An Oft-Overlooked CMS Feature: The Community

By on December 12, 2012

There’s standard advice for the soon-to-be-married that goes, “Make sure you like your future in-laws, because you’re marrying them too.”

How does this relate to CMS?  I’ll explain –

When people are buying a CMS, they tend to concentrate on specific functional features – things like content modeling, workflow, permissions, the UI, etc.  Additionally, they’ll look at selected non-functional items – price, support, the stability of the company, integration costs, etc.

But here’s something that not many people look at, and something I maintain is critical: the quality of the community around the product.

If you’re buying a CMS, you’re also buying into the community around that CMS.  It’s just as much a feature of the product as anything the salesman showed you during the demo.  Don’t discount it.  In fact, research it with the same due diligence you apply to everything else.

Every time I’ve started working with a new CMS (which, I’ll admit, has been often), I’ve always tried to figure out where the developers and users for that community hang out.  Sometimes, blessedly, it’s easy – the vendor or community behind the product might have a set of discussion forums on their own site, for instance.

Other times, it’s harder.  And that gets frustrating.  I remember working with Documentum a decade ago and not being able to find anyone else working with it.  I felt like I was working in a vacuum.  It was lonely.  I finally found a Yahoo Group for the product with a couple dozen regular contributors.  It was such a relief.  I wasn’t alone after all.

And, let’s face it: vendor tech support can suck.  Oftentimes, I’d rather just talk to another developer about something. People can be altruistic, whereas the vendor is often trying to minimize costs.

You usually see better communities around open-source CMS.  This is because they generally have more contributors, but also because those communities are just used to sharing.  The people in them are less corporate, less uptight, and more used to seeking out answers on their own.

A sad fact is that the higher up the cost scale you go with the CMS, the more the community declines because the user base gets smaller and smaller, and people paying more for a product expect vendor support and are loathe to depend on peer-to-peer forums for anything.  For a lot of CMS customers, there’s something…provincial about posting to a forum.  People oftentimes don’t like asking for help, and especially if they’re paying for support.  Any posting of a problem to a forum is a tacit admission of helplessness, so there’s an inherent reluctance to do it.

Vendors often make this worse.  I’m always surprised at how often vendors fall down on establishing and promoting their communities. You’ll find some that have no organized community.  Sometimes the community gets organized away from them because they were so bad at it that the users took matters in their own hands.

Vendors: always have discussion forums.  My current plaything du jourProcessWire – is very young but already has a great set of forums.  Simple, straightforward, and well-trafficked.  And this is from a one-man, open-source CMS operation.  For Ryan, his forums are a force multiplier – he’s kicked a snowball off the hill, and it’s collected all sorts of people as it grew bigger that help him keep it rolling.

Vendors, put work into nurturing your community with the same fervor that you add new features to your product.  Remember: the community is just another feature; you wouldn’t ignore workflow, why ignore the community?

  • Manage your own forums and put your people in them.  Make it a job description for members of your engineering team to devote X hours per week to the forums.  Yes, many users just need to RTFMand are just looking for free support – get over this.  Suffer the fools to help the others.
  • Track posts that get no replies – can you help those people?  Behind the scenes, tag posts with general subject areas and run analytics on those tags – are 40% of posts from people struggling with your WYSIWYG editor?  That’s great intel.  Use it.
  • Test search on your forums.  What are people searching for?  When someone searches your forums, this is a gift – it’s like they walked into your office, sat down, and said “I am having X problem with your product.”  Why aren’t you downright desperateto hear what they have to say?  Simple search analytics on your forums can reap massive, massive benefits in directing your product roadmap.
  • SEO own your forums – try to get your forum posts to come up in Google when someone searches for your error messages, or a general (language) error message accompanied by your product name.  Your customers will often start with a public search engine, so try to make this another entry point for your community.
  • Recognize your regular contributors. If you don’t have an MVP program, make one.  People will do a lot for a badge on their profile and some special consideration.  Additionally, longtime contributors will play bad cop for you – as the vendor, you can’t tell someone to shut the hell up and RTFM, but a loyal contributor sick of dumb posts cluttering up the forum can sure do it for you.
To those shopping for CMS, re-read all the advice I just threw at vendors and ask yourself this: does the vendor I’m considering do any of that?

Let me close by pointing you at community done right: EPiServer World.  As I write this, it’s pushing 18,000 members.  And what I’ve always found remarkable is that EPiServer has managed to cultivate a very open-source-like community around a product that’s not exactly cheap.  The forums are well-trafficked by both customers and EPiServer developers – I’ve seen senior product managers in there answering questions. (This week, even, I had a post answered by one of their senior product architects.)

The forums are surrounded by individual blogs (I have one), articles, and every download, product manual, and SDK you could want.  (Did I mention source code?)

I use this when selling the product.  You don’t have to own EPiServer to register, and I’ll often tell prospects to go browse around for 15 minutes or so.  Read the forums, check out some of the blogs, and maybe browse the SDK.  Get a sense of the community, the activity, the momentum.  It doesn’t take long to realize there’s a huge, thriving, passionate community around EPiServer.

Vendors, if you don’t think this helps sell the product, you’ve apparently never bought a CMS before.  I can promise you that EPiServer World does more to sell EPiServer than your snazzy new blogging feature does to sell your CMS.  Think about that when planning your next release.

So, CMS shoppers, by now, I hope the relationship of all of this to the marital advice I gave at the beginning of this post is clear: make sure you like the community around the CMS you’re thinking about buying, because you’re buying that too.

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