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Considerations for Selecting a Content Management System

What do you really need, now and in the future

Content Management Systems (CMS) have become one of the most powerful Internet-related products. What once was a gadget for web developers and technology geeks is now a must-have tool for multiple business units. Because of the pace at which the world of Internet technology changes, and the high demand for up-to-the-minute content, there are thousands of products (commercial and open source alike) that offer myriad features to companies in need of a solution for publishing their content.

Unfortunately, over the past decade, the term "CMS" has become a buzz word, a commodity if you will. Almost everything web-related has been rolled into those three characters. Originally (loosely) defined as a web application to create, edit, store and publish online content, CMS has transformed into a much more far-reaching instrument: among the functionalities of today's CMS are e-commerce inventory management, SEO and workflow creation.

Content management systems are meant to increase productivity, either by reducing the need for involvement by the technical staff, streamlining the time it takes to publish content (articles, offers, news items, photo galleries), or by simply reducing the cost of site operations.

There are numerous "How to Choose CMS" articles out there, all written from different perspectives, starting from a designer's usability view and ending with the CFO's financial point of view. This article is not one of those! The goal here is to get you thinking about what you really need, now and in the future. We will review foundational questions you should ask as you formalize your business workflow so that you will be successful regardless of whether you choose an off-the-shelf product or build a custom system.

Atom-Splitting Questions
{You Should Ask Yourself When}
Considering a CMS

Myth: Off-the-shelf CMS products will meet your editorial and content publishing workflow right out of the box.
Truth: In almost every case, the product will have to be modified. This may also increase deployment time and costs.

Myth: You won't need technical staff to support your CMS.
Truth: Almost all businesses make modifications to their CMS over time. Modifications require maintenance. If you don't have technical staff in place, you will need support to integrate and maintain changes.

Myth: Custom systems require a longer learning curve.
Truth: Custom systems are built for your business' specific workflow. Since they often mirror existing practices, the learning curve can be kept to a minimum.

Myth: Off-the-shelf products are simpler, less cumbersome systems.
Truth: There are features and functionality embedded in these systems that will never be used. Carefully compare all the functionality you are purchasing with your business needs. A smaller, custom system may run more efficiently because it will be optimized to accomplish the specific disecting btask.

Myth: The CMS purchased will carry your business into the future.
Truth: The road map for the product you're purchasing may not follow the same road map as your business. Be sure that features your company needs (today and in the future) will be supported or created in the CMS product you are purchasing. Custom systems typically require fewer modifications when adding or creating new features than off-the-shelf systems.

Is Performance a Concern?

  • Does your site include user-generated content?
  • Do you have to make real-time updates to content on your website?
  • Is the site asset-heavy with images and other media?
  • Does your site experience traffic spikes during the weekend, or with sales promos or announcements?

Are Custom User Roles Necessary?

  • Do you accept content from contributors outside of your company?

-Users, Vendors, Freelancers, Reporters?

  • Will you have to grant temporary access to the system?
  • Will different departments be using the system?
    -Does each need a different level of access?

Do You Manage Content That Requires a Custom Data Structure?

  • Do you accept content from contributors outside of your company?
    -Users, vendors, freelancers, reporters?
  • Will you have to grant temporary access to the system?
  • Will different departments be using the system?
    -Does each need a different level of access?

Must the Solution Accommodate a Unique Workflow?

  • Will you be doing multi-channel publishing?
    -Will you publish to mobile or social networks?
  • Do you want to translate your offline business protocols to the web?
  • Do you need to implement an approval process for content?
    -Will you need a system that notifies users automatically about content review?
  • Do you have a need for incremental publishing?
    -(Scheduled content, multiple editors working on the same content)

Will Any Content Come from or Go to External Systems?

  • Will you integrate it with a CRM tool?
  • Will your system interface with product fulfillment vendors?
  • Do you use outside content providers, such as syndicated news feeds?
  • Does the system connect with e-mail campaign managers?
  • Will your system interface with payment providers?

How Flexible a System Do You Need?

  • Do business processes change often?
  • Do you launch web initiatives?
  • Do you manage multiple sites?

Scientific Research
Anatomy of Business Driven CMS

There are two primary functions that you should consider when evaluating a CMS: the "engine" and the "workflow." You should analyze the impact and importance of each when selecting a system to support your business.

The Engine
The main purpose of a CMS is to publish and serve content: publishing content is easy. Publishing and serving the right type of content consistently is a bit more challenging. All of the CMS products out there today have addressed this with varying success. Ultimately, the selection comes down to two simple questions: "will the product run in my infrastructure?" and "will the product perform well, based upon my current traffic, and scale with my business?"

Although the engine is just a tool to support your business on the web, its selection is critically important. Too often, the cart is put before the horse by comparing product features instead of evaluating the compatibility of the systems with the business needs and the architecture in place. When selecting the engine consider:

  • Scalability: Handling current and future traffic patterns
  • Integration methods: Protocols available for integration - for both user-facing applications and "the workflow"
  • Technology stack: Compatibility with the current architecture and the skill set of the staff
  • Extensibility: Integration with third-party business applications and support for business-specific data models
  • Content delivery: Support for the strategy of the business

The Workflow
The workflow however is your business. And that's where available products can fall short of the mark, no matter how much "flexibility: and "usability" is pitched. No matter how intuitive and usable the interface and the flow may be in the off-the-shelf product, chances are it will not match the flow that's intuitive for your business.

Catering to everyone means catering to no one. Every CMS, no matter how flexible it strives to be, can't cover every use case - even for a single type of business. If it was possible, there would be one, all-purpose CMS used by everyone. Non-specialized CMS try to cover the use cases that are most significant to generic business flows. "Generic" is just that - generic - a level of modification of the core product will be needed. Then you must consider, for example, issues of maintenance costs, skilled staff needs and upgrade path.

Consider the product's roadmap in choosing an off-the-shelf system. The feature set of the product is the vision of the creator(s). That vision may not include the features in the next release, either because of a change in product direction or simple lack of demand. Consider the effect on your business if a core feature, a driving force behind your business and a reason for selecting that product, is discontinued.

Lack of Subject Matter Expertise
The Internet has changed. It's no longer a medium for wiki-style information; now content is dynamic, personalized and, more important, it's not uniform. Everyone knows it. Yet, people routinely buy a "one-size-fits-all" CMS. We see this in working with clients every day - the off-the-shelf product that promised flexibility and ease-of-use ended up hampering content publishing and creating volumes of work for editors.

Recently trends have been shifting just a little with the emergence of e-commerce-specific CMS products. I envision that in the near future we'll see a surge of vertical-specific CMS products (finance, sports, travel) led by the experts in those fields. Until then, unless your business overlaps closely with the media angle of the available CMS, consider building a tool that's right for your business.

More Stories By Leon Fayer

Leon Fayer is Vice President at OmniTI, a provider of web infrastructures and applications for companies that require scalable, high performance, mission critical solutions. He possesses a proven background of both web application development and production deployment for complex systems and in his current role advises clients about critical aspects of project strategies and plans to help ensure project success. Leon can be contacted at [email protected]

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