14 September 2008

Selecting a web content management system (CMS)

Selecting an appropriate web CMS can be daunting. The CMS market is very fragmented and prone to rapid change with a large number of vendors and technologies competing within each particular sector.

There is no standard definition of what a CMS actually is, neither are there any agreed standards over what a web CMS should do. In very broad terms, a web CMS allows you to manage the production and publishing of web content and will provide the following capabilities:

  • Using standard templates to control the appearance and organisation of content. This serves to establish consistent branding and allows changes to be made from one central place.
  • Separating content from visual implementation should make the creation of web content far simpler, allowing editors to create and submit new content without having any technical knowledge of HTML.
  • Content creation should be subject to a system of workflow management, where the process of creating, editing and approving content can be appropriately controlled. This should cover the entire life-cycle of a document, from creation, revisions, archiving and destruction.
  • Most web CMS systems allow for the extension of functionality through plug-ins or modules, allowing for integration with other, external systems where necessary.

There is considerable variation between different web CMS providers in how they achieve these basic capabilities and the additional services that they provide.

Selecting a CMS system

In making a choice between different web CMS platforms it is important to start by establishing the core business objectives that the technology will serve. A web CMS project should be under-pinned by a well-defined business case that has identified the perceived benefits with particular regard to any expected return on investment.

The process of selecting a platform should involve a diverse range of stakeholders – those with most at stake tend to involve people in communication-orientated roles such as content editors, authors and service managers. It is also important that any internal IT stakeholders are involved as they will inevitably have long-term technical responsibility for the platform. A list of requirements should be derived from the core business objectives that underpin the project. Typical factors that differentiate different CMS systems and influence buying decisions include the following:

  • Are there any preferences for a particular technology platform?
  • Is there any in-house development capability that can develop the platform?
  • What is the budget? Have the cost implications been fully considered over a three-year period?
  • Will the web CMS serve multiple web sites or just one corporate site?
  • How much content is the website likely to host in the long-term?
  • Are there any requirements for integration with back-end information systems?
  • Are community features important, such as blogs and forums?
  • How important is search and search functionality does the CMS provide?
  • Is any content personalisation required, i.e. targeting specific content to identified groups of users?
  • Is there a requirement for multi-lingual content?
  • What kind of workflow arrangements need to be supported around the creation and publishing of content?
  • How many content editors must the CMS manage?
  • What type of content will the CMS handle – i.e. are there any requirements around document management?
  • What is the skill level of the content editors, i.e. are they comfortable with HTML or will they need a simple interface for creating content?
  • Is there any support required for eCommerce transactions, i.e. credit card payments?
  • What are the security requirements of the system?
  • What level of reporting and web site analytics are required?
  • Does the CMS vendor have a long-term strategy and development road map for the platform?

Given the level of fragmentation in the CMS market there is no one product that will meet every single requirement on a wish list, so it is important to establish those requirements that have the highest priority. When your are prioritising objectives it is wise to avoid a “check-box”-style list of requirements as all CMS providers have developed some means of addressing these generic requirements on a basic level. For higher priority items it is worth outlining a more detailed use case so you can determine exactly how a CMS might address the requirement. For example, rather than asking “do you support multiple languages” you should be asking “how do you support multiple languages”.

Note that you will not just be choosing a software vendor – you will also be selecting a company to implement the system for you. There tends to be a common misconception over how much of the final system comes “out of the box”: all web CMS implementations require significant development effort to develop customer-specific templates and website functionality. The choice of implementation partner is easily as important as the choice of platform and you should select a partner that has a strong track record in developing solutions with your chosen platform.

You should see your choice of implementor and platform vendor in terms of partnership. Given that all CMS implementations are a long-term engagement it is critical that you can trust them and work well with them. After all, any system will have limitations and most software development projects come across snags at some point – the mark of a good development partner is one that will work constructivly with you to overcome any issues that emerge.

In terms of budget, it is advisable to consider the full cost of ownership for a CMS platform over the long term, including software licensing, development, hosting, support and maintenance. Pricing models for CMS systems can be as varied as the technologies that underpin them, with different emphasis placed on the number and size of web servers, the number of content editors or the level of product support provided. It is important to take a long-term view of the cost of ownership – you are, after all, investing in a platform that you will use for at least three years so the cost over the entire period should be factored in.

Filed under CMS, Strategy.