The CMS questions that you really should be asking suppliers

From my archive - originally published on 8 May 2009

This follows on from a piece on how to select a CMS system that I wrote last year. Most of the RFP (request for proposal) documents that I see for content management systems follow the same pattern, making it easy for agencies and vendors to respond with boiler-plate answers. In a crowded CMS market chock-full of converging products it can become very difficult to differentiate between the different platforms.

The functionality that a CMS supports is really only part of the story, as you need find out about what the vendor or implementer will be like to work with over the long term. This involves a lot of intangibles and this article explores the kind of questions that you should be asking when choosing a CMS.

Preparing for the long haul

Choosing a CMS platform is a long-term strategic decision – you will, at the very least, be using it for three years and it’ll take a couple more years beyond that to fund, procure and develop any replacement. With this in mind, make sure that you’re covered for a five-year commitment and you won’t be left high and dry by a platform that is not in step with your strategic plans, or a vendor that disappears into bankruptcy.

The road-map for the product is essential – with a long-term commitment you will need to ensure that there is a cogent long-term plan for the product. Ideally, you need a sense of how they see the web developing over the next five years, how their product will evolve in response to this and whether or not this dove-tails with your own strategy. You should take particular care with the financials. How has their revenue and profile grown over the last few years and how is it likely to continue to grow? Is this vendor going to disappear if the CMS market (finally) consolidates over this period?

Ask “how” not “if”

Many RFP’s contain long lists of required functionality that can seem like a check list. Bear in mind that all CMS vendors and implementers have developed some kind of strategy for dealing with pretty much any request you can throw at them. Any CMS decision will be a trade-off between functionality and cost, so it is important to decide what functionality is most important to you and ask some genuinely searching questions. Instead of asking “if” a CMS supports your desired functionality, you should be asking “how” it is supported and demand examples – including some from live sites.

Many CMS platforms offer modules or add-ons for functional areas such as analytics, search, social media and email. These are often a “box-ticking” exercise that can be inferior to the market-leading products in their field. Be careful with these and seek to understand why you should use them as opposed to established products that you may already have in place.

Don’t get locked in

It’s worth checking what migration facilities are provided by the system for when you decide to move your content out of the system into a replacement. An honest vendor will give you a straight answer here and you will at least have the luxury of an escape route if things don’t work out years down the line.

Factoring in the full cost of CMS support

The initial implementation of a CMS isn’t the end of development, as you will continue to customize your implementation through a series of enhancements.

The size of the development community becomes significant here, but how active this community is also matters. Get them to show you where these communities are and try to engage with them – a well-established development community will give you more honest answers than any vendor.

The cost of skilled development expertise in the CMS platform is also a factor here – the vendors and implementers will know this, and the more honest ones will tell you.

Awkward questions

It’s always worth throwing in a few curve-balls, if only to see what kind of response you get. I’m not keen on making it unnecessarily difficult for people, particularly in the hot-house environment of the pitch, but a well-placed “awkward question” can at least act as a test of honesty:

  • What’s the most difficult implementation that you’ve worked on?
  • What is your CMS platform not designed for?
  • When did you last lose a selection exercise like this? Why do you think you lost?

Don’t be too difficult – you are seeking to establish a long-term partnership after all – but you should at least make vendors and implementers think beyond the prepared script.