6 Factors to Consider When Exploring a New CMS

Approval for a new content management system is just the first step; experienced higher ed marketers told us what to do after the budget is green lit.

6 minutes
By: Melissa Sersland

You’ve received the green light to explore options for a new content management system (CMS). Now, where to start? 

Thankfully, higher education marketers who have undergone this process before were happy to share their CMS wisdom. We spoke with four individuals who have gone through the CMS implementation process to get their advice.

Assemble the CMS Committee, Identify Stakeholders

Your first step in this process should be to identify your stakeholders, said Stephanie Geyer, director of digital strategy and innovation at the University of Montana. Which people will fall into this group depends on how website management is distributed across the institution. 

“You need to look at the organization’s structure and pull in friends to shape the project and make sure everyone understands the objectives and what they are trying to solve,” Geyer said.

You will want to form a representative committee responsible for choosing a new CMS solution while assuring the committee size does not become unmanageable. 

“In most cases, you don’t want 20 people on (the committee),” said Matt Herzberger, vice president of digital experience and analytics at VisionPoint Marketing, who previously worked in the Purdue University digital strategy office. According to Herzberger, you should tap your colleagues working at different levels of sites — from campus web leads to your end users who are going to use the CMS — to edit sites periodically. In addition, you should keep target audiences in mind. 

“If it’s a website for marketing and recruitment and the website is a tool and resource for prospective students, you want someone to bring the voice of a student into the project as well as someone from enrollment services,” said Rebecca Badger, director of marketing and enrollment services at Oregon State University Ecampus. 

Make sure to identify a technical lead for the CMS, even if you decide to pursue a solution that does not require much technical know-how to create content. 

“There’s always going to be a place to have a technical person at the table, even if content creation and page creation can be done by pretty much anybody,” Badger said. Your technical partner will help you to ask the right questions and think through security considerations and other issues.  

If you do choose a solution in which customizations and updates are managed by the vendor, it is still helpful to have someone who can be your CMS tool expert. 

“With Omni CMS, they rolled out a few new features and plugins. One thing that our tool lead did was bring those opportunities and options to the rest of the team and share that out,” Badger said. “It’s another way having a point person is helpful; they can liaise with the vendor and evaluate and vet new features.”

Call on Colleagues 

As you begin your research into different CMS solutions, leverage different networking platforms to hear about other institutions’ experiences. 

“Higher education is a really small community, so don’t rely on references directly from agencies or proprietary solutions,” Geyer said. “There are plenty of listservs and other ways to say, ‘We are thinking about this – have you used this particular resource?’ People are really generous in that way in higher education.” 

The purchasing agent on campus will be a key contact in this process. 

“Make sure you are fully aware of all the opportunities and challenges in the process so that you have real clarity on the timeline (…) and that folks are realistic in expectations of when the RFP document will be completed, approved, posted and how long it’s going to be open,” Geyer said.

As part of Montana’s vetting process, Geyer held a bidders conference that gave stakeholders a chance to ask clarifying questions. 

“I was really grateful for that because it gave insight into who was interested in the project and why,” Geyer said. “The level of questions elevates things you didn’t think of and maybe change your mind given new information.”

Once you have a contract, Geyer recommends having your vendor partners take a look. They can point out any gaps you have not addressed and can save you time and money down the line. 

“Find as many partners as you can to check your work,” Geyer said. “Make sure you’ve thought of everything. Don’t feel like you have to be a superhero and muscle through it.”

Understand the True Cost of ‘Free’

An important decision your team will need to make is whether to pursue an open source CMS solution or a proprietary CMS solution. 

Institutions with budget constraints may shy away from proprietary solutions because of the higher upfront cost, Geyer said. After all, aren’t open source CMS solutions free? 

“The fallacy of open source is that it’s free,” Geyer said. “Nothing is ever free.” 

Institutions should keep in mind an open source solution’s long-term costs, which will be required for ongoing management and knowledge for the project. Open source solutions may have large communities of users and a robust library of resources accessible to anyone, but this can be deceptive.  

