Selecting a content management system (CMS) is an increasingly challenging task, especially if you don’t understand the various types of content management systems, how they work, and what the differences are between them.  Most CMS shoppers lack the knowledge and experience necessary to find their way through the maze of CMS misinformation available on the web. It’s easy to see where the confusion comes from. Industry jargon and terminology misuse make comparing apples to aples difficult, if not nearly impossible. In this exclusive interview with Jim Howard, CEO of CrownPeak, we seek to help our readers better understand hosted content management solutions.

TCW: Jim, thanks for agreeing to chat with me today. For our readers who don’t know who you are, please tell us a little about yourself, your past experience, and your role as CEO of CrownPeak.

JH: As the CEO of CrownPeak, I’m the chief evangelist of Web content management delivered as a software service. My background, like the background of my co-founders, is in content management and Web technologies. Back in the mid-90’s my co-founders and I worked at one of the first Web technology companies in the country. After we built that business up we sold it to USWeb just prior to their public offering. In my time at USWeb (later USWeb/CKS and MarchFIRST), I held senior positions in sales and then in operations management. My co-founders Sean Lally and Carl Sutter also held senior positions there. 

Almost six years ago, we decided to leave consulting and start CrownPeak to solve Web content management.  We felt that content management systems were too expensive, took too long to get working, had bad user interfaces, were launched and then left unsupported.  CrownPeak has fixed those problems.

TCW: Can you help our readers understand what a hosted software solution is? What are some of the more common hosted solutions?

JH: Hosted software, now more commonly called software as a service (SaaS), is Web-based software built to deliver a service to many customers from a single instance of the application. So there is never any software to install, hardware to buy or infrastructure to manage. The application and its environment are managed by the SaaS vendor. Some well-known SaaS companies are Google,, ADP, NetSuite, Employease, McAfee, and Citrix OnDemand (GoToMyPC, GoToMyMeeting).

TCW: What is a hosted Web content management system and how does it differ from a Web content management system that is not hosted?

JH: A hosted Web content management system (CMS) works similarly to a comparable commercially installed or open source product. It’s just managed in an external data center. Mature hosted products, like CrownPeak, will have full access for the customer or the customer’s partner to do development and customization of the product. The SaaS vendor will manage the application and the application environment – the hardware, network, storage, backups, disaster recovery and security.

On the functionality side, Web 2.0 type capabilities are typically native to SaaS products, but aren’t to installed or open source products. Such features are enabled by mixing functionality with other applications, sharing interfaces, integrating on-the-fly, and moving data in multiple formats to multiple places. Because Web content management products are often used by marketers, these Web 2.0 capabilities become very important. For example, when creating online campaigns, the marketer needs to create new landing pages with specific creative and corresponding forms. The content collected by the forms needs to be pushed into partner applications like a CRM system or an email campaign management product. Site visitor and “conversion” results need to be tracked on those pages. Companies like CrownPeak already have all of those integrations working on day one. 

These functional and development advantages make a huge difference in the speed, cost and ease-of-use of the CMS over time.

TCW: What are the benefits of selecting a hosted Web content management system?

JH: Aside from functional advantages, hosted Web content management is simply delivered in a better way. It’s software combined with service. In fact, the software is really less important than the service, over time. 

A content management system enables content contributors to add and modify content. However, the content management system needs to change when the Web site itself changes. Some organizations have the money and resources to build an in-house development team to “own” updates and modifications to the content management system. For most organizations, however, a software as a service is the only way to have access to developers in a cost-effective and rapid-response way.

Here are two examples of when a service is required:

  1. A content contributor copy/pastes HTML with some javascript in it, into a content input form. Then the preview or maybe even the live page breaks. A CrownPeak customer would be covered – we’d see the problem, fix it, and work with the content contributor to make sure they understand how to strip unwanted code out of their content.
  2. The CMO decides to kick-off a new keyword and email campaign, and needs a new kind of landing page with new form-types. An email to the dedicated CrownPeak Account Manager and the new templates are created in the system and become available to the marketing department within 24 hours of the initial request.

That’s powerful. It’s the right way to deliver content management. And here’s the best part – the service comes with the agreement. We only charge when we are used. It much much less expensive than attempting to deliver these services internally.

TCW: What are the drawbacks of selecting a hosted Web content management system?

JH: I know this may sound self-serving, but there really are none. All Web content management will be delivered this way within the next 4 or 5 years. 

