8 Questions to Ask When Choosing Your University's CMS

Navigate the complexity of choosing a university CMS with eight key questions. Ensure it aligns with your needs, from brand customization to usability to SEO. Find the ideal fit for your institution.

Choosing a content management system (CMS) for your university can seem daunting. There are so many options, each giving you promises of a better life. You also have a lot of stakeholders to please, each with varying skill levels and authority. And the stakes are high. Moving to a new CMS can be expensive and time-consuming. Whatever you pick, you'll probably be stuck with it for a long time.

The bad news: There is no perfect CMS.

But there's also good news. There might be a CMS that best fits your particular situation, your particular university, and your particular team. You just have to ask the right questions.

Can the CMS support be customized to fit the university's branding and design requirements?

This may seem like an obvious question. Every CMS can change the look and feel of its front end to match branding and design requirements. You'll need to dig deeper, however.

Some CMSs can be customized more easily than others. Some have guardrails where it's more difficult to customize things a certain way. If you don't "design with the grain" for that CMS, getting your website looking just right can be expensive.

A CMS has defaults that are considered “sensible.” You'll save yourself a lot of frustration (and money) down the line if you are aware of these defaults and your designs better match those patterns. How flexible is your vision? If you can't compromise, you'll want a CMS that prioritizes design and templating flexibility.

Is the CMS user-friendly?

People must be able to use the CMS, or else not much content management can happen. The answer to this question depends on your organization.

Universities often have a wide range of users entering content on the website, and content managers have different backgrounds and varying levels of technical experience. If this matches your situation, you'll want a CMS with a simplified editorial experience. Or at least the ability to present different editorial experiences to different types of users.

On the other hand, if you have a centralized content team that controls the website, and authors submit content to you via a different channel, your definition of "user-friendly" becomes different. You can deal with more complicated forms and terminology.

Can the CMS be integrated with existing university systems?

How tightly do you need your admissions CRM to integrate with the CMS? Or your alumni giving suite? What about the software that houses your course catalog and keeps track of registrations? Do you have an official Learning Management System (LMS) that your university already uses?

Integration is a spectrum. You may just need to embed some forms in the right spot. If so, you want to ensure editors can do that easily without breaking things.

If you need a deeper integration, make sure you take that into account when doing research. Most CMSs can probably accommodate you, but time, effort, and price might vary wildly.

Does the CMS provide the necessary security features to protect sensitive data and user information?

Make sure the CMS has robust user authentication that prevents unauthorized access. It should allow two-factor authentication, never store passwords as plain text, and have built-in protections against common security threats, such as cross-site scripting (XSS) and SQL injection attacks. Administrators should also be able to assign different roles and permissions to team members.

A CMS also needs a security team to monitor potential avenues of attack, with regular patches and updates. For open-source projects, Drupal and WordPress set a good example. Their security teams monitor not only the main project but also contributed plugins and modules. Smaller projects might not be able to field such a team, so do your due diligence.

Also crucial to ongoing security is keeping the CMS updated. Will a vendor do that for you, or do you have an internal team taking on that responsibility?

Are there reputable vendors that can help you develop and maintain this CMS?

Whatever CMS you choose, you want a vibrant ecosystem of vendors who will compete for your business. A CMS should also have an active developer community where people help each other solve problems. You don’t want to be on a CMS island, population one. The website for the CMS should have a listing of vendors, and you’ll also want to look for online forums and communities where users and developers ask questions.

You’ll also want to make sure one vendor doesn’t have a monopoly. Monopolies can cause unexpected vendor lock-in; even if they do terrible work, you’ll have no other choice.

Even if your team plans on doing the work themselves, you still want to ensure the CMS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If there are many vendors, it usually means lots of people dedicated to keeping the CMS around for a while. And if your team runs into roadblocks, it's good to know you have options in your back pocket.

Does the CMS facilitate SEO efforts, making it easy to implement search marketing strategies?

The whole point of having a website is so people come to it, and the entire point of powering your website with a CMS is so you can manage content that those people want or need. A lot of prospective students and their parents, along with alumni, donors, and members of the press, will come to your website through search engines.

Make sure the CMS provides properly structured content and gives you control over metatags and URL structure. It should also allow you to inject structured data markup.

Beyond that, you’ll want to be able to create landing pages that target your desired audiences. This goes back to the question about user-friendliness, but it's worth mentioning here. Your search marketing strategy won’t get very far if you constantly fight against your CMS.

Is there a straightforward process for migrating existing content from your old CMS to the new one?

You need to get all of your old content into your new CMS. How easy will that be? How much development time will it take? The migration of old content to your new platform is usually the most time-consuming and expensive part of a CMS project, so dig deep and figure out what will be required.

In addition, you might be changing up your content model and content types. Can the migration tools handle merging and splitting up old content? What will have to be done manually? You’ll also want to see if migrations can be performed without disruptions. Everything else might check out, but then you discover you’ll need 48 hours of downtime to complete the move. Not ideal.

The answer to “Can we migrate our content?” is almost always “yes.” What matters is how much time it will take, which translates to cost.

You’ll need expertise to evaluate your migration options, as most tools available are created for developers and technical architects. Drupal, for example, documents its migration tools with many examples and use cases, but the intended audience is Drupal developers.

What is the total cost of ownership (TCO) for the CMS?

You’ll need to estimate the upfront costs and the ongoing expenses. Upfront costs will be things like:

  • License fees
  • Implementation costs
  • Training costs
  • Possible hardware upgrades

Ongoing costs:

  • License fees (again)
  • Maintenance and support
  • Hosting fees

License fees can be considerable for proprietary CMS options, so open-source solutions might ease your pain. 

The question hidden with this question is: How long will we use this CMS? To calculate TCO, you need to know the lifespan of the project. No CMS lasts forever. Even if you stay on the same one for years and years, it will have major version upgrades beyond regular support and maintenance. What is the cost of those upgrades, and how often are they needed?

But estimating lifespan isn’t just about the technology, but also your culture. How often do your stakeholders get ansty to try new things? Are they more conservative, or do they want to try the latest and greatest?


Remember, there is no perfect CMS, but the questions above will help you find the right CMS. On the other hand, a good vendor can help you set proper expectations and ensure a particular CMS is a better fit for your university. You don’t have to be satisfied with cramming a square peg into a circle-shaped hole.

We’ve managed Drupal implementations for universities just like yours, helping build platforms that are easy to use and help increase student enrollment. Contact us to learn more.

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