The Complete Guide to Selecting Your Next Content Management System
Choosing the right CMS for your organization or business isn’t often a straightforward process. Sure, there are popular and well-known content management systems that are easy to adopt. But most businesses recognize that their website is only one part of their digital footprint, and not all CMSs are created equal when it comes to serving their particular needs.
Because many enterprises have additional considerations above and beyond simply putting a website online, the decision of what CMS to use requires careful consideration, thoughtful planning, and often a bit of help.
In this guide to selecting the right content management system, we’ll look at different CMS types and the different questions you’ll need to answer to make the right decision.
What is a Content Management System (CMS)?
A content management system (CMS) is drag-and-drop software that allows one or more user(s) to publish a website and/or content to the Internet without using code. Most CMS do many other things as well, including sending emails to customers, processing payments for purchases, or tracking time for workers, but at heart, a CMS is about publishing a website to the Internet.
A modern CMS has tools for creating web pages, blog posts, and other content that can be shared with visitors. A modern CMS allows administrators to set permissions for other users and visitors. The CMS likely has a place to manage media files like images and videos as well as files to ensure that each piece of content has a consistent look and feel that represents the brand correctly.
Examples of Content Management Systems
There are dozens of reliable and proven content management systems available today. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be focusing on options that are available to almost anyone and not custom code or custom CMS development.
Open-source software is free to use and is often supported by a large community of developers and users. Examples of open-source CMS include Drupal, Ghost, and Magento. The benefit of open-source software is that the cost to get started is often quite low, and the nature of the code is that developers and users can modify it to their needs.
Open-source software also allows users to host their website at the provider of their choice. For example, a Drupal website can be hosted on a Liquid Web VPS as easily as it can be hosted anywhere else. Open-source allows for considerably more choice and flexibility when it comes to other parts of the web experience.
Closed-source software is proprietary and requires a paid license to use. This means that upfront costs might be high, sometimes considerably so. However, proprietary software is almost always supported completely by the publisher. This means that maintenance and security burdens disappear almost completely as compared to open-source counterparts. Proprietary software is also more often hosted with the publisher, meaning migration costs to another CMS down the road can be high. Examples of closed-source or proprietary CMS include Adobe Experience Manager, Kentico, Sitefinity, or Sitecore.
Why You Need a CMS in the First Place
With billions of people around the world using the Internet each day for work, play, learning, shopping, and more, it’s hard to imagine any business that doesn’t think having a website is a good idea.
The reasons for needing a CMS are every bit as straight forward.
As recently as a decade ago, it was conceivable that a company website wouldn’t need to be updated or changed. That meant that a static website could be developed, put online, and left alone.
Times have inarguably changed. Visitors look to a company’s website to not only learn about the company but to start a relationship with the company. From signing up for email newsletters to reading blog posts, the modern web simply requires websites to do more than they did in the past.
For new content like blog posts, images, and videos to be added to the website easily, a CMS is required. Otherwise, it might take a skilled web developer many hours to code what a CMS makes possible for an amateur in just a few minutes.
Additionally, search engine algorithms reward regularly updated sites and tend to ignore websites that don’t provide new, fresh content. If organic web traffic is a part of your marketing strategy, and it most likely is, you’ll need a CMS for making regular updates.
By having a CMS for your website, your marketing team can make changes, add content, and leverage the website easily and in ways that aren’t possible without a CMS. And as your website is the primary marketing tool for your business, it is critical that your marketing team have the flexibility and agility to leverage it to the fullest.
On the backend, your content management system allows your website to integrate with tools crucial to your company’s success.
For example, analytics tools that allow you to better understand your customers’ wants and expectations can tie into your CMS with just a few clicks. Sales-focused tools like your CRM or billing system also tie into your CMS, essentially serving as the connective tissue between all of the systems and applications that keep your business headed in the right direction.
Not having a CMS means that these critical systems will integrate improperly (or not at all) and only after exhaustive customization and coding. Granted, some organizations do not connect all of their systems and tools to the CMS, but that typically results in more work that has to be duplicated or managed by hand. This kind of disconnect decreases efficiency and opens the door to innumerable problems and challenges that are alleviated when a proper CMS is present.
