In this website builder review, I give you an overview of Adobe Experience Manager (AEM) from an experienced author user and website design perspective. If you’ve been considering investing in this content management system (CMS) and building an eCommerce store with it by integrating Hybris, then this quick guide will help you with your critical decisions.
What is AEM?
AEM is the clear market leader in WCMS (web content management systems). Executed in a Java runtime environment, AEM has the most features, the best architecture and from a content production perspective, hands down the best content production experience for content management authors. Once you understand the basics, creating pages is very easy, featuring a full drag and drop interface married to template and component driven page production.
If that all sounds like a ringing endorsement, then I should follow it up with these words of warning:
AEM works completely differently to every other CMS out there. Its unique tree structure combined with the concept of modifying, activating and rolling out pages following a predetermined blueprint means that while it is possible to manage multiple sites with ease, it is also very easy to create a Pandora’s box of mismatched files, broken inheritance and a jumbled, unscripted mess. Getting the setup right, from the very outset is crucial to a successful AEM deployment.
Intended Usage Market
That is down to the large-scale nature of the types of project that AEM is designed to address. Consolidating 20 or 30 global websites into one entity is no mean feat. Dealing with image migration, language translations, forms requirements and integrating XML or other database driven feeds requires specialist project management skills. You’ll need a team of people with a range of skills including, JIRA, Scrum, Agile and project management as well as AEM front and back-end technical development expertise.
AEM is used by NBC, McDonald's, Motorola, AstraZeneca, Phillips, HP and many more Fortune 500 and FTSE100 companies. Want to find out what server technology a company is running? Install this Chrome extension: Wappalyser
First of all, let’s get to the first big decision – the cost
AEM can do a lot of wonderful things, but you’ll need deep pockets to be able to make use of them. The average licence fee runs at £200k with costs of development easily running over £1 million. If you are going to be consolidating multiple global websites into one entity managed by AEM, you’ll also need to take into account the associated cost of project management and research gathering.
A small-scale AEM deployment can run into costs upwards of £2 million with yearly maintenance costs of £250,000. Larger installations can easily double that outlay with requirements gathering and migrating content from all your different departments eating up the expenses.
Experienced AEM developers and trained authors are in short supply and sought after so you’ll be paying top rates for this expertise. Getting your staff properly trained on AEM and producing quality content guides is also essential to the success of your project.
If you are not put off by the cost let’s look at why an AEM deployment may be for you:
Consolidating Many Sites Into One Website
There are many reasons why a large corporate has created many websites over an extended period of time. Search engine optimisation, ease of management and targeted campaign focus to name just a few. Eventually, it gets to the point where managing all of these different sites becomes a major overhead. You’ll probably have several WordPress sites, some made in Joomla or Drupal and on top of that, you may have to manage several multi-language sites. Consolidating them all onto one singular platform reduces the amount of technical expertise you need and does away with all your domain administration headaches.
Do you also have different eCommerce platforms? Moving them all into Hybris would make complete sense, but again it’s another level of cost that you’ll have to budget for.
Digital Asset Management
Another excellent reason for consolidating your sprawling network of websites – Digital Asset Management. Producing many sites on many different domains mean you’ll be reusing the same images in different places. Getting them into a searchable database with a powerful tagging system allows for much faster content production. You’ll also remove any expensive copyright lawsuits by making an extensive approved library of images available for your content authors to use.
Getting The Setup Correct
It is far more expensive to rectify costly setup mistakes than it is to spend a bit more time planning in the beginning and getting it right. When you begin rolling out your templates, and content authors start producing content, you need to know that they are following the process of filename creation, image creation and house style correctly. Many things can be corrected globally through the extensive use of a template and parsys (secondary links) system but basics like standard image sizes and how to use Photoshop “save for web” need to be mastered from the very beginning.
A good development team will ensure that only components that can be effectively used are shown in the drop-down lists and make the all-important read and write access decisions. You don’t want people moving trees about that are not theirs to move or deleting images that are used globally.
