Designing Content Workflow for Your CMS

Flow chart

Design a CMS workflow that supports your content governance plan.

We can talk all day about creating great content, but if we don’t have a process for sustaining it, our content strategy will fail.

A big content governance challenge is ensuring that multiple content contributors maintain messaging, communication, editorial and content standards. This is particularly true for staff who have other responsibilities and for whom content is not always the highest priority.

For many higher education institutions, one or more small groups often manage content. Maybe even one or two people. Content professionals are always the minority. And for these few, it’s hard work to maintain standards and review work before it’s published — and higher ed does a lot of publishing.

One valuable method of helping to maintain these standards is CMS (Content Management System) workflow. This functionality manages the publishing tasks in your CMS — from adding or editing content to publishing content.

If web publishing was just one person or a two-step process, content workflow for your CMS might not be necessary. But to effectively manage the roles and accommodate the publishing steps involved with a higher ed website — drafting, reviewing, revising, approving, publishing, archiving — technology is often essential for success.

Let’s look at some of the things to consider when planning for your CMS workflow.

1. Start with content strategy.

As we often say around here, content needs to inform technology needs, not vice versa. Before you can design an effective CMS workflow, you need to first have a content strategy. What are your content goals? What type of content do you need? Who is responsible for planning, creating and governing content? As Jonathan Kahn says on A List Apart, we need to rethink our approach to content management systems:

When it comes to the CMS, we stop thinking strategically. Despite all the talk about user-centered design, we rarely consider the user experience of the editorial team—the people who implement the content strategy. We don’t design a CMS, we install it.

Indeed, your editorial team members are users too. We need to support their publishing tasks. Speaking of which …

2. Interview content stakeholders.

Just like content strategy, CMS workflow success depends on meeting both your business needs and your users’ needs — in this case, your editorial team. Meet with each of your content stakeholders, including content creators, editors, reviewers, approvers and anyone who interacts with content.

Ask them to describe their current process for creating and publishing content. Don’t limit the conversation to their use of the CMS — discuss their entire content publishing process. If the conversation is too limited, you may miss opportunities for your CMS to help stakeholders in new ways. (Content Strategy for the Web by Kristina Halvorson offers a great list of questions to ask stakeholders in various publishing roles.)

Also ask stakeholders to describe the elements of publishing that work well for them and ones that are problematic. Take good notes. You want to make sure your CMS workflow maintains the processes that do work and improves upon the ones that don’t. (This will also be important for gaining buy-in — more on this later.)

3. Define CMS roles.

In order to setup CMS workflow, you need to define the roles involved. Different roles require different tasks.

Create a list of all the different roles involved in your content publishing process, including requesters, creators, editors, approvers (owners), publishers and other roles you may want to add later on. List all of your CMS stakeholders under these CMS user-roles. There will likely be dozens or hundreds of requesters and authors and a smaller set of editors, approvers and publishers.

Simple framework for content management system (CMS) roles

A simple framework for content management (CMS) roles provides a platform for CMS workflow planning (click to enlarge).

You can start with a simple framework for Content Management System (CMS) roles to inform the planning process. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to consider the roles shown above: content author, content editor, and content manager. After going through this planning process, you may decide new or different roles are needed.

4. Conduct a CMS task audit.

Based on your working content strategy and identified CMS stakeholder needs, identify all the tasks (steps) involved in your web publishing process. You may hit on steps that exist outside of your CMS, but these are important to document as well.

Where does content start and end? What is your content ecosystem? After each step in the publishing process, what do you need for the next step to begin? What are the dependencies for each task? (e.g., What needs to happen before step 3 of 5 can begin?)

Some tasks might include:

  • Adding text, photos, video, Twitter feeds, sidebar content, forms, etc.
  • Creating new pages
  • Deleting pages and digital assets
  • Adding or updating metadata
  • Publishing content to a test server
  • Returning new or edited content with comments for revisions
  • Scheduling content for publication
  • Properly formatting headers, tables, captions, links, etc.

Most CMS tasks are commonplace, but some may be very unique to your organization. When defining publishing tasks, think big, then small. Consider your entire content ecosystem, then dig into the details.

5. Map out your CMS tasks.

It’s hard to understand the relationship of various tasks without first putting them in context. To help, map out your CMS tasks so that you have a visual task flow chart. If you’re like me and love your whiteboard, this exercise is for you!

You’ll find when you start mapping out your tasks in this way, you discover missing steps. For example, maybe you want to require approval before content authors can publish, but through your task flow chart, you realize authors first need permission to publish to a test server on their own.

Begin by identifying as many applicable publishing scenarios as you can. Consider both the tasks and the people involved. A lot of these scenarios will be defined in your stakeholder interviews and task audit, but keep pushing to identify all the common — and uncommon — possibilities.

Here are some questions that may come up during this exercise:

  • Can authors create new pages or just edit existing ones?
  • Who is authorized to create subfolders (subdirectories)?
  • Can authors delete pages? What about other digital assets?
  • Can editors approve content across the entire site or just the sections they’re responsible for? What about content they own that spreads across multiple sections of the site?
  • How do we manage multiple approvers (editors)? Are requests for approval delegated to other approvers if an assigned editor is out of the office?
  • How do we manage workflow when multiple authors are working on the same page?
  • Are content managers involved in the workflow process? Are they informed about publishing updates? Are they responsible for documenting changes?

