How to Choose a Content Management System.


There are now a really good range of content management systems on the market today and so the question is how do you choose between them?

Over the past 10 years we have worked with a good range of the most popular content management systems and also, for 10 years, have successfully run our own. During this time we have seen the rise and fall of a number of systems and have helped hundreds of clients select the right CMS for them. So, how do you select a Content Management System?

What do you want to achieve?

The first question we ask is ‘what do you want to achieve?’. The reason for asking this is that the needs of your business, and the aims of your digital marketing strategy, will potentially dictate some of the features that you need to have included in your website.

For example, if the ability to sell online is needed then you will need to chose a platform that is commerce focused, or has the capability to include commerce, and has standard, secure connectors for online payments. You may also wish to take a look at there reporting and order management functionality within the platform as if you are going to rely on this system to process orders, report on performance and use it for stock control then you will need a more sophisticated commerce engine within your CMS. However, if your website is going to share your order data with your existing internal systems, e.g. CRM or ERP systems, then these features will be less important.

Other features that you may wish to consider include:

Approval and Routing

Do you wish to have some people who can create content, but not publish it, and a publishing team who can publish content?

Content Complexity

What type of content do you want to display? The minimum will be a routine text, images and media based page and all systems will support this. However, you may wish to then have more complex content, such as Author pages, Blog Articles, Events Calendars, Quiz's and Competitions - each of these types of pages will have their own templates, layouts and data fields and so having a CMS that can allow you to define different types of content, with different data fields, will be important.

APIs and Integrations

Do you need to be able to allow other systems to consume data in your CMS? Some platforms support RSS feeds, or JSON based APIs and so can be integrated easily with other systems.

System Simplicity

In our experience, this is important to understand - how technically savvy are your CMS Users? Some platforms are more complicated than others and each has its own way for describing features and labelling things in the CMS. Having a system that is the right level for your CMS users is therefore really important as you need these people to love your CMS!

A key feature to watch our for here is ‘on page editing’ or ‘inline editing’ - the ability to edit content on the page, as you move through the website. Not many systems offer this but Umbraco (latest version) and Sitecore both do.

Also, features such as ‘drag and drop’ and ‘content tagging’ can make your CMS life easier as it makes content quicker to create.

Image and Media Management

Most CMS systems have some form of image management but the functionality that they include can differ wildly. If you’re setting out to build a solid digital ecosphere for your customers then you will probably want to create lots of content and this means lots of images, videos and other consumable media. Consequently, have a well structured media library that includes tagging and searching will be key to your editors creating great content. Also, any system that uses ‘dynamic imagery’ - i.e. you upload one image and it takes care of creating the versions you need throughout the website - will always save you time in the short to long term.

Ecommerce and Online Payments

As mentioned already, this is quite a consideration when selecting a platform as not all CMS platforms have integrated product catalogue management, order processing, online payments and sale reporting ’out of the box’. On the flip side, some of the platforms that do then focus so singularly on this that their other features are rather limited.

Our advice here is to explore the platforms that offer standard commerce add-ons, such as Umbraco and UCommerce, WordPress and WooCommerce or Sitecore and Commerce Server.

Marketing Features

CMS’s are content management systems, which sounds obvious, but what this does mean is that they do not all include CRM or Marketing features. WordPress, for example, is a great CMS but has a very basic User management system and does not offer any marketing features or CRM functions without installing additional ‘plugins’ - add ons that give you more functionality.

At the other extreme, Sitecore is a real innovator and leader in this feature set with an offering that includes ‘Experience Profiles’ - a way to see your customer from all angles including not just what they’ve done of the website but who they are, how they fit your audience profiles and how engaged they are with your brand.

Other marketing features to consider include:

Email Broadcasting

The ability to segment and send marketing emails to your audience and track their performance. Advanced features here might include A/B Testing and Personalisation.

