The CMS space is a noisy one. Vendors are always trying to expand their offerings to cover as much of the market as possible. Customers are interested in trying every new technique under the sun in an attempt to enhance their web experience. And marketers in particular are looking for an edge over the competition.
This industry is home to more evolution of feature sets than any other industry, but not necessarily more innovation. Automotive, technology, home electronics…there is no other industry where one product is expected to do as much as a CMS, and yet there is always more of a focus on making it more instead of making it better.
This has led to confusion for customers, who are tasked with comparing solutions in as normalized a way as possible. But the truth is, there is simply no way to do a true apples-to-apples comparison of CMS platforms.
One area of confusion among customers is when the idea of a strategy is conflated with a feature. I believe this happens with software—and in particular, the CMS—more often than in almost any other known product offering. Why? Because the CMS isn’t a tool that just sits in a passive way. The CMS is the centerpiece of your digital world. As such, it’s easy to assume that you can execute a strategy solely using software features that a CMS vendor checks as “available” in a product offering matrix. They all make it seem so easy, after all.
But it isn’t that simple. Most commercially available CMSs fight to offer almost every feature to make their sales cycle a bit easier without really thinking about the bigger picture. And we all know that sales people don’t necessarily like to say no to a customer.
But offering a feature doesn’t necessarily mean the vendor implemented it properly—it just means they have considered a way to accomplish this task and integrated it into the software. Does that mean it will accomplish the goals you are setting out to achieve? Not necessarily.
With that said, I wanted to dig into a few areas where we see strategy and feature being confused on a regular basis. Sure, it happens in many more places than just the few I will mention below, but these are the leading muddy areas when procuring a new CMS platform.
This is probably the most prevalent area where I see features or capabilities confused with an overall strategy. Personalization itself is not a feature—it is always a strategic undertaking. Technology should offer you an approach to aid in implementing a personalization strategy, but to assume that any software offering will do this work for you or do it in a way that best fits your needs without significant effort would be foolish.
The best way to use technology to accomplish a task like personalization is to outline what exactly you are trying to achieve with the technique. Based on how you want to affect user experience, you can determine what your best bet is for a technical solution. There are many solutions available that range from core CMS products like Sitecore to other third-party offerings that can be integrated into almost any CMS, including open-source platforms.
Personalization is still gaining traction as a core CMS offering. Right now, the biggest and best players are expensive. This means you have to commit to making an investment in a personalization initiative. Commercial CMSs are leading the way in terms of integrating personalization features into their platforms.
But it’s how you use those features that will determine the success of your experiments and campaigns. Dedicate time and effort into defining your requirements and how you wish to approach this strategy—then the technology requirements will become much clearer.
A/B testing is, in a way, a close relative of personalization, but I wanted to address them separately because the entire technique has been slowly redefined as a technology feature and not as a strategy, which is problematic.
Much like personalization, proper A/B testing means developing a strategic plan through which you can test multiple approaches against actual user activity. I think the reason it was quickly adapted as a feature in many systems was because it is highly technical in nature. There is a lot of logic that goes into making something like A/B testing work, and marketers can get confused when trying to make it work (not to mention interpreting the results), leading them to default to technical assistance.
But despite that, the reason you are A/B testing is to understand user behavior, drive better results, and increase leads and sales. This is still a marketing endeavor, not a technical one. Since there are so many providers that offer just this service (such as Optimizely), as well as a plethora of CMS vendors that are offering it out of the box, you must carefully determine your strategic approach to A/B testing first. Then you can find a solution that can accomplish it.
Content Management / Taxonomy
Why would I mention content management and organization as a strategy when it’s basically the raison d'être of all CMS offerings? Because content organization MUST be a strategic undertaking. And yet CMS platforms do a good job of making you mold your organizational techniques to their particular way of doing things, which can be frustrating to say the least.
I think it’s important for companies that are in the content creation business to carefully consider their content model BEFORE they look for a new platform. In this instance, I mean news, media, publications, and similar use cases. If you haven’t planned your content model before your CMS search, what do you have to compare a potential platform against? The comparison between CMS options should be, must be based heavily on your ability to weigh a system’s natural content management capabilities against your own existing model.
