How to Choose The Right CMS Platform: The Definitive Guide

How to Choose The Right CMS Platform to Help Drive Your Business Growth

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.

How to choose a CMS: Free checklist

 

Who Should Decide the CMS Choice?

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.

Barriers to success in WCM implementations

This is why the first two steps in choosing a CMS is to:

1. Figure out stakeholders involved in the CMS decision.

In most organizations, the following departments would be involved in the CMS decision-making process:

  • IT: Since IT will be ultimately responsible for the technology and may need to maintain and modifying the CMS, then integrating them in the selection is vital for the success of a CMS deployment.
  • Marketing: The CMS is essentially a marketing tool. For content marketing-focused organizations, it’s crucial that marketing gives the go ahead before making a CMS selection.
  • Sales: Close integration between the CRM and CMS will improve sales efficiency and effectiveness.

 

2. Prioritize stakeholder requirements

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:

  • Must-have: Essential features the department can’t work without;
  • Should-have: Features that are generally as important as Must-have’s but are not as time critical;
  • Could-have: Features that are desirable but not critical for the department’s functioning;
  • Would-have: Features that are least critical, lowest payback or not appropriate at this time.

You might have a matrix like this after taking their recommendations under consideration:

How to choose a CMS using the MoSCoW method

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.

 

SaaS vs. Hosted vs. On-Premise CMS

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: 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: 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: 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.

Core dna and CrownPeak are two examples of SaaS CMS solutions.

 

SaaS CMS Pros & Cons

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.

Pros:

  • Feature Rich - SaaS platforms are developed once and used by everyone in the community, this means they are designed to be easy to use and have lots of features to help drive your online business.
  • No maintenance/upkeep: All the maintenance work - fixing bugs, maintaining infrastructure - is taken care of by the CMS provider.
  • Regular updates: SaaS solutions upgrade their platforms continuously, making sure you're always up to date with the latest features.
  • No installation: All installation work is taken care of by the CMS provider. All the applications are pre-built and working in production. You can sign-up, pay the monthly fee, and start using the CMS right away.
  • Pay-as-you-go model: SaaS solutions typically offer monthly payment plans. Instead of paying a big upfront licensing fee, you pay for each month that you use the CMS. This brings down costs substantially.
  • Security: Since the CMS is installed away from the premises, you can take advantage of established processes and infrastructure to reduce security risks. Any decent SaaS solution would also have strong backups and a recovery process in case of security concerns.
  • Scalability: Since SaaS solutions are usually hosted in the cloud, they can scale with your demand. A sudden burst of viral traffic wouldn’t take your site down.
  • Service Level Agreements: Most SaaS CMS vendors will offer a minimum uptime promise, backup and redundancy plans.

Cons:

  • Customization - SaaS CMS platforms aren't development platforms so you can't dramatically change how the core application works to suit your needs.
  • Support: Since the CMS vendor is responsible for all installation and maintenance, you are essentially dependent on a third party for your support. If the support isn’t good, you can’t jump in and fix things yourself.
  • Security: Again, with a Saas CMS, you give away your security to a third party. For most businesses, this shouldn’t be an issue, but if you deal with sensitive data, this loss of control over security can be a concern.

 

On-premise CMS Pros & Cons

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:

Pros:

  • More control: You decide the infrastructure and environment to install the CMS on. This gives you more control over the CMS.
  • Customization: If you’re using an open-source CMS, you can customize the solution to fit your exact requirements. Even closed-source CMS will give you considerable room for customization, especially when it comes to integrations.

Cons:

  • Maintenance, installation, and upkeep: Your IT team will be responsible for supporting the CMS. This can radically increase deployment time, add to upfront costs and might even require hiring additional personnel.
  • Scalability: Unlike a SaaS solution, the scalability of an on-premise CMS depends entirely on the underlying infrastructure. This can impact scalability, especially if you don’t take advantage of the cloud.
  • High upfront costs: Besides the license fee, you’ll also have to pay for infrastructure and IT to install the CMS.
  • Long deployment time: Between the installation and customization, you might end up spending weeks and even months to deploy the CMS.

