By Craig Buckler

Do Your Clients Use Their CMS?

By Craig Buckler

client CMS frustrationMost clients ask the same questions. For many, the first is “what will it cost?” (even though you have not discussed their requirements). The next will be “can you get me to number 1 in Google for <term X>?” (where X is normally a common word such as ‘shop’). Finally, they’ll ask “can I add pages and change the content?”

This last question is probably the easiest to answer. There is a bewildering array of Content Management Systems including WordPress, Joomla, MODx, Drupal, TextPattern, and Frog. A CMS can be useful for any website that exceeds a few pages and you can certainly find appropriate software that matches the client’s requirements and IT literacy. I suspect many developers provide a system they know but customize it according to the client’s wishes.

It’s the usual story. You install the CMS, integrate plugins, create a custom theme, and add the client’s initial content. You then provide several hours training and give the client useful advice about keywords and the problems they’ll inevitably encounter when pasting from Microsoft Word. Following the last payment check, you wish them well on their web journey.

A week later, you notice the client has made one or two changes, but trashed the formatting or removed vital information. Being conscientious, you contact them, fix the issues, and offer a little free advice.

Then … nothing. The weeks and months pass by but the site is never updated again.

There are several contributing factors:

  1. Clients are busy running their own business. If they’re not actively trading online, they have few compelling reasons to update their site on a regular basis.
  2. The majority of people have modest IT skills. Unless they use a system regularly, they will forget their training and be wary about breaking something.
  3. Many CMSs have glorious interfaces, but they can be daunting, appear technical, use jargon, and offer too many options.

I’m sure many people believe they will regularly add content but discover it involves more work than they initially suspected.

But does it matter if your client avoids their CMS? Absolutely: you have sold them a system that does not meet their requirements. Few clients understand their requirements, but a good web development agency will guide them through the options and recommend the most cost-effective solution.

There are web agencies who provide 1,001 features and inevitably make more initial profit. However, a short-term gain can become a long-term loss if a client does not understand what they are buying. How can they recommend the agency’s services?

The next time you’re assessing a client’s requirements, ask them if they’re genuinely willing to commit several hours every week writing and updating their content. If they’re not, perhaps you should sell them content reviews and ongoing maintenance rather than a CMS and associated training.

Do the majority your clients use their CMS or do you do the work for them?

  • Cromulent

    Good points in this article. It is certainly much harder to keep your site updated with new and interesting content especially when there is so much else to consider when running a business.

    Frankly the major problems with current CMS systems are that they all use far too many technical terms for people who are less IT literate than perhaps the majority of readers on this site. I mean do people outside of the web development culture know what an RSS feed is? Plus I am also surprised to find out that people do not necessarily know what a podcast is.

    All of this technical people tend to forget when designing a project. The old adage of “Keep It Simple Stupid” is really very important.

  • Jamie Knight


    I found were were getting this alot with clients, so a few tips to help you out:

    1: Google analytics inside the CMS. I have set up GA to track the usage of the clients CMS. This means that i can see how much use it is getting and just like with normal GA i can try to identify issues from the stats. On more than one occasion i have shocked a client by phoning them with a solution to a problem they had blamed themselves for.

    2: Simplify – try to keep the process of getting into the CMS simple. First up, use email as login name, not some random name, the client will probs remember it easier. Second (and this one could be painful at first) MAKE then USE it, we in a round about set clients little task then monitor how they complete them. Although some client want to flay you alive at this point, it was very helpful in tuning the CMS to their needs.

    3: remove features. By default, our CMS can edit test, with a very very simple wysiwyg which pops up once editable text is clicked. Thats it. It revisions everything (to provide a back button) and it does not by default do images. We often tend to launch sites with this functionality and wait for a client to ask for anything more so. some do, some do not. Some have image editing in the requirements, but after a chat decide not to keep it.

    Hope that helps,

    Jamie & Lion

  • Patrick

    Almost all our clients do update their sites quite regularly, and with no help from us. The trick is to give them a really easy-to-use CMS. We use Refinery CMS.

