So You Think You Want A CMS? Read On To Be Sure...

2005-07-26
Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal

When purchased, implemented, and used appropriately, a content management system (CMS) is a beautiful thing. Though not rocket science - more often than not, companies are finding that the technology solutions they have selected equate to the likes of taking a sledgehammer to a housefly or worse a feather duster to a sandstorm.  We understand that many organizations are facing the ongoing battle of keeping their Web sites up-to-date, relevant, and compelling.  That creating, publishing, and updating Web site information, or “content,” requires infinitely more attention to detail than any casual observer might assume.  And there’s absolutely no question that, left to haphazard process, such activity can negatively impact a company’s bottom line.  So before you disburse those funds, read on to minimize your chance of joining the ranks of those who are unhappy with their CMS.

Let’s start with the basics…what is a CMS? According to Webopedia.com, “content management system” is defined as “software that enables one to add and/or manipulate content on a Web site.”  More specifically, a CMS can:

  • Provide Web access to Web site content owners directly
  • Allow for faster updates of Web sites

  • Provide an easy-to-use interface where content owners do not need to know HTML
  • Create accountability, as most content managers can track logins and changes to various pages within the site
  • Uphold standardization rules

In summary, the primary goal of a CMS is to create a controlled environment that allows all groups involved in the creation, maintenance, and updating of a Web site to easily work together without significant overhead, duplicated work, or unnecessary delays.  The idea is to allow both technical and non-technical employees to own their work like never before, because the payoffs can be tremendous – including such benefits as lower operating costs, shorter publishing deadlines, greater efficiency, and a wider range of features for your Web site.

Choosing a CMS is challenging.  The tools range from high-end corporate solutions that do all you could ask for a hefty price tag down to inexpensive and free tools that you implement and maintain yourself.  But how do you decide what you need?

First, be honest about your goals and objectives – why does your company want a CMS?  What is driving your decision?  Are you frustrated with delays in getting new content out on your Web site?  Have you begun to see a bottleneck in your current process that’s creating inefficiencies and a loss in productivity?  Basically, make sure you actually need a CMS, because not everyone does.  Some companies do not generate enough content to justify the time and investment involved in using a full-blown CMS.  Organizations that just need to post infrequent news updates may be able to get by with a simple blogging system.  It is imperative that you spend some time up front determining what the real needs of your organization are.

Become familiar with your content and the processes surrounding it.  Obviously, with a name like content management system, content is key.  Start by asking the “Ws”:  What content will be managed?  Who is the audience for this content?  Where does the content live?  Who owns it?  How frequently does it change?  What is the production process?  What is the content’s lifespan?  For larger organizations, these questions can be difficult to answer.  In fact, there may be no single person in your organization who has a complete understanding of all of your organization’s content needs.  But you will still need to make an effort to answer these questions before you can determine what your true requirements are.  Do not even think about selecting a system until you’re comfortable that you know all there is to know about your content and the process used to create and manage it.

Understand that when it comes to a CMS, one size never fits all.  There are hundreds of CMS’s targeted at different markets.  These systems have huge variations in cost, technology, and complexity.  The goal of your organization is to find a system that meets your specific content and organizational needs.  The last thing you need is a sledgehammer for a housefly – basically, an overly complex system that offers cutting edge features that your company has no use for.  Likewise, there will almost certainly be a variety of must-have features that you cannot live without.  In addition to getting to know your content, you’ll want to consider the following:  How many contributors do you have?  Are your contributors centralized in a few departments, or do you have a deeper organizational hierarchy?  What are your workflow, authorization, and publishing requirements?  Do you need the ability to maintain a multi-lingual site?  Do you need personalization?  Do you have transactional requirements?  Scheduling and content rotation?  Version control?  Since the chances are that you’ve never developed a CMS requirements document before, you might consider seeking professional assistance before you begin evaluating CMS vendors and applications.

Have and know your budget.  Understanding the total cost of ownership of a CMS is essential during the decision making process.  Prepare yourself for sticker shock, because depending upon the type of system you’re considering, prices could vary from a few hundred dollars into the millions!  The reasons for this are that CMS solutions are broadly defined and range from simple Web editors suitable for individuals to highly complex enterprise content management systems (ECM) scaled for large corporations.  When planning your budget, software license fees are typically only one component of pricing for CMS – there are also implementation, training, and recurring fees such as maintenance, support, and subscription fees to consider.  It has been stated that you can expect to spend three- to five-times the cost of the license during the implementation phase.  Not surprisingly, with such an investment, you should ask your core team their opinions of proposed solutions as you evaluate alternatives.  Are the solutions straightforward and intuitive?  Can they see the value in using this tool?  This will help you identify the best fit for your organization and avoid unnecessary complexity and unforeseen costs.  Then calculate total cost of ownership over 3-5 years, invest in an affordable solution that delivers what your company needs and avoid overspending on unwarranted bells and whistles.

Examine your choices.  Find as many CMS tools as you can to evaluate – include vendor Web sites, CMS documentation, and forums and support boards in your research.  Narrow your choices down to a small number that your organization can afford – then request a demo of the product – be it online, onsite, vendor-guided, self-guided, interactive, or non-interactive. Decide which CMS best fits your organization, and then work only with an established vendor.  Be sure to consider the following during your vendor evaluation:  Have you heard of the company or used any of its products before?  Is their sales process organized?  Did you receive an appropriate level of pre-sales support and have confidence in their ability to support you post-sale?  The vendor you select should be willing to spend time with you in order to understand your specific situation and help guide you in an appropriate direction.

And now that you’re prepared - make your selection with confidence.   Remember that your company has unique needs, and the CMS industry provides a litany of solutions to choose from, which is both good news and bad news for your organization.  During the selection process, stay focused on three criteria:  your organization’s specific needs; your organization’s capabilities; and the stability of your CMS partner.  Making the right choice can add tremendous value to your organization, while making the wrong one can be disastrous.