The future of building for digital: Experts weigh in on how content is changing to fit customer expectations

On the verge of change
December 18, 2020


This past year prompted many questions about how digital builders should adapt their strategies to meet the increasing digital needs of customers — especially in the midst of a global pandemic. The digital-first trend comes with a steep learning curve for many companies, but a new playbook supported by the best tools in the business can help businesses survive and thrive in a digital era. We spoke with digital influencers and leaders across industries to get their expert insight on best practices and the future of digital experiences in an era of increasing customer expectations.

John Boitnott

Boitnott Consulting LLC & columnist at Inc., Entrepreneur and ReadWrite


With more consumers and business owners spending time on digital channels — smartphones, TV, and laptops — during the pandemic, CMS professionals must address these increasing digital needs or miss out on reaching and converting prospects. To do so, a CMS professional must focus on developing and implementing a framework that is migration and integration-friendly, helping their company begin the digital transformation process, if they haven’t done so already, or begin to move an existing effort forward at a faster rate. Using a framework that is plug-and-play instead of rip-and-replace will be time and cost-effective.

Once that integrated approach is in place, a CMS professional can focus on business logic and workflow best practices that help push a digital strategy for each digital channel. This is the point where a CMS professional connects the digital dots so that the content management system can align with social media, sales and other marketing efforts. A headless or hybrid CMS can help improve the efficiency of these areas, providing a way to deliver and share content for all channels at any point. Since the digital transformation is a continuous, iterative process, a headless CMS provides a way to continually address shifting needs and other unexpected situations that arise similar to the pandemic. This could include work-from-home collaboration across an organization and ecommerce transactions to the development of compelling online experiences. This type of CMS can help connect prospects and customers across channels, media companies, publishers and brands in a flexible way. 

Karen McGrane and Jeff Eaton

Co-founders of Autogram

@karenmcgrane @eaton 

Teams that relied on face-to-face connections with clients are being hit the hardest; they've shifted more of their work to digital, but their processes for review, governance  and coordination are creaking under the stress. There's a lot of great advice about how to write effectively for this moment, but not a lot about the long-term impact on an organization's communications team. We've been advising them to prioritize simple tagging and metadata that captures the intent of a piece of content, not just the topic it discusses. Public-facing content that's created to deal with emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic is often contextual and ephemeral. Being able to go back in three months — or three years — and quickly separate emergency messaging from evergreen can dramatically reduce the future governance burden.

A related challenge is internal knowledge management. Companies that treated work-from-home as a rare exception (or didn't support it all) have been forced to shift without much preparation. They're having trouble keeping IT support questions, HR onboarding, and the daily cadence of discussions and decisions from becoming an unmanageable tarball. Teams that didn’t prioritize and invest in an intranet or knowledge base are feeling the pinch. Ironing out basic categories for internal documents — troubleshooting, to-dos, legal issues, and so on — can help with short-term triage, reduce duplicated effort and set the stage for more comprehensive organizational work in the future.

Michelle Manafy

Editorial director, Digital Content Next & Inc. columnist


The pandemic has accelerated any number of digital trends. Yes, it has been intense. For many professionals, the learning curve has been precipitously steep. On the positive side, content management professionals have used and been aware of the importance of digital tools for some time. However, the pandemic put many more people in a position of needing to understand and master these tools very quickly. In some ways for CMS professionals, the evangelist role became as important as the actual management of content. As early adopters, CMS professionals are in a position to help their organizations see the power of digital collaboration, workflow, and management tools like never before. While colleagues might once have relied on dropping by your desk for an update, now everyone sees how digital can — and does — keep us on the same page no matter where we are. Communication, clarity, and shared goals have never been more important. That said, we are in a position to experiment with tools and tactics now to improve not only the content we produce and the means by which we produce and manage it, but also the business processes — all of which support success.

Cathy McKnight

VP strategy and consulting, The Content Advisory


Pandemic-induced social isolation has people filling their time at home consuming way more content/media than ever before. What they are consuming differs across demographics and platforms. Regardless of demographic or increased demand, the flow of content to audiences should (still) be strategic — letting their interests, needs, etc. drive what content is being published, when and through which channel. Turning on a firehose of content just because you can isn't the way to increasing engagement and affinity for your product or brand. Building a steady stream of interesting and engaging content that is in line with what the audience is looking for, and then leveraging AI and ML functionality to deliver it at the right time through the right channel continues to be a content management best practice — even in these extraordinary times. 

Andreas Weiskam

Co-founder and managing director at Sapphire Ventures


The already ongoing shift to digital has been accelerated by the pandemic. The use of digital is no longer limited to websites as companies of every domain expand their offerings to additional digital channels and devices. New customer journeys are being mapped out, combining not only personal devices, but also including interactive in-store devices. Content management experts have to choose systems that are able to keep up with the new omnichannel demands. These include API-first and a high degree of flexibility and scalability. 

Carrie Hane

Palladian Partners Inc.


Two things come to mind. First, don’t create content if it already exists from another trusted authority. In other words, think about how you can provide value through curation or aggregation of content published elsewhere. The last thing we need now is more duplicate content, and many government agencies and universities are publishing solid information. That leads directly into the second thing: Think about reuse from the start. By structuring content smartly and adding appropriate tags and metadata, you can publish the same content in multiple places — on your properties and for others to use. This creates more efficient content management on your end and allows your content to be shared on other properties through APIs, semantic HTML or open and linked data. 

Geoff Bock

Principal, Bock & Company, TechTarget contributor

CMS professionals must focus on their target audience’s interests and intent. Particularly in the midst of the pandemic and certainly beyond, the content they produce must be engaging and useful. And this is where best practices meet ever-increasing digital needs. Categories matter.  

CMS professionals must have the expertise to enrich both articles and rich media assets with relevant metadata. Certainly they can and should rely on automated processes for everyday tagging activities. But even with AI and ML engines in place, adult supervision is required. CMS professionals must provide the editorial insights and subject matter expertise to spot emerging trends, manage the metadata, tune the categories and ensure that the content remains timely and relevant.

Cruce Saunders

Founder of [A]: The Content Intelligence Service - @mrcruce

As content volume and velocity increases, so must structure. The pandemic has forced every knowledge worker and especially every content and customer experience leader, to confront three realities. Let's call these three axioms of distributed knowledge work:

  1. Knowledge work does not happen in a vacuum — content combines diverse interdependent inputs

  2. Unstructured knowledge leads to uncontrolled outcomes — content structure contains chaos

  3. Knowledge needs operations to function — content craves intentionality

After working with dozens of enterprise and mid-market content organizations, the best guidance I can provide is the following:

  • Build a team focused on improving HOW knowledge work happens

  • Analyze the how existing content supply chains function day-to-day

  • Build content structural and semantic models to standardize how content moves from place to place

  • Organize acquisition, management and delivery of content along those standards

  • Operationalize content and manage it like any other complex supply chain

The steps aren't particularly hard. But they do require time, effort and investment. Just like we're needing to change our personal behavior and patterns to adjust to the new world, we also need to adjust our knowledge work. We need to start by understanding the roots of the chaos. Why are teams struggling to deliver? Often it comes down to the invisible models that surround content, whether we manage them or not. As is becoming more and more clear in the face of mass volumes of content: we need to manage the models.

To defeat content chaos and create simple, predictable outcomes, we have to embrace complexity and tame it.

Through the end of 2020 and into 2021 we will continue to look toward the future of content management and building digital experiences. For more forward-looking content, check out our blog post on the art and science of SEO.

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