Two of the top analyst firms for Web Content Management System (Web CMS) technologies reported a demise of sorts when it comes to the software that manages and publishes content on websites.

Back in 2020, Gartner announced it was killing the 20-year-old Web Content Management Magic Quadrant because the market “has reached its maturity with products becoming more homogenized.” Demand has been shifting from WCM to the broader scope of DXP (Digital Experience Platforms).And Forrester said there is a new era Web CMS technologies and strategies built on agile, open foundations that support digital experiences beyond the website.

Death of Web CMS? Hardly. Websites still need to be powered by content technologies. But those same technologies need agility, the analysts say, because consumers want relevant content experiences in multiple channels. That’s why it’s still more important than ever to conduct a thorough web content management (WCM) selection process. Hastily-selected WCM platforms will create plenty of adventure and excitement for you and your team. It just won't be the sort of excitement you expected.

The wrong CMS means your organization won't realize the promise of return on investment (ROI) that justified the project in the first place.So let’s first answer the question, "What is a content management system?" and then talk strategy for how to choose a CMS. 

Related Article: How to Categorize the Web CMS Marketplace

What Is a CMS (Content Management System)? 

Let's start at the very beginning: What is a CMS? It's an application that facilitates the creation, management and modification of digital content. This typically involves both enterprise content management (ECM) and web content management (WCM). Central to the CMS is the ability to enable even non-technical users to streamline web publishing procedures and create content-rich websites. 

Some popular content management system examples include WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. 

Recognize These Four Key WCM Pillars

Seth Gottlieb, a 20-year veteran of the web content management industry and former CTO for global offerings at Lionbridge (he’s now a software development manager for Alexa at Amazon) gave us information years back that Web CMS buyers must still remember. It includes his four key pillars of a web content management selection process:

  1. Support: This may be limited to basic product patches and may include services like hosting, user mentoring, strategic guidance, or even web development.
  2. Vision: "The way the vendor sees the market and the role of the product will determine the product roadmap. If the customer and the vendor are aligned, then desirable features will continually be added and the product will grow with the customer. If they are not, then the new features will probably be unwanted and clutter the product," says Gottlieb.
  3. Community: Look at your existing customer community for vision and for references from people or organizations who have similar challenges and goals.
  4. Stability and focus: If you have an "overly large emphasis on growth," it may suggest an exit strategy that may leave you stranded. "In case of large enterprise software vendors, make sure that this product is core to their overall strategy," Gottlieb says.

Validate the Need for CMS in First Place

With the proliferation of marketing technology (martech) and its crossover capabilities, many don’t, but should, validate the need for a new CMS, according to Cathy McKnight, VP strategy and consulting for The Content Advisory, the consulting & education group of the Content Marketing Institute.

Ask questions such as:

  • Do we have a technology problem or is there something else going on?
  • Could we solve our problem by fixing our content, assets, and/or adjusting our processes?
  • Could/should we update, rather than replace, our existing technology?

“Implementing new technology or migrating from one solution to another is incredibly disruptive and time-consuming,” McKnight said. “It can take a company up to two full years to select, implement and migrate content onto a new platform, and then the challenge of user adoption and training begins. So making sure a new tech is needed is a vital first hurdle to jump.”

Build a Shortlist of Potential Winners

This part isn’t easy. Ultimately, you want to select a content management system that does two things. First, it supports your requirements and second is easy to use. But evaluating Web CMS software for functionality and usability takes time. So the last thing you want to do is waste time getting intimate with the wrong product.

Here's how to get started:

  • Filter for relevant technologies.
  • Filter for your budget.
  • Filter for business functionality.
  • Consider the proximity of your partners.

Related Article: Selecting a CMS: How to Build a Short List

Think Holistically About Content Operations

Jeff Cram, partner at PK Global, told CMSWire that it was simpler when content managers thought about a CMS as a single technology purchase that would manage and publish all their website content.

Before racing to evaluate new content platforms, organizations should take a step back and look at their overall content operations process.

“Many of the pain points are often upstream in the collaboration and creation processes — areas of need that aren’t often served well (or at all) by CMS vendors,” Cram said. “The roles of digital asset management and content marketing platforms are also now overlapping more with traditional CMS solutions. Most organizations will need multiple content solutions to fill these needs, and these requirements should be guided by the content strategy and not the features of specific vendors. Hiring the wrong technology for the content job at hand can be a recipe for disaster.”

