Just a few years ago, publishers didn’t have many options; they could either develop their own CMS or go through a third-party vendor. Each solution seemed time-consuming and expensive. That’s no longer the case.

There are plenty of solutions available, from powerful open source solutions such as Drupal and Joomla, to simple blogging software, to complete turnkey solutions.

And the systems run the gamut in price, too. While open source options are free, they require some tech expertise to implement. With soup-to-nuts solutions, publishers could spend anywhere between a few thousand dollars to up to multiple millions.

Choosing the right CMS is about making the technology support a company’s business needs and not vice-versa. "The software or solution doesn’t set your business rules," says Eric Shanfelt, president and founder of Colorado-based eMedia Strategist Inc. "You should know what it is you want it to do first and then find the right solutions that will get the job done. No matter what they choose to do;whether purchased software or an off-the-shelf solution, or open source or even if it’s a homegrown CMS, the onus is still on the publishing company to understand what it is they need."

Here’s a look at how three very different publishers are tackling their CMS needs.

Hearst Corp.

Time frame: Deployed in 90 days
Scope: Currently serves 13 titles with vast functionality

Hearst Corp. needed a robust content management system to serve the majority of its consumer titles and it envisioned a centralized system with the flexibility to manipulate designs on the fly and make real-time editorial changes while also supporting special functions like sweepstakes integration and article and media rights management.

It was a dauntingly long laundry list of functionality requirements but the system, aptly named Magnus, was built and completed within just three months. "We needed a CMS that would be simple, yet flexible to handle the needs of multiple sites," said Debra Robinson, vice president of technology and production.

Hearst developed the system, which currently serves 13 titles, with the exception of Popular Mechanics, Quick & Simple and Oprah, completely in-house using open source software. Hearst used an Apache Web server, a MySQL database and Perl as its programming language. The system relies on many open-source Perl libraries;most notably HTML::Mason, which allows it to integrate programming code to produce dynamic content with little performance overhead, Robinson says.

"We chose this approach based largely on business requirements that called for integration between our CMS and other systems, like subscriptions and ad serving, but other factors also had a hand as well," she says. "One was our past experience in using this technology successfully in a large-scale environment. Another is having our own software, which means we can quickly respond to customization and enhancement requests."

Perhaps one of the main reasons Hearst chose to build its own system was because the publisher simply has not seen any off-the-shelf systems that could fulfill all of the needs its system currently does, Robinson says. A short list of some of Magnus’ many functions includes: the ability to schedule content to appear in various areas of the sites; article and media rights management; support for multiple content types; drag and drop image and media file association; the ability to change page designs on the fly; a searchable image and media database; and support for special functions like sweepstakes integration and quiz, surveys and polls integration.

Hearst’s system, which debuted in late 2006, seems to work well for its large stable of titles. "The CMS supports extending the types of content it manages, to support individual title requirements," says Robinson. "All functionality we’ve developed becomes immediately available for all titles."

Continuous development is key. Weekly meetings with some of the system’s users further discussions about the publisher’s most important needs and allow it to develop against the consensus. "We tend to let our users’ emergent behavior drive our next set of features, but our long-term efforts surely will be dictated by business needs going forward," Robinson says. "We are also constantly looking for ways to integrate data and functionality from our other systems into Magnus, such as personalized content, enhanced community experience and custom ad targeting."

Summit Publishing

Time Frame: Up and running in 7 weeks
Scope: Serves two magazines and ancillary products

Chicago-based b-to-b publisher Summit Publishing Co. also chose the open source route, but it tapped a third-party Web developer to help implement its system, which is based on Joomla. Summit got its system up and running in just seven weeks, but its overall CMS journey took much longer and was hampered by a few missteps along the way.

David Newcorn, vice president of eMedia for Summit, says its current CMS is really the culmination of about 10 years. The current system is probably about the publisher’s seventh system, and it’s been in place for almost a year now. Summit is very pleased with its final product;and if you ask Newcorn, he’ll say this is indeed the final product. He says he hopes to never have to build and implement another CMS.

Summit chose to go with an open-source system after two failed prior attempts to redevelop a CMS through third-party vendors. The first experiment failed largely due to bad management on the part of the vendor, coupled with Summit’s inexperience in managing Web development projects, Newcorn says. In a nutshell, "they just promised us the moon and didn’t deliver," he adds. "We made ignorant mistakes."

Attempt number two became a clash of cultures. "There was a lot of arrogance on the part of the vendor, it was more of a ?we know what’s right for you’ situation," he says. Over the course of a three- to four-month period, the vendor, who planned to use open-source software, made some obvious recommendations and stuck Summit with a $12,000 bill, Newcorn says.

At that point, Summit decided to tackle the process on its own. It chose Joomla as its software and then hired a developer to implement the system. The system supports two main publications and some ancillary supplements.

Summit wanted its CMS to do some things automatically, like pulling together the most popular articles and related articles, categories, and the ability to change categories without having to go through a program. The system can mass-tag articles into a given category and it can handle photographs and videos. The search engine also had to be powerful and customizable. Summit built a mechanism whereby an article loaded into the system would be scanned for a set of keywords associated for each category. Though it may be "imperfect and inexact" says Newcorn, it works.

As for the proprietary software providers, Newcorn says they have to "think hard about what they’re bringing to the table. They need to have more than CMS because we can get that for free now."

