Content Migration: the Iceberg of Intranet Projects


It lies there just over the horizon and just below the surface of any new intranet implementation. It is the factor that is most often forgotten or ignored as the intranet barrels toward launch. It is often left out of the project plan altogether but can take longer than the build itself. It is content migration.

It’s easy to understand why migrating content from your old system to a new intranet is overlooked:

Content migration is underestimated and misunderstood.

Many organizations moving to a new intranet have never been through a migration before and get blindsided by the amount of coordination and planning required to get through it

Content migration is hidden.

When some consultants are bidding on work, they don’t want to raise the issue because it may balloon the timeline or costs vs. their competitors.

I can see our intranet from my house
Big intranet? Big migration issue.

Content migration is ugly.

Put simply, content migration is not attractive. Who wants to think about copying and pasting content or writing migration scripts when you can spend your time admiring your site’s new visual design or playing with the new features of a recently installed intranet software package?

For all the reasons to ignore the inevitable, the truth remains that failure to adequately strategize, plan, schedule, and budget for content migration can easily sink your intranet project. Failure to plan can lead to delays as the content migration drags past the launch date. Conflicts can occur as extra resources are called upon at the last minute to attempt to migrate mountains of web pages into the new system. After all of the hard work your team has put into designing and building the new system, content migration is the last hurdle — one that you don’t want to underestimate.

Here are some guidelines that ThoughtFarmer Professional Services uses to work with our clients to help ensure a smooth migration and an on-time launch.

Include content migration in the project plan.

Time is required to consider and draft a migration strategy and approach document and to modify it as the project progresses and decisions are made. Time is required for the migration itself. Because the project plan is written early in the process, it is necessary to be very conservative and even pessimistic in the amount of time required.

Determine if the migration approach is to be Automated vs. Manual vs. Hybrid.

Depending on the systems involved, it may be possible to automate the movement of content between systems. If the original intranet is a CMS or the original content is very structured and the content organization is to change little in the new site, then it may be possible to write a script that reformats the original content and populates the new content repository. Most scenarios, however, involve a manual copy/paste job into the new system. Scenarios where a single site has content physically residing in multiple environments may utilize a hybrid manual/automated approach for different sections of the site.

Resourcing for migration should be addressed early in the project.

The best case scenario has resources dedicated to the task until it is completed. To achieve this, resources need to be booked in advance so that regular duties can be cleared or reassigned for the period.

I have heard of some organizations outsourcing the content migration activity. I don’t recommend this because it distances the organization from taking ownership of its content and denies the opportunity for the content contributors to learn the new intranet inside and out prior to launch.

Reduce the scope of migration through ruthless pruning of the content inventory.

The simplest way to reduce the time required for content migration is to leave any outdated or unimportant content behind in the old system. Organizations should only migrate relevant content to the new CMS.

Think about before, during, and after.

The Content Migration Approach document should address content transformations that need to take place before migration begins, during migration, and once the content is in the new system.

Pre-migration: Reduce the inventory, determine URLs to grandfather, do a final update of the content before migration. If automated scripts are to be used, these should be tested and put through a dry run before the real thing.

During migration: What needs to be done to get the content into the new system? Regardless, this should be done during a content freeze – more on this below.

Post migration: What type of clean-up needs to be done once it is migrated? Often hyperlinks fall into this category as frequently the final URL (or link variables that render a final URL at run time) are not known until all content is in the new system.

Negotiate and communicate the nature of the content freeze before migration begins.

Migration occurs best if the content on the “source” site is not being updated while content is being replicated in the new system. This entails a freeze or ban on updating the website for the migration period.

Every organization has different needs with respect to the ability to update their intranet. Highly collaborative organizations will find any content freeze painful, while a freeze at an institution or government department might pass by unnoticed. Any content freeze should be clear on the start and end times that apply, any exempt content to which updates are permitted, how exempt content will be “caught up” in the new intranet, and who should be consulted if a mission critical issue comes up that warrants an emergency intranet update.

Foster a focused, goal-oriented, teamwork-based culture for the migration team. Assuming you have a dedicated team to copy/paste content, likely seconded from their regular duties, you need to keep the team focused and motivated. I suggest the following tools:

The War Room

Have dedicated facilities where the migration team can work together free from distractions.

Set goals and chart progress

A thermometer on the wall charts should be used to chart progress as the team ploughs through the content. Daily goals should be set for the team and each person so that migration is paced for the entire period.

Have an issue resolution process in place

The team should take advantage of each other to solve any problems that arise. If issues cannot be resolved in this way, tools should be in place to track minor bugs and a contact should be designated if a show stopper issue comes up.

Have little rewards and thank you prizes on hand

The migration team leader should give out little prizes to people who exceed their target, are really helpful at helping others solve problems or are great leaders. Keeping morale high will be important if a lengthy migration period is required.

Through careful planning and preparation and closely tracking progress during the migration itself, you can keep your intranet migration on track by navigating around the content migration iceberg.

This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared on the OpenRoad blog.


Join The Discussion

  1. David Hobbs

    Thanks Bryan for the reminder of the importance of migration, and your useful points about making a migration successful. In addition to whether something can be automated or not, there’s the decision of whether content editing is needed and how important the content is (to help estimate the level of effort). I would propose that some other keys to keep in mind are: defining a unifying vision for everyone to align to (which can also help in the prioritization of issues that may arise), doing iterations to get the quality higher, and deciding on how the QA of content will occur.

