Selecting a CMS
The good, the bad and the …wrong content management system (CMS). Nobody wants that last one.

Hastily selected Web CMS platforms will create plenty of adventure and excitement for you and your team. It just won't be the sort of excitement you expected.

Get into bed with the wrong CMS and easy tasks become hard and leverage turns to roadblocks. Ultimately, your organization won't realize the promise of return on investment (ROI) that justified the project in the first place. So let’s talk strategy for an effective Web CMS selection process.

1. Vendor Selection is Like Choosing a Spouse

Seth Gottlieb, a 15-year veteran of the web content management industry and chief marketing technologist for Lionbridge Global Marketing Operations, tells us CMS buyers should look for a vendor capable of building a "mutually beneficial partnership."

Specifics will vary based on the buyer’s needs and resources, Gottlieb said, but the requirements will generally fall into the following dimensions:

  • Support: This may be limited to basic product patches and may include services like hosting, user mentoring, strategic guidance, or even web development.
  • Vision: "The way the vendor sees the market and the role of the product will determine the product roadmap," Gottlieb said. "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."
  • Community: Look at your existing customer community for vision and for references from people or organizations who have similar challenges and goals. "A community of a sufficient size will increase the likelihood of finding talent that can help you," Gottlieb said.
  • Stability and focus: If you have an "overly large emphasis on growth," it may suggest an "exit strategy" that will leave you alone. "In case of large enterprise software vendors, make sure that this product is core to their overall strategy," Gottlieb added.

“Depending on your needs, the vendor to partner with may be an agency or integrator, not the software supplier,” he said.

Select a Web CMS vendor with (nearly) as much scrutiny as selecting a spouse, said Irina Guseva, senior analyst at the Real Story Group, which specializes in technology research and strategic advisory services.

“And I am only half-joking here,” Guseva told CMSWire. "Prospective buyers should look at cultural fit, along with the technological fit. It's also a good idea to evaluate the vendor's professional services — to see who would be implementing the product and what their qualifications are — as well as the partner network/channel."

Analyst firm Digital Clarity Group places such weight on the integration partner that they went so far as to create a whole report on integration partners.

2. Know Thyself (What Makes Your Business Tick)

Get a handle on your strategy before investing in any software, Guseva said. "By strategy, I do not mean a checklist of desired features and functions, but a holistic look at overall information management practices and business goals in the organization," she explained.

Do not approach the CMS selection without thorough research and understanding of the market.  "Buyers who are educated about the ways different CMS tools operate and the potential drawbacks are in better positions to make this investment in technology," she said.

The most important and hardest question to ask, Gottlieb said, is whether the problem you are solving is software-related in the first place. Do you have sufficient staff and processes? Do you have a strategy in place? 

"If your site is under-performing because of neglect or dysfunction, a software selection will divert resources and attention from the real problems," Gottlieb added. "You will wind up right where you started but with a lot less money."

Get in touch with your strategy and execution before looking at software because it will help you understand your requirements and get the most out of the platform when it has been deployed.

3. Building a Short List Ain't Easy

Ultimately, you want to select a content management system that does two things: supports your requirements and 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 products.

Here's how to get started.

  • Filter for Relevant Technologies
  • Filter for Your Budget
  • Filter for Business Functionality
  • Consider the Proximity of Your Partners

In conversation with Scott Liewehr, President and Principal Analyst at Digital Clarity Group, he emphasized the need to identify what he described as focal needs and to use these needs to pare down your list of potential vendors.

According to Liewehr, focal needs fall into one of two categories:

  • Idiosyncratic Requirements: Those that are highly specific to the business and therefore a distinguishing need -- such as the need to support digital properties in 25 languages in a decentralized manner while keeping them all in sync
  • Extreme Priority Requirements: Those that may appear standard in nature, such as "ease of content editing", but are considered high enough priority that they deserve special focus and thus help you quickly filter candidate products. For example, if you have hundreds of content contributors that use the system infrequently, the intuitiveness of the content editing process might take on heightened importance.

In Liewehr's estimation most organizations have no more than six to 10 focal needs. And when building your Web CMS shortlist, it’s preferable to focus on these to identify a few options that will meet your needs, saving the longer list of requirements for the features matrix as we describe in Rule No. 4 below.

To dig deeper into this area, read: Selecting a CMS: How to Build a Short List. And if you haven't visited our product directory, then pop over and check out our big list of Web CMS products.

4. Use, 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
  • ...etc.

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.

To understand the do's and don'ts of the features matrix, read this article: How to Use, Not Abuse a Web CMS Features Matrix.

5. 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:

  1. It is written with specific users in mind
  2. It addresses an important and commonly executed task
  3. It references the content that you intend to manage
  4. 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. To fully understand scenario writing read this article: Selecting a CMS: Developing Usage Scenarios.

6. 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 towards an informed decision. Neither case is very appealing -- so try to avoid both.

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 peaking 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:

  • 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?
  • How naturally does the product fit our vision?
  • What customizations or compromises will we have to make if we choose this product?

Product demos will take up a lot of your team's time. So prepare for them in advance. Think through this part of the process carefully by reading this article: Selecting a CMS: Managing Product Demos.

7. Don't Panic and Overbuy

Overbuying software is a seductive but delusional trap that far to many buyers fall into. Many people tend to overbuy when they don't have a fleshed out strategy — they think they can reduce the risk by acquiring capability. This is nothing but a false sense of security because the opposite is true. 

“This is worse than just wasting money buying functionality that you don't need,” Gottlieb said. “Overbuying adds complexity to the implementation that increases the risk of failure. Once the solution has been deployed, the additional complexity makes it harder to use and that leads to neglect and failure. But you are really increasing risk by saddling yourself with functionality whose under-utilization or misuse leads to larger problems.”

Guseva said she sees too much under-budgeting and under-staffing. Do a five-year total cost of ownership to make sure you account for the broader costs, Guseva suggested, which includes not only software licenses, but also support and maintenance, implementation, customization, training and other expenses.

“From the staffing perspective, organizations often under-account,” she said. “The software alone is not going to fix your current problems -- it's the people behind the software that make it powerful.”

Going Further

This article provides a solid framework for 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.

Additionally, here are a few more articles to help you along the path:

Photo courtesy of Alex Mit (Shutterstock).