(Some of these questions are clearly tough to answer and will likely raise political concerns about who has the right to perform different tasks. Keep reading to learn tips on how to tackle these hurdles and gain support for CMS workflow.)

Mapping out your tasks is often an enlightening exercise that leads to reevaluating CMS workflow requirements. It may even lead you to reevaluate the viability of existing policies and processes in your content strategy.

6. Integrate content planning tools into your CMS workflow.

This post is tightly focused on CMS workflow, but as I mentioned earlier, you can’t ignore the broader content strategy requirements. Web publishing is more than entering data in fields and hitting “next.” Content is complicated, and ensuring consistency and clear communication requires a larger set of tools, including brand guidelines, editorial calendars and style guides.

So, rather than treating these tools as something different, let’s pull them into the fold. Do you have file name conventions, editorial style guidelines, standards for file formats and page layout? Do you have web writing guidelines? Include them in your back-end CMS templates so they’re part of your CMS workflow. Also include checklists for content editing, metadata, links, SEO and other content requirements.

Your CMS is not limited to digital asset and task management; it can also help with sharing and learning.

7. Test CMS workflow.

Okay. So you researched CMS stakeholder needs, you defined roles, you conducted a task audit, you created a task analysis map — you even made your CMS more useful by adding training documentation and content checklists. Phew! Now it’s time for testing.

Workflow planning docs work differently than workflow on the web, where needs are more unpredictable. We have to put our plan to the test. A CMS workflow that doesn’t accommodate real-world scenarios is doomed to fail.

Begin by having authors, editors and other people with CMS user-roles perform common — and uncommon — tasks. Think of this as a reality check to verify that your CMS workflow is useful, usable and sustainable. Do you have several student staff members updating calendars and uploading photos? Do you have staff publishing news-and-events content and adding new pages? Test all scenarios.

Involving stakeholders in the testing process not only ensures accuracy, it also builds stakeholder confidence that workflow will meet their needs — as it should. Hey, speaking of building stakeholder confidence …

8. Gain support for CMS workflow.

Perhaps the most difficult step in implementing CMS workflow is gaining support for it. CMS workflow gets a bad rap by both content managers and content authors alike. The perception is that it hinders success rather than supports it.

“It’s too inflexible.”

“It doesn’t do what I need it to do.”

And, most common, “I hate our CMS.”

Whatever the perception or political hurdle, the problem is not your CMS but rather how you use it. A CMS is just a tool. It’s your job to make it work for you.

The secret to gaining support for CMS workflow is involving stakeholders in the planning process and ensuring that it meets their needs as well as yours. Don’t start the planning process with your CMS user guide. Start with your content strategy. Start with your stakeholders. Start with identifying what you need it to do — then design your CMS workflow to make it happen.

CMS workflow helps ensure accountability so that people will take responsibility for their work. It protects against ambiguity about who is responsible for what and where content is in the publishing process.

For content stakeholders who want more control, talk to them about accountability. The more publishing access they have, the more responsibility they have. When people associate access with responsibility, most are willing to relinquish some control in favor of less responsibility.

Final note: CMS workflow is not the best option for every situation (heck, some folks don’t even use a CMS — scary, really). Maybe you have an offline editorial process that works for you. But you can only determine the best option after going through a workflow planning process. There are legitimate reasons for not using CMS workflow, but they should be informed reasons.

Do you use CMS workflow or have you considered using it? I’d love to hear your experiences. Let’s chat.

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »


  1. Rick,

    Yet another phenomenal posting! Earlier this week I was talking to an organization looking to do workflows and I really keyed in on similar topics. I find #1 and #6 are the most overlooked while #8 is consistently the most blamed for lack of workflow.

    In addition, I find that teams are looking to ONLY keep the workflow process associated with their current tasks without later reviewing the potential efficiencies or opportunities that their CMS will enable and adjust accordingly. This would be the iterative approach of #2 – 5.

    BTW, I think CMS tools can (and should) add greater value going forward by incorporating functionality to help with #1 & #6.

    Joel Dixon

    • Joel,

      Thanks for the kind words! Indeed, I think integrating content planning tools into CMS workflow is a big missed opportunity. A CMS is often an underutilized and poorly implemented resource because it lacks a content strategy to guide its use.


  2. Rick,
    This is really a good post. We are actually in the middle of assessing the content management system we provide to clients and I have to agree, we need to determine the CMS workflow first. Will bookmark this for future use.
    Thank you! :)

  3. Torben Knerr says:

    Hello Rick (and everybody else reading comments here),

    awesome post! I’m currently evaluating different CMS solutions to adapt (or rather strip down ;-)) for our editorial workflow.

    We are looking for some kind of inbox view for authors and a dashboard (and eventually planning) view for editors.

    Do you have any hints or directions on which CMS would be a good choice (especially in terms of customizability for editorial workflows)?



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