We talked with Hannon Hill’s CEO, Kat Liendgens, and VP of Engineering, Bradley Wagner, about their approach to content management and content marketing. They explained the inner workings of Cascade Server and Spectate, including the advantage of storing content in small, flexible chunks, and shared their vision for smarter personalization based on customer journey data. Though originally designed for higher education, the company has been gaining traction in new verticals. According to Liendgens and Wagner, the CMS is a good fit for any organization that values self-sufficiency and needs to manage multiple, decentralized sites.
Based on reviews and ratings contributed by end-users to TrustRadius, Cascade Server is a Top Rated CMS product for mid-size companies and enterprises. Cascade Server was also featured in our recent CMS Feature Report, which compares user feedback and company and customer demographics across eight leading CMS products.
Could you give me an introduction into Hannon Hill’s overall vision and positioning?
Kat: Hannon Hill was founded in 2001 by David Cummings, CEO of Atlanta Ventures. Our core product offerings are Cascade Server, a content management system, and Spectate, a content marketing tool.
David started developing Cascade Server while he was student at Duke University. He designed the CMS with higher education in mind – and it continues to be Hannon Hill’s sweet spot.
Hannon Hill is not a top-heavy company, which translates into numerous benefits for our customers. Because we do not rely on upselling services, support tiers, or modules, Cascade Server has the most predictable cost of ownership among providers in this space.
Additionally, we provide the same gold standard of service to all of our customers and offer many free modules that can be downloaded from Cascade Exchange.
Is this emphasis on customer ownership and self-determination a big part of your thought leadership?
Kat: Hannon Hill has a Professional Services Team that provides turnkey services, but our goal is to make customers as self sufficient as they would like to be. That’s one of things that our customers truly appreciate about the company.
As far as thought leadership, Hannon Hill augmented our CMS with Spectate back in 2011. At that time, even though there was not a lot of talk about content strategy, we had a keen understanding of the market and knew the need would arise.
A Pro License of Spectate is included with the purchase of Cascade Server. Features include lead tracking, website behavior tracking, measuring content success, tracking conversion rates, measuring ROI, encouraging social sharing, and more.
Spectate is an excellent tool to augment Cascade Server because our comprehensive suite allows users to manage their entire content lifecycle from planning a content strategy, to managing content, and extracting actionable data.
What makes a company a good fit for your product?
Bradley: The system is designed for highly decentralized organizations that manage many sites and are looking for a consistent brand across the organization. While we have smaller customers that manage only a handful of sites, our focus is organizations managing multiple sites with a fairly decentralized approach. These are organizations with many independent groups, each solely responsible for the content on their site. The goal of Cascade Server is to centralize the branding element, ensure a consistent look and feel, and enable a consistent experience across sites.
What are some of the features designed for those target customers?
Bradley: We supported multi-site management long before our competitors, especially in the open source space. Honing in on the needs of organizations with sub-units has been our goal for several years. They need features like fine-grained permission structures and roles within the product that can vary from site to site. We’ve built Cascade Server with the idea of users accessing one or more sites within the system.
Beyond the higher education vertical, are there others that are particularly represented in your customer base?
Kat: Yes. We have good traction in government, healthcare, technology, energy and finance.
Bradley: One of the common trends we’re seeing, both in higher education and in the verticals that Kat mentioned, is the need to repurpose content in a wide variety of formats including HTML posted on the web and XML that’s fed into third-party systems.
Our long-term strategy is to be the central hub for content itself, including the management and curation of content that’s ultimately delivered to a range of target platforms.
Kat: There is no CMS that makes it easier to share content across multiple pages and multiple sites. With so many new platforms emerging everyday, the key to successful content management is to divorce the system from the idea that it’s just going to be web content. The system needs to be able to publish without necessarily knowing what the platform will look like. It’s going to be impossible to push small chunks of content to different platforms if you manage everything in a monolithic WYSIWYG editor. Content repurposing through small structured data fields is something Cascade Server does exceptionally well.
How does that work?
Bradley: The content is stored as small chunks. We give users the ability to quickly and easily search for content in the system and quickly repurpose it. From a publishing standpoint, we don’t limit the format. HTML is popular, but we facilitate publishing in a wide variety of programming languages including XML and JSON. Overall, the idea is to keep the content in a usable format and provide a wide variety of final delivery options.
What is the technical requirement for users, in terms of coding and programming languages?
Bradley: We provide an end-user interface that’s block-based. It’s a set of structured fields with labels and inputs taking a wide variety of formats such as text and rich text. But end users that are responsible for content don’t necessarily need to be aware of the underlying technology that is allowing them to push that content to social media or the web—and Cascade Server handles that seamlessly.
