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CMS Features: Assumptions vs. Reality

By Rick Fessenbecker
December 8, 2020
8 Minute Read

Many organizations start the content management system selection process by focusing on features, which sure sounds like a good place to start. The problem is CMS feature lists are overrated in the value they bring to an effective CMS selection. The idea of non-technical users managing their own content or CMS is more than 20 years old and the standard features have become commonly found. The question is not "does a CMS have a feature," but "how does the CMS handle the feature." (More on this here.)

But for this post I want to address a larger concern, which is that a feature list can quickly become a wish list based on the hope that "if we buy just the right tool, all of our digital marketing challenges will be solved." Fantasy can set in and grow that list to unreasonable length, to include functionality that might be needed way down the road (or not at all). Take care to avoid adding unnecessary time and expense to your CMS project.

Common CMS Features: Assumption vs. Reality

Let’s consider some of the common items that appear on such lists, the assumptions behind them, and the reality ahead of them.


Assumption: If we buy a blog tool with the exact features we like today, we’ll have a great blog to engage our audience and drive conversions.
Reality: If you don’t have great existing blog content, don’t obsess over blog tool features. Job 1 is to develop a blogging strategy and strong content. Then focus on the right tools to deliver that content.

Marketing Automation

Assumption: Once we’ve implemented a robust marketing automation platform, we’ll be able to engage and nurture prospects and draw them into our sales funnel.
Reality: Have you developed the contact lists you need? Have you defined your engagement strategies? Until you have, you won’t be able to make informed choices regarding the hundreds of marketing automation tools in a rapidly evolving and expanding field. You need to understand what stage you are at before you decide between, say, a basic platform for collecting, organizing and facilitating emails or a robust platform that can run full campaigns with automated triggers.


Assumption: With a CMS that supports personalized content, we can deliver a better user experience and drive conversions.
Reality: If you haven’t developed and deeply understand your personas, and if you haven’t created the necessary content for personalization, the CMS tools won’t help. Personalization can be a powerful tool if implemented well, which is to say: If you have identified your proper audiences or use cases and developed compelling content for each. True, the sophistication of how and when you deliver that content depends on your CMS. But most teams implementing personalized content for the first time don’t need many of the expensive bells and whistles associated with digital marketing platforms.

Buy Realistically

Assumption: Exactly the right tool is the key to success.
Reality: Tools help. But the success of your website depends much more on strategy and execution. So develop your digital strategy to an advanced point before you develop your CMS criteria. A well-developed digital strategy will go a long way toward clarifying the right choices of CMS capabilities. Then you can buy what you need, not what the CMS vendor wishes you would buy.

CMS Attributes vs. Features   

With your digital strategy defined, you’re ready to shop for a CMS to power your website.

Will the CMS you select today be able to keep up with your needs for tomorrow? To the extent possible in a rapidly changing digital world, think about what could be needed, such as e-commerce capabilities, user permissions, CRM system integration and so on.

Instead of specific requirements, look at the attributes of the CMS and of the vendor. Keep in mind that you are about to create a mission-critical, long-term relationship. CMS attributes will last the lifetime of that relationship; CMS features will change over time

Here are the CMS attributes you need today and in years to come, no matter what happens to your strategy or the digital landscape.

Client Centric Roadmap

Most CMS firms put marketing & sales in the driver’s seat, for the obvious reasons: To increase revenue and justify bigger client budgets. They typically promote really cool concepts that few clients implement effectively. Scrutinize terms that strike you as dubious (DXP - Digital Experience Platform – for example). 

Press your CMS firm to tie client feedback to features available in its platform. Ask how common questions/issues from the help desk have influenced the product roadmap. Have the development team explain how you will submit requests for new features you might need as time goes on, and how the firm will handle those requests. Ask for surveys of users and how their feedback has made it into the product roadmap. Does the firm share the CMS roadmap with clients, to gain their feedback and ideas?

Twice each year, Titan CMS clients can come to Northwoods to interact directly with the Titan CMS core development team. Clients learn what we’re working on, and we learn which features clients would most like to see developed. 

