Why choosing the right CMS matters

by | Jan 29, 2021

CMS. DXP. WCM. No matter what your organization might call it, most businesses fostering their digital marketing maturity leverage a form of content management platform. Often, the choice of Content Management System (CMS) serves as a cornerstone for digital transformation efforts. Choosing the right CMS can make all the difference.

Beyond making web and application updates quick and accessible for non-developers, these platforms are now arriving equipped with suites of tools and integration capabilities that make them a central hub for digital marketers’ everyday activities. That said, with increased flexibility often comes increased complexity; selecting the right-fit CMS and having the proper training and resources to manage these platforms are critical to making sure you don’t end up with a tangle of poorly architected solutions that require major overhead and provide little ROI.

A content management system (CMS) is at the center of all of your marketing initiatives, including: eCommerce, email marketing, organic discovery, digital advertising, CRM and customer data, analytics, documents and videos, personalized content, and customer profiles.

In this article, we will:

  • Provide a look at the role of Content Management Systems in mid-to-enterprise level organizations
  • Note some key decision factors when selecting the right CMS, including how to navigate “buzzy” topics such as headless content management, cloud-based solutions, and the concept of the Digital Experience Platform (DXP)
  • Outline common CMS challenges and discuss approaches to address those problems

Want to jump around?

What is a CMS and why does it matter?

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A CMS (content management system) allows marketers and business team members to organize and publish content to end users without any background in coding or development. This is most frequently thought of through the lens of website upkeep and maintenance, where a marketer may wish to make on-demand updates to distribute new content, roll out campaign materials, or optimize existing website pages. You may have also heard your CMS referred to as a WCM (web content management) platform or a DXP (digital experience platform) – more on DXPs later! Modern CMS’s tend to have some common features, which include:

  • Field-based content templates – used for entering structured content into website pages or components. The experience can often be equated to filling out a form.
  • Content hierarchies & taxonomies – used to organize content. Sometimes referred to as a “content tree,” many CMSs all marketers to structure their content in ways that match the site or application’s information architecture.
  • “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) editing tools – used to visualize content as it would appear in the final application and make edits directly within that format.
  • Asset repositories – used for maintaining a catalog of assets such as image files, audio, .PDF and video.
  • Workflows, versioning, and content history – used to manage content approvals and QA and ensure logs of content are kept for auditing or rollback purposes.

Common CMS features to consider when choosing a CMS, illustrated: field-based content templates, content hierarchies & taxonomies; What you see is what you get (WYSIWYG); Asset repositories; workflows, versioning, and content history

When implemented correctly, the toolset above can allow organizations to offload the burden of website updates from their IT and development teams and put the power in the hands of marketing content authors to make changes on-the-fly.

What are some common CMS platforms?

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Given that it powers more than 38% of the internet, you’ve likely heard of a little CMS tool called WordPress. However, WordPress is only one out of dozens of options that business teams have when selecting content management platforms for their websites (and beyond!).

Below are some common names to know in the CMS space organized by cost/licensing tiers:

Open Source or Small Fee – no or limited licensing fees; community-driven support

  • WordPress
  • Joomla
  • Drupal
  • Ubuntu
  • Shopify
  • BigCommerce
  • WooCommerce
  • Wix
  • Blogger

Mid-tier – licensing fees typically range in the $10k – $50 range; provide support and hosting options for businesses

  • Progress Sitefinity
  • Kentico
  • CrownPeak
  • Contentful
  • Magento
  • Salesforce CMS
  • Liferay
  • Acquia

Enterprise-tier – licensing fees that can exceed $100k; provide deep suites of tools, support, hosting options, partnerships with major martech players

  • Adobe Experience Manager
  • Sitecore
  • Episerver
  • Sharepoint
  • Oracle CX Content

This is only a sample of the full range of options that marketers may be faced with when selecting a CMS. For an even more comprehensive list of CMS options, as well as a look at their market shares versus competitors, check out w3tech’s CMS usage statistics brief.