Hanley Wood

Time Frame: 18 to 24 months for full process
Scope: System will run its 25-plus Web Sites and help rapidly deploy new ones.

Hanley Wood LLC is in the midst of choosing a vendor to provide a CMS that will help it run all of its 25-plus Web sites and help it rapidly deploy some new sites. The Washington, D.C.-based publisher of Builder, and several other titles that serve the housing and construction markets, has already launched eight sites this year on its old system, says Alec Dann, general manager for business media online, Hanley Wood Business Media.

While the publisher considered the open-source option for its new system, it ultimately decided to go with an off-the-shelf solution to be provided by a third-party vendor. One of the driving forces behind the publisher’s choice of an off-the-shelf system is the ability to leverage the knowledge and expertise of different companies. "Developing it all yourself, you’re limited to the horizon as you see it. You don’t have the opportunity to learn from the discoveries of other people," Dann says. One of the downsides is that there are some constraints with these systems and you’re not getting a perfectly tailored solution.

The publisher started with a list of 20 companies, then narrowed the field down to nine and will now decide between two different vendors. The timeframe by Dann’s estimation, from start-to-finish, is expected to be between 18 and 24 months.

Before Hanley Wood started evaluating vendors, it first talked to every editor of every magazine in its stable, half of the publishers and a number of people on the e-media side, which in total represented about 35 stakeholders, Dann says. "The requirements were really built from the ground-up rather than being imposed by one group," he adds.

Hanley Wood’s current system was built back in 2000 or 2001 and lacks the flexibility the company needs to quickly roll out Web sites, Dann says. Six years ago, magazine sites weren’t the primary focus of the business, and the emphasis was likely put on e-commerce.

Some of the items on Hanley Wood’s wish list include being able to rapidly deploy pages without having to go through technology; the ability to run all of its Web sites off the same database to repurpose content throughout the sites; the ability for editors to drag and drop content objects on a page and edit them directly; and the ability to flexibly handle metadata. "We also really wanted to help with tagging as much as possible," he says. "When you have 20,000 articles any machine assist you can get on properly categorizing that stuff is helpful," he says.

Hanley Wood is adding one more smart step to the development process to ensure that it gets what it is promised by the chosen vendor: the remaining two vendors vying for its business must each produce a proof of concept. Both will build a Web site using Hanley Wood’s technology so the users can actually try the software and see if it delivers what the vendors promise.

It’s an additional cost but it’s worth it to prove the system works. This step also is another way to keep the stakeholders engaged, Dann says. "If they actually get to test drive the product using something that’s in a relevant context, they’ll be more likely to stay engaged when they get to the roll-out phase."

Why Some Publishers are Giving a DAM

Another area that’s gaining speed thanks to technological advancements is digital asset management. While not every publisher is jumping on the bandwagon, for those that need to manage multiple digital assets and their licenses, the right DAM can save them a lot of time and money.

Digital asset management is much like a careful filing system, one that can help publishers keep track of specific assets, like images, so that they are not reused when they shouldn’t be, which can keep the publisher from running afoul of access rights, says Scott Seebass, CEO of solutions provider Xinet Inc.

In a nutshell, a good DAM can streamline the entire digital asset process, from collection of digital media from an internal or external source to production. What used to be executed manually;picture a staff member sifting through hard copies of magazines for this information;can now be done with a Web browser. So, photos can be found quickly and without the extra cost of having to use additional licenses, and because they’re digital, they can also be reformatted and shared easily. Often the return on the investment in a Xinet DAM, for example, may take as little as two months, Seebass says.

The use of a DAM can also make for a faster close. With the Xinet system, which is called Xinet WebNative Suite, a publication can deliver to the printer four hours after closing editorial, Seebass says. That can be a real life-saver to a weekly or a topical magazine. Xinet, which is based in Berkeley, Calif., counts Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated as a few of its clients.

But there are still some challenges with the technology, such as a lack of standardization. Publishers continue to accept digital assets from a multitude of sources, which could mean a plethora of different processes for now. Going forward, expect this area to see some real growth.

Tips for Successful CMS Development & Implementation

Here are a few tips to help get up and running and some thoughts on how to maximize the potential of the new system:

* As this is all relatively new territory, many publishers don’t know what they don’t know, says Eric Shanfelt, of eMedia Strategist Inc. "You really have to take it upon yourself to know what you need to have out of a CMS, the same way you’d go to a circulation fulfillment provider. You have to be able to manage it that way," he says.

* Make sure you have a state-of-the-art e-mail delivery system, Web-metrics system and ad-serving system to complement the CMS. Though some systems already come with some of these options, it’s best to arm yourself with the best in the business.

* Be very wary of scope creep. "Once you’ve figured out what you want to launch and defined it, then launch that," Shanfelt says. "Along the way, you may tweak some things here and there, but the further along in the process you go making changes, the more expensive and time consuming it will be. Lock it in, launch it and you’ll develop your ideas. Put those on a sheet for release version two." In other words, identify the must-haves and nice-to-haves and be prepared to live with only 85 percent of your needs, he adds. You’ll be able to deploy faster and for less expense.

* Don’t forget about content conversion. Any content management system will use some form of standard data format and content may need to be converted to fit the new CMS. Not just new content, but any content that the CMS will serve, including archives.