TCW: What types of organizations can benefit the most from adopting a hosted Web content management system? What are some of the common characteristics of such an organization?

JH: Really any organization that needs a content management system should strongly consider hosted as an option. As I’ve said, it’s less expensive, less risky, has better features and more flexibility, and has an embedded service element to make sure our customers are always successful. There really aren’t projects too big for our technology. Our base price is $3k/month, so some projects may be too small. Our base price covers 20 system users and 2,000 live Web pages.

Mid-sized organizations with really heavy content management needs benefit greatly, because we provide a world-class application and service at an affordable price. Likewise, large organizations with multiple Web sites can standardize on our application for an efficient, high service-level, economical solution. And small organizations with big goals match capabilities with their larger competitors by working with CrownPeak and our full suite of tools – including hosting, search, email campaign management, analytics, and integration with CRM or other data management/data syndication partners.

TCW: Are there some types of organizations for which a hosted Web content management system might not be a perfect fit?

JH: Hosted products are not appropriate for highly confidential or regulated content. All hosted content management systems are accessed through the internet. So CrownPeak simply won’t work with materials that can’t be moved outside of the organization’s firewall because we live outside the firewall.

TCW: What types of content are best managed by a hosted Web content management system? 

JH: If you can create it, we can manage it. We have great capabilities for Web site management and digital asset management. We also love RSS and wireless content. Remember, though, that we aren’t a document management or business process management company. I’m not aware of a hosted version of either of those applications just now.

TCW: You’ve got some interesting customers on your roster. Tell us a little about Trek Bikes and why they decided to use CrownPeak to manage their customer-facing content?

JH: Trek is a great example. They are a global corporation with half a dozen major branded Web sites (,,,, etc.), as well as a corporate intranet. They wanted to standardize on one platform, and needed a services organization available on a daily basis to make changes and support system users. Trek currently has about 50,000 live Web pages in five languages, managed in the CrownPeak system.  We can’t disclose the specific figures, but CrownPeak is saving them a very large multiple of our monthly fees, when compared with their previous solutions. We were the only company in the world able to achieve their technical and support requirements, while meeting the CFO’s goal of major consolidation and cost savings in the area of Web marketing.

TCW: We often hear companies say that they could never use a hosted solution. Their reasons seem to stem from a common misperception, that hosted solutions are somehow not as secure as traditional software solutions. But, this fear seems to lack merit, especially when you consider that some pretty high profile, and security sensitive, organizations trust your hosted Web content management solution to manage their content assets. Can you tell us a little about why The White House chose CrownPeak and how they determined a hosted Web content solution would meet their needs?

JH: Security is a focus for us.  Our goal is this: To put much more time, effort and money into security than any internal organization would consider for an application of this type. To prove that, we have regular security audits from third-party experts. 

As a company policy, we can’t comment on individual clients and their security requirements. In general, though, we have dozens of very security-conscious clients on our roster like banks, federal, state and local governments, health care companies, life sciences organizations, and publishers. For what we do – Web content management – we believe that our security procedures are unmatched. 

TCW: Some of our readers are not sure whether a hosted solution can be easily integrated into their current content production life cycles. How does content get into Crown Peak? Do authors have to type everything into a browser-based authoring environment or can they also import content from their favorite XML authoring and word processing programs?

JH: We have been doing this for a long time. With the diversity of clients we have, we have had to develop a broad set of options for authoring, workflow and collaboration. 

We actually only see a few clients authoring in XML tools, but we do support XML natively. Much more commonly, we see the Microsoft Office tools and the Quark suite.  We offer dozens of options for the client on how to get content into the system. We always build a completely customized workflow for every customer for every project. Then, once the customer has actually had a chance to use the product, we offer a 4-5 week period we call “optimization” where we will adjust or completely rewrite any workflow and/or input method for any client at no charge. Because we are a hosted product, we need to earn our customer’s loyalty or we don’t get paid. We take interface development, accommodation for special content production processes and user training very seriously indeed.

TCW: Pricing is always a big issue—especially as new tools enter the market and further push prices downward? Can you help our readers understand how you charge for your software and services and how buying a hosted solution differs from traditional software purchases.

JH: Our standard agreement is $3k/month for the CMS. That includes up to 20 system users and 2,000 pages of live content. There are small additional fees for additional “chunks” of users or pages. We also offer site search, Web hosting, email campaign management, and site analytics as add-ons. We then charge $10k to $20k to configure the system and do initial training. 

