Your Practical Guide to Choosing a CMS

Posted on February 19, 2021
  • Choosing the right CMS depends on your needs, goals and aspirations
  • Be wary of anyone who tries to sell you on a platform because all of their clients use that platform
  • When seeking advice, understand what you need your website to do, and why you need it to do those things

Content management systems (otherwise known as a CMS) are the foundation on which your website is built. Like your website, your CMS sits at the center of your business — making it a critical part of your tech stack.

Choose the right platform, and you’ll only need to think of your website when it comes to making routine updates and strategic changes. Choose the wrong platform, and you could find yourself dealing with a website that crashes frequently, is vulnerable to hackers, and costs more time (and money) than it’s worth.

We want you to have the content management system that best fits your needs, so we put together this guide for you to separate fact from crap when choosing a CMS. As a bonus, you’ll also be able to quickly tell when a vendor you consult has an ulterior motive for selling you on a particular platform.

choosing the right cms

How to Choose the Right Content Management System

If you’re looking for us to give you a list of platforms, you might as well click away now. You won’t be getting any specific recommendations from us in this piece.

But we have good reasons — each business has different needs, goals and growth ambitions. You want to build your website on top of a platform that will scale with you and have the core features you need.

For that reason, we’re taking the “teach a person how to fish” approach with this piece. We’ll tell you what to look for, the right questions to ask, and you’ll be able to tell who knows their shit.

Let’s start this fishing trip by forgetting everything you’ve ever heard about any and every CMS.

We talk to potential clients all the time who have their hearts set on a particular platform because they’ve heard good things about it, their buddy likes it, or simply because it has a particular brand name. That’s certainly a great place to start, but your research needs to go deeper. A lot deeper. Marketing is a hell of a drug (and we would know!).

Many of those platforms are generalist, all-in-one platforms. Again, sounds like a great idea, especially if you’re the entire marketing, sales and web development teams. The challenge with using a generalist tool when you’d be better served by a specialist is two-fold:

  1. Cost - Somewhere, in a land far, far away, someone had the bright idea that their platform needed a specific functionality, and a dev built it. Those people aren’t working for free — which means you’re paying for all of those features whether you use them or not.

  2. Sometimes you need specialized knowledge - Think about choosing your CMS as hiring an employee. When you’re interviewing candidates, you’re judging their merits on a particular skill set, and everything beyond that is a beautiful bonus. It’s the same with technology. You want tech that specializes in certain critical functions, and doesn’t try to be everything to everybody.

When we’re helping a client choose technology, we start with a thorough discovery. We’ll ask about your business and goals, of course. But we also look at the size of your current operations, and your aspirations for future growth.

If you’re a two-person shop who sells a few products online as a profitable side project, you probably don’t need a large infrastructure. If you’re a different two-person shop who has ambitions to scale quickly and hire a lot of people, you’ll need a nimble infrastructure that can grow with your team.

When we’re talking to a business owner who fits in the second category who wants more advanced software, we naturally approach that website build differently. We’ll build it on the more advanced platform, but add features and functionalities that can easily be swapped and expanded on in the future.

In practice, this could mean building a tiny website on Strapi. Down the line, when the client has a big enough category of leads to need Salesforce, it’ll be a straightforward drop-in. We can simply remove the interim solution and replace it with the enterprise version.

If you add Salesforce before you have the database to require it, you’re probably getting married to the technology before you’ve had a chance to really get to know each other. When your business enters its next evolution, you can’t just remove the Jenga block in your tech stack that is Salesforce and replace it with something better, because there are 7 other integrations that rely on it to function — and they don’t fit anywhere else. Which, of course, turns into an economic nightmare (with a ton of added tech debt).

As an aside, when it comes to planning ahead for growth, honesty is always the best policy. If you plan around a goal you don’t have the time, resources or ability to do, the best case scenario is that you’ll be paying for a product that doesn’t meet your needs.

