One of the reasons web CMS projects are so hard is that organizations don’t do them very often. Lessons learned are forgotten a year or so after the project is finished, people move on, and, by the time the web CMS is under review again, most of the previously acquired knowledge of the CMS marketplace is out-of-date.

Lack of experience in running web CMS projects often leads to sketchy planning. Not seeing clearly how the project will develop and what challenges each of the project stages brings makes accurate estimates difficult.

Here is a quick overview of the lifecycle stages of a typical web CMS project and some ideas to help you avoid pitfalls in order to put your project on a less stressful path to success.


Stage 1: The Business Case

A business case typically includes the following:

  • Problem statement
  • Options and recommended solution
  • Benefits and impact
  • Implementation approach, timeline, and resources
  • Required investment

Building a business case for a new web CMS is hard because the project can be easily mistaken for a technology upgrade with no real sense of urgency attached to it. To avoid this fate, make sure that your business case is in line with the overall business strategy. Not only should it explain why the project is important in general, but it should also answer the question, “Why now?”

When writing an executive summary, and particularly when articulating the business case in person, enhance the credibility of your message by covering relevant aspects of the proposal: main point, breadth, depth, height, and sight (for more on this concept, see Allen Weiner’s book So Smart But…: How Intelligent People Lose Credibility—and How They Can Get it Back).

Your main point for a web CMS project business case will be the key strategically important outcome. If a university is migrating all faculty websites to a single central web CMS, the main point is the need to surface interdisciplinary content that doesn’t neatly belong to one faculty. To illustrate breadth, consider several specific examples of the problem (i.e., cite research centers that are not currently promoted on the central university website and are difficult for prospective students and researchers to find as a result of the current setup). Depth means more detail on one of these problematic instances—perhaps one of these research centers represents the area in which the university has gained a lot of publicity recently and is uniquely placed to attract large numbers of world-famous researchers. (Substantiate your claim with numbers if you can.) Height is about the big picture—the effect on the whole organization, such as an increased number of applicants—and sight is about the future. In the case of the university web CMS project, the sight aspect can be communicated as “all research opportunities and research centers will be easily findable using the central university website in 2 years’ time.”   

Stage 2: Business Analysis

Stakeholder interviews help to get a real sense of the project requirements, constraints, differences of opinion, and the severity of the internal politics in the organization. They inform the project, clarify issues and priorities, and prepare the business for change.

You should interview senior decision makers, support staffers (such as those at the service desk), CMS users (content editors), and website visitors. The optimum number of stakeholder interviews varies depending on the complexity of the project, but as a rough guide, 12–26 interviews typically provides sufficient insights. Further interviews don’t usually provide additional information, but they can continue to help to foster buy-in.

When gathering requirements for a web CMS project, prioritize vision over detail. CMS projects are chronically prone to over-engineered, overly complex functionality that is requested and rarely used. Workflow and form builders are prime examples—they are useful features, but they are used much less frequently than is anticipated by the business at the outset of the project.  

Stage 3: CMS and Implementation Partner Selection

Once the business case is approved, it’s time to start web CMS selection and procurement. It is not uncommon for web CMS selections in large, complex organizations to take 6–12 months. Here are some tips that can help you to speed up the selection process without compromising due diligence.

  • Write CMS scenarios to shape the evaluation process. Scenarios help contenders to focus on requirements that are relevant and important to your organization.
  • Engage with an industry analyst who is actively covering WCM market space.
  • Organizations select a new web CMS once every 5–7 years; analysts do it every day. They will have information and insight that you don’t.
  • Create a shortlist of three to five web CMS platforms.
  • Select an implementation partner as an element of this process, rather than separately, as an afterthought. Look for partners that have experience of three or more completed projects using the CMS in question. Don’t be tempted to upskill your in-house team for the initial implementation—external expertise with significant platform-specific experience will offer you both better quality and better value for money.
  • Organize meetings with shortlisted vendors before you finalize the RFP. This will give you an opportunity to clarify or even reconsider some of the requirements based on the initial feedback you get from the vendors. It will also reduce your chances of receiving canned proposals.

Make the decision-making group six people or fewer. Larger groups are not more effective and will cause delays.

Stage 4: Web Development, Content, Design, and User Experience

In an attempt to reduce risk, it can be tempting to separate the technology part of the project from the redesign, content edits, and content governance. This is a bad idea—technology, content, design, and governance are inextricably linked in a web CMS project. Technology alone cannot deliver great customer experience, elevate content quality, or improve content governance. Technology can facilitate these outcomes, but using the new web CMS in the same way as the old system was used will deliver marginal benefits at best. Successful web CMS projects are always multidisciplinary and require all departments to work together as a team.


Stage 5: Project Closure and Transition Into Business as Usual

Perfect is the enemy of good. No matter how much time and money are allocated to the project, new ideas will keep coming. A wishlist, a web CMS road map, and a business-as-usual service definition are important actions at the end of the project to ensure lasting success.