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Choosing a CMS for your Static Site: Part 1

By David Large · 7 Sep 2022
Choosing a CMS for your Static Site: Part 1

By now you may have decided on the static site generator (SSG) you’ll use to build your static website. Let’s now examine the most important web publishing tool in your workflow — and the one you’ll spend the majority of your time in — your content management system (CMS). CMSs help users to create, maintain, and edit material on their websites, and allow users to manage even large, complex websites with little to no coding knowledge. The right CMS will become the focal point for your content and marketing team’s work, and should help empower you to do your jobs more efficiently.

By the end of this article, you’ll know how to approach the process of choosing a new CMS, as well as the most important features to consider as you choose the right CMS for your static site and your team.

Who are your stakeholders in this journey?

The first point to determine is which people — or which team — will have input in the process of choosing a new CMS. Is this a development or IT team decision? Or is it driven by marketing, or sales? Whatever the case, it’s vital to include these decision-makers in the selection process. If they can’t take part, then be sure to poll them for the features they consider most important, as well as those that would be considered a lower priority.

A typical journey to select a new CMS might look like this:

  1. Select one person to lead the project to evaluate and choose a CMS.
  2. Determine the stakeholders involved in using and supporting the CMS. Stakeholders will commonly include a range of teams or roles, including Marketing and Sales, Content Writers, and Developers, but may include others involved, such as key executives.
  3. Run empathy interviews with key stakeholders to gather requirements: What’s most important to them? What do they find frustrating with the current CMS? How do they expect or hope a new CMS will fit into their existing workflow?
  4. Analyze the data from your key stakeholders to make a list of requirements for evaluating CMSs. Sort these requirements into categories. You could use prioritization strategies like the MoSCoW method, which breaks down your requirements to Must Haves, Should Haves, Could Haves, and Won’t Haves, but the most important points to agree on are the first two — what you need from a CMS, and what you want.
  5. Create a shortlist of 5-10 CMSs that look like they fit your requirements. You might take input from colleagues, CMSs you’ve used before, or from product review sites such as G2.
  6. Sign up for trial versions of each CMS, and build a basic proof of concept for your use case in each one. If you hit a roadblock with any of them, it’s a great time to test the level of user support that the CMS offers.
  7. Narrow the list to your top 3 and invite your key stakeholders to evaluate each CMS.
  8. Gather feedback, and write it up as a report or presentation. At this point, the decision may be obvious, or it may require further discussions to get full buy-in.
  9. Make the final decision and begin onboarding to your new CMS.

This is a time-consuming process, but choosing a CMS is one of the most far-reaching decisions you’ll make, with the potential for massive improvements in your team’s efficiency, and your site’s appearance, delivery, and performance. Depending on your budget, and on how much time your team has, many companies without large development teams will benefit from partnering with a digital strategy agency as they embark on the CMS selection process. This partnership can help you make sure that your CMS will fit in with your future digital strategies, and many agencies will also be able to assist you with onboarding and initial setup.

Every team will have different requirements to consider and balance, but ideally, you’ll be able to match your team’s needs with the capabilities of the CMS. Next up, we’ll examine the most common (and the most pressing) questions that your stakeholders will have, and make sure you’re on the right track as you approach your empathy interviews, create your shortlist of tools, and assess each one. (And if you’re partnering with an agency for the selection process, these questions will help you prepare for the kinds of strategic questions your agency will be asking.)

Will a new CMS be easy to use?

This is the most important question you can ask. It’s worth putting in as much time as you can to find a CMS that appeals to both the non-technical users who will spend much of their time adding, editing and managing content, and to the developers who will set up and support your static website.

When you’re choosing a new content management system, ease of use is important for a number of reasons. If your CMS offers an intuitive interface, you’ll be able to use it with fewer errors, and less confusion or frustration. (And as you onboard new employees, they’ll require less training time to get up to speed.) It might sound like obvious advice, but a CMS that’s reliable, intuitive and fast will make everyone’s workdays more pleasant.

As for what ‘intuitive’ means, it’s different for everyone. It all depends on how your users approach the content they’re working with. (Remember, this includes the kinds of people you’re likely to have on your team in the future.) For some people accustomed to blog content editors like WordPress, editing content with rich text formatting and styling will be enough. Others may require a more visual editing experience, where they actually see a live view of their changes on the webpage as they edit. Some more technically inclined content writers will benefit from having access to a page’s source code, while for others this might be a source of distraction or confusion.

It can be hard to account for what your user experience might be like over the long term, particularly when you’re evaluating a range of new CMSs. Instead of second-guessing yourself and potential vendors, though, here are some concrete examples of the questions you should be asking of each new tool:

  • How much work can a non-technical person do without a developer on hand?
  • Can users easily edit or create a blog post? What about adding a new author to an existing blog?
  • How easy is it to edit an existing page and add a new image?
  • Can users quickly update pricing and apply discounts within an ecommerce store, or add and remove new items?
  • Could a non-technical user create a new page that follows the website’s existing style and layout, and update the site’s menu to reflect the addition?
  • Can this CMS allow me to manage multiple websites from a single dashboard?
  • How can I test draft content or features before they go live? (And can I share a draft or private version of my site with others?)

These kinds of questions should be easy to answer, and they’ll likely lead you to start considering how much you currently rely on your developers, as well as how much (or how little) you’d like to rely on their time in the future.

If you rely on an external developer, you’re likely to want to minimize the amount of time (and money) you spend on asking them to complete website tasks. But even with an in-house web development team, it’s worth considering a CMS that will help you avoid relying on your devs for content-related tasks like creating pages and editing site data. Any development hours you have available to you could then be focused more on creating new site features, rather than adding content.