The last thing we want is to do the same thing twice, especially for our clients.

shopping for a cms

How to Shop Around for Your CMS

Of course, you shouldn’t just take our word for it. With any major purchase, you’ll want to read reviews, get additional opinions, and give the platform a test drive. In your research, you’ll probably talk to a few larger marketing agencies and others who specialize in a particular platform. And you’ll need to learn how to spot bias and discern what you really need.

Choosing a CMS, and by extension, hiring a marketing team, is really about delegation, so you should approach your research in this way. Choosing a CMS, and web development for that matter, is a complex field. Reading a few blog posts (even ones that are as great as this one) won’t tell you everything you need to know, so it’s best to find someone you trust and know the right questions to ask.

Enter your search with a mindset of “who can I trust to do this for me?” instead of “I need x, y, and z,” and you’ll be more likely to have a favorable outcome.

Remember how we told you to forget everything you’ve ever heard about any platforms at all? Now expand that to forget about any preconceived notions you have around technology. More specifically, we’re talking about two major misconceptions.

  1. Forget the idea that newer technology is expensive. Cloud technology has come so far that it enables a lot of horizontal scaling for very little monthly cost.

  2. Forget who you think enterprise-level technology serves, especially as it relates to “the cloud.” We often recommend hosting websites on Amazon Web Services because it’s efficient and affordable. You probably have an image of AWS in your head that it’s for larger companies, and multi-billion dollar operations like Netflix use it to run their operations. The second part of that sentence is true, and the first is false. When we recommend AWS to clients, we often hear pushback along the lines of “there’s no way I can benefit from that” or “I can’t pay for that.” Both of those thoughts are misconceptions. Using the same hosting service as Netflix actually has some value — the big guys are subsidizing all of that server space for you, so you’re paying almost nothing per month.

Next step is to separate the functionality of your website from the aesthetics and understand what you need it to do — and why it needs to do those things.

Knowing what you want your website to do and why it needs to do those things sounds like a silly question, but we promise it’s not. Understanding the answers to those questions is the key to having a technology you’ll love long-term.

Going back to that metaphor of teaching you to fish, this part is the master class on bait.

Are you an ecommerce company, where your website is critical to sales? If so, do you need to track and manage inventory, or just sell products? Does your company rely on a physical store to make sales, and you just need a website that has some information about your company and its services?

In each of these cases, we would recommend a different setup.

The final piece of advice we want to leave you with is to trust, but verify. If a consultant or agency is trying to push you in a particular direction, always ask why.

If they tie a recommendation back to your business needs, that’s the green light you’re looking for. If they say something like “we recommend WordPress for all of our clients because it can do everything,” or “we really love Hubspot,” dig deeper.

Ask why they recommend that platform. If the answer is about the platform itself, instead of your needs, get another opinion.

You should also ask what platforms a provider uses for their other clients. If you get a vague answer like, “we use all kinds of platforms, but primarily WordPress,” ask about the situations where they don’t use that platform.

The answer you’re trying to get to is one where they recommended a platform because of a particular business attribute.

Finally, if you sell products and a vendor recommends you build your website on WordPress and WooCommerce, be skeptical and get a second opinion.

The Takeaway

Building a website and choosing technology isn’t like buying a table, where once you’ve purchased the table, you’re done spending money on that table.

Building a website is more like buying a car. You have the sticker price for the car itself, but you also have to consider ancillary costs like insurance, gas and regular maintenance. If you buy a quality car and keep up with all of those things, you’ll have a great relationship. But if you neglect the maintenance, soon enough, everything will be broken and you’ll need to shell out a large portion of cash for a new one.

Just because you paid someone to build a website doesn’t mean it will always work exactly how you want it to. It requires a thoughtful approach and maintenance so your website evolves with your business.

To be a smart consumer, do your homework. Be prepared to talk about why you want particular technologies, and make sure your technology partner understands, too.

If you’re looking for the right CMS, or want a second opinion, get in touch. We have experience and knowledge to build a system that will meet you where you are today and grow with you for who you’ll be tomorrow.