When it comes to choosing a web content management system most organizations focus on the web functions they have longed to adopt. Can we finally do mobile? Rich media? Or interactive and social features like polls and ratings? What about those other web applications we always wanted? Perhaps automate our foreign language sites? It seems the system you have today won’t let you change. If only a new more functional flexible system was selected, you would finally have “complete functional freedom” to do all the things so lacking in your web presence today.

Yet after over a decade of web content management system customers, vendors, and open source communities all chasing functional freedom through ultimate customizability and vast libraries of functional modules, successful web content management is still a distant dream for most organizations. Today, according to statistics at, a full 70% of web sites have no web content management system at all, the highest growth systems are all the newest options, and the rest of the market sits wondering just how long they can live with the failing system they have before ever getting a web content management system project off the ground.

The ongoing failure of so many Web content management projects for so long is not because the desired web functions are unimportant, or because the WCM systems failed to deliver the flexibility to achieve them. The failure is because in chasing “freedom to customize” we ignore the cost—the time, effort and raw spending required to keep up. In short, your web content management is not in the way of your web site today because of its low technology, but because of its high cost, specifically the high cost of change to the web content management itself.

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Flexibility is increasingly losing to agility. The more flexible the system is, the more we customize the web content management system to do what we want, the higher the cost of the next round of change to the web content management, the harder the system is to learn and use, the more expensive to operate and the more expensive the next round of inevitable web change. When we instead focus on agility, the measure is not “whether” we can do a thing, but how quickly and how cheaply we can do it, and most of all, how quickly and cheaply we can move on to the next thing, and the next thing after that.

At Percussion, we rejected the “web application development platform” approach used by all prior content management systems, including our own CM System platform, because all the customizations just fed these hidden costs until the system broke under the weight of its own cost. Instead Percussion CM1 delivers content management as a “product,” or a set of pre-built interchangeable web applications, that enables marketers to escape this downward spiral by lowering the cost of web change.

This paper will explore how web content management system buyers can assess the costs associated to buy, customize and maintain prospective solutions. We will examine five key areas of cost:

  1. User Adoption
  2. Initial Implementation
  3. Upgrades and Ongoing Re-implementation
  4. Maintenance and Support Cost
  5. Application Integration

 ► Cost #1: User Adoption

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One of the most common complaints for web content management system is that the resulting systems are too difficult to use. This factor is cited more often than any other in failed implementations. While “ease of use” often shows up as a functional criteria during selection, what many buyers don’t realize is just how much the cost of user adoption can undermine the web content management altogether. All the top line benefits of a web content management system stem from more users being able to use the system. More users on the system mean more content, more frequent updates, and thus higher search rank and greater inbound traffic. More users on the system also means a broader set of topics, expertise, and timeliness of response, leading to better content, more return visits, lower bounce rates and ultimately higher conversion from web visitors to leads, buyers and so on.

At first glance, user adoption cost might seem to be simply the cost of end user training and roll out. But this takes user participation for granted. The true cost of user adoption is best understood as an opportunity cost. To calculate what user adoption is costing you, you first need to understand the business value—in real dollars—that each possible user can bring to your overall web strategy. The cost of slow user adoption is then the loss of that value until such users can be added to the system.

• The Value of Content

To arrive at a value for each user, an organization must first understand the value of content generated by those users. Based on their marketing most organizations can put a real dollar amount on the value of a lead, web purchase, donation, recommendation, click through, or other type of action. All of these are measurable web “conversions” with measurable dollar value as seen in the box below:

To calculate the dollar value of increased content, an organization can simply measure the change in traffic and conversion rate over a period of time when only content updates are made to the site. Content updates include new and changed pages, new media assets, blog posts, but also changes made to the navigation and content grouping, such as collecting content into new sections or related link lists.

While these are initial averages over one period, the model works for measuring just how much any one content update to the site is worth over all. By measuring over longer and longer periods, you’ll arrive at better estimates of how much value there is in each update you make to the web site—including possibly different values for the different types of updates, and different types of conversions.

• The Value of User Adoption

Now that we understand the value of a piece content, we can determine the opportunity cost of having more or less users in the web content management system generating and publishing that content. In general, the more users you have using the web content management system more effectively, the more content updates you get and the more value you realize from the web content management system. But if the web content management system is too hard to use, hard to train, or lacks the workflow or other features needed, your content will suffer.

By adopting a web content management system that is easy to use, both the total number of users on the web content management system will grow AND the average rate at which users can make updates to the site will grow. Remember also, that a web site update is not limited to only new content, but any improvements to existing pages, such as adding links, and improved organization and placement of pages. Because we know how to calculate the real value of each content update, we can determine the value of broader user participation on the web content managementsystem:

But by adopting a new web content management system, they can add almost anyone in the organization, and the most experienced users can make many more changes and many more improvements. In the same two week period the organization now makes twice as many content updates.