Is a Digital Experience Platform (DXP) the same thing as a CMS?

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In 2020, Gartner made a bit of a stir within the industry when it announced it would retire its Web Content Management magic quadrant – an oft-referenced gold standard for CMS rankings – in favor of a new category called a DXP (short for digital experience platform).

Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms

In Gartner’s eyes, as well as many within the industry, the DXP marks a new and increasingly common direction for content management solutions. This direction sees what were once simple, website-based CMS platforms adopting suites of tools and features that allow for the sharing of content across multiple touchpoints, typically with added experience management features such as personalization, marketing automation, and even integrated analytics, machine learning, and user profiling.

While suites like these are becoming more common, not all organizations and vendors are following this trend.

  • Some see DXP solutions as promoting breadth over depth; these organizations may prefer building out their martech stack around highly specialized, one-off solutions versus relying on a single company and software to cover all their bases.
  • Other organizations are simply not at a maturity level where that degree of integration and tooling is necessary or efficient.

So, is a DXP the same thing as a CMS?

The short answer is “not technically.” A DXP is an evolution of the core CMS functions, and these solutions greatly expand the reach and capabilities of a baseline CMS. Not all CMSs can qualify as a DXP; however, most DXPs provide the core functions of a CMS. So, when evaluating your digital transformation decisions, you may be looking at a DXP solution that covers your CMS needs, among other martech requirements.

What is a “headless” CMS? Do I need one?

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The concept of a “headless” CMS took root as a buzzy martech topic towards the end of the decade. Headless CMSs could be touted as “just the content” – these platforms are fully focused on storing and organizing pure content assets.

What headless CMSs don’t do is lock in the business into a single front-end display or set of layouts and templates. In fact, headless CMSs are structured to encourage the re-use of content across multiple delivery platforms (i.e., a website, a mobile app and a smart watch). You may also hear the phrases “API-first” or “front-end agnostic” associated these platforms. The idea is that this allows for speed to market and flexibility when managing content across a wide range of touchpoints.

So, what’s the downside? There are a few to be aware of. The use of a headless CMS often means the loss of the standard “What-you-see-is-what-you-get” (WYSIWYG) tools that help preview your content in-layout prior to publish. This can be a major hassle and mean a loss of control to some marketers. The organization of content by pages and sitemaps can also prove to be less straightforward and structured than it would be in a platform intended for certain channels (such as a website).

Below is a list of pros and cons when considering a headless CMS:

PROS of HeadlessCONS of headless
Content is “pure” and available for immediate reuse across multiple channels and front-end executions.Marketing authors lose the ability to preview and edit content in final layouts.
Headless CMSs simplify content management to the basics of storing copy, imagery, and content elements.Headless CMSs can lack some of the structure that other CMSs use to associate content with information architecture constructs or site functionality/widgets.
Increases speed to market, as developers can build multiple front-end displays for the same content, and manage each set of code separately from the CMS.Development and IT teams need to be versed in the different front-end techniques they wish to leverage.
“Future-proof” as it is built to integrate with new technologies.Requires integration in order to deliver a full end-user experience; needs to be factored into cost, timing, and maintenance.

Be aware there are plenty of CMSs offering a middle ground between these two options, often referred to as “Hybrid” or “Decoupled” CMSs. We like these options as they often allow for marketing authors to maintain control over final page layouts and templates, while simultaneously enabling omnichannel executions and content reuse.

Organizations should consider the pros and cons of the headless approach carefully and be thoughtful of where they are/are not willing to give up control in favor of speed and simplicity.

What is the advantage of a Cloud-based CMS? Should my business consider switching?

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Another buzzy topic in the CMS space is the increase in cloud-based offerings from CMS (and DXP) vendors. These solutions can also be referred to as “SaaS CMS” (Software as a Service) or “PaaS CMS” (Platform as a Service).

