where web content management and user experience collide

CMS and the innovator’s dilemma

At the recent StackOverflow DevDay in London, Joel Spolsky talked about whether your product design should favour simplicity or features, continuing a simmering debate he’s been having with 37 Signals. Spolsky wouldn’t disagree that simplicity is generally better for user experience. But – and it’s a big but – he argues that features are better for revenue. His experience is that customers buy features: whenever they release more features for FogBugz, they see sales go up. More features help protect revenue, not least because you can upsell to existing customers.

This made me think about the trend for CMS vendors away from loosely coupled solutions and towards big all-singing, all-dancing suites, which are competing on essentially the same feature set. The CMS market (at least at the ECM end) now looks like classic innovator’s dilemma territory. Briefly, the innovator’s dilemma is that successful innovation-based businesses usually got to be that way by listening to their customers. When a new innovation comes along, it’s typically only better in some specific way, fitting some edge case; a worse is better solution. For the vendor, the profit margins on the new thing are worse than for the existing business, and the existing customers don’t even want it. So it’s hard to justify putting resources into addressing this new thing. By the time you (and your customers) realise you do need to do something about it after all, it’s too late. Some startup business has captured the new market.

In the CMS world, WordPress are the obvious threat here. Other vendors might scoff and say “it’s not even CMS!”. Well, no. Quite. That should set your innovator’s dilemma alarm jangling. There’s an “edge case” problem that WordPress solves rather well: instant-on deployment. As the web gears up for real-time, that starts to seem less and less of an edge case. Also check out (when their servers are up 😉 – a kind of frontend for building business sites on WordPress. is another contender. No, it’s not really a CMS either, just a content repository. But a very extensible, web-oriented content repository. Hey, we shouldn’t even write off Google Sites, even though it’s crap. Maybe sometimes crap is better.

I’m sceptical of the suite approach. It doesn’t even fit the facts on the ground: your staff are already using other tools outside your firewall to contribute and curate content about your business: get over it. A loosely coupled solution that connects people (in and outside the business), content (wherever it lives), and apps (that are already in use anyway; that are “best-of-breed”); now, that looks like a better idea.


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2 Responses

  1. I agree, but the sales patter from the suite vendors is:
    1. all their products are already loosely coupled;
    2. they’re all from the same product family so even easier to integrate;
    3. it’s easier to manage one supplier than lots.

    * If (1) is true then so much the better.
    * (2) is usually stretching the truth. How many products are being sold under the same suite that have been acquired and share nothing with their stable-mates?
    * (3) is certainly valid. It’s easier to know who to kick when something goes wrong if there’s one supplier out there. For many larger organisations, it’s also easier to tender a single supplier than multiple best-of-breed.

    Unfortunately (3) will usually kick the best-of-breed approach into touch.

  2. Love this topic and the blog. Looking forward to more good stuff.

    I think ultimately the answer lies somewhere in the middle of the “all-encompasing suite” and the ability to integrate with existing applications.

    Take analytics. Google and Omniture have dominant market share. Does it really make sense for a CMS vendor to offer another option? Can a CMS vendor tackle the problem in a way that compels a Marketer to either switch or commit to having to dig through another set of reports? I doubt it. Bringing analytics reports into CMS to help content authors make better decisions makes a ton of sense but I think integration is the better option.

    Looking at multivariate testing, it’s a different answer. Again, Google and Omniture have dominant market share however, I think CMS vendors can offer enough value to make a business case for building it into the platform. Tightly coupling multivariate testing into the content authoring process enables Marketers to create and launch tests quickly and easily and I think that’s a good idea. Having to create and publish content in the CMS and then create an experiment in Google Website Optimizer or Omniture Test+Target seems unwieldily to me.

    As a CMS vendor, I’d rather see my company continue to innovate where we think we can offer something really unique. Where we can’t, we need to be able to plug into the other applications that help our customers meet their business objectives.

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