Our standard agreement includes everything you need for a world-class CMS. Once the system is live and the optimization period is over, our services group manages the application and provides support for changes to the CMS, trouble-shooting, ongoing training and all of the other elements of managing the software. We monitor the software 24 hours a day and we can see when there are problems. All of the software, hardware, network, security management, and support are included. Also, the first 2 hours per month of active support – calls from customers for changes to the system – are covered in the standard agreement. And here’s the best part: we guarantee a dedicated account manager. Our customers have a single point of contact that knows their Web site and knows their CMS code. They are there to fix problems or make changes whenever needed.

Compare all of that to a traditional software product or to an open source development project. The biggest difference is this: Once the system is live, who is going to manage it?  Who is going to make the system changes and support the users? That’s all covered with CrownPeak. That’s why we’re less expensive at first and then increasingly less expensive over the lifetime of the solution.

TCW: How do you calculate total cost of investment when purchasing a hosted Web content solution? What factors need to be considered when making the case to management that a hosted solution is the most cost-effective option?

JH: The cost of a hosted product is clear. The initial configuration fee gets the system live and the senior users trained. The subscription fee covers all other costs. When there are major changes to templates or other system parameters, we bill hourly or fixed-bid for bigger projects. Our average customer spends about 17% of the annual subscription fee in additional services billing. Many customers spend well below the average, of course.

The case to management that hosted is more cost effective is also clear, but first an important point: unless a service is associated with the software, the business owner of the content management system in unlikely to have success. Web sites change all the time. The service needs to be there to make adjustments to the CMS. CrownPeak’s solution increases the probability of success by a great deal. 

So, the cost an installed application or an open source development project needs to include are the costs of supporting, changing and managing the system, as well as the cost of the hardware, software maintenance, and security management and upgrades. Upgrades will come multiple times over a 3 to 5 year period. Each time, an upgrade may require a new services engagement. With a SaaS, it’s all included. 

Adding up the costs typically shows that SaaS costs 1/3 to 1/4 the cost of traditional solutions. 

TCW: There’s nothing more irritating than not being able to get the support you need when you need it. One common complaint about some hosted solutions providers is that they force their customers to find answers to problems on their own. What type of customer support does Crown Peak offer? Are there humans available to assist your customers when they run into a snafu or just need some advice?

JH: A very basic hosted product could possibly just post up documentation and let the customers try to figure it out, and then hope the support line doesn’t ring. However, a hosted solution provider with any sophistication in their application won’t survive if they don’t provide excellent support. 

CrownPeak guarantees a dedicated account manager who knows the client’s Web site and their CMS implementation. We also have a backup for every account manager, in case of vacation or sick days. We provide critical support 24/7/365.  We guarantee response for any customer request within 24 hours. We strive to make any changes to the customer’s CMS absolutely ASAP.  We can often make those changes, test them, and push them live in 24 hours. We believe the reason we keep 95% of our customers year-over-year, keeping in mind we have some customers who only have short-lived Web sites, is our service.

TCW: While interviews like this one are indeed interesting and may help some readers better understand hosted Web content management solutions, nothing can replace a hands on demonstration. Does CrownPeak offer a demonstration account to those who want to test drive the system?

JH: We do offer demo accounts. We do a quick call with the potential customer or agency to review their requirements, give them a walkthrough of the system and let them loose. 

TCW: Are there any questions you wish we would have asked you? If so, now is your time to ask them.

JH: People ask me sometimes if I think open source is a threat. I like to say that open source is the best thing that ever happened to CrownPeak. We replace open source projects for a living. About 3/4 of the replacement projects we do are replacing open source. It’s not that open source products are bad – some are, but there are some good ones out there. It’s that development teams tend to swoop in, implement the project, and swoop back out again, leaving the business users with a complex, never-changing page update tool. The Web site owners eventually rebel when they can’t make basic changes to the site structure or to the system permissions or workflow. That’s when our phone rings.

CrownPeak has spent the last 5 1/2 years gobbling up customers and converting them to our way of delivering content management. Over the next 5 years, we will continue to capture customers and take them out of circulation. We represent an end to the merry-go-round of replacing CMS systems every 2 to 3 years. The problem is not with the products – it’s with the service. And it’s a problem we’ve fixed.

TCW: Jim, thanks for helping our readers better understand hosted content management solutions and for sharing information about CrownPeak. We really appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience with our readers.