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.

Bottomline: Small to medium-sized businesses would do well with a SaaS solution since it keeps upfront costs low and doesn’t require IT. Large businesses with complex needs can pursue an on-premise CMS but only if they have the personnel and expertise to handle the requirements.

 

Hosted CMS Pros & Cons

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:

Pros:

  • Faster deployment: Since you don’t have to set up servers on-premises, you can start the installation and deployment process much faster.
  • Scalability: You can host the CMS in the cloud (such as AWS), which means you can instantly scale your resources when the need arises.
  • Lower upfront costs: You can rent server space from your web host on a monthly basis. This keeps upfront costs lower compared to an on-premise solution.

Cons:

  • Host-dependant vulnerabilities: The security and scalability of your CMS depend entirely on your host. If the host goes down or has any security vulnerabilities, you can’t jump in and solve the problem yourself.
  • Higher long-term costs: Since you are essentially leasing server space from your host, your costs will remain static or even increase month over month. Long-term, this might be less cost-effective than buying your own on-premise servers.

 

8 Things to Consider When Choosing a CMS

When you break it down, every CMS choice essentially boils down to eight things:

  1. Business Impacts - What impacts will this platform have on my business?
  2. Real Costs - Do I understand the true costs of the platform?
  3. Ongoing requirements - Launching a website is only the start, what are the ongoing needs of the selected platform?
  4. Technology: How well does the CMS play with my existing technology stack?
  5. Skillset: How easy is the CMS to deploy? Does it require special skills to use?
  6. Features: Does the CMS have all the features you need to run your organization and meet your goals?
  7. Future Needs - How does the platform cope with changes in my business needs?
  8. Support - Does the vendor provide the training and ongoing support I need to be successful?
  9. Let’s look at each of these three things in more detail.

 

1. Business Impacts

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.

The CMS platforms at a high level can be divided into two main camps, The ‘Development platforms’ and the ‘Solution platforms’. Development platforms are like a blank canvas that you build anything you want. A solution platform comes pre-built and can be customized to your needs. All SaaS platforms are generally solution platforms.

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.

 

2. Real Costs

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.

 

3. Ongoing requirements

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.

 

4. Technology Integration

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:

  • Marketing automation
  • Customer relationship management
  • Project management system
  • Forms management
  • Email/Social media marketing
  • ERP
  • Customer support

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.

 

5. Skillsets

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.

A. Technical skill resources

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:

  • Security expertise: Ask how competent is my IT team in securing the CMS against different, ongoing attacks?
  • Existing infrastructure: Is my existing infrastructure secure and scalable enough to run the CMS? If not, is a SaaS solution a more viable option?
  • Maintenance: Can your IT handle ongoing maintenance and upkeep work?
  • Ease of development: Do you have in-house resources to modify the CMS if need be? If not, how easy is it to find freelancers to outsource development? Is the CMS written in a language with plenty of third-party development options (say, PHP vs. Perl)?

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.

B. End-user skill

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:

  • Authorship Experience (AX): Authorship experience determines how easy it is to create, edit and manage content. A poor AX will have an impact on the productivity, efficiency, and morale of your content creators.
  • User-Experience (UX): This determines the actual experience of using the CMS. For a SaaS solution, this will include the process to onboard new users, integrate third-party tools, etc. For a hosted solution, this would include the installation, maintenance, and modification process as well

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.

 

6. Features

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.

Common Sense CMS Features

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:

  • Does installing the CMS require technical expertise?
  • Is the installation process well-documented and easy to follow?
  • Is there a software-based solution to install the CMS at your host (such as WordPress’ cPanel based installation)?
  • Can the CMS run on your existing technology infrastructure (i.e. your web host/servers)?
  • What are the skills needed to get the final solution, (for example, With SaaS platforms in many cases there is no requirement to create integrations or backend coding changes.)
  • How is change managed?
  • How are new features and upgrade implemented?

