In a classic high school essay, you are asked to find the similarities and differences between two things. In your current job, you may be asked to compare and contrast content management systems, probably the one you are using now and the new one being promoted by the boss’s brother-in-law, or worse, the one already purchased by the boss and installed by IT.

Or perhaps you are on a team asked to develop a shortlist of potential systems to replace your current CMS. The situation is much worse than comparing apples and oranges. Most CMS vendors will tell you their system can do everything that you need (especially when they have not taken a close look at what you are doing already and the new things you really need to do).

Start by developing a list of content and services now offered by your organization plus things you hope to add. Each of these should be an identifiable goal in your business strategy. Armed with this, you can determine whether a given CMS supports each item in the list and, if so, how well and at what cost in resources, financial and human. You must align your business strategy with your content strategy.

Resist the temptation to start by looking at a list of “features” offered by the CMS. Once you do find the features you really need and will use, you can check to see if the system offers many more than you need. If so, you might be paying for unwanted functionality.

With about 2,000 products on the market, it is particularly challenging to winnow these down to the few requiring scrutiny. Why not get CMS vendors to do a little comparing and contrasting of their products themselves?

First, you need a standard set of features expected in a CMS, with standard names for the features. Then you’d need a way for the vendors to tell whether (and if so, how) their systems include these features. The results could be reported on a website where everyone could search for systems that match our specific business goals. A few sites provide this public service today, but the number of features listed can be daunting. Could we come up with some rules of thumb and key parameters for compare and contrast that would help establish the fit between your application and the vendors’ tools?

Some analysts’ reports, notably The CMS Report by EContent contributing editor Tony Byrne of CMS Watch, do a lot of comparing and contrasting for us. But Tony’s reports may be expensive for smaller organizations ($1,000 to $1,500) though well worth the price for an organization deciding between six-figure systems. Also, CMS Watch’s report only covers the top 40 or so CMSs.

The latest CMS Report adds a new parameter to the CMS/vendor evaluation process called “scenarios.” These scenarios are 12 common website profiles Byrne identified from working with hundreds of organizations adopting a CMS. They include simple ones like corporate brochure site, community-oriented site, or departmental intranet; midrange examples like an interactive marketing site or one with multiple microsites; and complex ones like a global intranet, enterprise business, or one with multi-channel publishing.

To this idea of site profiles I might add another parameter: the total cost of ownership of a CMS for typical customers (perhaps with a range from low to high). If vendors would supply this financial information, we could better sort apples and oranges, or at least distinguish caviar from tuna.

I like quantitative comparisons, so another parameter might be the total amount of content being managed, perhaps also the number of people doing the managing—from contributors and editors to reviewers and approvers—in a typical organization using a given CMS.

Another valuable parameter could be the typical number of people at the vendor (or the systems integrator or professional services firm) and the amount of time they will spend in support of the implementation, deployment, and maintenance of the system. This can be rolled up in dollar terms into installation support cost and annual maintenance fees, but it is another compare and contrast tool that will tell you whether the CMS is appropriate for your application.

Yet until this dream site or report that includes every possible parameter for CMS selection exists, you can select the few most applicable to you and hopefully winnow out a small number of CMSs for careful research into the hundreds of features they offer. Only then you can do the most important part: Align your strategic needs with tool functionalities.