Some systems are future-proofed and flexible from the start. For example, headless systems allow you to define your content model pretty much from scratch. Some open-source systems are capable of this as well. Commercial systems are a bit weaker in this respect; however, they are typically aimed at marketers more than content creators anyway, so that may not even matter.
Base your leading contenders on which one will work best with your content while requiring the smallest amount of adjustments to your workflow and content model. You’ll save yourself frustration in the future.
Many businesses maintain multiple domains for a variety of reasons, some of which are legitimate and some of which are questionable from a strategic point of view. Either way, it’s still a strategic question more than a technical one.
Handling multiple domains is something many CMS platforms can do. Obviously, some are better at it than others, but almost every CMS has some approach to accomplishing the task.
However, from a strategic perspective, you need to evaluate why you are doing it. Are you doing it because you want to drive paid traffic to a certain experience? Or are you doing it because your current CMS isn’t capable of powering an experience you want to publish, forcing you into another method of distribution?
You need to determine after careful calculation why you are working with multiple domains in the first place, then find the platform that best fits that reasoning. If you have multiple domains for different countries or languages, is that the best way to accomplish it? Do you need to share content across the domains? What about user sessions? And tracking data?
Considering all of these factors is essential before you finalize on a technology approach. Again, strategy first, features second—and only when they actually work in-line with your requirements.
SEO is most definitely a strategy—it is NOT a feature and should never be viewed that way.
There is no one set of tools that can be included in any CMS that can be considered a comprehensive SEO initiative. When an RFP comes our way and lists “SEO” as a technical requirement, it’s a sure sign the client has no idea what they are asking for. Honestly, I’m unsure how you can make SEO a “feature” other than having a good set of WCMS tools and the knowledge on how to use them.
SEO is complicated and brings about many different disciplines. Content management is definitely one, but don’t forget keyword analysis, content creation, backlinks, and ongoing analytics/tracking. No CMS can accomplish all of these tasks autonomously, but a good CMS can help you manage them. This may mean SEO-specific features such as allowing for proper management of metadata, aiding you in understanding SEO requirements in terms of character counts on titles or descriptions, keyword density tools, and even tracking backlinks. And of course, it also may mean that the CMS is built with Web-based delivery in mind, where SEO matters the most.
Some CMSs are definitely better than others when it comes to SEO management tools. I feel that this is one area where WordPress does a really great job out of the box—and when augmented with plugins such as Yoast, it gets even better. In fact, most open-source platforms are SEO-friendly, most likely because it is the end users of those platforms who often live or die based on their search engine performance.
Other systems are less adept at providing a deep SEO capability. I find that the systems aimed at marketers do a great job, and those that are extensible offer good plugins. However, some niche systems—especially in the e-commerce space—are notoriously weak when it comes to SEO capabilities.
I recognize that these are blanket statements, but they hold true across the broad spectrum of CMS offerings. Choosing a system based on this factor really comes down to how important SEO is to you. Some clients care less about SEO now—a trend which is surprisingly more common than you would think.
But if you have a comprehensive SEO strategy or your business depends on organic traffic, you should base your CMS decision heavily on this factor. Don’t get confused and believe that any CMS will do this for you.
By the way, on this note, SEO success depends on two things in particular. First, who is linking back to you—this is something a CMS doesn’t have much impact on. But the other is the contribution of content on an ongoing basis. If SEO is TRULY important to you, then you must not only focus on tools for technical SEO techniques, but also on a good editor tool and a good content organizer. After all, a site with no original content will never rank as well as one that is producing content regularly. So, when considering systems, the CMS with the most comprehensive SEO tools also must have a really good editing platform, as you will need to utilize it often to get results.
At the end of the day, a CMS should FACILITATE your chosen strategy by serving as the centerpiece of your digital world. It’s a series of tools with which you execute a strategy. It is not something that can execute on a strategy for you. And that means that all the features in the world mean nothing unless you have the capabilities to plan, architect and execute on your strategic vision. Understanding the difference between features and strategy will provide you with clarity as you search for the best system for your business, and will save you frustration during and after implementation.