“What CMS?” is the wrong question

When I meet new customers, I often relate a story about CMS work.

It goes like this:

A decade or so ago, CMS projects used to make up the majority of Isotoma’s output.
These days the number is much lower. There are a few reasons for this but the main one is that back in the day, CMS work used to be hard. The projects were complex, expensive and fragile.
As an illustration of how much things have changed, the other day I built a website for my sister’s business using Squarespace. It took longer for me to upload photos to the gallery than it did to plan, build, populate and deploy the entire site.

This peppy anecdote disguises the fact that there is complexity still in CMS work; projects that involve content management have the ability to stymie organisations and put their digital roadmap back years – but almost all of this complexity resides outside of CMS platform choice.
This post looks into why that is.

“What CMS should I use?” is a boring question.

People still tend to start with the question “What platform are we going to use?” because, historically, it’s been a really important one. Back in the day, progress was slow and the costs of being wrong were astronomically high.

These days though, compared to some of the other decisions you need to make, platform choice is a relative doddle.

Why do I say this? Because the CMS market is commoditised, modern and highly competitive.

  • There are free/open source solutions that are as good as (or better than) anything you pay through the nose for
  • There’s a huge number of agencies who will compete with each other for your business and this keeps prices constantly low
  • The majority of features you could ever want from a content management system are now standardised and distributed across the marketplace. Anyone telling you otherwise is selling you something
  • As features increase; costs shrink. As costs shrink, the traditional organisational worries about sunk costs and having a product that’s wrong become less important

Indeed from a given list of modern, open source content management systems, you’d have to be going some to get a bad fit for 99% of organisations.

So having made a broad and eye-catching statement like that, let me now run through a brief list of actual interesting questions to ask about your CMS project.

1. What is my content strategy?

Back in the day, agencies would be asked by their customers “Will the section headings be editable by admins?” and then we’d go to quite a lot of trouble to make sure that the section headings were in fact editable by admins.

What agencies should have been doing instead was investigating why the section headings needed to be editable in the first place.

If you nail the content strategy – if you develop content and a structure that speaks to the requirements of your actual customers – then the need to make structural changes to your site should be, while not removed entirely, at least put on a slower and more predictable timetable.

2. Who is driving this project?

This is somewhat related to content strategy but deserves its own section. One of the reasons that a content strategy is needed is that the fundamental question “Who is the audience for this site?” can have multiple, arguably correct answers depending on who inside the organisation you ask.

And sometimes the reason that you have multiple answers to the question is because two (or more!) departments or individuals within the customer’s organisation have competing opinions about the fundamentals of the project: what it’s for, what the outcomes and priorities should be… etc.

Resolving these tensions can be difficult, even for members of the customer’s team. For employees of an outside agency the difficulty increases exponentially but, worst of all is when an attempt is made to solve a problem like this with the top down application of a technology choice. Drupal has many skills but senior management negotiation is not one of them.

3. Who are the audiences for this new CMS?

Is this a site made to make the company look attractive to customers? Or is this a site that is designed to make an internal task easier for the admins of the site? Or both? None of these answers are wrong but failing to ask the question can result in tens of thousands of pounds being spent on something of little demonstrable value to the customer.

So in summary then…

Asking the above questions is a far better use of your time in the run up to starting a project than asking questions about Wagtail vs WordPress.

You can take this one step further and use the same approach in selecting an agency: When you first engage with them, do they talk about the platform and technology choice or about how they’re going to help you increase your reach, or implement a content strategy? Or how they’ll help affect change within your organisation?