Lean Heavily on Usage Scenarios

You need to dig deeply into your requirements to find the product that will be the best fit for your organization. But don't rely entirely on spreadsheets for this.

Spreadsheets are great for naming features but they won't guide you to the point of understanding exactly how these products might work with the specific users and the specific content that your organization needs to manage. This is where usage scenarios pick up the slack and raise interesting questions.

A scenario is a short story — written in a language that regular people understand — that describes a user's interaction with the system to achieve a business objective. A scenario encapsulates lots of specific requirements and gives them greater meaning and context.

These are the four attributes of an effective scenario:

  • It is written with specific users in mind.
  • It addresses an important and commonly executed task.
  • It references the content that you intend to manage.
  • It is open-ended enough to expose the difference in product design and approach.

It's hard to overestimate the importance of scenarios in the selection process.

Related Article: Selecting a CMS: Developing Usage Scenarios

Don't Abuse Your Features Matrix

If you've ever had to evaluate an enterprise software platform, then you probably know about the requirements matrix. It typically comes in the form of a spreadsheet and consists of a list of capabilities — or requirements — a given product must have to meet your needs.

The capabilities are listed, usually by high level category, down the first, left column. Across the top, one lists the various products being evaluated. In the body of the document you note whether or not requirements are met or you score each product for fitness in the respective area.

Examples of requirements in a typical Web CMS features matrix include:

  • Strong separation of content & presentation.
  • Flexible content type definitions.
  • Back office support for Mac & Windows.
  • Version history with rollback.
  • Mobile authoring & approvals.
  • Strong multi-lingual support.
  • Mobile content delivery.
  • Integration with product X.

Some would tell you to throw away the requirements matrix completely, but we disagree. There are some good ways to use this matrix that make it a beneficial tool longer term.

Related Article: How to Use, Not Abuse a Web CMS Features Matrix

Features Don't Implement Themselves

Many CMS features need additional work to make them fully functional, according to Travis Warholic, delivery manager for Avantia. The software may have extensive personalization capabilities or can support the most complex of author approval flows, but they do not just happen.

“Know that for almost every feature the software offers, an implementation effort is typically needed,” Warholic said. “This is not a failing of the software; it is just something that is often not accounted for and should be. Know your company and what the right-sized solution is for your company culture.”

The CMS may support complex workflows with multiple levels of approvals, but is that right for your company? Or is that just going to introduce crippling delays in content being published? Is the content that sensitive that it needs that many levels of review? Do you have that many different people in the system contributing content? Or is your content really added by a small handful of resources? “If yes,” Warholic said, “simplified workflows are probably more appropriate.”

Related Article: How to Build a Case for CMS Replatforming

Don't Be Distracted by Shiny Things

Features such as headless CMS capabilities, personalization and omnichannel experiences are all the rage these days. Be realistic about your company's maturity and where these features fit into your roadmap, Warholic said.

Learning Opportunities

“Do you have the resources and process to keep up with content creation and curation needs of personalization?” he asked. “And the strategy to define goals and KPIs to measure against? If not, maybe it shouldn't be a high priority evaluation criterion. And just because everyone is talking about headless CMS, doesn't mean that is the right choice for your company.”

Do you have the dedicated team of developers to create the dynamic user experiences across channels on top of your headless CMS? If not, it may not be the right choice for you.

“Getting distracted by the shiny things can be more harmful than they can be helpful,” he said. “A successful CMS project is still largely defined by a strong foundation and sticking to the fundamentals.”

Skating to Where the ‘WYSIWYG’ Puck Is Going to Be

It’s more critical than ever to deeply understand the product roadmap and direction of the vendors you are evaluating, according to Cram. The underlying product architectures and implementation approaches to assembling digital experiences are changing rapidly — cloud, SaaS, headless and decoupled architectures have changed the CMS game considerably, he added. “Where your vendor will (or won’t be) in a year and how well they execute can be even more important as where they are today,” Cram said. “Be careful about evaluating CMS vendors in the rear-view mirror.”

