Content Management Systems: Look Before You Leap

A Content Management System, or CMS, is a software application that offers you the ability to manage your own website content rather than relying on another company or individual to do it for you. A CMS can also provide many useful features and functions. They are a great option for many businesses, however the independence and control you have typically come with a price, even when the CMS itself is free. In our experience, content management systems too often fail to live up to expectations in terms of total cost of ownership, ease of use, features and capability. Even so, we still work with content management systems and even recommend them for some clients, as long as a CMS is in alignment with their website goals and requirements.

Due to the benefits of managing content with a CMS, many businesses today assume their website will be run on one. The question then becomes ‘which’ CMS to choose out of the many product options. All content management systems are not created equal. Sadly, many companies don’t spend enough time evaluating CMS offerings and frequently chose one based on familiarity and popularity. A technology is chosen first—before defining business goals and requirements or any basic criteria for why one CMS would be better than another. Once deployed, the website and content management platform become nearly inseparable. Once committed to any one CMS, moving to another one later can be very costly should it prove to have been the wrong choice.

In an effort to help you get started, here are some points to consider when selecting a CMS platform. We’ve categorized them into several topical areas: Managing Content, Templates & Design, Functionality, Costs, Web Servers & Security, and Growth & Change.

Managing Content

  • You can publish small, basic websites quickly and easily with some CMS applications such as WordPress.
  • Generally, you don’t have to pay anyone to make updates to your website, if you’re willing to learn the CMS functionality on your own.
  • Many CMS applications are cheap. Free or low-cost cloud-based solutions can help you avoid licensing fees.
  • There is little need to understand how to write code such as HTML or JavaScript, though it helps if you do.
  • Many CMS website owners get frustrated trying to do their own updates and eventually hire a web developer to help out anyway. There is a learning curve to any CMS and some amount of training is usually needed.
  • In larger organizations, dividing up the work and having individual departments update their own content is a good goal, but that also involves getting staff buy-in, project management overhead, process or workflow considerations, quality control, training, and support.

Templates & Design

  • Many design templates are available and fairly inexpensive. They provide a way to get a site up quickly.
  • Layout options in a CMS template have limitations that need to be understood early in the design process. Unless you know how to do custom programming, you’re stuck with what the CMS gives you.
  • Pre-built templates may not suit business goals and marketing objectives. They may also look too similar to other business or organizational sites.
  • Responsive design is built by default into some CMS templates, making it easier to have a website that dynamically resizes for screens on different-sized devices.
  • CMS responsive templates may adapt to different screens, but that doesn’t mean they will provide the best mobile or tablet user experience. User goals and behavior on these devices often differ.


  • Lots of free or low-cost plug-ins are available that can provide functionality such as calendars, contact forms and slideshows.
  • Customization of features and functions is often challenging and requires a lot of time and effort. The more customized a site is, the more difficult it will be later to migrate the site to another platform Even upgrading your current CMS to a newer version can cause problems, and you will most certainly need to upgrade at some point during the life-cycle of your website. This may become important later if you discover you need functionality that your current CMS doesn’t provide.
  • Product catalogs, shopping carts and online payments are available as add-ons for many CMS platforms, though there are many pitfalls. Some work well, others do not. Do not underestimate the complications that can arise when you want to sell products or services online via your website. Nearly all banks and financial institutions will require you to go through a PCI compliance audit before they will agree to process payments for you. Violation of their policies or hacking incidents can lead to shutting down your credit card payment processing – sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Please be sure to check with your bank to see what their requirements are before you select a CMS and any compatible e-commerce plug-ins you might want to use. When in doubt, hire a professional to help out.


  • Open Source CMS applications like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are free to use, but have limitations.
  • Just because open source doesn’t have a fee to license doesn’t mean there aren’t additional costs involved to host, configure, manage, and secure.
  • CMS commercial license fees can be expensive for many products. For larger, more advanced websites, CMS licensing costs can range from $1,000 to $10,000 or more, in addition to annual software subscription and hosting fees.

Web Servers & Security

  • So called “budget hosts” on shared servers have limitations, despite their claim to offer unlimited space and bandwidth. If a website takes up too much bandwidth, processing power or RAM, the website may be shut down or you may be charged extra (or both).
  • Security vulnerabilities are common and inherent to most CMS applications. Plug-ins can be a major source of security vulnerabilities, especially if they are not kept up to date.
  • Hackers frequently target the popular content management systems. Even if they don’t hack into your website, the hack attempt may take a toll on the web server and get your website shut down.

Growth & Change

  • CMS applications typically work well when you are a startup or when the website is small in scope and functionality. As businesses grow, they can quickly outgrow the inexpensive CMS applications and then have to migrate the site to some other platform that better suits their needs.
  • Limited portability. Since a CMS is a software application that serves as the platform for a website, moving a website also involves having to deal with the CMS application, in addition to the website content that is stored in a database.
  • Like it or not, there is a constant need for upgrades and migrations to new server hardware as it becomes obsolete over time. The more customization you have on your CMS website, the more difficult and expensive it is to upgrade. Inconsistencies and errors can occur as versions of software change. Also, server configuration changes sometimes break the CMS. The more complicated the site, the more the IT department will need to be involved.

As you can see, there are many considerations for selecting the right website content management system. We strongly recommend that companies put enough thought into what they need their CMS to do and be sure to understand the various trade-offs before making a decision. It’s also a good idea to check with IT staff and any other key website stakeholders to make sure that there are no technical issues with a specific product and that everybody has a chance to communicate any critical requirements. Time spent on planning in the early stages of a website implementation will certainly pay dividends later and help you avoid unexpected costs.

The Bottom Line

In our experience, websites built on content management systems often fail to meet customer expectations. Cost savings for small sites may be realized initially, but higher costs for customizations, upgrades and site migrations are very likely over the longer term. Be sure to know what you’re getting into before selecting a CMS product.

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