Choosing a cloud-hosted CMS can be very appealing to marketing organizations that want to hit the ground running (and that have the money to spend). In lieu of a traditional licensing and hosting structure, where your IT team or hosting partner may need to set up on-premises servers and infrastructure, in a cloud-based model, the burden of hosting falls on the CMS vendor themselves.

In the simplest sense, a cloud-based CMS application is built so that you and your team can simply sign up and log on, ready to begin using a vendor-maintained environment. The heavy lifting of hosting setup and maintenance is done “in the background.”

Some other great ancillary benefits of keeping your solution in the cloud include:

  • Entry to the platform’s back office is accessible across devices/locations
  • Security & bug management is covered by the vendor
  • Privacy considerations may be managed by the vendor

It sounds too good to be true, right? In some cases, it may be – you should keep an eye out for hidden costs. Some common pitfalls of Cloud-based options include:

  • Ongoing subscription fees – whereas an on-premises setup can have a major upfront cost to stand up, the cost of a cloud-based option gets spread out over time and can add up for your business. Watch for increased pricing tiers if your company is planning to scale.
  • Limits on updates and changes – depending on your subscription, you may be limited to a certain number of changes or updates. Keep an eye on the fine print before choosing your cloud subscription option.
  • Paying (again) for platform upgrades – is your vendor rolling out a major new version of the CMS? You may want to make sure that’s included in either your subscription or planned for separately in your budget, as some companies charge extra to get the latest-and-greatest version.
  • Integrations and customizations – while a cloud-based solution can certainly scale back the cost of IT support, don’t expect to fully dismiss your development team. With any solution, you will likely be leveraging APIs to integrate with the rest of your marketing suite, and in many cases, enhancing the out-of-the-box solution with your own customizations.
  • Vendor lock-in – due to reliance on the vendor for the hosting of your content and CX hub, this can certainly set up organizations to become overly dependent on a single vendor’s proprietary solutions. Backing out of these relationships can often prove costly and make migrations and re-platforming a challenge in the future.

Because there are many different cloud-based options looking to capitalize on the wave of interest in this space, we encourage a careful review of the different offerings and subscription options.  While the lowest subscription fee may be tempting, read the fine print and evaluate where additional spending may have to happen to get the platform in sync with your requirements.

How do I choose a CMS for my organization?

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Choosing the right CMS platform can seem like a daunting task – daunting enough that some organizations make the major mistake of rushing into a platform selection based on little more than a Gartner quadrant placement and a price point. This is how many organizations find themselves with platforms that are partially useable, bloated with unused features, and impossible to maintain with their current team structure.

At Fusion, we believe there is no “single-size fits all” approach to CMS solutions, and that no one platform can fit every business. Below are some key tips and considerations from our team when working through platform selection:

  • Bring both IT and marketing to the table – While it may be tempting to go at it solo when crafting your list of platform “must-haves,” you’ll reap the benefits from having a variety of roles and voices from both your IT and marketing teams. It’s crucial that your teams are equipped not only with the right marketing features, but the IT infrastructure, skills, and tools to implement and maintain those features long after the initial go-live. Failing to meet the needs of one team can drastically impact the efficacy of the other. While it may bring out some points of tension between IT and marketing when choosing the right fit for your application, those conversations are often productive and result in better outcomes in the long term.

Often, marketing and IT teams have different priorities and needs that should be considered when selecting a CMS. For example: Priorities for IT teams can be infrastructure & security, development experience, and code maintenance. Marketing may be more concerned with design & content development, day-to-day updates, asset management, and campaign executions. This can cause points of tension when considering how much control, consistency, and scalability a tool provides your organization.

