How to choose the right CMS

You’ve decided you need a new Content Management System – but where do you start in deciding which one to go with? Here, we distill our learnings over the past two decades of advising clients on choosing digital platforms. We’ve even included a downloadable comparison matrix for you to rank contending CMS or DXP options.

Adam Griffith

By Adam Griffith, 8 minute read

So the time has come to kick your current Content Management System to the kerb. Perhaps you’ve got big aspirations for your organisation’s digital future, but your CMS is just not up to the task? Or your website’s load time has slowed down to a glacial pace, impacting not just your customer experience but also your SEO performance. Or it takes two days and developer intervention to publish ‘breaking’ news…

As a digital agency that’s been in operation now for over 22 years, we’re all too familiar with the sight of an organisation struggling under the weight of an outdated, performance-limiting CMS. But with so many CMS options on the market, how do you find the one that is going to best suit the needs of your organisation now and into the future? 

CMS comparison matrix

It’s a question we get asked a lot, and it’s something we have put an enormous amount of time and effort into answering – for a huge range of clients with varying needs. In this article, we’ve distilled the essence of our findings over many years, along with an editable CMS Comparison Matrix that you can download to help you narrow the field. 

CMS, DXP, headless CMS, 🤯 

Before you delve into the intricacies of CMS selection, however, we recommend that you have an idea of the type of platform you are seeking and a shortlist of options, e.g. do you need an comprehensive Digital Experience Platform (DXP), or would a headless CMS with microservices architecture better meet your needs? To determine this, you’ll need to have a clear understanding of your customer journey and how a content management platform will sit within the broader context of your business objectives. This should include interviews with key stakeholders to uncover the organisation’s vision and strategy, and carrying this through to a defined set of user stories and requirements for your new digital platform. (Not sure what we’re talking about? Check out our blog post on Luminary’s ‘Seven Pillars Framework’ for helping clients maximise the value of their investment in digital.)

CMS comparison areas

Once you’ve got the groundwork sorted, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and compare CMSs. There are six key areas that we recommend our clients consider in assessing a CMS:

  1. Investment 
  2. Capability 
  3. Usability 
  4. Security
  5. Scalability, and 
  6. Reliability 

All of the good CMSs should cover off these main areas but some will perform more strongly in certain areas than others – and which one is more suited to your organisation will depend on your needs. For example, some platforms outperform others with e-commerce but the relative importance of this will depend on whether you already have your e-commerce needs taken care of in another platform, or whether you need your CMS to do that for you. Similarly, resourcing considerations may guide some organisations towards a more technical platform, while others may prefer something a bit more marketing-centric. 

Below, we explain what each of the six consideration areas involves, and what factors differentiate the star performers from the ‘also-rans’.

1. Investment 

This is the combination of up-front, subscription, base installation, maintenance, training, and hosting costs that come with any content management system. 

The investment levels required across the various platforms vary dramatically, so this is often a good place to start to narrow down your options. For many organisations, the top end of the market will be out of reach from an investment perspective. At the same time, for many organisations, having a financial component will be critical for risk management and will therefore rule out the open source options at the other end of the market. 

2. Capability 

The capability, or functionality, of the platform is really what you are buying. It covers all the requirements of a content management platform like content editing, content workflow, content delivery, digital asset management, experience management, commerce and analytics. 

You can spend endless hours sifting through feature lists to compare CMSs. Most established platforms will be able to tick most of the boxes in your traditional CMS matrix. For this reason, it’s important to understand your own unique requirements and what really matters to your organisation. Then consider a more nuanced approach to reviewing platforms that includes commentary on critical features (not just a tick box). For example, e-commerce is a very common feature in most platforms but it’s often an afterthought versus the core CMS features. If e-commerce is critical then you need to ensure you dive into that area of functionality through detailed product demonstrations to ensure it aligns with your requirements.