Social Integrations

Can you syndicate your content out to your social media channels from within the CMS? This is a great way to reduce content creation effort and then be able to measure and monitor social performance within the context of your website.

SMS/MMS Broadcasting

If you send out SMS/MMS messages can you segment and target your audience from within your CMS? Again, this can be important where you have KPIs to increase the size of your audience and improve engagement with them.

Campaign Tracking and Management

This is a really key feature of any good CMS, in our opinion, as this should allow you to track the performance of your marketing activity. By using campaign tracking you should be able to attribute the value of your digital channels including paid search (PPC), paid or content based social media advertising, email marketing, display and many other channels.

Dynamic Segmentation

Do you need your platform to use intelligence to dynamically segment your audience? This is an advanced feature of CMS and does not usually come with Open Source platforms. However, the ability for your platform to dynamically segment your digital audience is a key step on the path to creating lifetime customers and predictive personalisation.


This is a biggie! In surveys from recent years most marketers have said that personalisation is a key marketing tactic for them. However, very few platforms really support true personalisation. At a basic level this could be changing messaging and calls to action based on simple data - where they live, there name and whether they are logged in or not. However, true personalisation comes from platforms that use behavioural monitoring and analytics to not just look at the hard cold facts but to learn from your individual audience members behaviour and then allow you to change the messaging and calls to action.

Marketing Automation

Another advanced feature of some platforms is the ability to offer marketing automation - a way to trigger marketing interactions based on behaviours and key engagements. At a basic level this could include changing home page messaging or sending out an email to those that don’t complete an commerce transaction. However, the enterprise platforms will allow you to move beyond this, linking up specific user journeys and then continuing conversations with your key audience members.


OK, so this will always be a key factor for a lot of clients who are looking to change platform. In terms of CMS platforms there are really four types of CMS on offer - Open Source, Enterprise, Agency Licensed or Bespoke. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter which one you opt for but be aware that there are pros and cons to each of them.

Open Source

Open Source platforms usually are free to download and install. They are developed and supported by an army of developers who love to create and so do so for free. However, it would be wrong to think of them as free as the cost of ownership of an Open Source CMS can sometimes be more, or at least equivalent, to any other platform. Also, the support model for Open Source systems can vary from ‘not supported’ to pay for levels of support from the developer community.

However, they are great when you have simple functionality and content needs and you can host them with a trusted partner that knows how to keep them safe and secure but we would not recommend them for business critical systems due to their tendency to attract hackers and there weaker (by comparison) support offerings.

Good Open Source platforms include WordPress, Drupal and Umbraco.


The opposite end of the spectrum to Open Source. Enterprise systems are developed by CMS specialist software companies based on commercial license models - i.e. they usually have an annual or upfront fee just to be able to download and install the software.

These systems are usually feature rich, fully supported and have clear commercially focused road maps for their continued development. They will all now offer the highest levels of Content Management functionality and will more often than not include the most up to date, integrated, marketing features too.

However, they can be expensive and the cost of ownership will definitely be higher than some of the other platforms mentioned in this article.

Enterprise platforms include Sitecore, Mageneto Enterprise and Episerver.

Agency Licensed

Agency Licensed is similar to Enterprise and it’s really a classification that we use to collate all the websites that are built on an agency’s specific intellectual property. Lots of agencies that were found in or in the years following the dot com boom went on to create their own platforms, and we are no exception. We have a system that includes Pages, News, Commerce, Events, Calendars, Competitions and integrated marketing features including email broadcasting and campaign tracking. We also still have clients on it. However, these systems are proprietary to the agency and so often meet specific needs well but then fail to grow and evolve at the same pace as the Enterprise and Open Source systems.


Bespoke platforms are those that are created for you, from scratch. Its quite a rare thing to have a client who wants a totally bespoke platform and that’s because the Open Source world can provide what we now consider ‘standard’ CMS functionality.

However, if you have very niche requirements or ‘above average’ security requirements then a bespoke system could be the right choice for you.

