Click to Start – The currency of content

There’s nothing worse than arriving at a website, avidly starting to read through information on the site, only to pause when it strikes you that the content is out of date. At the minimum it’s annoying, frustrating and a complete turn off. At worst, it can be compromising.

At The Dramatic Group we’ve learnt from hard experience to take care when researching information from certain websites, because we’ve been stung once or twice. These days we have a double-checking process in place to ensure we can be confident about the material we bring into our site. Otherwise, we do our members a disservice, and ultimately harm our reputation for providing timely, current industry information.

I’m constantly asked how our company manages and produces so much information each day, and brings it all together on publication days into our email bulletins. So this Click to Start is a little peep behind the scenes, and some pointers to keeping content current on your website.

Information may be power, but for us it’s currency – and this is how The Dramatic Group, the company which operates, and, earns a great proportion of its income. Our information is our passport into the cultural industry marketplace, and the commodity we trade with our members in return for their subscription fees.

So, how do we make it all happen? The ‘secret’ is a sophisticated content management system, or, as they are called in the IT trade, a ‘CMS’. What’s a CMS, you ask? Basically, it is a combination of a database of information; an interface that enables you to add and edit information in the database; and a program which makes the information available to the public via a website.

A few years ago, CMS were expensive, horrendously difficult to implement, and required a degree in rocket science to manage. The remarkable leaps forward in online technologies, and the resulting increase in the community of computer programmers and companies online, has resulted in vastly reduced prices and complexity in the CMS world. Of course, you can still fork out hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are now many small and medium sized systems at very reasonable prices. And if you are an aficionado of the open source operating system world (like Linux), there are even free software systems available.

Why is a CMS so important? Many sites are just collections of ‘static’ web pages – each one is a HTML file, created individually and posted. If you want to update the information on one page, then it’s not too difficult. But if you need to make a wholesale, site-wide alteration, the labour required becomes much more intensive. For example, if your organisation changes its logo, and you have 100 pages on your site, you’d need to change 100 individual pages.

Perhaps that’s not such a big deal, but spare a thought for sites like – I just checked, and at the time of writing we have 32,593 items in our news system (well, 32,594, when I add this column). Changing 32,594 individual files is, quite obviously, not feasible. Notwithstanding the sheer amount of hard disk space we would need on our web server to accommodate it.

So, we have all the news items in a database. Each record in the database is a news article, and includes data – like the date the article was entered, the name of the author, the name of the person who approved it for publication, and categories, such as ‘Performing Arts’. Then we have one single page on the website, laid out with all the logos, colours and menu items, which acts as a template. When you click a link to view a news article, the system then goes to the database, retrieves the corresponding news article, and inserts the information into the template, before displaying it to you. All this happens so quickly you usually don’t notice.

We use similar database systems for our Jobs, Events and virtually all the other information on our websites.

In order to manage all of this information, we use a set of web pages in our Administration System – essentially a private, staff-only site. The Administration System allows us to add new content, edit existing content, and search and interrogate the databases. One of the key benefits of using an online administration interface is we can operate the system from literally anywhere in the world, just as long as we have access to an internet connection. Our staff can easily work from home, or out on the road. I’ve used the Administration System while in San Francisco, the UK, and even in an Internet café in Bali during a family holiday a couple of years ago.

The Administration System also creates the News and Jobs email bulletins we send out each week. I know some of our subscribers have visions of hordes of staff diligently cutting and pasting news stories into emails. The reverse is true. With one click we can create the whole bulletin, complete with advertisements, headlines and other components; and with another click, it can be sent to thousands of subscribers. It hasn’t always been quite this way, but over the past couple of years we’ve spent quite considerable time and resources refining and developing our CMS to create solid and reliable systems and processes. One of the immediate and obvious benefits is our writing staff don’t need any level of technical literacy to do their job – just the ability to use a web browser. They don’t need to ‘know’ HTML, nor how to code web pages.

I must confess that we do not use an ‘off the shelf’ commercially available content management system. This is due both to the cost when we first needed the system back in 2000 (prior to the low-cost systems becoming available) and the specific requirements we had. Instead, we wrote the software ourselves, drawing on experience from building website systems for our consultancy clients. One of the very positive benefits has been that the knowledge we’ve gained is now often applied to client projects. For example, every time we build a website for someone, we invariably include a CMS, even just to manage news snippets on the client’s home page. We can do this because of the skills and software we’ve developed for our own websites, and we pass that expertise on to the client projects.

It’s important to reinforce that, irrespective of this CMS technology, none of it is worth a pinch if you have nothing to say! Back in my rock and roll days as a sound technician for bands, it was a standard line that ‘a microphone just makes a bad sound louder, not better’. So it is with a website and a CMS. If you have nothing to say, a CMS will just make it easier to say nothing.