Question About Choosing the Right CMS

I want to create a membership based site where people can register and login. Please suggest a CMS that is best suited to create a membership site.

Sherpa Emily Lewis answers:

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of content management systems (CMS) and publishing tools that provide membership features. Some are out-of-the-box solutions and some must be customized per project. Some are open source and some are proprietary. Some may be systems your in-house experts can develop, while others must be created by an agency or independent developer.


Knowing which solution to choose for your project isn’t just a matter of finding a CMS that supports membership. It’s a process. One that starts with an internal audit to determine exactly what type of functionality your organization needs for a given project. This internal audit should be 100% about you, not about technology.

This process of fact-finding takes time. And it should involve all levels of your organization, from finance to marketing to the actual people who will be entering content. You need to answer questions about your users and content authors:

  • What are their technical skills?
  • Do they need editorial approval?
  • Who will train these users?
  • Will multiple people be editing/creating content?
  • What are the publishing tasks these users need to complete?

You also need to answer questions about your general publishing needs:

  • Do you need to be able to change site design elements like colors and fonts via the CMS?
  • Does the CMS need to be accessible from certain devices?
  • What level of SEO support do you need?
  • Do you need different administrative rights for different users? 

And you need to answer questions about custom functionality. If you are seeking membership, for example, identify your exact needs:

  • Profile maintenance?
  • Secure, member-specific content?
  • Membership billing, including recurring billing?
  • Discussion forum?
  • Mailing list management? Distribution?
  • Subscription management? 

These questions are by no means exhaustive, but they provide a foundation for your full audit. The more time and energy you devote to this process, the better chance you have of finding a developer who will give you the type of CMS you need.

Interviewing Vendors

Once you’ve completed this homework, you can then begin your search for the agency or developer who will implement your solution. Again, it’s still not about technology at this point. It’s about finding the expertise to implement everything you identified in your internal audit.

The providers you interview should be able to answer questions about their CMS as a publishing platform:

  • Does the CMS allow for a branded or customized interface?
  • Can the CMS integrate with other systems you have?
  • Does it have an open API?
  • What is the process for adding new functionality in the future? 

As well as questions about workflow:

  • Can users embed or attach images?
  • Can users edit and resize images?
  • Can users publish without oversight?
  • How easy is it for users to complete core tasks 

And questions about security:

  • Is the system protected against attacks?
  • Is personal data protected?
  • Is there a versioning system?
  • How are backups handled?
  • How are updates implemented?

When looking for this expertise (in-house or otherwise), you want to find the right person (or people) who can solve the problems you’ve identified. Look for providers who will:

  • Discuss up-front and ongoing costs, as well as timeframes
  • Show you examples of projects they’ve done that are similar to your own
  • Give you a demonstration of their solution prior to purchase
  • Provide contacts for recommendations/testimonials
  • Take the time to discuss and understand your organization and project
  • Advise you on best practices for the functionality you need
  • Provide training to help your users understand the CMS

Now technology enters the picture. Whomever you choose for your project should advise you on what solution they recommend for your project, based on the internal fact-finding you’ve done. They will have the expertise to know what CMS has the features needed to build your solution. They will know whether add-ons are needed for additional functionality, and they will know who the trusted add-on developers are.

Choosing a CMS is less about the technology it is built on, and more about what you and your project need. You’re the expert on that. Let the CMS experts guide you to the technology.

The Developer Perspective

If you happen to be one of those experts and are seeking a new solution for your employer or a client, all of these questions are equally relevant. You need a complete understanding of the project and users before evaluating a CMS. As the expert, you can introduce these “internal audit” questions to get the information necessary to determine the right solution. 

Similarly, when comparing CMSes, you need to understand everything from templating to customization to security. It’s rare that one-size-fits all when it comes to content management systems. Asking the above “vendor interview” questions can help you determine what a given CMS is capable of, especially as it relates to your project.