Getting to scale: advancing platforms for online content

These days Software as a Service (SaaS) is ubiquitous. Project management? Got Basecamp for that. Bulk email at scale? See Constant Contact or Mailchimp. And say goodbye to your server logs — Google Analytics has been widely adopted for understanding website performance. The move to SaaS has long been the case for bloggers, who from the early days migrated to solutions like TypePad. Today, many would rather have a Tumblr instance or a site on WordPress.com than be in the business of building and updating an application.

Currently I’m involved in two projects, one as part of a team implementing and promoting a multi-tenant Drupal instance, and the other as a client for migrating the server side of an open source mobile application to a SaaS platform. In both cases, moving to a platform will enable updating and scale at lower cost — but it’s highly instructive to sit on both sides of the table simultaneously and see transition pain points. A few observations on ways to drive platform adoption:

  • Give people control of their pixels. Enabling admin users to make small tweaks for brand or preference make an organization feel more ownership of the process and the CMS.
  • Invest in admin UX. The boring “killer app” behind adoption is often a clean admin user interface. If the person charged with updating the content doesn’t feel confident in the user interface, updates occur less frequently.
  • Create systems that enable adaptive content. Karen McGrane speaks persuasively about why we need to stop the madness of systems that cram print layouts into ever-smaller screens. Systems that enable authoring the right content types and metadata are essential — they help publishers reach users on the proliferation of devices today, as well as the ones not even created yet.
  • Meet the need for speed. Content publishers, especially for news sites, live in the admin interface. A system that lags on the backend will fail to impress, especially in today’s environment where 400 milliseconds (the blink of an eye) is now considered too long to wait.
  • Be explicit about ways platforms remove pain points. Custom online publishing platforms for web or mobile rarely calculate total cost of ownership at a level that includes both feature enhancements and maintenance updates. Open source systems update frequently, and even in a cleanly-coded site where the Drupal core is untouched, these updates require time and testing.
  • Expose and sell the roadmap. Platforms need a product roadmap informed by both articulated user needs and emerging trends. Too much on the former, and you lose a coherent product. Too much of the latter and you slow adoption. Find the right blend collaboratively with content creators and designers, and iterate.
  • Integrate social services. We’re no longer building independent publishing systems, we’re integrating them into an ecosystem of always-on channels of social applications like Facebook. Make sure the content types enable compelling and clean sharing to social.

For those making a move to a platform, remember that feature set alone is rarely the differentiator for a great online presence. A thoughtful investment in content and social strategy drives effective digital communications, particularly for those in the information business — whether that’s an educational institution, a news organization, or a consulting firm. Find the right platform to provide a solid underpinning, and focus on a strategy that delivers what matters for your online audiences.