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11 Rules for Selecting the Right Content Management System (CMS)

How important is selecting the right web content management system (WCMS)? Forrester analyst Ted Schadler, in his company's Web Content Management Wave report, called WCM the “Backbone of Digital Experience Delivery.” Salesforce research found 75 percent of consumers expect a consistent experience wherever they engage (e.g., website, social media, mobile, in person), so the pressure is on for marketing practitioners to have the right “backbone,” or Web Content Management System.

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 talk strategy for an effective WCM selection process. Here are some rules of the road when it comes to the Web Content Management selection process.

Recognize These Four Key WCM Pillars

Seth Gottlieb, a 20-year veteran of the web content management industry and CTO for global offerings at Lionbridge, says four key pillars of a Web Content Management selection process include:

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. 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.

Community: Look at your existing customer community for vision and for references from people or organizations who have similar challenges and goals.

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.

Avoid Over-Buying

Over the past four years, the market has continued to consolidate, but "portfolio-oriented" vendors have not made equal progress at integrating their acquisitions, according to Gottlieb.

The vision/execution gap for this type of vendor is not narrowing as one would hope. “Buyers are finding that the comprehensive, out-of-the-box, integrated marketing platform is only “demo deep” and still requires a lot of implementation work to make it useful. The risk of ‘over-buying’ continues to grow,” says Gottlieb.

Vendor vision is certainly important, but success or failure will be determined in the trenches where actual users execute the organization's content strategy.

Overbuying technology is a chronic problem, Gottlieb added. “The only way to prevent it is to focus on your real-world usage scenarios and disregard nifty features that you would probably use,” he says.

Assemble Lighter-Weight Technologies

Take perhaps a more tactical approach of assembling lighter weight technologies that can efficiently support specific functions. At the same time, look for vendors that prioritize openness (standards and APIs) over becoming the marketing organization's sole technology vendor. Gartner WCM analyst Mick MacComascaigh, had this to say in a CMSWire interview last July about Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management said, "We're in favor of API-first as opposed to API-only."

People, Processes Help You Understand Your Needs

Find a partner that can work with you from marketing strategy through deployment, Gottlieb said. Have a plan for how you engage with your audience, deploy people and process that will support your side of the engagement and then deploy technology to make the program more efficient. “Having effective people and process in place and doing the work — even with primitive tools — will help you understand what functionality you need. The implementation of the technology is a bigger lever on success than the technology itself,” Gottlieb says.

Know Your Needs: Software or Strategy?

Why is it important to establish whether your buying process stems from a software-related issue or an actual strategic one? “If you want to experiment with a new marketing tactic, there are plenty of lightweight tools that can be easily implemented to support a pilot. Too many organizations can't get out of a never-ending cycle of replacing technology to solve organizational problems,” says Gottlieb.

Gottlieb advises that a WCMS selection process should always start as a strategic issue. Only replace software when you have empirically established what activities have the greatest impact, i.e., personalization, email campaigns, chat, etc. Have a clear idea why and how the current tools are holding you back.

Describe Requirements with Usage Scenario

A usage scenario is the most effective way to describe requirements for your WCMS selection process. A usage scenario can be described as a “narrative that describes what a person needs to use the technology for,” Gottlieb offers. These scenarios are used as a basis for comparing different platforms. Usage scenarios should be specific about inputs and outcomes and general about how the technology works.

For example, Gottlieb says, a usage scenario about posting a press release may specify that the person who writes press releases always delivers it in Microsoft Word; the publishing of the press release needs to be scheduled; how the newswires accepts press releases (publication channel and format); and where on the site the press releases should be listed.

Don’t get too specific though he warns. “A usage scenario should not include procedural or user interface details. Usage scenarios should be prioritized by impact and frequency. An hour-long task that you need to do every day is more important than an occasional task that happens a couple of times a year,” says Gottlieb.

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.

Ensure Demos Cover Same Usage Scenarios

Eventually, you’re going to be facing a product demo, and, for all intents and purposes, it should not be a canned one the WCMS vendor provides all their potential clients. “You want to be able to compare demonstrations of different products. The best way to do this is to make sure that all the demos cover the same usage scenarios. For each scenario demonstration, you should focus on short comings and risks: clues that the technology will impede efficiency. Over time, you will take for granted the features you love and grow more resentful of features that are unnecessarily difficult to use,”Gottlieb says.

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

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.

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 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.

Treat Implementation Partner Selection SeriouslyEventually, once you’ve selected a WCMS, you’re going to in all likelihood have a strong implementation partner. This is a crucial part of the entire process, according to Cathy McKnight, vice president of consulting for Digital Clarity Group, which helps organizations with WCMS selections.

McKnight said the implementation partners make all the difference. “You can have the top, most infallible content management system but a really crappy implementation team and your implementation is going to stink.” Conversely, a hotshot implementation team can take a mediocre CMS and "make it awesome."

This is so important that McKnight cautions, “If you're going to make mistakes, make it with the technology, not the implementation team.”

Gather WCMS Selection Resources

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.

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