Development Of Components
AEM is supplied with a variety of working components that you can use immediately, but you’ll want to spend some time mapping your business requirements to system processes to produce components that more accurately reflect your working practices. Making sure your developers follow best practices for developing components is essential. Integrating with legacy systems is also an area where you need experienced developers who can migrate lots of content.
Image and Asset Management
AEM excels at image management with a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system that will enable you to manage all of your digital assets in one central location. There are add-ons that will create versions of files so for example if you have a 1200x400px image that you want to use in several positions the DAM (Digital Asset Manager) can create all the thumbnails you need on the fly. That’s a very powerful system and a huge time-saving for content authors.
The DAM will also manage documents, PDFs, dynamic media and video using a smart tagging system. This system enables assets to be found by theme, image type or however you custom configure your tags. Delivering personalised content across all your published channels is the objective of AEM, and it will enable you to place all of your creative assets where they can be shared with digital team members, external agencies and marketers to make them easily accessible.
The Authoring Experience
Many companies don’t have a process for content production let alone a content creation calendar so it can come as quite a shock to find the authoring and developer roles clearly separated in this authoring environment.
In addition to clearly defining roles, the workflow process standardises the content creation process from beginning to end.
I’ll give you an overview of how the workflow process works, but depending on how you want to produce your content, using workflows can hinder as much as help the content creation process. This is because at every breakpoint there must be an action that takes place to progress the piece, for example sending an email to request the page copy, an image or asking for specific contributions from other team members. If the workflow isn’t set up properly, then your content creation pipeline will splutter and misfire instead of sending an endless stream of targeted content to your audience.
A workflow is a series of steps executed in specific order. These steps can be performed in a logical order or split/join. Each step performs a specific action on the item being pushed through the workflow called the payload. Here’s a typical simple workflow:
- Step One: Create the page
- Step two: Send an email to the page author to let them know the page is ready to be authored.
- Step three: Request an image to be integrated.
- Step Four: Request stakeholder approval.
- Step five: Request editor approval.
- Step six: Activate and roll-out the page.
One of the few drawbacks of AEM is the stability of the authoring environment. You may have to reload a page several times for it to render authoring components correctly on the page.
A page author creates a page from a predefined template. They choose components to display on the page from a drop-down list, for example, text and image component or another display layout. The author can drag and drop column responsive designs which are all independent of each other, and there is no need to stick to the “one column left or right” format that we see so often on WordPress or Joomla sites. Multiple column formats are a breeze.
There are numerous copy and paste options which make page creation very rapid. Once you know what components you are going to drag and drop on a page, they can be created in seconds.
AS an author what I like about this system is skipping the FTP process and the improved image management from the DAM. In fact, using placeholders, you can create entire sections with images to be dropped in later at the perfect size. The preview feature shows you how the page will look. For perfect image sizes, I like to preview in a browser and then measure the image display size to scale and crop to for components that automatically scale image sizes.
A fantastic option is to have your pages made preconfigured with components on them. This creates a uniform feel to your site section and makes sure the page author is sticking to the layout guide. With so many pages to be created, it’s critical to enforce style rules and give the author clear guidance where text and images should be placed on the page.
AEM is aimed fairly and squarely at large corporates with many websites to manage and multi-language sites to consolidate. It’s brilliant for content authors who can produce material in a fraction of the time it takes to create pages in a traditional CMS. All that hunting around for images and messing with FTP is a thing of the past.
While it is a content authors dream, it is a bean counters nightmare. A vast black hole swallowing up resources and hard cash in next to no time at all.
You need good, experienced developers who understand business process and systems integration. If you don’t get the development of components right, or your templating process is flawed, or any part of the deployment is not 100%, you’ll be going back remaking hundreds if not thousands of pages to put it right. In that case, you'll never get close to making the return on investment fast enough to justify the expense. For those who want to take advantage of AEM without the full-on costs of an entire development team, there are several digital agencies springing up that can set you up relatively inexpensively and take away the development cost which will make it affordable for those who don't have multi-million-pound web development budgets.