There are thousands of content management systems (CMS) and content management platforms floating around the Web ( indexes over 1,200 content management applications). With so many choices, it can be difficult to decide what will work best for your organization. Here’s a practical approach that can help marketers with budgets of all sizes select an appropriate content management platform.

Step 1: Understand Your Needs
Most people use the terms “platform” and “system” interchangeably when talking about content management. Technology leaders generally agree that CMS refers to software products that automate the process of creating structured content types and the publishing items of content based on these types.

In recent years, the more successful and advanced CMS vendors have been referring to themselves as enterprise content management (ECM) platforms, which rich Web applications can be built upon. Within these robust platform offerings, the CMS is only one component. Other components might include analytics, digital asset management and targeted marketing tools.

Often, an entire platform can be overkill relative to the size of a company or its current stage of digital maturity. Luckily, many of the top platforms available today recognize this dilemma and are able to sell and implement their platform components in a more manageable, à la cart manner. The selection process is very much the same as when you are making a strategic investment in a suite of tools that will work together to fulfill your digital strategy.

At this step, it’s recommended that you enlist the skills of a business analyst with direct experience in ECM platforms. Looking outside of your organization for this skillset is not a bad idea. Agencies that specialize in platform implementations also can provide this skillset on a project-needed basis, interviewing your stakeholders and authoring documents detailing your current and future ECM platform needs.

Step 2: Do Your Research
Your fundamental requirements should rule out the vast majority of options. The best way to perform this research is to form a cross-functional task force to take an interdisciplinary approach. Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management is an excellent resource for any ECM platform selection process, and there also is an abundance of industry research available for free online that can greatly inform your efforts.

Step 3: Organize a Short List
At this point, you should take an iterative approach to your research and run a more thorough analysis to validate your selected candidates. Detailed case studies are usually available; look for some in similar industries and also research what your competitors are using. Fortunately, the consumer-facing results of these implementations are readily available for you to scrutinize.

There are likely several solutions that could meet your needs, each with its own specific advantages and drawbacks. The end result of your research should be a short list of three to five platforms that you are confident will meet all your short- and long-term requirements.

Step 4: Issue an RFP
It cannot be emphasized enough the importance of understanding your business strategy and requirements before issuing an RFP. By clearly decoupling the two activities, you compel your organization to understand its needs before proceeding to procurement. Most organizations that embark on this journey are ultimately right in assuming they need an ECM platform, and thus may consider analysis to be an unnecessary delay. However, this is the easiest way to end up with a very costly system that does not do what you need it to.

Proper research and analysis makes the process goes much more smoothly, resulting in a higher quality RFP. Creating a successful RFP with proper structure entails:

* Clearly defining your requirements in the form of scenarios
* Being honest and detailed
* Defining an acceptable budget
* Considering the use of an intermediary

Step 5: Quantify Your Decision Making
Leveraging your cross-functional task force, you should agree upon a high-level breakdown of evaluation criteria. Develop a detailed description of each criterion and weight each for a total of 100 percent. It’s a good idea to include this breakdown with the RFP. While it may seem counterintuitive to reveal the evaluation criteria, vendors will pay close attention to this weighting and provide detailed responses accordingly.

It’s recommended to develop a quantifiable framework for evaluating the vendor’s written and in-person presentation. Each criterion should be further broken down into individual items that can be rated on a fixed scale, and a weighting formula for aggregating the scores should be determined ahead of time. An evaluation matrix with all the detailed criteria and the rating scale should be produced and used by the entire team to score each vendor. It’s best to not reveal this detailed aspect of the evaluation criteria to vendors, as it can skew their responses and presentations toward an inaccurate score that doesn’t truly represent their offerings.

Step 6: Decide and Plan Your Implementation
While the vendor evaluation and decision matrix is a powerful tool, don’t solely rely on it to make your final decision. Ultimately, the final decision will require a large amount of discussion within the team. Chemistry with the vendor, strategic alignment and total cost of ownership should weigh heavily on the decision-making process as well.

A practical and concise plan for the initial implementation must be prepared in conjunction with the vendor. Avoid a big-bang rollout of multiple platform components. Aside from the obvious cost and risk associated with a large deployment of unfamiliar technology, you may also be overcommitting to a strategic direction or an individual technology vendor without any practical data to validate your assumptions. A phased, iterative approach with a burning-in period after each release is ideal.

Feeling Confident About Your Decision
Selecting an ECM platform is a major strategic decision that can commit your organization to a large financial investment and have years of operational impact. Using these six steps could significantly help you structure your selection process. Whatever your final path, choose carefully, make an informed commitment and feel confident in your choice.

This article was originally published in Target Marketing Magazine.

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