Does your CMS fit?


This article was originally published as part of our Connective Thinking newsletter (delivered every full moon). Since it’s especially relevant to our CMS Myth readers, we’d love to hear what you think.

Searching for the perfect web content management system can be a long and bewildering journey. One littered with hundreds of vendors, aggressive sales tactics, confusing terminology and a smorgasbord of features you may never use.

Traditional thinking in the CMS selection process includes jotting down a list of desired features, watching a generic demo and evaluating vendors based on who ‘checks the most boxes’ and gives the best end-of-quarter pricing. This process is fundamentally flawed and all too often results in poor technology selections and dismal implementations.

We believe there is a better approach. One that takes a holistic look at how CMS fits into the organization and aligns technology to key business processes and marketing strategies.

Our fundamental belief is that there are not good or bad content management systems – simply ones that are a better or worse fit for each organization. We’ve developed six fit factors to consider when evaluating web content management systems.

Technical Fit

While the underlying technology should not be the first consideration, the technical fit is very important. After all, the CMS needs to fit into your existing web infrastructure, align with internal developer skill sets and scale to meet the future needs of the organization.

It becomes increasingly important within enterprise organizations that have standardized platforms and application frameworks. We’ve yet to meet a developer without strong opinions about software applications. However, it’s important that the technical fit is evaluated based on the long term needs of the organization, not the preferences of a single developer.

Cultural Fit

Talking about culture and CMS together sounds like squishy science to many involved in a technology selection process. Looking inward to assess cultural fit factors like staff skills, their adaptability and old-fashioned agreeability, can make or break the ultimate success of the implementation.

Finding publishing tools that have a familiar paradigm for internal users can help with adoption. In one case a global organization felt more comfortable with a European vendor because the product had a more familiar orientation for its international users. Sometimes a CMS just “feels right” and that’s a critical fit factor to keep in mind.

Process Fit

At the end of the day, a CMS needs to support business critical scenarios within the organization. Different site types have different processes. A large ad-supported content site has different needs than a document-rich Intranet.

Key processes may include sharing content across multiple sites, building complex forms for marketing campaigns or rapidly provisioning new microsites for sales. Organizations should painstakingly document these processes and insist vendors include them in the demos and proof of concepts.

Feature Fit

CMS evaluations all too often start and stop with the feature lists. While features are important, they should be evaluated in the larger context of the six fit factors. It’s important to isolate the feature-driven requirements for your organization that will differentiate the vendors.

Be wary of the vendor that promises to do everything within the CMS. Some of the more attractive features are often bolted onto the core product and don’t represent best of breed functionality. Keep in mind a CMS is only one piece of your web infrastructure. The evaluation process can run amuck when organizations insist on features that are not core to content management technology.

Marketing Fit

The marketing fit may be the most overlooked factor as strategic ownership of the web has swung from IT to the marketing department. For many organizations, the CMS has to support complex marketing requirements to bolster search engine optimization, landing pages, forms and multivariate testing.

CMS vendors are scrambling to sell into marketing, but many products are still far too IT-driven and ill suited to support a complex marketing organization. As with the feature fit, it’s essential to identify what your CMS will handle and where you will look to external tools. Features like analytics and e-mail marketing for example are almost always better left to an external application.

Vendor Fit

Selecting a CMS goes far beyond buying a piece of software. It’s a partnership with an organization that will be helping to drive your web infrastructure for years to come. Go beyond calling client references to look at the long term viability of the organization, product roadmap, market momentum and partner landscape. Insist on seeing the product roadmap to confirm it aligns with your future goals. Look at the training and support offerings and make sure that this is an organization you can see yourself with for at least five years.

Finding Your Match

While there is a lot to consider, finding the right CMS is one of the more important technology decisions and organization will make. A CMS is no longer a piece of software to run a website. It’s a publishing platform to run your business. Looking at the six fit factors will help you make a more informed decision and take into account the needs of the entire organization.

What other fit factors have you used to help guide your CMS selection? Leave a comment and share your story.

About the Author
Jeff Cram

Jeff Cram is Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design), a digital agency based in Portland, OR and Boston, MA. As the Managing Editor of the CMS Myth, Jeff is passionate about all topics related to content management, digital strategy and experience design.

More articles from Jeff Cram


10 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. Amanda Shiga says:

    Jeff, great writeup. Seeing more and more CMS integrations with community platforms and separate user management systems, making the technical and vendor relationship angles even more important.

  2. Any suggestions for how an organization could go about quantifying the holistic approach?  Ultimately, the argument for a particular solution has to be funded, so it’s usually best (especially these days) to make sure that the recommendation has more to it than mere words about the ‘fit’.

    Also, the CMS selection process has an inherent conflict-of-interest problem: the person who leads the CMS selection effort is going to (consciously or subconsciously) focus on their needs only (CTO=Technical fit; Editor=Feature fit), since a single solution that ‘fits’ well for all stakeholders does not exists.  Anyone have experience resolving this conflict?

