Whenever I finish a website presentation, clients often ask for a content management system (CMS) recommendation. They might as well also ask me what is the best car to drive, or which range oven will make their house look great? My answers, respectively, are Drupal, Tesla, and Miele. If that sounds simplistic, that’s because I often don’t have enough information to make a recommendation. All I can provide is an opinion based on many assumptions. Just as you may not want to get a Tesla S to haul two-by-fours to a construction site, or get a Miele dual-range oven for a tiny house, Drupal may not be your best choice of CMS for your small private liberal arts college.
However, you can certainly try to make those work and succeed, but it’s probably not sustainable in the long run, especially during critical moments like admissions application, class registration, and final exams. As with any real answers, the best CMS for you depends on several factors, but here’s a couple to get you started:
1. Identify Your Resources
Almost all colleges will have a pretty decent server hardware (or cloud hosting) to get them this far in this digital age. However, the question about resources goes beyond technology and into your staff’s expertise. A single part-time web developer can probably manage a CMS at a small college, but they are also likely to outsource a large amount of the back-end IT services.
For example, WordPress is very easy to publish and maintain, but if something critical breaks you’ll need to have the right staff who can develop code or handle database and security issues. On the other hand, proprietary solutions like OmniUpdate and Cascade will generally have maintenance built into the agreement to help your limited staff or will charge a one-time fee to resolve your issue.
2. Define (and Redefine) Your Workflow
Back when I worked for newspapers, I would visit restaurants and be amazed at their commercial kitchens, where line cooks, sous chefs, and chefs interacted in an intricate dance to prepare dishes. Sometimes this dance would happen in a tiny room that felt like the size of a one-car garage, while others felt like an airport hangar. The result was always an expertly crafted dish, but the difference was the number of diners each restaurant could serve every night.
Similarly, your web visitors are not only your current students but also the prospective students to whom you are marketing. Your workflow and marketing strategy will dictate the size of your kitchen—or in CMS terms, the amount of communication services required. Such services might, for example, include whether the CMS needs to log each author’s revision, submitting posts to the editor for review, communicating with subject-matter experts, coordinating with a proofreader, adding the metadata, communicating with the graphic designer or photographer, and so on. Unless you’re upgrading to a newer version of your current CMS, be willing to adapt your workflow to the new technology.
3. Have Strategic Reasons to Change
Changing a CMS can be as drastic as a kitchen renovation, but sometimes it is necessary to address the immediacy of digital enrollment and marketing as you resolve problem areas, update content, or scale up your operations. As you decide to make the change, also learn what the new CMS can do and how it can help you develop new strategies.
For one, how can you effectively integrate it with your customer relationship management (CRM)? Will you be able to capture more visitors at various parts of your admissions funnel? How can the new CMS help you track your return on investment better? A few CMSs can perform all those functions out of the box, while most others will require installing third-party modules and customizations of some level to fit your strategies. Lastly, assess whether your web team, university relations, and admissions have the capabilities to leverage the new feature and to coordinate with one another in the CMS.
4. Determine Ownership
As your new CMS comes online, develop governance to prevent the website from becoming a Galapagos Island with dozens of subsites, with each one of them looking like an entirely new institutional website. Some CMSs allow you to install a multi-site configuration that allows for easier maintenance—such as, global installation of patches and security fixes. However, not everything can be automated, and there are many governance models to help your team or committee develop standards and enforce a universal brand look. If a college or department insists on having a unique look and feel, they must be able to have the resources—staff, technology, and know-how—to maintain their slice of the website. Otherwise, their boutique site will cost your central IT’s time and budget. Worst, the boutique website will probably confuse first-time visitors to the site.
All CMSs are designed for a certain workflow under a certain technology environment, and the issue at hand is how to match resources (technology, human capital) to the right CMS. For us, a discovery visit uncovers many of those issues by interviewing key stakeholders, IT staff, administrators, communications departments, and content authors to understand how the existing CMS works (or doesn’t). We also interview students to understand how they perceive your brand, interpret your content, and navigate the website.
Another dimension of the discovery visit is to look at your marketing materials, research, and traffic analytics data to get a holistic view of your marketing efforts. After all that information is collected and analyzed, we will recommend an open source or a proprietary CMS. Each CMS will cover the most common set of teams found in most higher education institutions—from a two-person web team with shared IT resources, to a full web army spanning several colleges, each with their own developers, designers, public relations person, and more.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the best technology fit for the team that you have. If that Miele range oven won’t fit your tiny house, what you’re probably looking for is a food truck. We can help you build it.
If you’re still unsure, try our quick quiz to see if you need a website redesign.