  • krussell22

    None of them. None. Zero. Okay, maybe one client uses his Joomla site. Nah. None.

  • jmauro8ac

    You are right, you have described every day issue, my clients does not update their content so it is hard to prove to a new prospect that it really works

  • I have now built a simple cms that can very easily be edited and features could be added and removed if needed. I made it very simple to understand and now it is almost time for my client to test it and be sure that is what they want.

    I have only long-term clients and up till now, I had to update their websites. I have used some CMSs, but can not change anything in there as it would break the system.

    Great Post.

  • mpridham

    I found that most of my clients were just looking for a way to update certain pages, such as upcoming events or news items. My programmer and I developed a simple mini-CMS that is completely customized for each client. That way they get exactly what they want without all the extra “features” of many systems that they will likely never need.

    All of the content is pre-formatted for them (such as headings, etc), so all they have to worry about is what they want to post. Every one of my clients that I have provided this for use it on a consistent basis.


  • the.peregrine

    I think Jamie has made an excellent point above (several, in fact), and I hope people won’t overlook this good advice: REMOVE FEATURES!

    What seems simple to us will seem outrageously cumbersome to many end users. Make the CMS simple enough that a child can use it, and it will be used. I know little and care little about banking and baking, and I don’t expect bank employees or bakers modifying their website to know about coding.

    It takes more time and thought to simplify this on the front end, but your customers will love you so much that they’ll become your promoters. You get more business. Repeat. Profit!

  • Elsa

    Yes they use it and in almost 75% of the cases they destroy the good design we have done in a couple of months.

  • Sagaweb

    Only one. Out of dozens. Two clients paid me extra to set up CMS, and still pay me monthly maintenance to go in to the CMS and make changes, because they are too busy.

  • Nick

    To get the best out of your web presence, content has to be kept fresh and up-to-date. But the issue raised here is absolutely right.. most users are simply fearful or bewildered by the tools in front of them.

    I think Jaimie makes some excellent points – simplicity and usability are key. I would replace (3) with: provide the right features though.

    We have spent the last 4 years working on a CMS/Marketing platform that does exactly this – making it easy for users with minimal IT knowledge to manage their online content. Have a look at http://www.blocksglobal.com

  • If they’re not, perhaps you should sell them content reviews and ongoing maintenance rather than a CMS and associated training.

    Training for the CMS I provide is pretty much a non-issue. I’ve set up a fairly detailed user guide including videos and very rarely have to provide in-person training and don’t have too many issues with people not knowing what they have to do.

    The other side of the issue to consider is that while you might be selling a system that the client doesn’t use to its full potential now, if at some point in the future they ask to add a more advanced feature, if you’ve chosen the right CMS to start with, adding that feature will probably be trivial and not cost too much, whereas if you’ve just gone with a static site initially, the cost of adding that one new feature might seem exorbitant because you have to set up a system to enable it. So the thing is to not only think of what’s best for the client now, but also have an eye as to what might be best for them in the future too.

  • mech7

    The problem is bigger then only an easy cms… many times the customers don’t know how to use the medium and don’t have a copywriter to create compelling articles. (and usually no budget for this too)

  • PCSpectra

    Now the trick is determining how much to charge a client per month for update fees, do you hire a professional writer/copywriter (whatever their called) to discover new content ideas and have them publish articles to the hundreds of directories repositoris, etc?

    Isn’t this what SEO firms typically do and what most businesses expect from a CMS/website — but to have it done automagically simply by virtue of having a web site?


  • kengriffith

    I have found that they will use it to place and delete their property or product listings, but they don’t use it to update page content.

  • Adelante

    Craig you’ve raised an interesting point that many developers encounter, the key is determining the level of motivation the client has to make the updates and ensuring the formating is simple enough for the client to undertake. My experience is the same as yours, the clent trashes the formatting then stops updating. My last project required the abilty to update news items, upcoming events, newsletters etc. I created a simple CMS interface (God Bless Kevin Yank) for these items only and made the rest of the site static html. The client loves it and I get the more involved updates.

