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People often ask me what they should look for when choosing a CMS. Different systems fit different needs, so here are some important factors to consider when deciding if a solution meets your “must haves.”

Narrow Down the Short List

1. Pick a Language

With the rise of modern API-based architecture, especially in cloud solutions, tools are more programming language agnostic than ever. However, for integrations, customization, extensions and hybrid setups it’s still helpful for tools to use a programming language teams are comfortable with. 

All languages have their merits, .NET fits well into the world of Microsoft platforms, PHP can get a simple website up very quickly, and Java’s object-oriented nature makes it easy to reuse across apps and platforms. The language is simply the building blocks of the solution, the architecture of the system is what truly matters, but if your developers specialize in a certain language it can help cut down the short list.

2. Page or Content Based

While the definition seems to fall on a sliding scale, page-based CMSs are ones that closely tie content to the web page it is displayed on, i.e. the content belongs to a particular page. It’s a very straightforward model, and can be great for websites that are mainly product brochures and blogs. In content-based CMSs, web pages are different “views” of content and the same piece of content can be viewed on regional sites, apps, portals, IoT devices, fitting into each one's unique template. A major benefit here is that shared content is updated once and that update is seen on all channels. Additionally, initiatives like dynamic content personalization, Single Page Applications (SPAs), and interactive touchpoints like chat and voice require a content based set up. 

3. Features for SEO and Search

First, you need customers to find you and then you need them to stay. Not all content creators will be SEO experts, so look for features that make it easy — adding alt text to images, creating human readable URLs, managing redirects, and optimizing HTML tags should be editor friendly with no coding required. For both SEO and on-site search, the ability to easily add metadata to individual content pieces (not just the overall page) makes search more refined and content more findable. Look for CMSs with rich tagging that feeds search out of the box and makes content easily understood for advanced search applications, such as those that use AI.

Related Article: How to Break the Web CMS Replacement Cycle

How Flexible Do You Want Your Digital World?

4. Level of Personalization

Do you have one niche audience or multiple customer segmentations? Are you looking to give a unique homepage banner to different cities or targeting content throughout your whole experience dynamically? Do you want to open your content to AI to drive one to one personalization? 

Data for different areas of personalization is often derived from different systems (CRM, marketing automation, customer loyalty program, etc), so make sure the CMS has the ability to hook up with your particular list of data sources.

5. The Right Set Up

CMSs have three critical parts: the content repository, the authoring environment and the delivery tier. How you want to use these three parts is up to you. 

By locking the three together you have a coupled CMS, great for smaller sites with infrequent updates. By “decoupling” authoring and delivery you get a system that’s a bit more complex but makes it easy to handle multiple sites and update your environment without impacting your live sites/touchpoints. Having just the content repository gives you a headless setup, where the raw content can be presented on any front-end template, or “head”, from a third party or home-grown delivery solution, which is great for apps and IoT devices, but difficult for marketers to change templates, add components and preview delivery. 

Hybrid solutions let your developers make a face for any channel (like headless) while also giving your editors the “decoupled” delivery tier to control the traditional website.

6. Best-of-Breed vs. Suite

This ongoing debate has passionate advocates on both sides. Suites promise more centralized control from a single vendor, but at the price of rigidity — if you want to experience a new tool or touchpoint you have to wait until the functionality is built into the suite. Best-of-breeds require development effort to hook up with other tools, platforms, and data sources, but they don’t lock you into any one vendor. If you’ve invested in a CRM system you like, or want to try out a new ecommerce platform soon, a best-of-breed CMS gives you the freedom to choose. Since they work with your existing tech stack, and don’t require an entire rip and replace, best-of-breeds typically mean quicker implementation up front.

From a customer experience perspective, marketing suites that include a native CMS are often focused on customer acquisition (and do a good job at this) while best-of-breed CMSs are more focused on the full journey: integrating with business process management (BPM), customer support, extranets, etc.

7. Open Source or Proprietary

Proprietary solutions have a strict line on what can and cannot be done with their tools. It’s clear up front what features and integrations you can have, and these features have usually gone through a series of user tests, a definite positive. 

Open source lets you open up the hood and tweak the code to customize the solution and gives you access to shared solutions and components built by other members of the open source community. Due to the size of the communities, there is usually more documentation and training on open source initiatives. Most best-of-breed solutions are going to have APIs available to connect with other tools, regardless of code availability, so the decision on open source largely depends on how much flexibility and customization you want, especially in regards to integrations.

Related Article: 9 Tips to Consider When Selecting a Digital Experience Platform

Where Do You Want to Be in Five Years?

8. Cloud

Like the many other enterprises, you might be using a hybrid cloud architecture. Hybrid cloud architecture allows users to take advantage of the cost-effective scalability of the public cloud while keeping more business-critical applications on a more secure private cloud. In this case, you need a CMS solution that is the most advantageous for your set-up. 

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions are managed in the public cloud by the CMS vendor. These solutions are generally one-size-fits-all with the vendor maintaining infrastructure and controlling featuring availability. This means minimal IT need and simple upfront build, but it also a lack of customization of features, integrations and private cloud availability. Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solutions also keep the infrastructure maintenance with the vendor, but customization, features and integrations are in the hands of the enterprise. PaaS solutions require more up front build but have the flexibility to work in both public and private cloud environments, and some have the ability to work in a hybrid manner across both.

9. APIs

Digital experience is only going to grow. Your customers will want to complete more of their (consistent) journey online and that means your CMS, ecommerce platform, CRM, marketing automation, PIM, etc are going to have to get very good at sharing. It also means your content needs to work on web, apps, chat, voice, IoT and other interfaces as they arise. 

APIs are the currency that makes all this possible, structuring information exchange so that it can be shared and rendered agnostic of platform and interface. If you want the ability to connect your whole digital environment without tedious integrations, ensure your CMS is built for API use.

10. DXP Ready

As digital continues to guide business goals, there is rising demand on the platform(s) that controls it — hence the rise of the digital experience platform (DXP) to orchestrate the entire end-to-end journey. Content management is just one part of the DXP, but a very core part, which is why many DXP solutions have evolved from classic CMSs. DXPs are for organizations requiring full connection, both back and front end, to meet their customers needs. Their data orchestration ability is also key for companies looking to pull artificial intelligence across the experience. If that’s where you want your experience to go in the future, ensure the CMS you chose has a clear path to fitting into a DXP.

Choosing a content platform is no easy task. It needs to satisfy multiple departments and because it’s a long term investment, it needs to grow with your digital needs. A good technology partner or analyst firm like Gartner, Forrester, Digital Clarity Group and Real Story Group can help you navigate the world of CMS and help you find the solution that will fit your needs today and support the experience you want to build in the coming years.