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How to Select the Right CMS

A five-step plan for evaluating web content management systems
University Business, Apr 2010

Have you noticed how full your schedule has become? With tighter budgets, smaller teams, and an ever-growing list of responsibilities and possibilities, the typical workload for higher ed web professionals has dramatically increased. While the rising demands of social media and growing shift to the mobile web have put more pressure on web communication offices, the institutional website is now even more central to the way universities and colleges communicate, inform, run, and "market" themselves to students.

In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, and the likes, college websites still weigh the most for prospective students. As the latest Noel-Levitz E-Expectations project report shares, 88 percent of 1,000 college-bound seniors surveyed said they would drop a school or be very disappointed if its website didn't have the content they needed to make their decision. While 80 percent stated that web content is more important than site design, 57 percent said they would probably take a school off their list if the web content was out of date, incorrect, or unhelpful.

So, can you remember the last time you updated your web pages? Are you sure your web content reflects the latest changes in admissions deadlines, financial aid requirements, key staff contact information, and all other crucial bits of information? Or, are you facing a backlog of web edit requests that needed to be done by ... yesterday?

The software application should support the specific ways people currently work.

It's time to stop drowning in outdated web content, start thinking about a better content management strategy for your website, and choose to invest in the right web content management system (CMS) by following this five-step plan.

This will mean going from a centralized to distributed approach to web content management, which can't be done overnight. Beyond new software, it requires a strategy addressing content ownership and approval processes among other things.

At Marist College (N.Y.), the CMS selection process took about six months in 2008. The most interesting part of the decision cycle was caused by internal discussions about what was proposed and what the results would be. "The biggest concern was that users would now be held responsible for their content," recalls Bill Thirsk, vice president of information technology. Don't skip this soul-searching step. It is crucial to get executive support and avoid issues down the road. "When a CMS evaluation doesn't have a strategic foundation, the end result can be higher-than-anticipated implementation costs, longer timeframes to migrate existing website content to the CMS, or challenges managing the website using the CMS tool," warns Doug Clark, principal at Collegiate Web Solutions, which helps institutions with CMS implementations.

Once all the stakeholders are ready for the upcoming change, it's very important to define goals and key performance indicators. "A CMS implementation is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, and the institution should be crystal clear about what success looks like before it begins," says Rob Cima, partner at mStoner, another firm that helps institutions with web redesigns and CMS projects. Usual measurable goals include reducing the amount of time necessary to create and deliver content by a certain percentage, putting communicators in control of online communications, maintaining user experience and brand consistency, and improving yield by a certain percentage via the creation of fresh content targeted at accepted students.

Now is the time to learn as much as you can about both the content management system and your future CMS users as a group. You need to have a clear understanding of what a CMS will do and what it won't do. A CMS will help you streamline the publishing process, reuse some pieces of content throughout your website, and enforce your branding and style guidelines. Unfortunately, it won't magically update web content on its own; CMS users are the only ones who can do that.

That's why, at this stage, you should also learn more about how your future content contributors will work. Tony Dunn, CMS coordinator at California State University, Chico, went through a very long CMS evaluation in 2007. In the presentations he has given about the topic, he always tries to emphasize that the software application should support the specific ways people currently work. This will assure that it's popular - and gets used. In other words, don't think you can just discard and simply replace processes currently in use. You will need to convince your users that the CMS will also simplify their lives.

Since your content contributors will have the biggest impact on the success or failure of your CMS, you must involve them in the selection process. Create a committee including future CMS users (academic department secretaries, registrar and admissions officers, etc.) and super users (web editor, web director, communication coordinator, etc.), technical staff from IT, and university administrators.

Depending on the size of your institution, this group should createor, in the case of a large university, oversee the creation of the comprehensive list of business and technical needs the selected CMS will fulfill. For bigger universities, the committee should also include a project champion whose mission will be to represent the interests of the institution as a whole as well as its main website users (prospective and current students, alumni, donors, friends, etc.). "We had a committee representing many areas of the institution, and we collected about 20 pages of requirements, but nobody was assigned to champion the communications benefits of a shared CMS for the institution," recalls Santiago Fernandez-Gimenez, the information architect and web project manager for academic support resources at the University of Minnesota. Looking back, Fernandez-Gimenez thinks this lack of a project champion prevented the committee from effectively evaluating the various software solutions.

With your list of needs in hand, you can start to create the functional and technical requirement matrix you will use to evaluate the different content management systems. You should prioritize these requirements into must-haves and nice-to-haves. Take the time to do a request for proposal (RFP) and make sure the main CMS vendors in higher education receive it. This assures a more thorough, concise, consistent process across vendors. Whether you take the RFP on the road or not, should retain the CMS that gets a passing grade on most of the requirements.

Don't settle for a single solution yet. Pick a small group of vendors and ask them to recreate a couple of pages from your website with their software in a sandbox environment, which allows you to try out products. Your technical team will then be able to form an educated opinion. You should also follow the user evaluation process deployed by Princeton a few years ago for selecting its current CMS: Invite selected vendors to perform a demo on campus along with a user page editing class geared toward a sample of future CMS users. Schedule an extra hour after the class to let content contributors "play" with the CMS. This sample group should commit to attend all of the vendor sessions so they can evaluate and compare the different products.

"It was the most surprising result of our process, but the one that I believe has made our CMS so successful," says John Wagner, system programmer at the university. At Princeton, the decision was made unanimously and letting the users actually compare the systems in action made a big difference, ultimately leading to a successful CMS implementation.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community