What is necessary for successful implementation and deployment of Cascade Server?
Kat: It depends on the requirements of the organization. Our goal is to help our customers be as self-sufficient as they wish to be. We do provide complete turnkey implementations if a customer doesn’t have the bandwidth to implement alone.
However, in the spirit of helping customers be self-sufficient, we offer a two-day boot camp for organizations that have a basic understanding of the product or perhaps have a developer on staff. During that training, users are familiarized with XSLT and Velocity, the transformation languages that convert HTML into XML.
Additionally, Hannon Hill offers free monthly training webinars.
How many customers do you have?
Kat: That’s hard to say because we work with multi-tiered organizations. Cascade Server powers about 25k websites and has close to 100k users.
As a vertical, does higher education have any special needs in terms of a CMS product?
Kat: Higher education institutions only have special needs regarding specific modules. For example, in many cases, universities want to manage a course catalog and maintain faculty profiles. And, as I mentioned before, all of those modules can be downloaded for free.
Overall, in terms of content management needs, Cascade Server does not have features that are exclusive to higher education.
Is there any particular area of growth, in terms of acquiring new customers?
Bradley: We’ve seen more traction in government in the last couple of years. Technology, too. We’ve seen a lot of avenues open by positioning the product as not just a pure CMS, but a content experience management system coupled with a content marketing tool. As we grow those tools, particularly our ability to personalize content, we expect to grow into new verticals.
What’s on your product roadmap?
Bradley: Our annual Cascade User Conference took place in September, where we announced some overall themes for our roadmap. We’re looking at a couple of areas in particular for the next 6-12 months:
- Collaboration—We really want to foster better collaboration within Cascade Server. We will invest in collaboration tools that provide users the ability to comment natively on assets within the system because we want to provide an ad-hoc workflow approach to collaboration.
- Content improvement—It’s not just about creating new content, it’s about constantly assessing the content you have, improving it, and ensuring it meets the needs of your target audience. We are investing heavily in our content improvement tools including fixing broken links, determining a readability score, and more.
- Content performance—We want to track the effectiveness of content over time. We have a content marketing tool that does lead and visitor journey tracking, but we want to tie that to performance metrics within the CMS itself so users can easily monitor site visitors, repeat visitors, conversions, and more.
- Targeted content delivery— We have two main products: Spectate, which tracks visitor journeys, and Cascade Server, the CMS. Currently, we’re focused on merging those two tools together to deliver personalized content at the right time in the visitor journey.
Can you give us some specifics around how you see personalization, and what kind of features might go into that?
Bradley: Right now, we have the ability to personalize content for identified visitors and people who have come to the site and given information about themselves. We call that explicit personalization and content delivery.
Our vision for personalization is delivering information based on journey-tracking data versus what’s been explicitly provided. It’s possible by tagging content as pertinent to specific personas.
Additionally, our goal is to minimize the amount of content organizations need to create by helping them leverage it effectively to meet specific business needs
Is this something your customers are already doing with an A/B testing tool or a personalization tool, integrated to CMS?
Bradley: Some of our high tech customers are are doing it now, but we’re seeing higher education catch up.
Hannon Hill’s challenge is to stay ahead and make sure we’re meeting the future needs of our customers. For example, we know that content personalization will be a huge strategy in higher education because, when they see how amazingly well it works for other industries, they will understand how it creates a better experience for site visitors.
Are there any other marketing or technology trends driving what you’re doing?
Kat: The concept of adaptive content is the main trend we’re seeing. It means delivering more targeted content, publishing it to different platforms, and serving content to different segments at different times.
Adaptive content involves not only technology, but also a human component. A CMS should help content contributors be more strategic with their content by giving them insights into performance and digitally mapping the visitor journey.
Bradley: On the backside of the system, we’re starting to see another big trend – the content management system itself is not the sole source of that content. Rather, it acts as an intermediary for the contributors who are sourcing content from a wide variety of platforms. The role of the CMS is becoming more about content curation, which can be stored natively or come from other systems. It really becomes the central hub in your content strategy, pulling in information from various sources and pushing it out to a variety of platforms.
What are some key integrations you see customers using?
Kat: For higher education, we see integrations to course catalog systems, event calendars, and some HR systems as well.
Who is your typical buyer? Who are the users?
Kat: Up until three or four years ago, the IT department was almost exclusively responsible for making the CMS purchasing decision. Now, we are seeing a lot more marketing and communications departments acting as decision makers.
In terms of higher education, a typical user is anyone working for the university. The system is so easy to use that almost anyone can manage content.
Bradley: From a software perspective, we think marketing acting as the decision maker is a healthy trend. It means that people are less focused on how the system is deployed, and more focused on how it meets the needs of the end user.