In addition, all that updating of the site also improves the number of visits from 1250 to 2500 and the conversion rate goes up a bit more to 3.5%. So the organization gets more value per update and makes more updates:

• Table 1: Compare Incremental Value of New Updates

Here, ease of user adoption has resulted in more than a 7X return on the web content management system over just a two week period, purely due to the ease. Conversely, doing nothing or adopting a new web content management system with similar training and complexity to the current system would incur a large and measureable opportunity cost.

value of new updates

The actual numbers will vary for each organization, but the model allows you to calculate the real impact of user adoption in dollar terms. More importantly, the model reveals the compound nature of this return. More users mean not only more total content updates, but these more frequent updates mean greater impact of each content updates in both total traffic and higher conversion rate. The end result is compounded growth in new converted leads, purchases, donations, and so on, all of which have measurable value. Conversely, difficult to use systems not only limit users, but slow the rate of new content per user. Adding new users to these systems will produce improvements, but at a much lower growth rate.

EASY The cost of dismissing usability is measurable. A complex system with low adoption grows content and thus traffic and conversion much more slowly in time. A usable system that encourages ever more frequent updates results in compounded growth in both traffic and conversion as users add more content that drives more traffic.

EASY The cost of dismissing usability is measurable. A complex system with low adoption grows content and thus traffic and conversion much more slowly in time. A usable system that encourages ever more frequent updates results in compounded growth in both traffic and conversion as users add more content that drives more traffic.

 ► Cost #2: Initial Implementation and Deployment

Historically, the largest cost of any web content management system was the cost of implementation, that is, all the development work required to get the system ready for content entry and site operations. Note that this doesn’t cover the cost of any new content development, or any new web redesign, since these costs are the same independent of the web content management system. Specifically, implementation costs cover purely the cost to convert this for use with the web content management system—converting the web design into the web content management system specific templates used to render pages, the content entry forms (“capture templates” or “content types”) that let users enter information into the system, the information architecture that defines site and content library structure and organization, and the business process rules and workflow that glue it all together.

Most WCM systems are offered as general purpose web application development frameworks that are highly customizable to each company’s needs. This “freedom to customize” drives up the implementation cost of even basic deployments. For commercial systems, a common “rule of thumb” for the first time cost to implement ranges from 4 to 8 times the license cost. But up-front license costs of a WCM vary widely, from subscription models to the open source model where no up-front license exists at all. However, because the cost of implementation is based on the time and skill required to code within the platform and then deploy that code, the implementation cost stays the same in absolute dollar amount for any given site. In short, regardless of license, the first time implementation cost is based on the complexity of the site and the complexity of the web content management system.

To directly measure of the cost of implementation we assess the complexity of building in the system in terms of the time and skill required to complete all the tasks needed to deploy. For an initial implementation, where the web design (or redesign) is already complete, the factors to implement a WCMS include:

1. Information Architecture—one navigation and content structure per site

2. Templates—one template per page display and/or content entry type

3. Themes—one CSS theme per site (sometimes extras per device or channel)

4. Advanced Features or Module Customizations—one per feature or module

Next, examine the development skill required for each of these major tasks. For example what sort of web development skills are required for each—php, .Net, java? Then add in the time to test the code, deploy the code, and of course revise the implementation due to user acceptance testing.

All sites vary in complexity and this is represented in the number of tasks—the number of templates, number of themes, or the number of advanced features the site needs. But the difference in cost for the SAME site is driven by the web content management system chosen. Based on the complexity of the web content managementsystem, the number of days per task, and the cost of a developer day (due to skill set required) will vary widely.

A typical cost comparison for the first time implementation of a given site looks at each of these tasks for a given site, multiplies the number of tasks times the days per task and then the cost per developer day to get to the total as shown in Table 2.

• Table 2: Calculating Task Complexity

Example: Implementation cost for a basic web site in a range of WCMS options with varying complexity. In all cases the adopter is using pre built modules and libraries for the various systems. Because most WCM systems are development platforms, it is critical to understand that implementation “days per task” account not only for the “raw” cost of either developing or downloading code modules, but all the costs of QA and testing, refactoring and customization, and any hardening and optimization for complete site operations that are required to run the live system. For example, the cost to “Install and Configure” must include not just the time to run an installer and add modules, but all the time needed to set up WCMS security configurations, performance and scale optimization and other functions needed for the live site.

It is also important to realize that the above doesn’t include the cost of content migration, new content creation, or other “content clean up” work required for the site to actually go live. It is only the cost to get the WCMS itself ready to allow these content tasks.

► Cost #3: Upgrades and Ongoing Re-implementation

Due to the constant web rate of change—new sites, channels, devices, and business initiatives—any WCM implementation has a short life span. Using Table 2 above, we can now also understand how to determine the ongoing cost of re-implementing to accommodate these changes.

Each new template, new module or theme added or modified in the system requires the same cost of implementation as in the original. Thus, calculating the ongoing costs means determining the life span of any given template, module or theme used on the site. The amount of change varies widely, but a good first rule of thumb is that typically one third of any implementation needs to be redone each year. Another way to calculate this rate of change is to count up the sites, redesigns, new initiatives or channels you either deployed or wanted to deploy over a given year. Once you know how much you change in a given year, then apply the chart above (minus install costs) to determine the ongoing implementation cost for that year.

