What Do You Need to Know Before You Select a New Content Management System?

Tom Jelen | 05.31.19
Topics: Web - Mobile - Social

Effective websites are mission-critical for associations—used for communicating with members, providing services, managing ecommerce, and acquiring new customers. However, it can be difficult to find the right content management systems (CMS) to publish your websites.


Before you begin your selection process, ask yourself the following questions to get started on the right foot.

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What Comes First, the CMS Partner or the CMS Platform Vendor?

If you have developers on staff—or a standard programming environment (e.g., .NET, PHP) for application development—you may want to start your selection process by going directly to the platform vendors. They will generally have sales staff that can walk you through product demos or set up a trial of the system for you to try on your own.

Once you have a platform selected, it can be much easier to compare development proposals from different partner companies. As the saying goes, you are comparing apples to apples. The migration, development, and customization expenses can be compared side-by-side and you can easily identify outliers.

If you don't have developers on staff—or strong opinions on the application development framework that is used by the CMS—you may find that you save time and money by simply going to partners with your requirements and asking them to develop a proposal for their recommended system. Many web development firms will partner with more than one CMS and they can tailor their recommendation to your budget and requirements. They can also demo the recommended system and provide a candid perspective on how it works.  

When You Select a New Content Management System, How Long Should You Plan For?

Acquiring a new content management system is a significant undertaking. When determining your budget and timeline, there are many factors to consider. For example:

  • Associations tend to have hundreds, even thousands of content objects (e.g., webpages, documents, images), and switching to a new CMS will require the migration of all that content to the new platform.
  • Even when the process is automated, the migration can still negatively impact search or create page not found “404” errors.
  • The site needs to be developed in the new CMS development framework. This capital expense tends to be a large portion of the overall implementation budget.

Due to the costs and time involved with a CMS migration and implementation, it’s best to play it safe and plan for the next five years. That means you should develop a five-year budget and make sure that the ecosystem of support and partners looks like it is stable enough to support you for at least five years.

How Many Bells and Whistles Do We Need to Communicate Our Mission?

The CMS market has grown—these days, you can find plenty of options for CMS solutions that offer simple editing, versioning, authoring workflows, and structured content management.

In response to this flood of low-cost products, the more progressive vendors have started trying to differentiate themselves by offering marketing automation, personalization, A/B testing capabilities, and extensive catalogs of integrations. The content management functionality is still there, but it tends to be a less important marketing point.

Gartner categorizes these modern CMS solutions as "Digital Experience Platforms" (DXP):

"Gartner defines a digital experience platform (DXP) as an integrated set of technologies, based on a common platform, that provides a broad range of audiences with consistent, secure and personalized access to information and applications across many digital touchpoints."

Digital Experience Platforms (DXP) offer organizations a more holistic approach to developing digital products and services. In addition to content management capabilities, DXP solutions provide a more advanced set of tools to reach customers and tailor content to individual needs.

Should You Go “Headless”?

The latest content management buzzword is "headless" content management—referring to content management systems that offer a complete separation between the content you control (i.e., the body) and the presentation of that content (i.e., the head).

Chopping off the head means that your content can be adapted to fit multiple channels (e.g. website, mobile app, smartwatch), including ones that don’t even exist yet. The headless systems tend to be very simple to use and the stripped-down editing environment can help content editors focus on writing good content, rather than on how the content will look when published.

However, headless systems require developers to do almost anything with the content, which can cause delays if your organization doesn’t have developers on staff. Regular web content managers may find that a headless system makes it harder for them to do anything without getting into the code.

As the CMS market continues to mature, it’s likely that headless systems will become more accessible. Traditional CMS vendors (e.g., WordPress and Drupal) are beginning to offer a headless approach to their products by developing an open application programming interface (API) that can be used for publishing content. Depending on your needs, these hybrid systems may offer you the best of both worlds.

Now what?

When it comes to selecting a new CMS, the good news is that there are many well-established and well-supported solutions to choose from. No matter your requirements, you should be able to find a solution that meets your needs.

About Tom Jelen

Tom has been working in nonprofit and association technology since the era of Web 1.0. He gets energized by helping associations use digital technology to build new products, services, and business models.

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