    Thanks to the great article.

  • @Tyssen

    if you’ve chosen the right CMS to start with, adding that feature will probably be trivial and not cost too much

    I’m not saying you should provide a static site in preference to a CMS — on the contrary, it might make your job much easier. Many clients won’t know or care whether a CMS is used or not.

    However, selling CMS facilities to a client who won’t use one is fairly pointless. Sell them copy writing, content reviews, keyword analysis or updating services instead.

  • Te3d

    I’ve found that building custom, targeted admin tools that allow clients to update specific site areas easily is often much more useful and user friendly than implementing a general CMS. Targeted admin can perfectly mesh with the look and feel of the site, eliminate complex menus and unneeded and confusing features. These types of targeted admin tools have been greeted with enthusiastic response from users accustom to either manual (Dreamweaver) updates or CMS systems like Joomla. An admin area that stays within the design framework of the rest of the site is often much less intimidating to a client than a completely new interface to decipher.

    And, it does not have to be all one or the other. A developer can build the site within a CMS of their choosing and have those benefits available to them while still including custom admin tools for specific features to be updated by non-technical staff.

    A little custom work upfront can greatly increase the clients independence and happiness, eliminate calls with questions concerning maintenance and lead to requests for additional admin features that will work as effortlessly!

  • The majority of our clients do update their site with a few that initially asked for a cms for the reason of future expansion.
    One of the main reasons that our clients use Elxis or Joomla is due to the fact that they need a multi-lingual environment.
    I’ll agree that the cms should be as easy to use and especially so with multiple languages because the content has to be entered that many times more to make the most use of that advantage.

  • saurabhbhide

    The majority of people have modest IT skills. Unless they use a system regularly, they will forget their training and be wary about breaking something.

    This is very true. However well I used to train them, I always got calls about simple things from my clients.

    Then I realized that giving them an administration manual was the only way to solve this problem. I have created this app called Joomanuals that generates user manuals for your joomla clients explaining them how to manage their site.

    Check it out : http://joomanuals.com/

    Giving a manual with routine tasks makes the CMS less overwhelming for your clients.

  • I think most of the clients underestimate the task of keeping a website up to date, and that’s why some sites end up abandoned. As a webmaster we have to be really clear to avoid them making us responsible for whatever happens to the website.

    I’ve had experiences where I explain and document how to use the CMS and despite that, people still erase vital data… sad…

  • rocket123

    I run into this as well. the article perfectly described the situation. refreshing to see you are not the only one. i recently had a client and the girl in charge of updating the site was a young girl who was more concerned withe Facebook and texting than the website.
    I use Joomla and a very simple editor just for some text and images, and i have found it does not matter how simple the cms, it comes down to the client.

    i think the perception was that cms was going to save the world. but people do not change and are lazy for the most part.

    clients go through this “energetic phase” where they are all fired up about a website, editing it themselves, etc.. You finish it and they have this great site. Then they realize, “Hey, i’m going to have to work at this” and it just falls by the wayside. I personally don’t worry about the referral aspect because if they are too lazy to make simple additions to a website, then they are not the type of client to give a referral. the link to my website in the footer is enough in that case.

    just my 2 cents. every situation is different.

  • the.peregrine

    All these comments are interesting, and there are obviously some very smart people writing them. What does this teach us about how we might handle this differently?

    Are we getting the right people involved in the development process? Are we asking the right questions of clients, and getting the right answers? Where do the client’s expectations meet our own expectations, and how can we assure that we aren’t doing anything more or less than is necessary to get the job done?

    I manage a few sites that are changing constantly, and several others that are static sites in every sense of the word, with no foreseeable need to be anything else. Nothing wrong with that, but the one that really needs a CMS has one and I’m not the only one who uses it. A couple of others that change frequently require only small changes on a couple of pages, and those are done easily enough (by me) without a CMS.

