One of the things that makes buying a CMS platform so difficult is determining if a given option can do what you need it to do—especially if you have specific use cases that don’t quite match what the system offers out of the box.
For many potential customers, it’s hard to tell whether their top choice is something that can be molded to fit their needs or something that is going to lock them in for many years of pain and suffering.
I empathize with those tasked with procuring these systems, the poor folks who have to wade through the noise of vendors, implementers, designers, and other contractors who all seem to say different things. Choosing a CMS is one of the most expensive digital purchases your company will make, and also the most difficult—not only because it is so complex, but also because of the lack of clarity in the industry. Not to mention the fact that you’ll be stuck with your choice for a long, long time.
Make no mistake about it: maintaining a digital presence is complicated. There are a lot of moving parts and many components required to make everything work smoothly. If you fail, your customer experience will suffer. This is why we refer to the CMS as the center of your business—it is the one piece that can tie everything into one cohesive unit, working together in tandem. It’s important you find a platform or system that can actually accommodate your present and future requirements, regardless of the business you are in.
So, how do you know you are picking the right solution?
Well, the best way is to undergo a detailed and in-depth discovery and architecture process. But this post isn’t intended to convince you of the benefits of that process, as we’ve covered that topic extensively in the past.
Instead, this post is intended to guide you through the process of competitive research.
Don’t think your competitors have anything to do with picking the right CMS solution? Think again. Your competition and how they created their Web presences can actually tell you a lot about what you should—and shouldn’t—be doing with your own.
Stalking the Competition
Now, to be clear, I’m not a big fan of looking at your competitors and simply copying what they’ve done piece by piece. I think that’s a cheap way out. It isn’t innovative, it isn’t unique, and by no means am I saying that is what you should do. In fact, I believe strongly that because so many people do it, the Internet is suffering from a huge case of sameness, which is unfortunate for such an amazing medium that offers so many ways to create cutting-edge experiences.
With that said, what you should do is see how your competitors have implemented their CMSs with a fine eye towards their customer experience. This means studying what systems they have put into place and determining if the user experience accomplishes tasks similar to those you are aiming to achieve. Understanding what you are looking to accomplish and comparing that against the competition will provide you with a deeper understanding of the possibilities from a systems perspective. It will also give you a clue as to how you can iterate your own solution to be a step ahead of the other guys.
Here’s an example. If you notice that your competitors’ websites are all running on a particular CMS, you can study specifically how they utilize that system and what the benefits or flaws make themselves apparent on the front end. Likewise, if you detect that all of your competitors are utilizing custom frameworks, then you have a clue that perhaps going with an off-the-shelf solution could put you behind the pack in terms of innovation.
Granted, even the best CMS can be implemented terribly if one doesn’t have a qualified partner helping with development and implementation. But for the most part, this exercise can result in some valuable insight and help you narrow down the options that may work best for you.
One tactic you can employ is to list and rank your competitors according to various categories. Design or UI/UX is one possible category. Ask yourself questions like:
- Do you feel the site is simply a “themed” experience—meaning it looks like everyone else’s site—or is it a more custom, innovative user experience?
Another category can be functionality:
- How custom is the experience? Are there interactive features on the site?
- How were they implemented, and do they add any value to the experience?
- Is there a portal or other login area? Do you seamlessly enter that area or are you taken to another domain?
- Is the experience fluid? Are there any other third-party software packages you can tell are integrated into the experience?
Remember, the more external domains, subdomains, or weird navigation schemes you see, the more likely they are to be suffering from a lack of customization in their core CMS. That’s something you’ll likely want to avoid on your own site.
You can also look at other factors such as performance:
- Is the experience fast-loading?
- Does the navigation make sense from a user perspective?
- Does the site seem to function at a high level overall?
There are many categories you can look into, but you get the idea. With all of this information, you can dig deep and compare the websites you studied against the CMSs they use to determine if that software could be a right fit for you—or if you should stay far away.
Tools of the Trade
So, how does one research the technology that powers other websites? There are many tools available that can help you determine just that.
One such plugin is available via BuiltWith, which maintains a database of technology solutions and where they are in use across the Web. Using BuiltWith, you can easily identify everything from CMS to payment gateways to advertising services, all in one click from an extension on Google Chrome. As you utilize this tool, you’ll get a better sense of what other companies are using. Most CMS platforms are identified rather easily. And when you are unable to determine what the platform is, there is a good chance the site utilizes a custom solution.
Armed with all of this information—and cross-referencing platforms against your category rankings from the previous section—you may start to realize some interesting trends.
For example, you may observe that the competitors who use commercial or proprietary platforms may have more rigid, less cutting-edge user experiences. As I alluded to earlier, they may be more inclined to utilize third parties for nearly everything: commerce portals, content login areas, human resources. Sometimes you may even notice that they offload the blog to a subdomain. These are all clues that their technology is scattered, which again could mean a lack of flexibility within their main system (something to avoid for yourself).
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, you may find that some competitors are running on customized platforms that have unique workflows and customer experiences. They have fluid navigation schemes, meaning you can go from section to section without the UI/UX significantly changing. Login areas are seamlessly integrated to the main site. There is much to learn from sites like this, as it is likely that a lot of care and attention were put into them.
While we are discussing competitive research, it may also be interesting to study the history of your competitor’s web presence. Luckily, a tool exists for that as well: the Wayback Machine. Using this fun little tool, you can see a date-based archive of nearly every website, going all the way back to their launch (or at least close enough).
This can be valuable in a few ways. First, does your competitor seem to be on a steady cycle of improvement as technology evolves? Or has their site stayed the same for 3 or more years? The more often a company changes and iterates their website over time, the more likely they are to take their web presence seriously. As such, those are the sites you will want to research the most, as they are clearly putting the utmost effort into their digital presence.
On the other hand, if you see a site has been stagnant for many years, you can probably safely assume that the ownership of that company doesn’t place digital high on their list of concerns. As such, using them as a reference or inspiration is useless from a visual as well as technical perspective. In that case, you can have a moment of sympathy for them and move onto the players who are actually doing things right.
Finally, I have one last trick that I use when evaluating websites. I like to have a sense of how much content the sites have under the hood. This is relatively easy thanks to some commands Google makes available to you via their normal search box.
Typing “site: DOMAIN.XYZ” (where you obviously will change DOMAIN.XYZ to the domain that you are researching) will result in a full listing of all the content pages that Google has indexed for that domain. You may be shocked to see that some competitors have just 40 or 50 pages, while others may have 1000 or more. Use this data carefully as you consider how your competitors have approached their commitment to digital content creation, and how that has affected their choice of software to manage that content.
Putting It All Together
As I said earlier, it is never good practice to see what your competition is doing and simply mimic the parts that you like.
There is, however, good reason to study how they went about building their web presence and how they maintain it to gain valuable insight into what they are doing well and what they are doing poorly. Learning from their mistakes is a valuable exercise that should be included in your process of procuring your own CMS platform.
Hopefully, you can now dig a bit deeper into how your competitors work and collect your findings for use during a project discovery session. Remember: It’s still essential that you work collaboratively with an implementer or developer to realize your project, but it helps if you begin the project with the information and contextual knowledge about your own industry that just a bit of research can provide.