What Makes a Good CMS?
Deciding what makes for a good CMS is truly in the eye of the beholder. One company’s needs and wants are unlikely to look like another’s. The good news is that there are many CMS options today to choose from, and one of them is bound to be almost perfect for your needs.
Here are three considerations as you choose your content management system:
A Good CMS Fits Your Use Case
The most important thing when choosing a content management system is that it fits the specific needs of your organization.
Ask yourself if your organization needs:
- Flexibility to allow multiple people in multiple departments and multiple locations to be working simultaneously on publishing content?
- To sell products and have online orders tie into a logistics and inventory system?
- The website to serve as a place for appointments to be scheduled or for marketing emails to be sent and tracked?
Before selecting a content management system, it is wise to outline not only what the website needs to do but also what systems and integrations are necessary, who will be using the website, and how they will be using it.
A Good CMS Fits Your Needs
Another key component of selecting the right CMS is making sure that it fits your needs. How is this different from it fitting your use case? Simply put, a CMS that fits your needs is one that allows you to succeed in your digital marketing goals without making it difficult.
Choosing a CMS that is simple and effective for your users and your site visitors is far preferable to choosing a content management system that is complicated, complex, and difficult to work with.
Some organizations do indeed need systems that are multi-instance, multi-tenant, and multi-layered, while others could utilize an open-source platform on VPS Hosting. Be careful not to choose a CMS that adds unnecessary complexity to your web presence.
A Good CMS Fits Your Budget
It is important to understand that a website is never a singular cost or investment. From security and software updates to adding new content, recognizing your budget needs to allocate for all of your web investments, not simply a once-and-done website launch approach.
As such, it is important to choose a CMS that fits your budget over the long haul.
For example, many proprietary systems require a larger upfront fee, but ongoing maintenance and support is included for a period of time with that fee. Conversely, open-source content management systems may require very little early investment, but you’ll need to handle updates, patches, and support over time with a third party (or a paid member of your staff).
When budgeting for your website, be mindful that you’ll be making ongoing investments in your web presence and plan for that.
Five Questions for Choosing the Right Content Management System
At this point, you should have a solid understanding of what goes into choosing the right content management system. Now, we will explore the advantages and disadvantages of different characteristics in the CMS. Once you answer these questions, you will be well on your way to choosing the best CMS for your business.
1. Open-Source or Closed-Source
Perhaps the most critical part of your evaluation comes down to choosing open-source or closed-source for your CMS.
With open-source, you’ll have significantly more flexibility not just in terms of what your website can do but also in terms of cost. There are literally thousands of developers for popular open-source CMS like Drupal and Joomla, meaning that you can find different levels of expertise and cost for development, design, and ongoing maintenance. The downside of an open-source CMS is that you’ll have to manage certain setup components with a little more consideration and attention than if using a closed-source content management system.
The primary advantage of a proprietary system is that the publisher often takes care of all of the “under the hood” issues that would likely fall to your team in an open-source world. A proprietary system will likely address software updates, hosting, security, and compliance. The primary downside of a closed-source system is that there may not be as much flexibility for customization and integrations. Additionally, proprietary software can be significantly more expensive than open-source software, even when factoring in development costs.
2. Hosted or Self-Hosted
If you choose a proprietary CMS, then you’ll likely receive hosting as part of the solution. On the surface, this may seem like a positive, but it is important to point out that the lock-in to these systems is significant. And if the provided hosting isn’t robust enough to handle traffic spikes or your specific needs, you won’t have much recourse to do anything about it.
Open-source content management systems more often require the user to host the CMS with a third party. This flexibility means that you can choose a host that provides the infrastructure necessary to meet your requirements. From cloud configurations that can handle almost any amount of traffic to robust VPS that combine reasonable pricing with excellent performance, choosing the hosting provider that fits your needs is a compelling benefit. Additionally, if you need to change hosting in anticipation of a large traffic spike or because your needs change, the portability of your CMS is made easier with open-source technology.
3. Maintenance and Support
The site will need to be updated, maintained, and secured over time. From critical security patches, making sure your site stays compliant, or compliance and usability standards, someone will be responsible for keeping the site in good shape.
