Your CMS is the chassis of your content marketing campaign.
It doesn’t matter how great your content is, if your CMS can’t display and manage it right, it won’t have nearly half the impact it deserves.
This might sound like a moot point, but I’ve seen plenty of organizations plateau because their CMS can’t keep up with their ambitions or their growth. The fact that you can’t switch over your CMS with a flick of a button makes your choice all the more important.
So what should you look for when choosing a CMS? What features should you prioritize? Should you opt for a SaaS or a hosted solution? What stakeholders should be part of the decision-making process?
In this post, I’ll show you answers to these questions, and more.
Before you can even consider different CMS features, you need to figure out who decides what CMS to use.
This is harder than it appears. As the size and needs of your organization grows, so do the number of stakeholders. Your IT might demand a CMS that fits with their current infrastructure stack. Marketing might want something that plugs in with their marketing tools. Sales, on the other hand, would want CRM integration.
Keeping all stakeholders happy can be a potential minefield.
In fact, according to one Forrester survey, most web content management system initiatives fail because of internal politics.
This is why the first two steps in choosing a CMS is to:
In most organizations, the following departments would be involved in the CMS decision-making process:
Every department involved in the CMS selection process will have different requirements. Ask them to prioritize their requirements (in terms of features and integrations) using the MoSCoW method:
You might have a matrix like this after taking their recommendations under consideration:
Keep this in mind before you start the CMS selection process. Understand that a typical CMS selection process will take a significant amount of time. For a medium-sized business, you can expect 2-7 months between understanding requirements, writing the RFP and signing the final contract. Essentially, you’re looking for a solution that checks off as many high-priority features for as many stakeholders as possible.
One of the most important decisions you’ll have to make upfront is deciding between a SaaS, hosted or an on-premise solution.
On-premise CMS: With an on-premise CMS, you buy a license from the vendor and install the software on your own servers or your hosting provider's servers. The CMS provider is only responsible for maintaining and updating the software; everything from installation to security, and infrastructure upgrades will be handled by you.
WordPress and Drupal are two examples of on-premise solutions.
Cloud Hosted CMS: With a cloud hosted solution, you buy a license then install the software at a data center or web host where you lease server space. This works just like an on-premise CMS, except that it is installed on third-party servers you don’t directly own.
Typically, any on-premise solution can also be a hosted solution provided the web host meets the server requirements.
Hostway and WPEngine are two examples of hosted solutions.
To make a very simple analogy, think of the difference between taking an Uber and owning a car. With the latter - like on-premise CMS - you are responsible for the car’s maintenance, insurance, and fuel.
SaaS CMS: A Software as a Service Solution (SaaS) CMS solution is an emerging category that has risen to prominence in the past few years. The SaaS CMS works like any of your favorite SaaS tools - Salesforce, Google Docs or even Gmail. There is nothing to install, update or maintain. The CMS provider takes care of all technical issues so you can focus on creating and managing content.
You usually buy a subscription and pay on a monthly basis for your use of the CMS. There is normally no long-term contract or upfront costs before deployment. The Software is pre-built and you benefit from the ongoing enhancements and improvements made by the vendors.
Coredna and CrownPeak are two examples of SaaS CMS solutions.
SaaS solutions are a paradigm shift from the normal website CMS platforms, like in the CRM industry where Salesforce disrupted the traditional CRM vendors, SaaS is starting to become more prevalent.
Despite the enormous popularity of SaaS solutions, on-premise software still commands an enormous share of the CMS pie.
On-premise CMS solutions have these pros and cons:
In a nutshell, a SaaS solution represents the future. It is cheaper upfront, highly scalable, and gives you the flexibility to switch to another provider. On-premise solutions might have been viable 10 years ago, but the security, maintenance and scalability issues are a big red mark today. The continuous innovation ensures that your investment is never outdated.
Hosted solutions work pretty much like on-premise solutions. The only difference is that they are hosted on third-party servers.
A hosted CMS has these pros and cons:
When you break it down, every CMS choice essentially boils down to eight things:
Let’s look at each of these three things in more detail.
At the start of this post, the first item we considered was the organizational impact of technology.
When considering a CMS platform your choice will impact very differently.
When considering the impacts on your business you need to think about the responsibilities that you take on when selecting a platform.