  • Make a home in the Cloud (or don’t) – One quick way to narrow down your vendor list is to determine whether or not a Cloud-based solution is right for your organization. Don’t forget our pointers and what to watch out for when considering Cloud-hosted options.
  • Keep the rest of your martech stack top-of-mind – Don’t think of your CMS in a bubble; make sure you’re considering how you’ll be able to connect to your existing martech platforms or scale to others you might have on your roadmap. Look for API-driven platforms or vendors with strong martech partnerships.
  • To suite or not to suite – While you may have other martech platforms you plan to continue to regularly use, you may also be looking at this opportunity to consolidate your operations into a single set of software. A Digital Experience Platform (DXP) offering could be right up your alley – DXPs offer a variety of CX tools and features behind one platform login. However, this option isn’t for all businesses: beware of locking yourself into paying for bloated feature sets that your team isn’t equipped to leverage.
  • Trust us, you don’t need (or want) “unlimited flexibility” – There’s a fine line between feature sets that are “fully customizable” and “totally undefined,” and some vendors blur those lines to the point of deception. Keep in mind that the more customization you have to plan for, the more dollar signs you should be seeing. Look for a vendor that offers solid out-of-the-box features that support your core requirements, including relevant widgets, component sets, and design patterns that can keep you from having to build everything from scratch.
  • Maintenance, upgrades, and support – Make sure you’re on the same page with your potential vendors in terms of what working with them will look like after your initial stand-up. How does the vendor manage major upgrades? Do they offer a comprehensive support package? And what does your IT team think is realistic when it comes to managing ongoing maintenance and enhancement requests? Dig into these areas that can lead to hidden costs in the future.
  • Demo & sandbox – For your marketing authors and managers, make sure they have an opportunity to demo the authoring features of a CMS with all of your top-choice vendors. The folks who will be responsible for the hands-on work will often be the first to flag potential issues or barriers. Similarly, if your vendors allow, get your developers hands-on with sandbox versions of the platform before taking the final leap. Not only can your dev team test the waters, but a sandbox can also serve as a playground for your marketing team to push the limits of the platform’s features.

It may go without saying, but as you explore the above options and ask questions of your vendors, keep your key requirements and decisions documented. At Fusion, we work through a requirements & scoring matrix with our partners to ensure that vendors are weighed against top business priorities.

How much control should a CMS give to marketers vs. developers?

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Even organizations that have worked with CMSs for years can struggle with the question: does my platform allow my marketing team to do enough?

For many organizations asking this question, there’s a good chance the answer is “no.” For a sense of perspective, top-tier CMS platforms offer flexibility that extends to:

  • Editing any live text and imagery that appears on the website
  • Managing website metadata
  • Components/widgets with an array of styling and display options
  • Manipulating the placement of webpage elements within a page layout
  • Optional use of basic HTML/CSS markup on text
  • Management of personalization or A/B testing within site content
  • …And all of the above without requiring the author to know or learn any advanced code or syntax.

If any of the above activities are currently blocked for your marketers, the next question should be “why?” Common reasons for these limitations include:

  • Unfinished architecture & setup – It can sometimes take a lot of effort to ensure that what would typically be many lines of a developers’ code translates into a few button clicks for a marketing author. When developers (or vendors) cut corners, this sometimes leaves control just out of a non-developers’ reach, behind a wall of complicated-looking markup.
  • Permissions – There are instances where the solution really is as simple as “turn it on!” Limited permissions may need to be discussed by an IT and marketing governance team in order to limit risk and build trust between the groups.
  • Platform limitations – Depending on your choice of platform, you simply may not be able to execute on some of the above items, or you will need to explore customizations and enhancements to open those doors. For example, the choice of a headless platform is going to majorly remove control of front-end layouts from the hands of the day-to-day marketers.

Consider which of these scenarios is true for your business. Solutions can range from simply aligning on governance standards, all the way up to considering a new platform.

Note, while we generally advocate for marketers to have a wide range of control inside of their CMSs, also keep in mind that a great strength of a CMS can actually be the platform’s ability to standardize, templatize, and govern how one or more applications look, feel, and behave. The inclusion of “guardrails” within these platforms can be very powerful and promote efficiency and consistency.

To achieve the right balance, a team may want to tackle an evaluation of each template or content type and outline where flexibility should exist versus where more scaled back editing options need to be mandated. This can be more critical for organizations whose CMS is used by a large pool of authors who may need to adhere to the same standards, versus organizations who rely on one or two core team members to make updates.