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:

  • Is the documentation thorough and well-organized (ask someone from IT to audit)?
  • What formats are the user manuals available in? Are there videos or interactive presentations/demos to help users understand the software?
  • What kind of support does the CMS offer? Is there an email/phone number you can contact for help? Is there a user forum to discuss issues with other users?

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?

Ask:

  • Does the CMS vendor have a roadmap of new features it will add over the next few months/years?
  • Has the CMS vendor shown a commitment to keeping the software up to date with market trends?
  • How often is the CMS updated?
  • Can you modify the CMS - directly or through customization requests - if need be?
  • How quickly are feature requests (such as a specific integration) fulfilled?
  • Is the CMS’ underlying code “future proof”? Does it have any unstable dependencies (say, it relies on an outdated framework)?

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:

  • Security features: Does the CMS have built-in security features (such as 2-step authentication)? If not, does it have plugins and third party integrations to improve security?
  • The pace of development: Do the developers release updates and security fixes quickly? This is a particularly big issue with open-source software.
  • Infrastructure requirements: Does the CMS support any infrastructure-level upgrades to improve security?
  • Plugin/module environment: Are your commonly used plugins/modules secure? Do their developers regularly check for fixes?

 

Security is a double-edged sword. The more popular a CMS, the more it will be prone to attacks. But more popularity also means that developers will be faster to respond to attacks.

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.

Wordpress brute force attacks

 

Features for Marketing & Editorial

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:

Must-have features

  • Integrations with your marketing and sales stack.
  • Easy to use and feature-rich content editors.
  • Well-aligned with business goals. For instance, if you’ll be using the CMS primarily to blog, you want strong blog management tools.
  • Mobile support. You should be able to read, manage and even edit content on smaller screens.

Important features

  • User-management with permission control. Particularly important if you have a lot of content contributors.
  • Supports a variety of content types, including videos, audio (including podcasts), blog posts, and standalone pages.
  • Personalization - Ability to create segments and one-to-one experiences.

Nice-to-have features

  • Workflows and approval process for content.
  • Multisite support
  • Multilingual support, especially if you plan to serve content in multiple geographies.
  • Training support in multiple formats (video/audio/text).

Of course, these are only guidelines. Your business might classify these features into other categories depending on your requirements.

 

Features for Developers

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:

Must-have features

  • Scalability that doesn’t compromise on performance.
  • Security features such as user management, permission control, regular bug fixes, 2-step authentication, etc.
  • Stability; the CMS shouldn’t crash or hang.

Important features

  • Performance on your existing infrastructure.
  • Upgradability
  • Modularity, especially with open-source software.
  • In-depth documentation

Nice-to-haves

  • 24x7 support
  • Proven bug-fixing policy
  • Vendor reputation and proven track record

 

7. Future Needs

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

 

8. Support

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.

How to choose a CMS: Free checklist

 

4 Mistakes to Avoid when Choosing a CMS

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:

 

1. Confusing “feature bloat” for “feature rich”

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.

Don’t confuse the two. A laundry list of features looks good on a sales page, but ask yourself: are they actually useful and relevant to your needs?

 

2. Choosing a complex and costly CMS for future needs

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.

 

3. Choosing features over ease-of-use

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

 

4. Not understanding your content management problems

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:

  • Do you really need an alternative?
  • Can you modify your existing solution to accommodate your new requirements?

In case you’re not using a CMS, ask yourself:

  • Will a CMS offer a significant productivity boost compared to your current methods?
  • Will your productivity gains be substantial enough to justify CMS costs?
  • Will you grow fast enough in the next few years to demand a CMS?

This will give you A much-needed clarity for making a better decision.

 

Over to You

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:

  1. Consult your marketing, editorial, sales and IT departments and ask for their CMS demands.
  2. Assess your existing technology stack and skills across all stakeholders.
  3. Estimate a budget and consider the cost of implementation for both open vs. closed source solutions.

How to choose a CMS: Free checklist

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