Related Article: Is It Time We Declutter CMS?

Take Product Demos Seriously

Once you have worked through your feature requirements, developed your usage scenarios and done the initial product research, the next phase of the selection process involves evaluating the products against your documented needs.

Successful completion of this phase will mean that you have selected a product and/or implementation partner that is compatible with both your content and your way of doing business. The product satisfies both your objective and subjective criteria.

Failure in this phase means that you will either be swayed by the most charismatic salesperson or that you will be stuck in a never-ending sales cycle that doesn't drive you toward an informed decision. Neither case is very appealing — so try to avoid these scenarios.

You will learn more from seeing a product in action than reading an analyst report or a request for proposal response from a vendor. But to be effective, a product demonstration needs considerable investment from both sides. You won't learn anything by occasionally peeking up from your email to glance at a canned demo about a fictional business that has nothing to do with your company. If you run a demonstration properly you will be able to answer the following questions:

  • How naturally does the product fit our vision?
  • What customizations or compromises will we have to make if we choose this product?
  • Does the vendor understand my business and the way I work?
  • Will I be treated like an important customer?
  • Does my team have good chemistry with the vendor?

Product demos will take up a lot of your team's time. So prepare for them in advance.

Related Article: Does Web Content Management Have an Agile Future?

Place Heavy Consideration on Implementation Team

McKnight, who interviewed with CMSWire back in 2018 and 2020 on this topic, said she stands by her original position that partners play a crucial role in the success of any content management technology.

“You can have a does-everything-but-the-dishes technology, but if the implementation team — internal and/or external — don't understand your business goals and functional needs and how to meet them with the CMS being implemented then the results will likely be subpar,” McKnight said. “On the flip side, you can have a run-of-the-mill CMS but an implementation team that knows how to make it sing to meet your requirements of today and needs for the future, and it will be like the CMS is a bespoke build that serves and grows to continually enable content management that meets its, and its audience’s, needs.”

Cram agreed, adding you may be experiencing “CMS pain” but not need to replace your CMS at all.

“We’ve run across numerous organizations that simply need to more strategically re-implement the solution they have,” Cram said. “This could include re-architecting for better content re-use, modernizing your front-end architecture, or simply ‘turning off’ parts of your content platform that you don’t need or use.”

Your CMS implementation from two to three years ago may not be as “future friendly” as you hoped, and you can save some money and change management pain by taking a more strategic approach to your implementation and integrations. “It can be helpful to get a second opinion about your existing CMS and the implementation before you send that RFP out the door,” he added.

Related Article: 8 Tips For Finding the Right Technology Implementation Partner

Select an Implementation Partner Early

To that end, your implementation partner should come onboard very early in the process, according to Warholic. The sooner they become acclimated with your company goals and can start translating that to your implementation, the better off you are going to be, according to Warholic.

“They should have a full understanding of what marketing, personalization, integrations and interactions you envision for your site,” Warholic added. “The right partner will be pivotal in translating these strategies into technical requirements and, ultimately, implementation. The right implementation partner will have a multidisciplinary team consisting of analysts, architects and developers listening to your needs and helping to distill them down.”

Understand Your Success Baseline

One change lately, according to McKnight, for CMS selections is that more companies are defining or at least attempting to define what a minimal viable solution looks like for them when it comes to content management. Not so that the technology they choose only meets the organization's bare minimum when it comes to requirements, but more so to understand their baseline for success.

Companies, she said, can use this as a “touchstone to return to so that they don't get caught up in the hype and forsake their core needs for the bells and whistles tech vendors so love to wow their prospects with.” This also supports the shift to outside-in thinking for requirements, McKnight added.

“It has been good to see some companies recognize that CMS technology is not just about the users — the content and marketing teams — but also has to meet the needs and expectations of what their audiences need it to do,” McKnight said. “Ultimately they are the ones who need to be served from the CMS, so it better be able to do what they need it to do so that they can access and consume the content the way they want.”

This Is Only a Framework

Finally, recognize that this article provides a framework for answering the question, "What is a CMS?" and heading off on your selection process. But as with any enterprise project, the considerations and complexities of selecting a new Web CMS platform are many. Getting professional help in this process is nothing to be ashamed of — that's an option worth considering seriously.