How to Select the Right Enterprise Content Management System

To start, if you haven’t read our perspective on When Is The Right Time to Invest In An Enterprise Content Management System, I highly recommend looking at that first to get a better idea of the markers to keep an eye out for when deciding to upgrade to an enterprise content management system (CMS).

So, let’s dive into how to select the right system. I have seen quite a few RFIs for enterprise content management systems (CMS), and the vast majority have been pretty bad. They spend considerable time asking about items that should be table stakes for an enterprise CMS such as nuanced rendering features or if there is an “out of the box” carousel expression. Worse yet, sometimes they are being used to evaluate an enterprise CMS against non-enterprise or “basic” CMS. What gets missed in all of this are the differentiators, the things that really make one system stand out from another and help identify which platform is going to deliver the most value to your organization.

Enterprise Table Stakes

In “Identifying the Right Time to Invest in Enterprise Content Management,” we identify the value and differentiating factors between basic CMS and enterprise CMS. Ultimately, it is that an enterprise system makes it possible and tractable to execute the complexities of managing multiple sites across numerous departments in various languages, pulling content and assets from myriad systems, and other sophisticated uses. A content management system can be considered an enterprise system if it brings capabilities and/or approaches to the table for handling these common enterprise concerns. These capabilities may be considered table stakes for an enterprise content management system as, without them, the system is not “enterprise ready.” You could say that these capabilities transform a basic CMS into an “experience management system.”

Let’s get these out of the way so we can focus on the real differentiators.

For a content management system to be considered enterprise level, it needs to bring to bear common, out of the box capabilities like:

  • Multi-site management
  • Language management and translation
  • Granular user and group permission management
  • Process automation
  • Multi-channel management and publication management
  • Content and asset ingestion
  • Content and experience distribution and syndication

For each of these capabilities you need to determine if there is an out of the box solution, if there is a pattern for realizing the capability and a framework to support it (for example, a common, available, and supported module that can be installed), or if the capability is not realized at all.  A system may also have a new approach to one of the table stakes capabilities which should be investigated, though keep in mind, novel is not always good.  For instance, do you want a commonly accepted approach and vernacular for group permission management, or do you want to have to go through rediscovery for something that’s a “new” way to do it?

Approach to Experience Management (What you’re able to Manage?) and The Model of Managed Experiences

Content management systems differentiate themselves in the ability to manage the different aspects of an experience and the way they allow them to be managed.  To consider this, let’s first look at The Model of Managed Experiences.

The Model of Managed Services Diagram
The Model of Managed Services

The Model of Managed Experiences delivers experiences as the intentional projection of an asset into a contextualized layout, imputed to a touchpoint.  Breaking that down, consider a simple webpage like a press release.  In the model, the written content and metadata concerning the press release is your asset.  You may have a simple single column layout with a title and metadata going into a page hero and the written content going into a single column content body.  Your context is the overall page being delivered as well as the site it is being delivered within, and you are delivering it to a web touchpoint.

Most content management systems simplify many of these concerns from a management perspective.  For instance, a system where you simply write the press release content and it “automagically” shows up on the website, enables you to just manage the asset.

Any given platform may offer the ability to manage some or all of these layers independently, others may glom the management of multiple layers together into a single concern, and some may only offer management of particular layers, leaving others out.

Supported Authoring Paradigms and Picking the Paradigms that are Important to You

Management of these layers may be more or less important for the various types of content you are trying to communicate to your various channels.  Returning to our example of a press release, there may be no value in being able to manually manage any more than the asset layer, because the press release is always going to look like a press release, feel like a press release, and get delivered like a press release.  However, for a high value campaign landing page, you may want absolute control over every level of the experience so that you can craft and deliver your message in a very bespoke way.  Returning to the goal of making all of this tractable at an enterprise level, you want to be able to invest the time in controlling your high touch / high value experiences and let the system take care of the rest.

A system may offer multiple modes of managing these concerns and these modes can be grouped together into four common Authoring Paradigms.

  1. Structured Content Management With Typed Templated Presentation: Communication whose presentation can be directly inferred from its nature fits paradigm 1. A common example is a product information page or a press release where typically the structure of the page will be the same for every instance of the type of communication
  2. Structured Content Management with Flexible Presentation: Communication whose presentation can NOT be directly inferred from its nature fits paradigm 2. This is the case, because the layout may vary wildly from instance to instance of the type of communication. Brochure pages, landing pages, and sometimes rich content like articles fall into this category where curation of the experience is desirable and of value at the page level.
  3. Structured Content Management with Flexible Typed Template Presentation: The communications identified in 1 also fit model 3. Paradigm 3 is called out as a value add for platforms which support it. For example, a platform which presents an Editable Templates feature would allow for authoring in this paradigm.  The press release from paradigm 1 could be rendered using an editable template so that each press release’s rendering is simple and straightforward but the rendering of all press releases can be changed at any time.
  • An example of a single purpose communication might be a one-off campaign landing page.

Before even considering platforms, you should identify which paradigms are of value to you based on an audit of your content and the types of messages you are trying to communicate.  For example, if all of your communication fits Paradigm 1, a traditional content management system implementation that offers multiple paradigms may be a poor investment.  You might be better off investing in a headless content management system and a more basic rendering engine to automate web delivery of structured content.

Once you understand the paradigms that are valuable to you and how they are going to be leveraged, you can look at what platforms support which paradigms, which partners have well-defined approaches for enabling support of additional paradigms, which platforms do not natively or communally have the capabilities that you want, and so on. This analysis ensures you are picking a system that is going to support your needs while not over-investing in a paradigm that will be a burden to your authors.

Models of Ownership

Throughout this content, we brought up the notion of a capability being “out of the box” vs realized via a commonly accepted approach (such as a supported optional module) vs provided via customization.  This can be expressed as the model of ownership a system proposes.  At the two extremes of the ownership spectrum, a given platform may have made all decisions for you, leaving you to simply use it, or it may provide a framework and patterns for a solution but leave the decisions to you.

Which end of the spectrum you want to land on is based on how much ownership you are ready to take over the solution.  Is it of value to you to craft but manage and maintain a solution that lines up exactly with your operational structure or is it more valuable to accept a provided solution and have someone to call when something goes wrong?

Questions to Consider

Use the below worksheet, in which we outlined few sample questions for you to consider during your selection process. As you work through these, I’m happy to discuss your needs today and in the next 3-5 years to help you determine the best CMS solution for your company.

WORKSHEET: How to Select the Right CMS

You can also check out the full webinar, which shows you how to determine you’re ready to up-level your CMS to an enterprise platform, how to select the right platform for your needs and then how to successfully roll it out.

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