What is a content-first CMS?

As a child of the 80s, I remember this advertisement well:

Let’s replatform this CMS—can you migrate the content for us, too?

Recently, I assessed a project built on a specialized version of Drupal created for academic institutions. It’s a low cost SaaS solution with a multi-tenant architecture, designed to allow non-technical editors to easily create page-based websites.

You know the story: what starts as a few pages, grows to a content archive which is built up over time—a few events becomes a few years’ events. The project’s content weight and complexity was breaking the CMS and causing headaches for the editors. They had to update archive links by cut and paste, update “what’s new” by hand, and worse. We were asked to replatform the CMS, tune the visual design, make it mobile responsive, and migrate the content. The catch?

There was no content export.

Is your CMS a Roach Motel for your content?

Content goes it, but it can’t come out. In my experience, this is common. Tumblr may not be a CMS per se, but it has no supported content export feature. Wix is a nice, visual, page-based CMS for small business sites, but:

It is not possible to export or embed files, pages or sites, created using the Wix Editor, to another external destination or host. All Wix sites must be hosted on the Wix servers. It is also not possible to embed your Wix site onto an external site. wix.com

Drupal is a far more sophisticated system. And since all the content is “in the database,” most editors believe with that, anything is possible. “Can’t we just export from the database?” I’ve often thought it as well, and when I crack the hood to grab that “exhibition,” I see…

Note well that I do not show this schema as a means to spread fear and doubt. I post it to show the complexity of the software. There’s not a simple “articles” table here, from which you can export the title, excerpt, and body easily. Yes, it’s in there. But not in a structure that’s easily usable. Regardless, it requires a developer and even then, significant effort.

All software dies in time; content is forever

In the “There Is No ‘Publish’ Button” session at the recent National Museum Publishing Seminar, Joseph Mohan at the Art Institute of Chicago made this memorable point. If your content is entangled with the complexity of a database schema, it’s outside your control. If your content is entangled with an offline or outdated CMS, it’s outside your control. Software cycles tend to last—perhaps 3 to 5 years? Yet some of the oldest published books are estimated at more than 2,500 years old. Your content must be independent of the software that produces it, manages it, hosts it, and distributes it.

How to put content first, in a Content Management System

A content-first CMS values content over software. It thinks of itself as a temporary vessel, a moment in software time, and disposable—it will soon hand its content back to its producers and on to a new content-first CMS. In a content-first CMS, content is always readily in the hands of editors and producers, at any time, without technical help from developers. It exports content as plain text, word docs, or CSV. It exports real content: simply structured to retain meaning, but not otherwise styled.

A content-first CMS does not export HTML. HTML documents are not “the content”—although they might contain the content, well mixed with code, style sheets, and markup, HTML documents are not the content itself. They are an artifact of a page layout in which the content once lived.

A content-first CMS is in contrast to a page-first or a layout-first CMS. Page-first systems place maximum value on layouts, and allow editors and producers to manage formatting, columns, content modules, and elements within them. But what does it mean to export this in a usable format?

A sidebar of recent articles doesn’t need to be exported, if from a content-first CMS you have the spreadsheet of all your articles. A carousel of mapped locations doesn’t need to be exported, if you have all the locations.

We developed a content-first CMS at Neoteric Design that we continue to grow and customize for our clients. It offers multichannel publishing, modular content, and content-first exporting.

Next time: what’s modular content, and how can it be exported in a content-first way?