Contrary to what you may have read, or what's been "scientifically calculated" to the hundredth decimal point or plotted on a consultant-approved four-quadrant graph, there is no "best" software product. Leaders-and-laggards, magic quadrants, and other horserace-style evaluation approaches never work, and you should be very wary of them. In all aspects of business, the best software for you is the one that best matches your needs—your budget, scope, and the type of project you're engaged in. This is particularly true when it comes to selecting a website content management system.

These days, every company has a website. If you don't, you're not considered a "real" company. Ten to fifteen years ago, small-company websites were largely informative brochurewear that were maintained by someone called the webmaster, who spent most of his or her time in a dark cubicle writing code. As commercial websites expanded, they became more transaction-oriented, and therefore more integral to a company's growth strategy. As this happened, the market for web content management systems (WCMS) exploded, and the power of website publishing spread to marketing teams, product managers, and other so-called "information workers" who crave natural light. Today, there are hundreds of WCMS options. One size does not fit all. Different vendors tailor their tools to different sorts of scenarios. So how do you know which WCMS is right for you? Here's a rundown. 

Choosing a Content Management System: Getting Started

Traditional approaches to selecting enterprise software are not, in my view, as effective as what I call a scenario-driven approach. The former is driven by requirement checklists, executive mandates, and who plays golf with whom. A scenario-driven approach is based on what really matters: How a piece of software will be used every day, by both administrators and end-users. Happiness is not a warm set of 200-page Request for Proposal responses, nor is it checklist RFPs. Throw them out, along with your boss' golf clubs, and then you might have hope. Better yet, you'll be on your way to picking not the best product, but the right product for you and your situation.

Not convinced? Take, for example, the ubiquitous requirement: "The tool must be easy to use." What makes a tool "easy to use"? It's not the same for everyone. Every vendor says their product is easy to use: "No training, it's intuitive, plug and play." Blah, blah – cut through the marketing drivel and just test, really use the tool. What looks easy to use isn't necessarily – you need to actually use it, in the way it's going to be used in your organization, to know for sure.

If you've been looking at WCM tools at all, you've surely noticed that vendors (and many consultancies, and some analyst firms) tell very different stories. Some try to answer another frequently-asked question, "Who's leading?" You should in turn ask, "Leading at what?" Finding a good software fit with your particular business objectives involves a few things:

Conduct internal research. Before deciding whether you need to buy more technology at all, you need to do an internal analysis of your current capabilities. You may be able to extend existing WCM technology, or clean up your content to help your website work better. There's a chance that deleting or archiving content, adding meta data, automating tasks, or redesiging your website's front end may solve your problems. A little analysis here can save you a lot of time and money later.

• Outline the scenarios that aren't currently being fulfilled by your existing technology set. Your marketing team can't get the new product information on the web site in less than a few hours? Related content can't be linked? Content is duplicated by manual cut-and-pasting all over your website? These are common scenarios. In choosing a new wesbite content management system, you should carefully outline what you're trying to achieve with which types of content.

• Figure out which type of technology will provide the biggest near-term value. Knowing what type of scenario(s) you're addressing allows you to begin to isolate vendors who potentially hit that sweet spot. You need to tell a "testable" story, one you can give to the vendors you're considering so they can show how they fulfill your needs with their tools.

Have a proper "bake-off." You should expect competing vendors to show you how their tools can fulfill your needs. They shouldn't be dazzling you with canned demos, but showing you what they can do with your content and for your situation. This is also the opportunity to know the people from the company who would work for you. Don't sign a contract until you do. Remember, the vendor selection process is like dating. You want to really get to know who you're dealing with before you make it a long-term relationship.

Iteratively test before making your final selection. You should never select a product without having the chance to use it and test it yourself. Much like you wouldn't use a Honda Civic to drive a Formula 1 race course, you shouldn't use a complex WCM when all you need is something simple. Yet most people spend more time selecting a $30,000 car than they do a six-figure or potentially multimillion dollar software package. At least people take the car for a test drive. Very few enterprises do this with software. Don't make the same mistake.

Choosing a Content Management System: Common Scenarios

So what are your needs when it comes to a website content management system? At one level, all WCMS do the same thing, but as we span the spectrum from basic sites to enterprise e-commerce, substantial differences emerge, concerning how content is managed, and certainly the cost and complexity of the systems. Use the checklists to see where you fall.

Basic Content Management Scenarios

Small to mid-sized websites with reasonably standard features are not necessarily always simple to manage; that said, the standard functionality required to run them is relatively well-known and widely available. There's a large number of WCMS that can only fulfill these sorts of scenarios.

• A corporate brochure site
• A basic community-oriented Site
• A site with basic interactivity
• A simple Intranet for employees

Mid-range Content Management Scenarios

Sites begin to grow in size and complexity. Page counts number in the thousands, rather than the hundreds. Perhaps more important, the CMS begins to become more of an application platform to achieve specific communications and informational objectives.

• An enterprise-level Intranet for employees
• A site that features interactive marketing
• A site that incorporates various microsites

Complex Content Management Scenarios

In the realm of complex scenarios, the sites are just as much applications (or sets of interconnected applications) as they are collections of content. Page counts frequently rise into the tens to hundreds of thousands and, in the case of very large product-based companies or multinational enterprises, perhaps even number more than a million. Oftentimes, companies that start with the more mid-range scenarios evolve into needing a suite of more complex ones (such as E-Commerce or a Global Intranet) that must be tied together. This creates a need to accommodate more complex workflows, governance structures, and content models.

• Sites that serve as a global Intranet for employees
• Sites that handle various E-business revenue streams
• A site that incorporates multichannel publishing
• An ultra-large standalone site

So now that you know typical WCM scenarios, you might have an idea of which ones are applicable to you. In our WCM research, we evaluate the appropriateness of more than 50 vendors vis-à-vis the scenarios above. There's not one vendor that does well in all, or even half, of the scenarios. But at least if you can clearly identify your situation and your needs, you'll be in better shape to pick an appropriate tool. And then you can head out to play a leisurely, business-deal-free round of golf with somebody other than a potential vendor.

Choosing a Content Management System: Additional Resources

"What to Look for When Evaluating WCM and DAM Workflow Systems," Kas Thomas, CMSWatch/The Real Story Group, March 11, 2010.

"Understanding Saas CMS Pricing," Tony Byrne, CMSWatch Blog/The Real Story Group, March 12, 2010. is an open-source community that is developing CMS tools that are easy to use.

Choosing a Content Management System: About the Author

Theresa Regli is Principal at The Real Story Group, a buyer-focused and vendor-independent analyst and advisory firm covering content management, digital asset management, search, portal and web analytics technology. She has worked with content management systems for more than 15 years. E-mail Theresa at tregli@realstorygroup,com, or read more about WCM scenarios and product selection at