Additionally, if something goes wrong or breaks on the website, who will be available to lend a hand and help out? Sure, your developer can help with a code problem, but what is your remedy if the server goes offline or there is a DNS problem? Additionally, who is managing backups of the site?
Oftentimes your hosting provider will offer some significant assistance when it comes to the operating system and things like backups, security, and malware scanning. Make sure and ask what is offered to you when considering a CMS and the hosting you’ll receive.
4. Flexibility and Usability
A good content management system makes using the website a joy for both your publishing team and the eventual site visitors.
It really is that simple. Any friction or pain caused by the experience should be minimized. Your team of marketers doesn’t want to be frustrated in their work. Rather, they want to do interesting things and publish interesting and appealing content. Users want to come to your site and find what they need or discover something interesting and new.
The right content management system will make it easy for your team and your site’s visitors to accomplish those goals. From a usability standpoint, be mindful of how your team and visitors will be using the site.
For example, do your visitors primarily come from mobile? If so, choose a CMS with built-in mobile optimizations.
Is your marketing team working with lots of large images? Choose a CMS that makes it uploading easy and compression automatic so they can focus on creating, not the technical details.
5. Security, Compliance, and Privacy
While every aspect above is important, perhaps the most crucial is how your CMS handles security, compliance, and privacy.
Because a misstep here can quite literally put you out of business. A hack that takes control of your site can be a disaster. A compliance violation or privacy breach can subject you to litigation.
Choosing a CMS with built-in security and privacy tools is just the first step. Your chosen infrastructure and development partner needs to also offer security and compliance features. From malware scanning and firewalls to any necessary compliance (PCI-DSS, HIPAA, HiTrust), it is critical that security and privacy be at the forefront of your CMS decision-making process.
Many proprietary systems have robust security by default. Open-source systems can have similar protections available as well; they simply need to be enabled and configured appropriately.
A Partner at the Operating System and Below
If you choose an open-source content management system, then you are going to need a partner to handle everything “OS and below.” This means that while your CMS is where your team and site visitors will interact, the web servers and their related components will almost certainly be handled by a third-party, most likely a managed cloud provider.
Choosing an infrastructure provider is every bit as nuanced as choosing a CMS, but there are a few things that are easy to understand.
First, choose a hosting partner that is experienced with the CMS you have chosen. While they may not necessarily support the application itself, a history of deploying infrastructure that helps you get the most out of your CMS is essential.
Additionally, your infrastructure partner should offer some of the security and privacy considerations mentioned above. After all, the servers, switches, and connectivity are under their care, so ensuring your data is protected at the infrastructure level is an inflexible requirement.
Your hosting partner should also provide the support and maintenance necessary to help meet your digital goals. For example, if Cyber Monday brings a huge spike in traffic to your website, then your hosting provider should be able to set you up for success before the spike occurs through more robust infrastructure.
If your company works in the healthcare field and is storing private personal information (PPI), then your hosting partner should have HIPAA Compliance as part of your hosting infrastructure.
Finally, it can be wise to have a single hosting provider for all of your applications. You may have other software that is critical to your business, such as an ERP system or inventory management system. Placing each with the same host can make support and billing much simpler than having different providers helping with different systems.
Bringing It All Together With a CMS
Your content management system is the lynchpin for your digital strategy, and in many cases, the fabric that connects all of your software applications and systems. As such, the choice of which CMS is right for you is important.
Having a partner like Liquid Web by your side, both during the decision process and to help support your initiatives after, can be critical to ongoing success. Our CMS Hosting solutions are purpose-built for businesses of all sizes, regardless of their choice in content management systems. We have the experience and expertise to support, maintain, and secure the infrastructure you need today and into the future.
As the Most Helpful Humans in Hosting®, Liquid Web offers 24/7 Support to keep your business on track. With industry-leading uptime and a staff of engineers always eager to help, your CMS is in good hands with our team. Contact us if you’re ready to level up your digital strategy with the right CMS and the perfect infrastructure to reach your goals.
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As a former blog writer with Liquid Web, Jason has spent the last 20 years providing client strategy in marketing, enterprise software implementation, and managed hosting services.
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