    I wonder whether we sometimes make things too complicated for no good reason. I completely sympathize with Rocket123 and others who say some clients are lazy, but in many cases they are busy doing a part of their own jobs that I could not and would not do if I had the chance. They may not know they didn’t need to hire a person just to do web updates (But we could have told them that … Did we?). Or this may have been a convenient excuse to hire the boss’s niece, who really is lazy and was going to be on Facebook no matter what job he found for her.

    So if you’ve sold somebody on a CMS setup they aren’t using, isn’t this an opportunity to re-negotiate with them and suggest they outsource their web maintenance tasks to you (for much less than the cost of hiring their niece)? Businesses rethink their structure and strategy all the time, and they might welcome such a proposal. And it also might be nice for us to have a small retainer check arrive every month — even on the months we didn’t have to do anything!

  • rocket123

    my comment was not absolutely clear. my clients are using their cms, some not as much as i would like, but i don’t think they are the type to do so no matter how simple it was.

    I spend a good deal of time with the client before hand and custom design every solution for them, whether it involves seo, email marketing, the solution exactly fits their needs.

    and the girl i was referring to does have duties, but today i was on the phone with her about getting their google apps email working, and she reveived 3 social calls while we were on the phone and made me hold while she made plans for the night, so my evaluation is not total conjecture, but qualified observation.

    i do not throw a “one size fits all” at my clients. i have painstakingly spent almost 2 years to develop a complete solution, from seo, email marketing, cms, design, programming…you name it i do it. however, you can only control things on your end and you cannot change the nature of people.

    what i have done to turn peoples laziness into cash is to offer maintenance plans where i manage their newsletters, and even the more complicated aspects of their cms. that’s the best way to turn that frown upside down.

  • A few points:

    1. Having a good CMS is better for the designer, even if the client never uses it.

    2. One reason client edits often mess things up is that, even with most CMS systems, there’s an intermixing of content and markup. What is needed, but rarely done, is to put structured content into a database, so the client can just fill out a form with pure text to add content, and all the appropriate markup is added automatically by the templates.

    3. There’s a big difference between “I want to be able to make the occasional change myself” and “I want to do all the site maintenance myself”. Most clients are in the former category. Just because they don’t use the CMS frequently doesn’t mean they don’t get a lot of value out of it.

  • I think a CMS can be valuable when the client wants to do minor edits.

    However my view as a writer is a CMS can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

    In the same way photoshop doesn’t make someone a graphic artist, a CMS doesn’t make someone a web copywriter. Just because a piece of software gives us the ability to do something, doesn’t mean we should ;)

    Clients don’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) understand the complexities of language, tone, seo, content strategy etc.

  • From what I’ve experienced, my clients’ technical abilities aren’t good enough to use a CMS, EVEN WITH TRAINING. I always try to get customers to use a non-CMS solution.

  • rocket123

    I’ve always said “the great thing about a CMS is that the client can edit their own content.”

    and “the bad thing about a CMS is that the client can edit their own content.”

    feel free to use it!

  • I found this article spot on. Even allowing clients small “windows” to manage, they often find ways to muck thing up. They like to add giant red text in all caps, which doesn’t fit in with the design or add 300dpi images that end up compressed beyond recognition. I’ve seen it all and find the clients are much happier just sending me the changes for a nominal fee, getting them completed within 24hrs, and not having to worry about it.

  • Anonymous

    most of our clients do update their sites. We provide a mini-cms which really just consists of fck editor submitting to a database. They have no ability to actually edit the page itself just predefined layers where they can add text / images etc.

    We design the various content boxes when we do the site design so they are very tightly integrated.

    As for the actualy layout of the main page etc they cannot touch that. We use the rationale that anything design or develpment based they need us to change (as we are designers and developers).

    Anything with the actual content they can do themselves. We try to simplify as much as possible and that seems to work best.

    When we tried using Joomla/Mambo etc there was too steep a learning curve for clients and they invariably had problems. Problems = dissatisfaction = unhappy customers.

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