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How do you choose the right CMS?

Find the one that's right for your business

Written by Lars Skjold Iversen

However much we would like to think so, there’s no one-size-fits-all CMS for every single business out there. A small webshop selling yarn will probably not pick the same CMS as a governmental agency. So the question is: how do you pick the one that’s right for your business?

There are so many great options

When’s the last time you looked for a new content management system? If it’s been more than 5 minutes there’s a good chance a new one has popped up, bringing their own unique take on how you should manage your website in 2020.

And the problem is that a lot of them are great options!


Wait, how is that a problem?


Sure, options are great. But just like when you're deciding what to watch next on Netflix, too many options can make it hard to choose just one. And with a lot of great content management systems out there, how do you know which one is right for you?

To help answer this question I turned to some of our Gold Partners, who help businesses answer this question every day.


The question I asked was:

How do you choose the right CMS for your business?



I’ll let our clients do the talking - Paul Marden, Director at Carbon Six Digital

We find that it's often the case that for many of our clients, the decision as to which CMS platform to use is made prior to our engagement on the project. The decision to work with Carbon Six is then motivated by a need to find an expert delivery partner.  So we decided to ask two of our clients why they chose Umbraco.


Michelle Hughes, Head of Marketing, Wright Hassall LLP

Our old CMS was bespoke, so we were tied to one agency, and it limited us in terms of the experience we were able to offer our users. 


For a new CMS, we were looking for something open source so we could work with new agencies if we needed to (as lawyers we know it’s always wise to plan for divorce!). 

Still, more importantly, we wanted a CMS, which allowed us greater flexibility in terms of the design, the experience, and the functionality we could offer our users. 


Ultimately, we chose Umbraco because it was futureproofed and would allow us to realise our aspirations for our website and allow us to integrate with all our other marketing systems. 


James Sudworth, Head of Digital, Egress Software Technologies

When we decided to redesign our public-facing web platform we were looking at WordPress which the design agency specialised in originally. However, this didn't work for us, as we have no PHP experience in our existing dev teams, given that all our product dev is .NET, so it wasn’t the most prudent route.


Our primary requirement was a CMS built on .NET, but the cost was also an important factor, so our Chief Architect picked Umbraco as the best-reviewed open-source .NET CMS, then we searched for experts in Umbraco, and voila we found Carbon Six Digital 😊.

Think about outcomes, not requirements - John Prior, Solutions Director at twentysix

You can select a CMS purely by checking off features from a list of requirements meticulously gathered from a diverse set of stakeholders. It might be a simple checklist or it could be a weighted scorecard. Either way, if you do pick the right CMS it’s probably by accident.

The problem with trawling for requirements is that trawl nets pick up everything in their path and no matter how much you prioritise, your requirements list is going to include bycatch. Your stakeholders will list every requirement they can think of, not wanting to risk missing out on something important. Worse still, those requirements will represent the solutions implemented by systems they’ve previously used, which might not be the right solution for you or might be the solution to a problem you don’t even have.


So you’ll end up with the feature list of old CMSs with a few extra wishlist items, and that’s going to bias you towards conservative choices:

  • Platforms with wide feature sets, not necessarily well-implemented
  • Platforms that have stopped innovating
  • Platforms just like your old platform, only incrementally better (if you’re lucky). 

You’ve inadvertently used old solutions to other people’s problems to limit your choices and compromised your ability to innovate.


Start instead by thinking about outcomes, not requirements. 

You don’t require a WYSIWYG editor with a built-in grammar check – you want non-technical users to publish high-quality content quickly. 

You don’t require a versioning system with workflow management – you want editors to collaborate on content without having to organise themselves or content outside of the system.

You don’t require a React/.Net/AWS-based technology stack – you want your existing teams to work with your new system without having to add new core skills.


Overly detailed requirements at this stage force you to eliminate valid choices prematurely. You should be able to assess a headless CMS alongside a traditional CMS, or a SaaS platform alongside an on-premise platform and make a meaningful choice between them. Reviewing CMSs through the lens of outcomes rather than requirements frees you to judge them on their living merits, rather than by how closely they resemble the fossilised components of dead and dying systems.

Guide: how to choose the right CMS

As our partners - and their clients - rightly pointed out, there are different ways to end up with a CMS. And maybe you’re lucky and you hit the nail on the head without much testing - but what if you’re not that lucky? That can end in a lot of lost time and resources.

To increase your chances of finding the right CMS I’ve made a quick guide on how to go through the decision process. Beware that this is no exact science and by no means the only way to do it. It's just my humble attempt at bringing some structure to a process that can be more chaotic than it probably should be.


Step 1: Define your desired outcomes

As John rightly pointed out, it’s very easy to get stuck looking at features and making checklists for each. But with the huge selection of content management systems out there, you won’t be able to narrow it down much by simply looking at features. 

Instead, focus on the desired outcomes and weigh them, so the most important outcomes rank higher than less important ones.

Once you have a list of outcomes and their weight it will be much easier for you to start the next step: researching and narrowing down the list of possible options.


Step 2: Research and create a shortlist

You can’t possibly test and try every CMS out there - and you shouldn’t. Instead, you’ll need to research your way through possible candidates until you’ve ended up with a shortlist of a handful of options.

But before you start researching there’s an important question to answer:


Who’s going to do the research?


Finding the right CMS for your business can be a long and daunting task. So before embarking on the process there are two ways you can go:

  1. Select an agency and let them steer the CMS research and selection process
  2. Weigh and select the CMS yourself and then choose an agency (if needed)


Both options work great and have their own pros and cons. No matter which one you choose, it’s important that you stay involved to some degree. Even if you have picked a skilled agency, you’ll need to share your thoughts and knowledge about your business with them.

You know your business better than anyone and while you might have given them a weighted list of desired outcomes, there will most likely be nuances that are hard to put down on paper.


No matter how you choose to go about it, the end goal is to have a shortlist of options that you can now take to step 3: testing, evaluating and choosing a CMS.


Step 3: Testing, evaluating, and choosing a CMS

This last step might be the most obvious and straightforward of them all.

Once you have your shortlist of possible content management systems, it’s time for you to test them out. And although this might seem simple, it’s crucial that you do it thoroughly. 


During testing, it can be helpful to refer back to your desired outcomes and split them into categories with a few subcategories in each. That way you can do more thorough testing and ensure that you can do the things you want and need to with the CMS you choose.


If you want some inspiration for the testing process I can highly recommend using a scorecard. I’ve made a template that you can use as inspiration for your own testing phase.

CMS Scorecard template by UmbracoFind the scorecard template here


Once you’re done with your testing - with or without a scorecard - it’s time for evaluating the options and finding the best fit.

Hopefully, there’ll be a clear winner and you’re ready to build your new amazing website in a CMS that is just right for you.

Thank you for reading and as always a huge #H5YR to our Gold Partners who took the time to contribute to this post.

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