When selecting the right content management system (CMS) vendor, it’s easy to get confused by the long lists of product features, variables, and options. It’s even easier to be swayed by the slick marketing hype. So how can tech leaders cut through all the chatter and find the right partner for that CMS effort? That’s just one of several questions I posed to Jason Meugniot, VP and CMS practice leader at Guidance, an application development and systems integration firm in Marina Del Rey, CA. Guidance has helped companies, including Foot Locker, The Right Start, and Universal, improve the return on investment of content management and transactional e-commerce initiatives.

Don’t ignore the soft stuff
TechRepublic: What criteria should CIOs use when doing due diligence on CMS vendors?
Selecting a software vendor in a crowded or fragmented market space, such as Web content management, can be daunting for CIOs. In addition to obvious considerations like functional and technical fit, product and financial viability, market conditions and price, CIOs should also consider what I like to call the “soft stuff.”
In my experience with clients implementing CMS for the first time, and clients suffering from the first-generation CMS blues [what you get when an existing CMS is ineffective and too expensive to maintain], I’ve found that technology buyers too often neglect to invest time and resources toward building successful relationships with their product vendors.
CIOs should consider at least the following two criteria when doing their due diligence on CMS vendors:

1. Comparative product information
This type of product information includes common elements, such as:

  • Functional fit against defined requirements
  • Technical alignment and expertise with envisioned architecture
  • Price
  • Market share and install base
  • Financial viability of company
  • Stable and proven management team
  • Company/product origination. Did the company start off as a document management or knowledge management product company?
  • Relevant partnerships

2. Qualitative vendor analysis (the soft stuff)
You won’t find information about the soft stuff in trade publications, conference presentations, or a technology research site. You’ll find it in direct interviews and activities with potential vendors, their clients, and their partners.

In many cases, the soft stuff may support what you already discover from your analysis of the comparative product information. In other cases, it may provide relevant, contextual motivation to eliminate or better consider a potential CMS vendor.

Comparative product information is like “commodity information.” It’s accessible, relatively inexpensive, and easy to acquire. Qualitative vendor analysis, or the soft stuff, can be more time-consuming, expensive, and elusive in many cases. But the qualitative analysis is much more important to the long-term success of a CMS project, primarily in terms of risk. If you skip qualitative analysis to save time or money upfront, the risk of failure over the long term can be significant.

While the soft stuff can be time-consuming, it is important. It includes:

Contextual product demos

These are proof-of-concept phases that involve vendor resources during planning and delivery.

Talking with new and former customers

Get in touch with existing customers and past customers who were unhappy or unsatisfied with the vendor’s product or services. As some vendors offer such reference information while others respectfully decline, it’s prudent and worthwhile to let your potential vendor know that you are interested in their track record and that you are serious about the success of your initiative.

Assessing customer service

Prior to purchasing a solution, CIOs should be confident that the vendor’s well-to-do sales executive continues to be extremely attentive to their needs once a deal is signed. Remember, the real work and most of the risk begins right after the software is purchased. Be sure that your vendor will commit the time and resources to make your project successful. Here’s a quick tip: Offering to provide references and marketing collateral about the final solution can be an easy way to entice your vendor to stay interested, supportive, and involved.

Test the vendor’s support team

Prior to purchase, CIOs should assign one person to engage the vendor’s technical support team on two or three meaningful issues. Call the customer service number and ask a question about product installation or feature configuration. Get a feel for the level of competence and support offered.

Top task is investigating vendor’s track record
TechRepublic: What’s the most important thing about selecting a CMS vendor that CIOs need to be aware of?
I believe the single most important criterion is a strong track record with a focused product or solution. CIOs should consider vendors that have demonstrated success with clients consistently over long periods of time, with clear and focused products or solutions.

Don’t be shy about getting help
TechRepublic: What’s the benefit of seeking professional help when doing due diligence? Or what might go wrong if companies do it themselves?
Meugniot: I recommend that companies seek professional help from a CMS consultant when doing due diligence. A good CMS integrator can offer specific experience in evaluating and implementing successful content management vendor solutions; leverage a proven methodology to save time and cost while maximizing overall impact; and mitigate risk by working with experts with a strong track record in the field.
If CIOs prefer to go it alone, I would suggest they take a methodical approach—one that incorporates the steps I described earlier. Additionally, I would recommend talking to vendors and references as much as possible. This may seem obvious, but I frequently find buyers avoiding vendor interactions for fear of pressure by salespersons to purchase quickly. Lastly, I would say hold vendors to high standards while securing their participation during design and implementation efforts through contractual milestones and launch certifications.