updates are being made by a wide array of updaters and stakeholders, and then reviewed and published by a small group of publishers who have the time to review updates for accuracy and style, but also have enough of a removed perspective from the content to see trends in analytic data, and should make informed recommendations about the company’s content on the whole. Depending on the size of the organization and its website, significant automation should be integrated into the site and CMS, and the content manager or managers should know how to use it, as well as be knowledgeable enough to make appropriate recommendations for further enhancements.

With the help of the marketing department, or whoever dictates standards for text and image presentation on the site, a bedrock solid style guide should be produced, and its guidelines should be strictly enforced.

A strong workflow model should be put in place, and content managers should be confident enough to send inaccurate or not-to-style work back to stakeholders for correction.

The content managers should be holding routine training sessions to allow new users of the CMS to get up to speed, and existing users to refresh occasionally.

Benefits

  • Large sites stay fresher — The distributed model allows your stakeholders to directly update Web pages without publishing. This means a much faster speed to market, as page production is in the hands of the people actually making content. The content manager supports the updaters by reviewing their work, approving or denying publishing requests based on accuracy and stylistic adherence, and making edits when appropriate.
  • Communities are more engaged with the site — The content manager essentially creates relationships with the updaters and helps them bring their ideas to the site. This makes the content more engaging and alive, but also helps improve search rankings as well as the general usefulness of the site. The content creators are also engaged more often with the people using the site for its intended purpose.
  • The content manager has time to think about the big picture — Because their job is more aligned with editing than content production, the WCM can put more thought into strategy and future improvement rather than just maintenance. This keeps the organization closer to the bleeding edge of technology, as well as keeping the WCM more engaged and less focused on the day-to-day drudgery that saps their energy as employees.
  • The content manager can perform tasks beyond content management — Directors can more comfortably ask the WCM to perform other tasks within the scope of their job, like graphic production, SEO, etc. While it’s not a good idea in my mind to overburden and overscope any employee, a WCM in a distributed model role usually has time — especially if there’s more than one WCM, or the WCM has a specialist at their disposal — to do more than simple content management.

Cons?

  • Adoption issues — Getting your updaters to adopt the content management system is often the hardest part of using a CMS. The content manager needs to be diplomatic, instructive without being pedantic, but also assertive enough to assure updaters that they can make updates and that the WCM won’t be doing it for them. They’ve also got to be willing to tell updaters when they’re doing something incorrectly instead of just fixing the issue themselves. Bad habits formed are to break.
  • Style guide blues  Consistency is king, and maintaining it when 15 people are updating the site is no small task. The content manager has to create an ironclad style guide for all Web properties they manage, and they have to be willing to enforce it. This isn’t always easy for younger WCMs or specialists who are working with older, or less tech-savvy updaters. Maintaining that style guide, and rapping outlaw updaters occasionally when they fail to adhere to style is sometimes a job in and of itself.
  • Sometimes less accurate — The content manager isn’t doing full journalistic fact checking like a newpaper editor. A WCM who is expected to act like one won’t have the time to do the other things associated with their job, like SEO, analytics, or strategy. Mistakes can sneak through, particularly if the WCM is doing the job solo without that QA layer.
  • Sometimes a bit slower from a production standpoint — Remember that the WCM has to wait on the updaters, review and approve or disapprove of the work, and then get it published. She’s a cat wrangler, no matter how it stacks and if you’ve ever tried to get your cat into a carrier to go to the vet, you know that it can take a while.
  • Sometimes more costly — A good content manager should be paid well. She knows more about the process of making a website come together brilliantly than most people on a Web team. They don’t come cheap, and you shouldn’t ultimately want them to work cheap either. Keep them comfortable at home, and you’ll keep them loyal, keep them happy, and ultimately keep them around.

A Mix of the Two?

Is possible, but not something I ultimately recommend. No model is pure, but customizing the workflow of the content manager too much can lead to the kind of website identity crises that a lot of sites experience. It also sometimes doesn’t give updaters enough separation to develop the respect and trust in a WCM when all the content manager wants is to make the content shine.

When deciding on a model, take the time to really examine process from start to finish, and talk to the WCM about what she thinks will work in your organization. She’s the one who will have the most contact with content stakeholders and will be able to tell you which model she likes best, and which model she thinks will work best for the organization. But keep in mind that these two things aren’t often the same.

It’s certainly not an easy decision, but remember the basics that you need to keep ind mind:

  1. Size of organization
  2. Frequency of update
  3. Cost

And trust your WCM. She’s going to be touching the site far more than anyone else, and if she’s good, her advice will cut down on many of the troubles many Web marketing pros experience.

Next: the hard part — finding a great Web Content Manager who doesn’t suck!

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