With a development platform, you will either need internal staff or contract out external technical expertise. When you develop your website on these platforms, it requires considerably more steps in terms of functional requirements and development cycles to produce the final product.
With Solutions platforms, most of the development is done and your business will need to configure the platform to suit your needs. Adoption is also generally faster as these systems are designed to be easy to use, with extensive documentation and support.
A recent post we took a detailed look into the true costs of managing a website. We looked at the costs across a number of lenses and provided a 20 point checklist to help you make sure the pricing was correct.
The processing of building a website for your business can be challenging. Managing the stakeholder, ensuring you deliver on the requirements of the business, getting your vendor to deliver on their promises are only a few of the issues that arise during the process.
The build, however, should be considered the start of your digital journey. The hard work begins the day the site is launched and you now need to validate the assumptions you made many months prior during the discovery phase.
Integrated analytics provide the starting point for your answers, A/B testing of content and user journeys. This then leads to updates to the website, changes to content, launching landing pages for specific campaigns. Understanding how the CMS platform behaves when continuous change is required should form part of the decision-making process.
Your CMS can’t exist in a silo. At a time when technology affects every aspect of your business, it is crucial that your CMS work well with your other marketing, sales, communication, and project management initiatives.
Start by doing a technology audit. Make note of the tools/technologies you use to do the following:
Most of these tools will either feed data into or pull data from your CMS.
For example, your blog post might have a gated content or lead magnet associated with it. This lead magnet plugs into your lead acquisition tool, which, in turn, plugs into your marketing automation and email marketing tools.
Once a lead is qualified, you would want to feed it to your CRM. This, in turn, should plug into your marketing automation tool to further nurture the lead(s).
This creates a number of dependencies which affect your CMS decision. The better integrated your CMS is with your other marketing and sales tools, the smoother your marketing machinery.
While you’re doing this, also take a close look at any other upgrades or migration planned in the near future. If you’re going to make significant changes to your technology stack in the next six months, it makes sense to choose a CMS that will be compatible with these changes.
This is an often overlooked part of the CMS selection process but it has a deep impact on the success of any CMS deployment.
Simply put, you want to choose a CMS that your team can actually use.
Broadly speaking, you can divide this into two categories: technical and end-user skill availability.
The first thing you should consider is your existing IT expertise.
Understand that installing, maintaining and securing a CMS is a challenge. If you don’t have in-house IT capabilities to do this, you can rule out on-premise/hosted solutions altogether.
Start by auditing your IT resources and document the following:
Keep in mind that technical skills are a concern only if you choose a hosted/on-premise solution.
If you go with a SaaS solution, you can skip these technical requirements altogether and focus on the end-user experience.
Besides the technical requirements, you’ll also want to consider how easy the CMS is to use for your end-users (marketers, content creators, and salespeople).
Ideally, you should choose a CMS that your end-users can use readily, without additional training.
Here are two things you should consider here:
It’s also a good idea to do a skills audit for all stakeholders in the CMS decision-making process. Try to understand how comfortable they are with content management systems in particular and technology in general. For developers, audit for existing programming skills as well.
More often than not, features (or lack thereof) will determine your CMS choice. A robust set of features will help meet your business goals and keep all stakeholders happy.
What features you actually require will depend on your business goals and your existing organizational structure. A fast-growing startup might want scalability, while an older business would want the CMS to play well with its legacy software.
While feature requirements will vary from business to business, there are a few “common sense features” every CMS should have, such as:
1. Ease of installation:
If you’re going with a SaaS solution, you can skip this section altogether.
No matter what platform you consider, there are requirements to make the adoption of the new platform seamless.
Consider these questions:
2. Ease of use: Ease of use - UI and UX - is an often overlooked feature. You want the CMS to be easy enough to use for your least technically literate user (see the ‘skillset’ section above). It helps if the UI/UX is similar to tools you already use in your organization. This will make the transition much smoother.
3. Documentation and support: The documentation (for developers and end-users) and quality of support are critical features of any CMS. Poor documentation will frustrate your developers while bad support will waste your end-users’ time.
Consider these questions:
4. Scalability: Can the CMS scale with your organization? Can you use it to host tens of thousands of pages without a drop in performance? Are there large websites (>100,000 pages) already using the CMS?
