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How to choose a Content Management System

How to choose a Content Management System

By Sam Ineson, business development director, twentysix Leeds  

No content management is alike. And there are several factors to take into consideration when choosing a content management system (CMS) to ensure you select the one that best suits your needs.

The first big decision is whether to choose an open source system, a commercial ‘off-the-shelf’ product or a bespoke system. As with everything, there are pros and cons to each.

Most quality commercial CMSs and their bigger brothers (often referred to as ‘enterprise’ CMSs) tend to be fully-featured and with a bit of modification can do pretty much everything – albeit in their own distinct way. Open source systems fit somewhere in between – often low cost with good basic functionality, but relying on the open source community to supply a range of plug-ins and add-ons.

Another downside with open source systems is a lack-of or somewhat haphazard support – after all, if something goes wrong, who do you blame in the open source community? Alternatively, a bespoke system may be built to your exact specifications, and you won’t end up paying for features you don’t use. 

So, which way to go? Here are ten things that you should keep in mind when choosing a CMS:

1.       Design – Check that the CMS you’re looking at gives you ample flexibility for site design. Some CMSs force you to use fixed templates, whereas others give a lot more flexibility – and in some rare cases total creative freedom. Many off-the-shelf systems (even some of the more expensive ones) can limit what you can do from a design perspective. So if you want complete freedom of design, be careful what you choose and ensure that the CMS you’re selecting allows your developers to implement the design of your choice.

2.       Development and scalability – Every company or organisation has slightly different requirements.  You may want to make your CMS behave in a slightly different way or do something beyond its basic out-of-the-box functionality. Some CMSs have ‘locked down’ functionality, making it very difficult to make them do anything ‘special’. Some, on the other hand, are really flexible. Your web developers will be able to give you an idea of how scalable and flexible your chosen CMS really is when trying to add to or alter its inherent functionality.

3.       Features – Each CMS offers a range of basic features – some have document management, some have image libraries and image management, and others have form builders, ecommerce, polls and surveys. Some have forums, XML feeds, wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors, template management and taxonomy functions right out of the box.

Different CMSs include different features – some may include all or many of the above, some only a few. Some require plug-ins at additional cost, whereas others allow your development team to add features and tweak the existing ones to meet your needs. 

When choosing your CMS platform, make a checklist of what you want/need, because your requirements might preclude one or more systems. It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re looking for public sector or government site CMSs, some have been designed specifically to tick the boxes for official tender procedures. They’re not necessarily the best, but they will score highly in these formal government tenders.

4.       Work-flow – do you really need it – Work-flow determines which of your content editors are allowed to write/edit/publish content. For instance, you might require several contributors in your company to write content, yet only your webmaster should be able to publish to the live website. A work-flow process places all content updates in a ‘holding area’ for your administrator to review before publishing to the site.

Frequently, our CMS clients will envision multiple scenarios where they see work-flow as essential – creating multiple user names and passwords and complicated bureaucratic methods for publishing content.  Yet often in practice, these procedures are bypassed and editors end up using the administrator user name and password and simply publish their own content direct. The result: an expensive bureaucratic system that’s never used. So ask yourself, do you really need it?

5.        Upgrade path – Most commercial and open source CMS providers regularly release updates that provide new features and functionality.  This effectively makes your CMS future proof. However, not all CMS providers offer this service – and most will charge you a maintenance or subscription fee (usually annual) to secure updates. By contrast, bespoke systems are often stuck in time – what you buy can only be updated with further bespoke development, often at a significant extra cost.  

6.        Support/training – Check to see whether your potential CMS supplier offers good support and training – this could be a helpline, online forums, or documentation. Without adequate support, you could find yourself ‘lost in the woods’ at a later date should you need to train new website editors.

7.       Intranet and extranet – Do you want/need your CMS to manage your intranet or extranet? Some have special features designed specifically for this purpose, including document management, contact directories and events calendars. If you do want your CMS to manage your intranet or extranet, you need to consider how to keep it secure and away from prying eyes.

8.       Cost – While cost is always an important consideration, bear in mind that expensive does not always mean the best – and sometimes you can end up paying for much more than you need. Open source systems can be very cheap, as can simple bespoke CMSs. Most web agencies have their own in-house bespoke CMSs that they use time and time again – these often handle simple or basic CMS functionality, e.g. adding news and case studies.

At the top end, you have off-the-shelf systems, which can vary hugely in cost – ranging from enterprise systems, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds down to the most commonly deployed off-the-shelf systems, which range from about £8-20 thousand. Don’t forget though, this only covers the cost of the CMS licence – you will still need to pay your agency to design and integrate your new site.

9.       Licensing – This is possibly one of the most important – and trickiest – considerations. For instance, when you buy a bespoke CMS, who owns the rights to the code? You need to check with your CMS supplier that should you part company with your existing agency the incoming agency will be able to support your CMS. Many agencies don’t like this and tie you in to their CMS. Off-the-shelf and open source CMS are generally supported much more broadly. Many have a range of agency partners who can continue to support your system if you move from one agency to another.

Also, when choosing a CMS, be careful that the configuration you are using suits the type of licence you have. Some CMS providers may charge on a per server basis – this means paying more if you have a site that’s split over more than one server. For some CMSs, you need to buy a licence for every computer or every processor. Others operate on a per domain basis (so if you have one site with just one domain name, you’re paying for just one licence).

Some CMS companies will charge you extra for staging licences – for an additional live testing stage where you can test/check new site developments. Other providers may charge you for a development licence should you wish to add anything to your CMS using an in-house development team.

10.   And finally a word about ‘enterprise’ CMS systems – Some content management systems are designed to simply help you manage your website. However, many of the more expensive enterprise CMSs go way beyond this and attempt to manage content and assets across your entire business.

Typically enterprise CMSs incorporate functions such as document and knowledge management and are designed to control the organisational flow of information and content throughout the entire organisation. These systems can be extremely expensive – and, when it comes to simple web content management, can actually be over-complicated, over-specified and completely wrong for the job.

My advice to someone buying a CMS for the purposes of managing their website quickly and easily is to avoid these enormous overblown systems and to select a specialist website CMS, thus saving yourself a small fortune and an enormous headache.


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