In this section, we’ve highlighted budget as a key factor but, in truth, it is more than initially budgets that should be considered as Lifetime Cost and Return on Investment (ROI) are equally, if not more, important.

Lifetime Cost

Many organisations are now well beyond their second generation CMS and quite often embarking on the forth, fifth or higher version of their website. As a consequence, platforms have standardised and the focus of late has shifted from management functionality to marketing functionality, and, to a greater extent, this often means complexity. Couple into this the need for ever tighter security and data protection controls and the lifetime cost of your platform can now outweigh the initial budget needed to launch it when viewed over a three or four year period.

There are many factors that can affect lifetime cost and these include:

  • Hosting Requirements - does you platform need clusters of servers, or specific technologies that increase the IT cost of your CMS.
  • Patches and Updates - for Enterprise and Open Source there are often multiple minor updates and security patches that need to be installed. Installing such updates can involve taking a site offline, or reprocessing and then resynchronising data. Furthermore, major updates can introduce new technologies and can take days or weeks of developer time to work through. The cost of this is therefore not always insignificant.
  • Vulnerability - some platforms, particularly in the Open Source world, attract hackers. This is because their code bases are in the public domain and exposed for all those with a penchant for creating digital misery to exploit.
  • Coding Technologies - all platforms are built on a code base and this is usually PHP, .NET or Java based. Depending on which one, the costs of employing or contracting developers can be higher or lower. Furthermore, the costs of support, hardware and add-ons can also vary, with some platforms being more expensive than others.
  • Developer Scarcity - continuing on the same theme as the point above, coding skills are sometimes scarce - particularly with the server side technologies (PHP/.NET/Java). This can sometimes just make it difficult to find people who can progress your platform.
  • Training Costs - in addition to the technical costs, you should also factor into your cost calculations the relative training costs. CMS platforms today are complex and feature rich and we would always recommend up-skilling your content and marketing teams so that they are aware of the features available and no how to leverage them to optimum effect.

Return on Investment

The real measure of the success of a platform implementation is the total ROI. Total ROI is not just the money the platform makes but also the time it saves. Content Management Systems and Digital Marketing Systems, or Customer Experience Platforms, should be designed to:

  • Provide CMS and DMS functionality in a cost effective way
  • Be secure, robust and scalable
  • Be simple to use for content editors
  • Reduce the time to market for new content and features
  • Reduce the dependencies on highly skilled developers
  • Provide an identifiable return to your business

The last point here is key, a good CMS platform should make you money and save you money. Consequently, its ROI should be measured in terms of revenue plus efficiency/time savings. If your system doesn’t offer you this then maybe you should look again at your choice of CMS.


The aim of this article was to highlight some of the reasons for choosing a particular platform for content management and the reality is that there are lots of factors as to why you might chose one over another.

Given where we are today, in terms of platform maturity, if you go Enterprise or Open Source (with the leaders in their respective fields) you will not go far wrong. However, you may not get it right either if you decide based on technical comfort or for ‘IT reasons’. Your choice should be governed by your business and marketing objectives and not your IT budget.

You need to get a platform that allows you to compete in this digital age, where you can get great content and simple user experiences to your audience quickly and efficiently, where you can track, analyse and understand your customer and where you can do all the things that you should be doing to start building customer-centric, personalised and relevant experiences, as you strive to create lifetime customer loyalty and engagement.

Nick Towers
Nick Towers
Co-Founder & executive director
Co-Founder and self-confessed massive geek, Nick has been in digital since graduating from law and moving into technology many years ago. Through a combination of building awesome client relationships, crafting a formidable team of digital experts and consistently delivering results for our clients Nick has taken Sagittarius from being a successful small agency to the global digital customer experience consultancy and Sitecore powerhouse that it is today.
Nick Towers

Nick Towers

23 Mar 2016 - 9 minute read
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