• Table 3: Calculating Cost of Upgrade

Example: Ongoing Implementation Costs, including only minor upgrades. Note that major upgrades in many development platforms require essentially a complete reimplementation of the entire system. This would imply essentially the same total initial implementation costs are repeated each time a major upgrade is performed. Some upgrades may be less demanding, in which case the table above and the initial table can be used to set a range.

► Cost #4 Maintenance and Support Cost

With commercially licensed WCM systems, the direct maintenance cost is often a fixed percentage of the up-front license, or is included in the subscription cost. In addition, many third party vendors offer support and maintenance services for open source platforms. Because of this, these costs at first seem the easiest of all to calculate. However, looking at the broad range of support services offered by many vendors paints a more complete picture and just how many hidden support costs can surface, particularly due to the customization inherent in these platforms.

One simple exercise provides a good way of estimating your own likely maintenance and support costs for any system under consideration. Look for the range of possible added support services, including audits, optimizations and follow-up programs offered either directly by the vendor or by the broader community. Further, look into any areas of customization. Support for custom extensions or add-ons that you alone adopt are typically not covered in the blanket support offerings.

• Example One:

For a major open source platform, a support services vendor offers 10 different prepackaged support workshops and audits, each lasting from 5 to 10 days. The topics range from general practices, to security, to performance, to project and release management. In total, 50 to 100 days of additional support offerings are all available over and above the yearly support contracts offered for pure server maintenance, at more than double the cost. While there is no fault in offering value added services, the number of added support packages and their topics give a fuller picture of the costs that are not covered even in a yearly support program.

• Example Two:

A commercial offering comes with a standard 20% maintenance and support license. However, the company’s web site offers half a dozen 2 to 5 day training packages for developers and programmers. Key questions to assess cost include: How will the customizations created by these developers and programmers be supported? What is the typical response time required to support a custom extension that you or your systems integrator created? How many customizations are common?

Once again, the source of all these deeper support and maintenance costs is the unlimited customization allowed by the web development platform approach taken by the WCM system. These costs do not simply arise from the actual customizations deployed, but from the mere possibility of customization. Another good measure of support cost is the possible set of optional modules or components needed to run the system. For the open source platform above, several dozen add on modules are typically adopted for even a basic deployment.

With so many possible configurations, even when customers opt to keep their own customizations low, the wider the range of possible combinations, the longer the time to audit, the higher the expertise required to debug and patch and the more updates and checks required to keep system running well. The more ultimate flexibility of the underlying system, the more your support and maintenance costs will be.

► Cost #5 Application Integration

An organization’s web site is more than a sum total of content. Sites and other initiatives depend on web applications to convert visitors to leads, buyers, return visitors, and other desired forms of “web conversion.” Here again, the key driver for cost is the cost of change. With typical web development platforms, web applications and content publishing functions are all provided in the same system. This mixes together, or architecturally “couples” the cost of change for both code and content.

• Example:

An organization adopts a WCMS development platform and customizes it for their use. Later, marketing wants to open up blogging to all users to increase web traffic. Due to the high costs of adding the “blog module” to the WCMS and complex interface, marketing opts to launch blogs on a third party system. This results in a less cohesive web site experience, and new costs associated with operating a stand-alone blog in addition to the WCMS.

The challenge with this coupled approach is the lifespan of applications vs. content and channels. Applications have a large up-front development cost, and need a long lifespan of increased conversion to cost justify. Content is about influence and trial and error. Any external event or news presents an opportunity to generate content that lets you reach more visitors and get them to your site. But any one of these may have a small success rate on its own, and an even shorter lifespan even when it works. Content is creative and depreciates in value quickly, just the opposite of formal high cost code.

Coupling applications and content production into one system drives up the cost of major platform upgrades, often to the breaking point for many organizations. All modules, code, extensions, templates, and structure must be tested, tweaked, and often recoded to work in the new upgrade. Modules from third parties or open source communities need to be changed out or swapped for new ones that support the new platforms. For most customers, the cost of upgrading to a new major version is the same as buying and implementing an entirely new system from scratch.

• Conclusion

Web content management has a well-deserved reputation for being too expensive and too complex, no matter whether commercial, open source, or even home grown systems are used. The source of this cost and complexity is not simply the high rate of change of the web, but the misguided attempt to seek “ultimate flexibility” in the form of a web development platform as the solution. Instead, endless customization—even when paired with code sharing communities and open source—results in spiraling costs and slow time to market. The more customization, the higher the cost of the next round of change, and the more customization needed to get around the limitations. Like a virus, these hidden costs spread from one generation to the next.

To avoid these killer costs, prospective buyers should add up the total costs in the five sections above for each possible option. Use the calculations, tables and examples provided in this paper to generate an estimated rough cost for that area, adding in license cost if applicable to get the complete picture.

• Table 4: Cost Template

The simple format found in table 4 will be useful to compare the results of your analysis, and help guide your purchase decision.

What web content management tips do you implement? Do share your view in the comment section, we’ll be glad to hear from you.


I am Jason Swagger, also knows as Krikeshav in the online world. I always had a keen interest in Technology and therefore, after completing Engineering in computer science and I started writing blogs. I believe that sharing knowledge would remove darkness from the world.

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