“The reality is that there’s still going to be some cost, and being realistic about that and advocating for the budget to support this infrastructure that is a core, critical piece of any business is the end-all be-all for most teams,” Badger said.  

Herzberger noted that deciding which type of solution will work best for you requires understanding how self-sufficient you are. 

“If you need to work on a big redesign, but you don’t have programmers or developers on your campus, it might help to get a platform that comes with a large amount of support and professional services,” Herzberger said. 

Geyer also suggested considering redundancies in terms of who is supporting your system. 

“If you are solely dependent on a vendor partner or one person on campus who can get in and do some development work, you are in a risky spot,” Geyer said. This is especially so given the state of the higher education job market with people moving through positions quickly.

Identify Needs to Create the Most Helpful RFP 

Once you have identified your stakeholders, it is time to leverage the collective wisdom of your team and articulate your needs and wants for your new CMS.  

“Get very clear what you’re asking about in your RFP,” Badger said. “Bring your core work group together and do more on proof of concept and wireframing what you are looking for so, when the RFP is out for bid, you’re getting responses back that are very specific to what you are looking for.” 

Distinguish between your must haves and your need-to-haves. Herzberger said to ask at least two questions: “What are your absolute deal breakers of what you need to do or not? What is really important so you can go in there and have a rubric to grade folks?”

To understand your needs, you will need to take a step back to really understand your workflows and use cases. 

“You really need to know yourself before you go out looking for solutions to assist you,” said Herzberger. 

A flow chart of the steps in implementing new content management system.

Fit the Solution to the End User 

In some cases, leveraging multiple platforms may be a solution. Georgia Tech leveraged Drupal as its CMS. Although Drupal is favored for data-rich websites, it has limitations. 

“It has not been easy for web developers to onboard nontechnical users and give them the comfort level to build a website to campus standards,” said Dr. Eric Sembrat, web manager at Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering. 

Some academic websites had consistent data needs that were well met by Drupal, but other sites for faculty labs, conferences and events were largely pathways for disseminating information. To counteract this, Georgia Tech piloted the move to WordPress in 2014 and opted for more units in 2015. The move has culminated in the installation of WordPress on more than 1,000 websites – all while continuing to support its Drupal user community. 

“The way we think of content management systems at Georgia Tech is that one-size-does-not-fit-all for all the academic and institutional needs. Drupal and WordPress serve the same facets of the same goal,” said Sembrat. “We want to make building a website the same as drafting a Word doc. (…) It’s proving to be something our end users like, and we get a lot of buy-in, rather than asking people to construct your own website.”

The work does not stop once the CMS is launched. It’s a misconception that any web project is ever finished.

Plan for the Long Term

When developing your implementation timeline, take a look at your institution’s calendar and your web traffic. Be cognizant of enrollment and big registration windows. Also, try to identify slower times in web traffic. 

“For higher education, around the holidays is quieter from the web traffic perspective,” Badger said. 

Coordinate with the individuals using the site so that they are aware there may be hiccups as the new CMS is implemented and have support at the ready post-launch to resolve issues quickly. You have put in the time researching a new CMS solution, but do not forget to set up your governance and workflows that will allow you to succeed. 

“Personnel and not the platform is where CMS implementations go awry,” Herzberger said. “Any platform can more or less accomplish what you need it to do and make beautiful, functional websites. It’s about how you set up your resources and templates so that they’re supporting the strategies your campus and website need to build out.”

Building necessary training will be important to support your users in the long term and to ensure the effectiveness of the sites. Geyer is planning on long-term training concepts, such as search engine optimization that addresses content and backend tasks. 

After all, the work does not stop once the CMS is launched. 

“There’s launch, and then, there’s iteration,” Geyer said. “It’s a misconception that any web project is ever finished — you have to be prepared to move it forward.” 

 Melissa Sersland

Melissa Sersland


Melissa Sersland is the associate director of graduate admissions and financial aid at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University in Illinois. She began her career as a journalist and content marketer and holds a master’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in higher education administration and policy from Northwestern.

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