In the Widening Gyre: Keeping Control of a Multi-Site Marketing Environment

You’re not the little guy, anymore. Or maybe you never were to begin with. You have a huge cast of employees, spread out across a dozen offices across the country (or the globe). You’ve got a deep product or services offering and customers engaging an array of properties with little or no direct connection to each other.

You’re a national organization, you’re a franchise-model business, you’re a big deal. There are hundreds of moving pieces in your marketing effort and you’re the one who has to keep it all together.

Is your CMS helping or hindering you in this herculean task?

Holding the Centre: the Human Element

The most basic element of any marketing effort, big or small, is the human component; the living, breathing operators of your content machine. Organizing a large, diverse group of content creators, moderators and publishers of that content and strategic overseers can be a task too big to handle without the tools you’re using lending a helping hand. Workflow and permission tools are the first line of defence against the collapse of a complicated multi-site marketing effort. A solid workflow and permissions tool should allow you to manage the users of your CMS to function to the utmost of their skill, bound by the authority that you (and their immediate overseers) grant them. It should be granular – customizable on as many fronts as possible; give your users the ability to create, modify and delete entire pages but also give them a custom toolset to work with on any given page.

What you want to aim for is a system that allows the highest and lowest skilled users to flourish. Have an employee with CSS and HTML knowledge? They should be allowed to directly edit the code of any given page. Have an employee who struggles with Microsoft Word? They need an interface on that exact same page that’s tailored to their level of expertise.

Seamlessness is crucial – the more work that your team can accomplish directly within your CMS, the better results you’ll have. An integrated CMS incorporating as many content tools as possible (text creation and management, image creation and editing, web and email campaigning tools, forms, landing pages, analytics, etc.) will boost your users ability to dedicate their attention on the task at hand.

Every time a window closes and a program has to load is an opportunity for a focus breakdown. A system with fully-integrated marketing tools will allow you to reduce training time, add new members to your growing team with a minimum of fuss and allow you a single point of escalation should anything go wrong. Think big and look for a CMS that does, too.

Above the content layer itself, a nuanced workflow tool should empower you to customize the process of content creation. It should allow you to tweak the flow from ideation to collaboration to publication. At the most basic level, you should be able to assign publishers to any workgroup (product teams, faculties, offices) who can approve or reject content.

Beyond that, a good CMS will incorporate lateral workflow elements – the ability for users to comment on and task content to each other along the same lines. If you’re working on a multi-locational campaign, for example, each office should be able to access that content, pass it back and forth and then submit it to head office for approval. This process should feel like playing ping-pong, not pulling teeth. Make sure your CMS encourages momentum instead of slowing you down.

Content Control from the Top Down

Whether you’re implementing a single site with many sub-sites or operating multiple sites within the same organization, you’ve got content fragmentation to worry about. There are elements of every multi-site layout that need to be the same; mandated from the top and integrated downward. Privacy policies, header and footer content, brand-guideline styles are all elements for which central control is required, among others.

Your CMS should allow you to manage and deliver this content to your sub-sites with as little fuss as possible.

Generally, for centrally-controlled content, the bare minimum should be the ability to easily recognize what content is aggregated from elsewhere. Users of any operational authority level should be able to look at a page or email and know where the content comes from. This way, even if they aren’t enabled to edit that content themselves, you’re saving time answering questions when someone in the Montreal office thinks they need a different header graphic than the one the New York office uses. Users who have a solid grasp on what their responsibilities will be more inclined to focus on the content they do have ownership over.

Beyond that, when changes are necessary, they should be easily performed by the users who have the mandate to make top-level edits and should populate down to all the sub-sites and accounts with the same instant speed you’d expect in publishing any individual piece of content. This should be instantaneous for all accounts necessary, whether part of a larger whole or an individual sub-account. If your CMS requires you to manually edit each and every time you need to update this kind of content, it may be time to rethink your CMS.

Ease of Aggregation

As websites grow, the library of press releases, news items, event listings and other general content tends to pile up. As new items are added, deciding what gets pushed to sub-sites and regional offices can be an organizational nightmare. Does the Product team page contain news releases from the home page? Does the Los Angeles office get news releases from the San Francisco office?

If you have to deal with these kinds of questions on a post-by-post basis, you’re wasting time and energy that could be better served with bigger tasks. Look to your CMS for answers.

Content aggregation tools will allow you to tag and organize posts at the content-release level. So when you create a news article about acquiring that new San Diego property, you can tag it as “California” and “acquisition”. Once that’s done, an automatic listing of that content will appear wherever it is appropriate. This will allow you to create custom objects that can be placed on any given page and updated automatically whenever a new item is created.

Imagine, then, that this California acquisition post will appear on the LA site, the San Francisco site, the head office news feed and the board-only site that displays all upcoming business news. All because your CMS enabled your user to tag that content. A little work setting up aggregation in the early stages will lead to a massive time savings later down the line.

This kind of aggregation should work multi-directionally; your head office should be able to create items that cascade down to individual sub-sites and your sub-sites should be able to populate back up to your main site. This kind of content sharing, controlled by automatic listing aggregation, provides a plethora of benefits – it’s a known fact that fresh content provides a massive SEO boost. Doubtless that there is content being created by your various teams that could be implemented elsewhere to keep pages full with fresh content and draw in Google and Yahoo crawlers like ants to a picnic.

A CMS to Make You, Not Break You

When choosing a CMS for your multi-site setup, keep in mind that there are two major elements to consider. The first is the human aspect of your business. You have a team or several teams of varying skill levels and discipline all working together to create your marketing effort on the web. You need a CMS that can be customized to wring the absolute best out of that team. You push them for perfection; give them a tool that will help them reach that high goal.

The other side of the coin is the content itself, once it’s been created is it being implemented and managed in a way that supports your site setup? Aggregation, workflow and permission control that is granular and powerful can save time and effort and help you focus on the tasks that really matter. Coordination and compliance is the key to success in a complicated environment. Choose a CMS that empowers, not disables you.