Based on our experience, the aspects of capabilities that most often differentiate platforms are e-commerce, personalisation, localisation, workflow, digital asset management, and marketing automation. Note here though that most of these features are often delivered by other point solutions (and thus won’t be in your list of requirements). 

3. Usability 

Usability covers the experience of using the platform for both content editors and developers, as the two major users of a CMS.

Content editors need an intuitive user interface that they can pick up quickly and complete their tasks with ease. The best way to test this is by giving your content editors access to a demonstration environment. Be careful with the feedback you get though, as prior CMS experience can cloud one’s initial impression (both positively and negatively). Low-code and no-code features are becoming more and more important now for content editors (as well as developers), to allow them to get their jobs-to-be-done completed better and/or faster.

For developers, the usability of the platform is about how quickly they can be onboarded, the underlying programming language and/or frameworks, the extensibility of the platform, integration examples, pluggable architecture, documentation, and training options. Again, can they get their tasks completed with ease? 

Some CMS products take an opinionated approach when it comes to content editing and this is one to look out for in the headless CMS space in particular where WYSIWYG is not always an option. But more often than not, the developer side is more of a differentiator. Organisations are often invested in certain technologies and/or have certain skill sets internally, and this will narrow down the choices. For example, if an organisation is heavily invested in the Microsoft environment with developers experienced in C# and .NET Core, then platforms like Sitecore, Optimizely, Umbraco, and Xperience by Kentico will likely make the shortlist.  

4. Security

Security covers the platform vendors’ approach to information security, including PII data, GDPR, CCPA, and how they manage security ongoing (e.g. hotfixes, upgrades). Security could also cover scenarios where the CMS back office needs to support external login providers for performing authentication of your users. 

This is rarely a differentiator but can occasionally rule out the smaller vendors and the open source providers that are often seen as higher risk from a security perspective. 

5. Scalability 

For large organisations, the performance of the platform as the usage/traffic scales is a critical consideration and they will need proof from vendors that their products can handle this scale. Scalability also covers how the platforms address cloud hosting, IaaS, PaaS, and the management of different environments across development, testing, staging and production. 

Like with security, scalability often weeds out the smaller vendors and open source providers that cannot provide proof or don’t have the breadth of offering around cloud hosting options. 

6. Reliability 

Reliability is more focused on the platform vendor as a business and ecosystem that surrounds their business - are they a stable business, do they have a clear vision for the product, what is the roadmap, do they have local support, do they have strong market penetration (i.e. others have confidence in them), and is there a healthy and reliable source of platform developers and partners? 

In our experience, product vision, partner quality, as well as the local support factor are often-cited reasons for selecting one vendor over another. 

Ranking the CMS platforms

Once you’ve developed a shortlist of CMS platforms to consider, it’s time to see how they stack up against one another. We recommend that you download our CMS Comparison Matrix for this purpose, which is an editable spreadsheet that’s pre-populated with each of the key areas outlined above, and specific considerations under each. You can add in or delete factors that are relevant to your specific circumstances. 

You can also determine your own rating system, but it’s important to go further than simply listing features as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Most platforms will have most features to some extent. What differentiates them is how strong they are in a particular area, and how important that particular feature is to the needs of your organisation.

Our CMS Comparison Matrix offers four built-in options to rank the CMS and DXP platforms: ✓ X ⚠ or ☆. A tick or a cross means the feature is present or not present, while the exclamation sign is to highlight any red flags, and the star denotes exceptional performance in a particular area. There is also a free text field to make notes to explain the reasons for your ranking. This step is critical to ensuring your review process is tailored to your unique requirements. 

Make sure you set aside a reasonable amount of time and engage the right people to do this properly, as a half-baked decision-making process can be costly – in money, time and sanity!

Of course, in the end nothing beats the insight that comes from being in the trenches with a range of different platforms over many years, so if you’re in the market for a new CMS or DXP and need help in completing your analysis, feel free to reach out to the team at Luminary. 

Download our CMS Comparison Matrix

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