  3. Alex Lindsay says:

    I would think that given these six axes of fit, that the person whose responsibility it is to make the selection would ultimately want to perform a collection of tasks:

    1 – analyze a collection of candidates and discern the qualities of each that pertain to each of the ‘fit’ categories

    2 – review the array of people affected by and affecting the decision, and assign them to which ‘fit’ category most pertains to their role in the decision making process or role in the use of the CMS

    3 – having assembled the two sets above, provide the full collection of information (without product names) to each person, with the information most pertinent to them placed up front, so that they may review other qualifications of the systems, but so that they see what is likely to be most important first.  Request rankings (either numerical or yea/nay) and commentary feedback from each person.

    4 – weight the responses according to the degree of influence, political power, etc. (whatever factors the person deciding deems relevant) of each person responding, and hope that there is an overall choice or two.

    5 – examine the notes provided by each person, add the comments to the original information provided and re-circulate with a highlight on the apparent choice, with personal commentary on why you as the selector agree or disagree with the overall choice

    6 – accept a second round of feedback (hopefully concord is arrived at)

    7 – make a CMS selection

    8 – head for the hills ;-)

  4. @Alex: Because 1-7 are inherently flawed criteria, 8 is the correct next step.  Buying a solution that needs to ‘fit’ so many different needs is the real problem and there is no easy answer (and there probably never will be).

    It’s like selecting the same house for everyone on a given block — one person might like the plumbing, but hate the cheap vinyl siding.  And his next-door-neighbor might love the zero maintenance siding, but hate the auto-flush toilets.  So everyone hates the house that they’re forced to live in.  And everyday they wake up hating it more. Until they leave. And the next person who moves into the same house hates it, but for completely different reasons.

    It’s all inherently flawed and as an industry, we should stop fooling ourselves by designing different criteria, lists and approaches.  There is no perfect solution.  Period.

  5. Alex Lindsay says:

    I completely agree about the flawed criteria.  So the fundamental problem is the free-market.  All we need to do is remove the need to make a decision.  One CMS for all!

    To be fair – you did ask for ways to resolve the conflicts arising from the one product fits all equally badly – and all I could do was to outline what I would imagine would best document the process as being open, inviting of input, self-documenting, and providing evidence of having accepted (and utilized) the input provided.  At least in the end you have a decision and a document demonstrating how it was arrived at and what factors were given consideration overall.

    The is no perfect solution, so all we can aim to do is improve the process of arriving at an imperfect solution.

  6. TOTALLY agree @Alex.  The CMS selection leader should make it abundently and tranparently clear that they are embarking on an imperfect, inherently flawed process to find an imperfect solution.

    The best possible outcome is a solution that results in stakeholder-disappointment equality.  ;-)

  7. Jon Marks says:

    Nice post. I’m glad you’ve come to the same conclusion that I have. There isn’t a perfect solution. I’m not even sure there is a good imperfect one.

    An extra dimension that makes this even more difficult is deciding how to select the partner that implements the CMS. Do you do it in-house? Do you get the CMS vendor to do it? Or do you source a third party to implement it? If you go for the Systems Integrator option, then do you pick them after you’ve picked the CMS?

    In my experience, the cost of the implementation is normally more than the license cost.  You need to budget for the full implementation, which includes the implementation/customisation costs.

    More on this in my rambling post:…/which-comes-first-the-crew-or-the-cms (big discussion in the comments)

    Does anyone have any lovely CMS vendor selection stories with a wonderful happy ending? If yes, who ended up building the site?


  8. Jeff Cram Jeff Cram says:

    Great comments.

    Chris – I have a feeling you've been through some rough selection processes. I feel the pain! ;-)

    Your comment about expectation setting is spot on. Organizations need to understand what it means to select an implement a CMS. Nine times out of ten, CMS selection projects are set up to fail before they even start.

    With that said, it doesn't need to be all doom and gloom. I've been a part of plenty of CMS projects that have gone great. Having a good process  to get there is critical.  

    Although I agree Alex, running for the hills is indeed sometimes necessary! Very funny.

    Jeff Cram
    CMS Myth

  9. Jeff Cram Jeff Cram says:

    John – Which comes first (the integrator or the cms vendor) is an interesting question.

    From our experiences, finding the right CMS vendor should come first, but it may take an external consultant to help get you there.

    You may need two different types of partners. One that is more vendor neutral to get you through the CMS selection process, and one that is an expert implementation partner for the selected CMS.

    Another consideration is that it's no longer JUST about the CMS. A CMS needs to fit into a larger web ecosystem, so having a trusted partner that is looking out for your overall web strategy is often more important than just having one that thinks about the CMS.  Of course your in-house folks may have this covered.

    I've found that even vendor neutral folks that specialize in CMS selection often have a hard time of understanding where CMS fits into the larger web strategy.  It's complicated for sure, as the last thing you usually want or need is MORE consultants! ;-)

    Jeff Cram

    CMS Myth

  10. chris says:

    I am totally with you Jeff, one CMS cannot fit all. However, companies often fail to understand the complexity of introducing a CMS and so rush into it without a proper understanding about their own needs. Secondly, a good CMS must also lend itself to customization so it can be worked into the company’s system. That’s the advantage a company like CrownPeak has. Our CMS can be customized to most need and be used by non technical users. To know more about the CrownPeak CMS you might want to visit –

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