This blog post is inspired by an excellent conversation I had with my colleague Scott Liewehr a few days ago, about the challenges of managing multiple sites – that ended with the comment “that sounds like a great blog post”. So here we are, while the inspiration is still warm – allow me to wheel out an old hobby horse of mine and give it a couple of laps of the yard – not sure I can claim great blog post but.. here goes…

This particular hobby horse (I have a few) is the one that goes by the name “large organizations and a strategy of website consolidation” – something I think is driven by a confusion between ‘platform’ and ‘website’.

I’m surprised folks still think like this – I saw this thinking in a keynote presentation at an industry event last year. The presenter represented a very large organization with content in a couple of languages, serving a diverse demographic audience with a broad suite of services and information. In fact it was the broadest of demographics as it was the government of a US state.

I’m simplifying slightly but I kid you not – the key success metric for their content management strategy was a decreasing number of websites – a beaming proud presenter showed us a sliding graph and concluded, triumphantly – ‘yes folks and I’ll have this down to one in a year’.

Hmm…. I really don’t subscribe to this, in the case of websites, less is definitely, definitely, definitely not always more. What business benefit does having one website bring over, say two.. or three? Why would a single site be the final state of enlightenment, achieved after years of CMS contemplation and implementation?

The speaker I refer to is not alone, we’ve seen the same widely reported from the government here in the UK, this belief, or should I say policy, that there is value, cost savings and efficiencies in killing websites – it’s not just the public sector, the conversation that inspired this post came about from the experience of a commercial client.

I understand the problem, a few years ago a senior marketer once described his organizations web presence as a shanty town and this really stuck with me. But to stretch the analogy – if you have garbage in the street, the houses are painted different colors and all have tin roofs – in our digital marketing world – is the answer a bulldozer and to stuff everyone in a single apartment block or is it to provide better city services, investment and planning?

OK, didn’t like the reference to bulldozing a shanty town? Well I’ve heard marketers talking about herding cats, I really don’t want to know where that analogy would have gone…

A relevant web experience starts with a relevant website and that however you deploy personalization, a single site can only bend to a community within an audience so far and of course our attraction to a website starts before it has a chance to do any bending.

For example, the Home Office, the UK government department that includes in its remit a responsibility to educate young people about drugs – did they personalize their rather stuffy website, about government policy and initiatives? No, a few years ago they created a site squarely aimed at this audience called Talk to Frank (although the Frank initiative is not just a website, I hope it illustrates the point).

I think the same is true of global websites, in that translating the same site to a different language is different from giving a local marketer the tools to deliver a compelling experience, to localize through a site structure and content relevant for their audience. Local culture or even legislation can demand a very different approach.

As examples; when I was working in Product Marketing, working with my mainland European colleagues their audience demanded in-depth technical information positioned front and centre, whereas the US and UK audience want you to lead with the value proposition and leave the techie stuff a little deeper. Whilst working with a large pharmaceutical company I found that the things you can legally say to patients and healthcare professions in the US is very different in the UK – although it was the same language.

These are simple, obvious examples and our communities are not always as easily defined as aged under 25 or German – I don’t think a multi-site strategy is just for multi-national sites, or demographic groups – communities form around technology, products, services, lifestyles, maybe the thing that the visitor needs to do today or even how they want to consume your content.

I’m not suggesting we chuck out the core principals of content sharing and translation – often we are talking about the same content, served in a different order or context. Also, as I’ve recently written – I’m all for centralized governance and anyone that’s hung out with marketing knows the value of centrally managing the brand and the core messages.

I am also not suggesting that for a sprawling web presence, like a government, that you shouldn’t do some judicious pruning – this time last year I wrote a post about how competing messages can clutter up Google results in Google – The New Citizen Engagement Portal.

But, we can achieve all this without taking the drastic action of a website cull to one. Yes, running lots of websites, on lots of platforms, with lots of processes, outside agencies and a long gone intern that could code a bit – is a nightmare. It is herding cats, you do end up with a shanty town – but it’s not the websites that are to blame and organisations can still create a shambolic web presence under a single URL.

I argue that it’s platform and process consolidation that’s needed and maybe, a bit of cultural change from central control to enablement and service provision.

I believe that our corporate (dare I say enterprise?) web content management strategy (that’s ‘strategy’ not ‘product’ folks) needs to provide a governance framework, a publishing platform capable of supporting these needs, a brand palette, access to a library of content assets, templates and functionality to enable the folks connected to that community to easily build something relevant.

What do you think? Is there a case for stuffing cats into apartment blocks?