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When it comes to choosing a CMS, the mind boggles at the different features, functionalities, pros and cons offered. You’d think that cost was the most straightforward aspect of the process. Your company will have a budget that the vendor may or may not be able to accommodate. And while it may be tempting to just focus on comparing license fees alone, there is indeed a lot more to consider, especially if you want to lower your total cost of ownership (TCO) in the long term.

It’s common to see brands adopting a new CMS with a reasonably low-cost license, without really considering the ongoing operating costs. As a result, the brand ends up with a high TCO. So to help nip that in the bud, we interviewed several industry experts and practitioners to help uncover the best ways to lower the TCO when selecting a CMS.

Price and Cost: Not the Same Thing

Paul Erlicht, head of customer accounts at Raw Engineering, said a common misunderstanding that leads to a high TCO is when brands equate the price of the software product with the cost. “Price is what’s paid to purchase or license the software. Costs are the expenses incurred as a result of purchasing software.”

Typical expenses include hiring specialist developers to look after the day-to-day upkeep of the software, which includes running maintenance and installing software updates and things like upgrades and security patches in a timely manner. These expenses can often be found in CMS platforms when you need to host the platform yourself. “One of the biggest things that you need to know before you select a CMS, is if you need to host the platform yourself. 

Some CMS platforms, like Shopify Plus, is a hosted platform, whereas if you use Magento, you need to get your own hosting. [The latter] would [incur] an extra cost that you should be taking into consideration,” said Jenna Erickson, marketing manager at Codal.

Once the cost exceeds the initial price or value of the software product, the “economic life” is over. The economic life, defined by Erlicht, refers to the length of time where the value of the software is higher than the cost of running the software. “When calculating TCO, we see many leaders calculate that a purchase’s economic life will start much earlier than it does — within perhaps a few weeks — when it actually starts three to four months later,” said Erlicht. As a result of this, brands see the “economic life ending much sooner than expected as well, with companies struggling to maintain a purchase's useful life and shoehorning workflows into an outdated piece of tech,” he said.

Erlicht added that software products, in general, have no “intrinsic” value. The value itself comes from realizing the benefits of the software. “If workflows are disrupted and teams need to compensate or lose productivity to learn a new [CMS] system, [the] actual value of the software becomes very low. We see this very often with legacy CMS that lack integrations and extensions, whereby teams aren’t able to use the tools they want and are forced to use tools someone else purchased,” said Erlicht.

Here are some of the other tips we gleaned that will help keep your total cost of ownership low.

Related Article: 24 Headless CMS That Should Be On Your Radar in 2019

1. Opt for Headless CMS

A headless CMS usually has an API-driven environment that provides developers the freedom to create their own applications with their preferred tools and connect it to the headless CMS platform via API calls.

“With a headless CMS, developers are not tied down to complex CMS frameworks,” said Erlicht. “Developers can work with the programming languages they [prefer] since the front-end app or website is decoupled from the content layer. A headless CMS allows for you to retain the talent you already have by allowing them to work with your existing frameworks.”

Additionally, from a content creation perspective, a headless CMS enables marketers to “update content once and publish everywhere.” This prevents marketers from having to “infinitely” copy and paste content for multiple channels. This, as Erlicht stated, creates “enormous efficiencies for your content marketing team.”

2. Demand a CMS With a Friendly UI

A headless CMS that comes with a user-friendly interface with a host of different features, also known as a decoupled CMS or hybrid CMS, gives marketers more control over the CMS platform and will be less reliant on their IT teams.

Erlicht said if a brand is using a headless CMS without a user-friendly interface, content marketers are “forced” to file tickets to their IT team for simple content updates. And these tickets are not dealt with straight away. “Once the ticket is received by IT, it must be triaged, updated and then added to a sprint for the next upcoming release. Typically, sprints are 3 week periods, so making a simple content change such as a spelling mistake or updating a product description will take weeks vs. seconds with a [decoupled] CMS,” said Erlicht.

Erickson said that when looking for a CMS, it is important to keep in mind that different headless CMS providers will offer different features. “[A] major thing to look out for, is simply the features. Some CMS’s have built-in features, that others do not. Some of these features can include: product reviews, RSS feed, SEO tools and more,” Erickson said.

If a CMS does not have a particular feature, then brands can purchase a plug-in to accommodate it. But as Erickson advised, this additional cost should be “taken into consideration before you choose a CMS.”

“As you are demoing the CMS, make sure the interface is intuitive and user-friendly. Nobody wants to have to read through a manual to figure out how to make updates to their website and the purpose of having a CMS in the first place is so you can use it,” said Tim Troiano, web developer at SFA Marketing.

Related Article: 8 Tips to Capture Better Requirements For Your Software Project

3. Look for “Powerful” Integration Capabilities

A headless CMS with strong integration capabilities will enable you to develop your own digital experience platform that meets your requirements. “Look for a CMS that has a powerful integration story with features that allow you to extend the UI to work within your existing marketing and tech stack,” said Erlicht.

4. Find a SaaS-based CMS

As Erickson mentioned earlier, a self-hosted CMS would increase TCO since the onus will be on you to look after the system. “To get the most bang for your buck I would recommend finding a CMS that is already hosted and that has as many built-in features as possible,” said Erickson.

Erlicht highlighted the cost-saving benefits of a SaaS-based headless CMS. “[A CMS that is] SaaS-hosted takes care of the back-end scaling and infrastructure. Teams see significant cost savings without having to host a content database; they are only responsible for the front-end code,” said Erlicht.

5. Ask Difficult and Detailed Questions

And finally, Erlicht advised brands to ask CMS vendors specific questions to discover any hidden fees.

  • Do they have a scalable pricing model?
    • When do I move to the next tier?
    • Are there add-ons (required or optional)?
  • Is there any specialized training?
  • Do you require onboarding services?
  • Do you host the back end?
    • What does the typical infrastructure hosting model look like?
    • How many sites or content destinations are included?

Got any more tips on how brands can keep ongoing costs low when switching to a new CMS? Share them with us below!