Prioritize time to have these conversations as your platform is built, and don’t hesitate to revisit and adjust once things are put into practice and tested against the realities of daily updates and campaign management.

Should I invest more in my current CMS, or is it time to make a change to a new platform?

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Some organizations may research different CMS platforms and see the proverbial “greener grass” of a brand-new feature set and fresh UI. But is it really time to trade in your current platform and invest in (what can often be) expensive migration and re-platforming activities?

The answer isn’t always “yes.” That exploration should start with:

  • An assessment of your current gaps and pain points
  • A realistic evaluation of the time/effort/cost of those gaps – translating your roadblocks into wasted hours and dollars can help put your challenges in perspective
  • An evaluation of the cause (and potential resolution) of those gaps. Is it something that can be solved with an enhancement or customization? Is it a training or skillset deficit? Or does the platform simply not permit you to accomplish your business goals?
  • A catalog of your other platform expenditures including licensing, maintenance, upgrades, hosting, etc.

It may be useful to bring in a third-party consulting partner (or even a representative from the vendor themselves) if you feel like an outside point-of-view on your current platform could benefit a young IT or marketing team. They may be able to more quickly identify the cause and resolution of certain gaps and roadblocks.

From there, two other key factors should play a role in your decision:

  • What is the cost of migration? While you may not know a definitive answer until you select a new “home” for your content and CX, a ballpark can be developed knowing the volume of content, the complexity of the code base, and a basic evaluation of your current platform’s ability to export and catalog your work for use elsewhere.
  • How will a new platform save budget / generate revenue? You may be looking at a similar platform with better-fit features, or cloud-based hosting capabilities. How does this efficiency translate into time and money saved? You may also be looking at a more expensive platform with high licensing costs, but you expect that the new features will generate new income for your business (either directly through eCommerce or gradually through lead generation). Getting to these answers may require evaluation of several vendors to ensure your needs are being met and hidden costs are identified. 

These are challenging explorations to undertake; however, given your CMS is often central to your martech operations, these evaluations may be necessary to ensure that the ripple effects of any change lead to positive forward momentum versus a sense of wasted investment.

Some things to keep in mind when choosing a CMS

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As a central hub for your digital marketing activities, the decisions made around your content management solution can help drive (or stall!) your digital transformation progress. With more options than ever, and new and evolving industry trends to navigate, it’s critical to read the fine print, demo, and map platform features back to your team’s goals.

As you navigate your platform selection and enhancement journey, keep in mind to:

  • keep both IT and marketing at the table to air points of tension and cover both your technological and campaign objectives;
  • look for a right-fit platform, where you are neither restricted from executing your vision nor burdened with bloated solutions your team can’t leverage;
  • consider post-launch maintenance, upgrade, and support costs;
  • have a plan for how you will expand your CMS to the rest of your martech stack, or decide if a DXP solution can fulfill/replace some of your extended martech needs; and
  • be upfront in defining marketing control expectations and limitations.

With the right platforms and partners, your CMS will be key in managing your customer experiences on the web, mobile, and beyond.

Looking for support in mapping out your team’s needs? At Fusion, we agree that one size does not fit all when it comes to martech. Luckily, we’re here to help you navigate through the sea of options to choose the best stack for your organization — whether that be finding and selecting potential new tools or optimizing the ones you already have. Reach out today to learn more about how we can partner to power your digital transformation.

About the author

Amy Brown
Solution Director, Digital

Amy Brown is a Digital Solutions Director at Fusion Alliance. With more than a decade of expertise, she finds her passion in crafting experiences that make brands and customers more valuable to one another. Amy has created numerous omnichannel strategies that are backed by executives of global Fortune 10 companies. Her strength lies in bridging the technical and the practical. With a unique background that blends both hard and soft skillsets, she finds joy in tackling business challenges that require both technology and empathy.

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