It can be hard to find a CMS that is straightforward to use without unnecessarily restricting your team. But by asking the right questions of each tool you evaluate, you’ll be able to find a CMS that’s powerful enough that developers and designers can make the changes they need to, and that’s also intuitive enough that less technical users can edit, manage and create content easily.

How efficient could I be with a new CMS?

Everyone wants their teams to work as efficiently as possible, but it’s often best to approach this question from the opposite perspective: What’s holding me back with my existing CMS? What are my current roadblocks? What’s the most frustrating part of my workflow right now?

You might find that your team gets slowed down the most by asset management (most commonly uploading and/or editing images). Perhaps you’ve accidentally published a draft page or post without it being approved by a rigorous content review process. Or maybe your existing content review process is too strict, and holds your team back from publishing material. This is one of the key benefits of conducting thoughtful empathy interviews — you can really understand the pain points that your team members are experiencing.

With sound knowledge about what’s holding you back, you can actively search for a CMS that breaks down these barriers, or at the very least minimizes them as much as possible.

There’s one major point about efficiency that might not immediately spring to mind in these interviews, though. We can become blinded to the way we’ve always worked, without seeing the potential for new workflows. If a content writer has always relied on a developer to create new sections or pages when they’re needed, for example, an alternative might not occur to your team. Empathy interviews should, then, include lists of ‘dream features’ to envision a best-case scenario.

Keep in mind that an effective CMS will let you make the most out of the resources you already have — unlocking new freedoms both for developers and for content writers and editors. If a new CMS can allow you to give your content team the freedom to do more without depending on a developer, you’ve immediately removed a barrier, without being held back by the resources you’re lacking.

How flexible will a new CMS be for your developers — and for your future plans?

Even if a CMS seems to match your current needs, it’s important to plan for your future growth. As your company expands and your website needs change, your CMS must be flexible and customizable enough to keep up.

Most developers will want as much flexibility as possible within a CMS. Some developers refer to this as wanting ‘room to move’ within a tool — enough flexibility to achieve both the day-to-day tasks they already have, and more the difficult tasks they may have in the future. Some CMSs are highly configurable and give devs the power to make changes to the CMS interface itself, in effect making fine adjustments to the tool as your team continues to use it.

A customizable interface will help your team make their workflows even more efficient as they become familiar with the CMS, and will also lower the barrier for onboarding new team members. This kind of flexibility allows for future business growth and scaling of your web services, and means you’re less likely to be restricted.

When you’re assessing the CMSs on your shortlist, consider the customization possibilities that are already integrated, as well as the number of existing extensions or add-ons. And if you have plans (or hopes) to grow your business internationally, it’s also important to consider how well a new CMS will handle multiple languages, translation, and localization of your content. Don’t stop at considering your users’ perspectives, either — think about future staff members, and their language proficiencies.

How can I control my team’s user roles?

You’ll want to ensure that you can control which members of which team will have permission to undertake which tasks. Most CMSs will allow for basic user roles, separating your content and development teams into ‘User’ and ‘Admin’ camps, but when it comes to more complex workflows for larger teams, it's important to be able to define different permission levels for editing content, creating new pages, adding assets, reviewing content, and publishing new changes.

On the development side of things, too, your team may require a wide range of permissions specific to their roles and expertise. But expertise grows with time, and you don’t want your staff feeling frustrated by a fixed level of access. For example, some content roles may grow to include development tasks.

Your new CMS, then, will need to match the roles that already exist in your organization and be able to configure custom roles according to your changing needs. Again, a flexible and highly configurable CMS won’t hold you back as your team upskills, allowing your staff members to more quickly reap the benefits of training.

How secure will a new CMS be? And your site itself?

Without the right security controls, a rigorous content approval process, or full reporting on site logins and changes made to your content, you run the risk of unapproved or malicious content being published. Content approval processes can be managed by custom user roles, as above, but secure access options might include:

  • Single sign-on (SSO) via SAML — sign into the CMS using your business’s existing authentication provider. For many large enterprises, this can be a hard requirement.
  • Secure storage for your site files, assets, or databases. Whatever your CMS does with your data — whether it’s stored by the CMS itself or accessed from an external store — you will want to ensure that it’s never exposed to unsecured connections.
  • Password-protected preview sites for external reviewers or clients who aren’t connected to your organization. And as a minimum requirement, any public preview sites should never be indexable by search engines — there’d be nothing worse than receiving unintended traffic on a draft that wasn’t ready for your readers or customers to see.

If you haven’t already determined your minimum acceptable level of security, this is a great time to lay out which security features are most important to your business. You’ll find it will be a great help when it comes to shortlisting CMSs for your team to trial.

How much technical support will I get from a new CMS?

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I firmly believe that good support is as important as good software. Support includes, but isn’t limited to, the presence of actual human support staff on the other side of a helpdesk. Simply by asking a few questions, you’ll be able to gauge how well a CMS’s support team knows the product. How quickly do they respond to your questions? Are their responses actually helpful? Do they give you a clear explanation and a path to follow? Do they go above and beyond, or do they simply refer you to documentation? And on that note, how good is the CMS’s documentation? (Since your developer or agency partner, if you have them, will likely be your first port of call for technical issues, they’ll be the ideal people to assess the documentation.)

Some CMSs will even be able to assist you as you onboard your team and your site, with services ranging from instructional videos, tutorials aimed at beginners and experts, all the way up to full site migrations.

What’s the next step?

We’ve covered the most important points in the process of evaluating a new CMS. In our next article, Choosing a CMS for your Static Site: Part 2 — Headless? Git-based, or API-based?, we’ll take a deeper dive into the different categories of CMS available to you, and the benefits, drawbacks, and potential of each type. Deciding on the technological approach your CMS will take to create your website is an important step in your journey, as it will determine how you’re able to grow and change your business’s public web presence in the future.

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