5. Flexibility and adaptability: Your business will not be the same in 5 years as it is today. Can your CMS keep up with your growth?
You want to choose a CMS that can grow with your business. Look 5,10, even 15 years down the line, not just the present.
6. Security: This is obviously a big one - you want a CMS that will keep your content and customer data secure against current and future threats.
There are four things to consider here:
Considering that there are tens of millions of brute force attacks against a popular CMS like WordPress every day, it’s crucial that you invest in security.
You saw above features that every CMS should have, no matter who is using it.
While these are common-sense features, there are also a number of department-specific features you should consider when selecting a CMS.
As mentioned before, it’s a good idea to prioritize these features into three categories - must-have, important, and nice-to-have. This will make your selection process much easier.
Some features you should consider are:
Of course, these are only guidelines. Your business might classify these features into other categories depending on your requirements.
Your developers have distinctly different requirements from your marketing and editorial teams. For them, maintaining, modifying and keeping the CMS secure are top priorities.
On that note, here are some developer-focused features you should consider:
Your CMS platform is an investment and asset to your business. Many businesses depreciate the asset as they assume that there is a lifespan to the CMS platform. This isn’t necessarily the case, with the growth of SaaS platforms, re-platforming will become a thing of the past. Your website will “evolve” with the needs of your business. Retraining and retooling will become a thing of the past.
Ask vendors how the product is kept current and how new features find their way into your website. Understand how upgrades work and the costs involved with the upkeep and maintenance of the CMS platform. Propose a staged approach to the development of your website and ask when you change and want new features, applications, and how these are priced
Support is one of those services that are either neglected or completely absent. With open source, support is an additional cost to the CMS platform. What adds complication is a traditional development platform is that you not only need support of the software but support of the hosting Infrastructure.
What can arise in this situation is the people supporting the software are not necessarily the same people, this leads to the blame game where each party points the finger at the other.
Having a single party responsible for the whole solution is an imperative. With SaaS platforms, it is an end to end system so all aspects are supported.
In addition, training is a support item. Helping you achieve the most from your platform ensures that your satisfied and achieve the return on your investment. With SaaS platforms, they have “customer success teams” who are allocated to ensure that your solutions deliver on your expectations.
You might do all your homework and still end up making a mistake when choosing your CMS.
Some common mistakes I regularly see businesses make are:
A “feature rich” CMS has features you and your team actually cares about.
A “feature bloat” CMS has tons of features with very little actual use.
It’s not uncommon for businesses to select a CMS based on unrealistic growth expectations. They might end up choosing a complex and costly CMS just because they anticipate accelerated growth “in the future”.
While it’s important to plan ahead, it is even more important to make sure that your CMS fulfills your existing needs. If a CMS has complicated features that won’t be of any use until you have, say, 100,000 pages, it might be wise to choose something simpler.
SaaS platforms allow you to “evolve” as your needs change. Starting with something for your current needs and then adding features as you become more comfortable and your customer expectations increase.
This is a tough balancing act, but making this mistake can cost you thousands of dollars while impacting your current work.
Ease-of-use is often overlooked in the CMS decision-making process. Sure, features are important, but what good are they if no one can use them?
This mistake is often a result of IT and not end-users making the CMS decision. What might be intuitive to one department might be completely alien to another.
With SaaS platforms, extensive testing and user feedback provide continuous improvement to the user interface and the functionality. When considering a SaaS platform you can engage with their demonstration environments and know exactly what you're purchasing
Having to lock yourself into a development environment and the functionality before you have had a chance to understand the relevance of the functionality is where considerable time and budget is lost. Reworking and reconstructing features and interfaces don't add value to the project
Before you even go into the market to choose a CMS, ask yourself: do you fully understand your own content management problems?
It’s not surprising for businesses too often want a new CMS without fully understanding the why.
If you have an existing CMS solution, ask yourself:
In case you’re not using a CMS, ask yourself:
This will give you A much-needed clarity for making a better decision.
Choosing a CMS is a tough ask. You have to balance multiple requirements across multiple departments, evaluate dozens of options and pick something that fits the Goldilocks zone of cost, complexity, and ease of use.
Hopefully, this guide will help you make a better CMS decision.
Before you leave, here are your next three action steps: