Web CMS Evaluation and Selection: A Guide for Business Users

Dennis Shiao
by Dennis Shiao 12 Jun, 2017

Your content management system (CMS) can be a source of frustration. The frustration stems from not being able to do something, or from the CMS software getting in the way. When something gets in the way, it makes us less productive. Hence the frustration.

Sources of Frustration

More specifically, the list of CMS grievances includes:

  • Poor usability
  • High complexity, especially for non-technical users
  • Poor content editing experience
  • Limited options for customizing style, layout or presentation
  • Missing features

The list goes on.

Evaluating and Selecting a New CMS

When a CMS gets in the way of business users, their recourse is to turn to IT. The IT team can access features or privileges not available to business users, or make updates directly to the underlying database, bypassing the CMS application altogether.

This arrangement benefits neither team, as IT gets bogged down handling requests, and business users become less agile in managing the site's content. In this article, I'll look at a process business users can follow to evaluate and select a new CMS.

First Step: Identify the Must-Have Capabilities

While every vendor talks about their wide array of CMS features, you want to focus on what's most important to you. So boil it down to your absolute must-have capabilities. Keep your list to a manageable number (e.g., 5 is better than 25).

Use statements such as this one:

We cannot bring in [CMS X] if it doesn't do [CAPABILITY Y]

You'll start the list via the current pain points in your CMS. When you translate a pain point into a must-have, it's important to be specific, and to use quantifiable objectives. Let's take the pain point of "high complexity, especially for non-technical users." Instead of a must-have statement of:

We cannot bring in [CMS X] if it's not easy to use

Be more specific and quantifiable:

We cannot bring in [CMS X] if our marketing team can't edit the "Product of the Week" feature in 30 minutes or less

Once you've documented your current system's shortcomings, ask yourself, "What can a CMS provide that we haven't yet considered?" CMS technology evolves, so what's available today may not have existed when you selected your current CMS.

Think about what a CMS can do for you, and add these to your list. As you meet with vendors, you'll get a sense for whether these aspirational items are realistic or not. Side note: if it's an essential capability and the vendor claims to do it, insist that they show, not just tell.

Second Step: Coordinate with IT

CMS software is often vetted, installed and managed by IT. The IT team configures the CMS, and sets up permissions, workflow, page templates and more.

So meet with IT and let them know that you'd like to evaluate new CMS options. They may have parameters that a new vendor needs to adhere to (e.g., technology stack, ADA compliance, minimum performance requirements, etc.).

Even if you love "CMS X," the IT team may determine that it's not a fit for your organization's infrastructure or falls short on mandatory requirements. So be sure to communicate with IT before you look at specific vendors.

Work with IT to establish the roles and responsibilities for the project. Three common scenarios are:

  • Marketing leads the selection, with IT as secondary evaluators
  • IT leads the selection, with marketing as secondary evaluators
  • IT and marketing drive the selection in tandem

Since a CMS is the foundation for your organization's digital presence, be prepared to have other teams and influencers participate in the selection. Hold firm on your priorities, knowing that you may need to play "give and take" with colleagues.

Third Step: Vendor Demos that Focus on Your Must-Haves

Ask any CMS vendor for a demo, and they'll readily perform a well-rehearsed, one-hour demo. A vendor's standard demo, however, is likely to tell you nothing about how well they stack up against your must-have list.

To prepare for the most productive and insightful vendor demos, I recommend the following:

  1. Review your must-have list with the rest of the organization
  2. "Give and take" to consolidate things into a single, master list
  3. Translate each must-have into a demo scenario for the vendor
  4. During the allotted demo window, insist that the vendor stick to just your documented scenarios

Here's a sample scenario to request of the vendor:

"Once our blog authors have all of their content and images ready to go, we want them to create and publish each post in 30 minutes or less. Please demonstrate the post creation process, including content entry, image upload, tagging and taxonomy, SEO settings, Open Graph protocol tags and post scheduling."

Too often, a CMS vendor covers too many features in their demo. It's fine to miss out on 80 percent of the vendor's capabilities, so long as you get answers (i.e., validation) to your must-haves. You can always follow up with your vendor sales representative about features you didn't see, or check its website.

After the demo, ask the vendor for 2-3 customer references whose use cases match up with your must-have capabilities. When you connect with those references, ask them if your must-have (i.e., which is documented in a quantifiable way) is reasonable to achieve with the vendor's product.

In addition, try to connect with customers whom were not provided by the vendor, and read reviews on sites like G2 Crowd.

Closing Thoughts

A CMS is a long-term investment. If you select a CMS well-suited to your needs, it'll be actively used for the next 10 years. So allocate the necessary time, resources and investment into the selection process. The last thing you want to do is make a hasty decision and have to select a new CMS (again) in two years. About the Author
Dennis Shiao is director of content marketing at DNN Software, where he manages the creation of blog posts, Web content, eBooks, webinars and more. He uses content to drive awareness of DNN's content management system (CMS) software. Dennis holds a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, but is far more comfortable in HTML and CSS than C# and Java. Feel free to connect with Dennis on Twitter.