Get clear on your requirements before you choose a CMS. This guide will help you to frame your questions about which type of CMS you need to suit your purposes.
Building the case for a CMS
You may also find these requirements helpful to build the case for a CMS. You may be looking for a better CMS or for your very first one. These requirements can help you get clear on what you need. Also refer to our guidance on tips for pitching your case. The CMS you use should also be in alignment with your content strategy.
Types of CMS
There are many CMS systems to choose from. Two common types of CMS are known as 'open source' and 'proprietary'.
Open source versus proprietary CMS
Open source is when the code is open to be developed collaboratively by a community of developers around the world. Two of the more well-known open source CMS examples include WordPress and Drupal. There are many more.
Proprietary systems are owned, built and maintained by a company. The code is not open and available. It can only be worked on by internal developers specific to that CMS company.
Benefits of open source
- code is freely available
- usually has a strong network of online support
- transparent in its development
- frequently updated
- can be quickly customised
Risks of open source
- can have a steep learning curve
- can be less secure, though patches and updates are regular
- no one owns the code, so there is no fallback person or company
Benefits of proprietary systems
- provides a fully pre-built system ready to use 'off the shelf'
- maintenance and upgrades of the CMS are managed externally by the company
- are usually quite robust and reliable
Risks of proprietary systems
- can be expensive
- code cannot be freely worked on outside of the company who owns the CMS
- you can be locked into a system or contract
- can be costly to move away from
Do your due diligence
When choosing a CMS, it's helpful to ask lots of questions so that you consider all the risks and constraints associated with the CMS you choose. The Digital Service Standard also outlines why it's important to understand tools and systems before you decide to use them.
The outcomes throughout this guidance will differ between open source and proprietary CMS systems. It's helpful to ask the same questions of each type, whether internally or with a CMS vendor.
Before you begin, consider who you'll need to have on your team to gather requirements. A broad range of relevant people will help you get a clear idea of what you need your CMS to do. This may include:
- content designers
- service designers and product managers
- user researchers
- user experience designers
- interaction designers
- SEO experts
- CMS support staff (may be internal or external)
- anyone in your agency who'll be using the CMS to manage content
- what kind of information each user group or person needs
- what platform they use (how they need it delivered)
Consider the ongoing costs of the CMS. This includes the cost of initial set up, as well as ongoing support and maintenance
The cost of a CMS should be considered from the very start, as many ongoing costs may not be clear.
Think about these CMS costs:
- upfront purchase
- changes or customisation
- security and hosting
There may be a single fee or separate component fees. Being aware of these will help you make informed decisions about how much a CMS may cost you over time.
Hosting is an important part of CMS requirements. This refers to where your data is stored and maintained. Find out the differences between your site being hosted on Australian servers or overseas. This will affect costs and support. Check how frequently your CMS vendor provides patches for the CMS and how often it's updated.
The security requirements of a CMS will depend on the kind of information you’ll be storing in it. Refer also to the Australian Privacy Principles and the Information Security Manual for more information and work with your agency privacy and security departments.
If you’re working with sensitive content, check that your CMS provides the security levels you need.
Two factor authentication
Also known as 2FA, this level of security is becoming more and more popular. Along with a password and username, 2FA requires a third piece of secure information to log in. Only the user knows this code, which could be a physical or digital token. It's usually made up of random numbers for one use only.
You should also develop a data disaster recovery plan and be able to regularly backup data.
Service level agreement (SLA)
Check the CMS provider Service Level Agreement (SLA). This specifies what the provider will do for you as a customer. It's the contract that defines what you the customer can expect to receive.
Content distribution network (CDN)
Check if your CMS can support a content distribution network (CDN). A CDN is a global distribution network that serves content to users from a location that's close to them. CDNs reduce the traffic and bandwidth load on your CMS. This helps sites with lots of video and images.
A CDN also provides a content backup.
Understand your CMS license
A CMS license refers to the way you will be using your CMS. For those vendors who do require you to buy a CMS license, it's worth asking a few questions up front. They can be difficult to understand and sometimes expensive.
A CMS license includes variables such as:
- number of users and access they need
- number of sites
- types and location of servers
- support and upgrades
- what type of service you'll be getting
Licensing fees may be both up front and ongoing. They may also be subscription based. Ensure you're clear on costs and what your license gives you. Then you can better work out what kind of subscription model or license suits best.
Training, support and updates
Most CMS suppliers offer training and support. Make sure this is included in your CMS license.
- The cost, frequency and level of support
- If updates include functional releases and security patches?
- If there will be a delay if your support is based overseas
- How often the CMS is updated and if this affects the content and website?
- Can the CMS integrate third party plugins?
Customising your content needs
There are different CMS tools for different content purposes. Make sure that your CMS can handle your specific content and publishing requirements. A basic CMS that can only support simple publishing tasks may create problems later on.
Flexibility of content formats
A CMS should provide flexibility in managing and displaying content. Make sure the simple things work well: the CMS navigation tree, searching the content, making simple updates.
A flexible CMS should work with different content formats, including:
- content pages
- news items
- map locations
- data sources, charts and graphs
Features and functionality
List which types of content formats you'll be managing in your CMS.
Choose a CMS that is scalable and expandable. You should be able to add features and configure them at minimal cost.
Some specific CMS features you may need:
- event calendars
- built-in newsletters
- social media integration
- comments or chat box tools
- online forms
Testing, staging and live sites
A CMS will usually have a:
- development or test site – where changes and new features are built and tested
- staging site – a mirror version of your live site which lets you preview pages before they go live
- production site – your public facing live site
A staging and production site may be enough for agencies publishing simple content.
You need to be clear on how your CMS manages changes to keep improving your website. This includes navigation, functionality and new content requirements.
Consider these questions:
- How many development and staging environments do you need?
- How will data and files flow between ‘staging’ and ‘production’ environments?
- How will developers will pull down a production version of your site that's been stripped of personal or secure information?
- Does the CMS put any restrictions on your preferred deployment methods?
The CMS needs to give you an accurate preview of web page content before it goes live. This lets you see what the user will see, before you publish. It will also help you check the flow of content and how the functionality of your website is working.
Depending on how your particular CMS work, you can also send preview links to content owners. This helps them see content before it goes live, so they can provide relevant feedback or corrections.
To test open source CMS, you'll need to do some research. Try asking your friendly developer to install a test site. You can also go to the relevant online CMS forum and ask questions about your CMS there.
Social media integration
Make sure your CMS can integrate social media. This includes social feeds into your site.
The content added to a CMS will impact on the accessibility of your site. Even if your CMS functionality is considered ‘accessible’, the content may not be. This applies to both the frontend and backend of a CMS.
A CMS should also help government agencies meet web accessibility guidelines. See accessibility in the Digital Service Standard.
See also the Disability Discrimination Act.
A CMS should be capable of being localised (displaying content in several languages). If not, check if it can default to an automatically-detected language where multi-lingual content exists.
If third-party plugins or customisation is needed, check what’s involved and how much it costs.