  2. George Knox


    Nice article and highlights many of the issues that customers and clients need to think about and plan during a migration project. However, some of the approaches to the solution using custom scripts and manual cut and pasting is a pretty dated approach circa 2005 unless it is small volumes of content eg less than 1000 pages.
    The market for automated software solutions like Vamosa has helped address 95% of the problems without having to use the techniques you are proposing. Also, one of the big advantages of using a commercial software product as part of the solution is that it handles the big problem you clearly identify of how do you handle the ” Content Freeze”. With the Vamosa software the users have no content freeze as it takes a snapshot of the site allowing the migration project team to work on the mapping,IA,cleansing etc. When everything is ready to go, the delta of the last snapshot is included. trying to impose content freezes in an Intranet within a medium to large organisation is probably close to impossible and that is why software like Vamosa can add huge value is this one area alone.
    Suggest you check out what we can do to help your clients as I think we have a lot of knowledge and experience that you could benefit from.

    The key thing is that you are raising awareness of the big problem that companies have in typical Intranet projects and the structure of your approach we fully endorse, just some of the detail is where we may differ

    George Knox

  3. Chris

    Nice full-on pitch in previous comment. Apparently Vamosa has developed software that can analyze your old content, decide how relevant it is to today’s business, and toss it, adjust it, or migrate it, with no people involved. #pipedream

  4. Rahel Anne Bailie

    Pipe dream indeed! Without doing a content inventory and analysis, migrating content wholesale just means doing stupid, faster. I understand why this post is about content migration, but I think that to do the topic justice, content migration needs to be situated in the context of a content strategy. (OK, so as a content strategist, I’m biased.) Good post, Bryan!

  5. George Knox


    If you look at my post carefully, I agree with Bryan in all the points he raises apart from where the issue of ” Content Freeze” is raised. You may think my post was purely a plug for Vamosa but what I was looking to get across is that Migration is an Ugly problem and is very much part of a process that needs a methodology. However, where Automation software comes in is to reduce and condense time and size of the overall project and thus save money on consultancy fee’s. Clients will always require and be willing to pay for high value consultancy around re-architecting their design during a migration. They struggle when there is a lot of low value time used up around technical areas such as script writing or manual cutting and pasting. The value of using automation software as part of the process is ultimately to reduce the cost, time and risk for clients . At Vamosa, many of our delivery partners do not charge for the software but provide a complete service at a lower cost and better quality than the traditional methods they had previously delivered. As for this is a pipedream, you will find that as ever, where technology is seen as an enabler and not the solution the best results are always achieved. Key thing is that you are entering the debate and with ” Content Migration:” becoming more mainstream software vendors like Vamosa will have an increasingly important role to play within the ECM/Intranet ecosystem.
    Check out our client references( Many are Canadian) over the last 7 years and you will find that we have unrivalled experience in this subject that we are happy to share.



  6. Chris

    George, we’re familiar with Vamosa. The client that inspired this Intranet Secret went through a Vamosa migration: They had to delete 70K pages after Vamosa migrated them. I agree that there is a place for tools like yours. However, manual cut & paste is not going anywhere. It’s not a “dated approach”, as you suggested — it’s a vital aspect of every migration, and the most important aspect when content is limited and/or heterogeneous.

  7. George Knox


    We are aware of that client and that is what they wanted to do. Get it into the new CMS and then do the culling. Not what we normally do or recommend, but the customer is king. That was also a few years ago and the technology has moved on since you were maybe last involved. Happy to update.


  8. Chris McGrath

    David Hobbs wrote a thoughtful article related to this discussion: “Content Migration: What Can Be Automated and What Must Be Manual.”

  9. Kyle Short

    Interesting comments. As a partner in a services organization that focuses exclusively on web content migrations, I can echo quite a bit of what has been said here. We’re also tool agnostic so I can add some of my own practical thoughts here.

    1) I agree with the author on all of the challenges, and I also acknowledge that “manual” is always a reality, no matter what automation tools you use…and their are some fantastic options out there (Vamosa, Kapow, EntropySoft etc.) 100% automated is a pipe dream unless you are just dumping and your content as is…and where’s the value in that? 80%-90% automated is very achieveable though with the right techniques.

    2) I agree with George’s comments re: commercial software like Vamosa and Kapow…these companies represent some very smart people that have done a lot of work to produce products that get your migration team a big step ahead.

    However, I dissagree with the notion that custom scripts and manual cut and paste is a dated, circa 2005 approach. If we confine ourselves to AWK or Perl scripts and regular expressions then I will agree. But technology evolves like a pendullum swings and modern scripting languages with modern frameworks and libraries do amazing things with very few lines of code….things that big commercial products have spent years developing. It’s just the nature of the game. Embrace the commercial migration products for sure (I love them!)…but if you are about to undertake a migration, take some time to look at the New, Free, bleeding edge techniques as well (or talk to someone that can help you…*cough* *cough*…no that’s not a plug for myself! 🙂

    Last note…manual work…I always think you should start with the assumption that there will be some manual work, and then identify a process or set of tools to help you Organize, Optimize and Manage that work (ooops another plug for my company!).

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