Modern CMSs are built for power users – interview of Tony Byrne

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In the following interview, Tony Byrne, the founder of CMS research and analyst company Real Story Group, talks about the history, present and future of CMSs. Tony also analyzes the current challenges of the CMS market from the customer point of view.

North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.

2 September 2014

Perttu Tolvanen

This interview took place in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Tony was speaking at the Intranatverk 2014 conference. Real Story Group is headquartered in Washington, DC, and currently has offices in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Bangalore and Delhi. Real Story Group has a team of six analysts and a group of contributing analysts. In total, the company employs 14 people.

How did you get started with CMSs and what is your company doing right now?

During the mid-1990s I was implementing early-version CMS tools like TeamSite and Documentum. I was very frustrated working on those and that’s why I founded CMS Watch in 2001. We changed the name to Real Story Group when we started covering a wider variety of systems, like Portals and Digital Asset Management. Our value for customers is that we are focused on a specific kinds of digital workplace and marketing technologies, and that allows us to go very deep.

The main business for us is research and advisory. People subscribe to our research and typically we then help them to make decisions. It could be that people just call us by phone or they want our advice on certain documents, sometimes advice on contracts with vendors or integrators – or advising the selection team.

Your view to the history of CMSs? Where did everything begin and what kind of milestones have there been?

It has really gone in waves. I remember the early CMS platforms being like website management platforms. Also open source was there from the very beginning, like Zope, Plone, Midgard (which comes from Finland). During the early years the systems really were “experience management systems” since they were so much about website management, and they were not actually very good in content management.

One big trend that really came out of Europe was technology to manage global web operations, especially around localization and globalization facilities. This was around mid-2000, and we like to call this the ‘second Viking invasion’ where a number of Scandinavian vendors penetrated North America. Their key differentiator was definitely the ability to support multilingual workflows and websites with multiple languages. Some of the names back then were Sitecore, Tridion, EPiServer.

Somewhere in mid-2000 customers started focusing more on content-oriented marketing. Vendors started focusing more on the idea of author-once-publish-everywhere. During that time there was a lot of interest in this idea of single-sourcing. I think this came from the rise of content marketing. The idea is that you would have one single repository of content from which you could easily publish to a number of channels. Many companies struggled with that. Right now web experience management is going in a bit of a different direction: allowing content producers to modify content and experiences at the edge and not just the source.

But there are also other reasons why vendors have been so much focusing on web experience management during the last years. Right now most of the vendors are focusing on external use cases. The unspoken reason for this is that many CMSs have ceded the intranet to SharePoint. Of course you can use many CMSs for your intranet, but a lot of the energy of vendors is focused elsewhere. Right now most vendors are strongly focusing to serve the needs of the digital marketer.

Is the digital marketing focus the right way to go?

I’m a cynic about many things, but I’m not cynical about the need for quality web content experience management solutions. However, as a buyer you have to be careful of how you are going to scope your web content management problem, because you have vendors like Sitecore or Ektron that will offer to do a lot of different services for you, like inbound marketing, outbound marketing. You need to think carefully whether you want all of those things from a single vendor.

We are somewhat more biased towards the best-of-breed approach, because our own subscribers tend to be larger companies who often prefer more sophisticated tools.

How do you advise your clients in choosing between the best-of-breed approach and all-inclusive?

The biggest thing is the scope of your ambitions. The larger the ambitions, the more you tend to go for best-of-breed.

Another important thing is the realistic evaluation of your internal capabilities, because there are tools that are very sophisticated, but you don’t have enough time or staff to exploit them. A good example is the former Omniture SiteCatalyst (now part of Adobe). Thousands of the world’s biggest companies use it, but probably only a handful of them use it very effectively. The reason is that to exploit it, you have to have a lot of human resources.

I think SiteCatalyst is a good example of the fact that even today, we tend to see more companies over-buying than under-buying.

What has most changed for the better? What is working right now?

The best thing from a customer perspective is the sheer diversity of choices on a complexity spectrum. In other words, you have WordPress that does certain things very well. Then you have more product-oriented vendors, like TerminalFour or Joomla, that are quite good at what they do – even though their scope from the functionality perspective is quite limited. Then you have choices all the way up to OpenText or Adobe, which are really more development platforms, “tool kits”.

There are more than three dozen or more plausible global web content management vendors, six or seven of which are open source projects. This is a very good thing from a customer perspective. The fragmentation of the market has driven innovation and kept license pricing on a moderate level because there is no market maker who can set monopoly prices.

What about the difficult areas? What is hard at the moment?

I think the one thing we run into quite a lot, is the tendency for to be hype cycles around particular vendors. Last year it might have been Sitecore, this year maybe it’s Adobe, sometimes you hear Drupal. I had this great experience last year at a conference. On the same day I talked to two people who were telling me how great Drupal was. The thing they both had in common was that neither of them had never used the system. So they had just heard the ‘street cred’ that Drupal is wonderful. And maybe this is natural for a fragmented market. People try to find the winning horse whether it fits them or not.

Another thing is that CMS vendors are making their interfaces more power-user-like. I think they are responding to the fact that web teams are becoming more centralized. Managing the website is becoming a full-time job and the CMS vendors are selling to that person as well. Where that leaves people out is organizations where you still have casual contributors and sometimes they get overwhelmed by modern CMSs. For example, in higher education and in government you tend to see more distributed authoring models. Sometimes the modern CMS world tends to be very overwhelming for them.

Where is the CMS world heading? What kind of things will we see more?

I think we will see better tools for content curation. And I don’t mean just better algorithms. I think vendors are beginning to catch on to this. What we want really is not logic-driven web pages, but logic-assisted web pages that are editorially managed. One example could be a widget that says ‘show me a list of the ten latest press releases’, but the reality is that one of them might be really important – and you want to pin that to the top of the list. These are the things that some media companies are already doing.

Another thing is simulations. Right now you can do previews, but not simulations, like “if I make this change, what are the consequences?” This becomes critical when organizations start applying personalization. It’s something that is way beyond just previews. And that’s what the marketers really want.

>> Follow Tony on Twitter

Perttu Tolvanen

Perttu Tolvanen is a web concept design and content management system expert.

Perttu consults with clients on project planning and defining requirements, and supports customers in selecting content management systems and implementation partners. His areas of specialisation include facilitating concept design workshops and selecting content management systems.

Perttu has ten years of experience with web and intranet projects, including serving as a project manager and consultant. Earlier in his career Perttu has worked in procurement and as a project manager at a large media company, a content management system consultant at a large IT company and an independent, neutral consultant at his own firm. He is also a well-known seminar speaker and blogger. Perttu is also the editor of, a Finnish blog about the Finnish internet and its creators.


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