Reliable Implementation Support 

Few CMS companies implement their own software. Why? Because building a website correctly is very difficult. It’s much easier for CMS firms to license the CMS, collect the recurring revenue, and let the implementation community do the heavy lifting and take the risks. Implementation partners get burned all the time on oversold and poorly supported CMS software.

Make sure that your implementation vendor has some experience with your chosen CMS. If a vendor has implemented fewer than five websites with your platform, at the scale and type relevant to your website, look for a new vendor or consider a CMS the vendor knows well. The best choice, though, is a CMS vendor with strong in-house implementation capabilities. No one will implement a CMS more effectively than the firm that built the CMS.

Modular Framework/Flexibility

Trendy - but not necessarily new - ideas constantly pop up in digital marketing. The latest is rebranding content management systems as Digital Experience Platforms, an all-in-one tool that addresses a strategic need to manage multiple audiences with disparate channels. But how helpful is it to purchase and implement one piece of software to manage everything? 

Imagine migrating your website content to a new CMS platform and, at the same time, re-implementing your Marketing Automation suite. We would never recommend a project of this magnitude. Migrating data while building out functions makes both tasks exponentially more complicated.

Unless you are a billion-dollar-plus business, moving to an all-encompassing integrated CMS is too formidable a challenge. Even if you prevail in such a heroic endeavor, what do you do if the DXP you’ve just implemented can’t handle the next thing that comes down the line?  You’ll need to add on, and the complexity of your DXP platform will force you into expensive custom integration, in addition to the cost of future DXP upgrades.

Instead, seek out a CMS that is flexible and allows for a Best of Breed approach. This way you can be nimble enough to add marketing automation when you need it.

Ongoing Support

Implementation of your website will probably take 6 to 12 months. But you will live with the site for many years beyond that, so long-term support of the CMS is more important than speedy implementation. And yet, very few firms seriously weigh support and training when selecting a CMS. Keep these things in mind as you select your CMS vendor: 

  • The vendor should offer both online and phone support 
  • Flexible training options
  • Robust, easily navigated online text and video documentation
  • Ongoing product development and upgrades to keep the software on pace with  industry changes. Titan CMS, for example, offers a Total Care option that wraps hosting, upgrades, maintenance and support into one affordable monthly fee, so organizations always have the latest version of our software.

Easy CMS Upgrades 

Last but hardly least: Understand the upgrade path of your CMS vendor.

The design, build, migration and launch of a new website represents significant investment. That is not the end of it. The internet never stops evolving, and nothing short of a robust, flexible and constantly upgraded platform can keep up.

Every CMS requires an annual upgrade, with intermediate software updates throughout the year. Ask yourself (and your vendor) the following two questions. The answers will tell you a lot about the complexity and cost of future upgrades.

  • Are you releasing our website on the most current version of the CMS?

    This is not a crazy thing to ask. Websites take months to build. The version that is up-to-date at the start of the process might be a few updates behind by the time the site goes live. At Northwoods, our normal practice is to upgrade the client to the most recent version of Titan CMS right before going live.

  • Will your CMS vendor tell you upfront what an upgrade will cost?

    Inexperienced implementation partners tend to balk at this question. But once the site has been scoped and designed, any competent vendor should be able to accurately estimate the cost of an upgrade. Beyond that, a good vendor – one with your best interests at heart -- will offer both an estimate and a simple monthly fee for upgrades and support on an annual basis.

Final Thoughts

The key takeaway: CMS selection is about more than your feature list. Set it aside for a little while, develop a strategy and evaluate your potential CMS vendors. Determine which company puts your interests first.

Get more tips for developing your requirements list and evaluating potential CMS vendors.

By Rick Fessenbecker

Related Blog Posts

If you're starting a search for a new content management system (CMS), making a functionality list is a good place to start, followed by a thorough assessment of how a potential CMS handles these features. Here, we share insights and guidance on what to consider when evaluating CMS functionality.