Blog home

Common mistakes in CMS projects

The first web content management (WCM) systems started to appear in 1995. Since then the CMS market has experienced a huge growth, both in the number of websites using a CMS, and in the number of content management systems on the market. There are now many hundred content management systems on the market. The WCM vendors are estimated to reach total revenue of more than $1 billion in 2010.

But even though the WCM market has experienced a huge growth in the last decade, many web CMS projects are failing to various degrees.

In the last 10 years we have been involved in more than 1000 web projects in various roles. Even though the vast majority of projects are completed successfully, there are some projects that fail. In those projects, we’ve seen a lot of the same mistakes been repeated in project after project. I’ve summarized some of the most common problems and mistakes below:

The customer assigning the wrong people internally to manage the project.

We’ve seen many examples of CMS projects that have suffered because the wrong people have been appointed to lead a CMS project. One common problem is that customers are assigning the people that are available, and not the people best suited to lead the project. The problems can be diverse, for example: 

  •  A lack of experience in managing a project 

  • Very little knowledge about the web or the customer’s needs. 

  • Not enough clout internally to make decisions without consulting with others 

  • The know-it-all attitude. Against all advice they insist on doing stuff according to their own beliefs, which can sometimes be based on solely on looks, or on their experience with creating a personal webpage using FrontPage 10 years ago.

Inexperienced and/or bad developers implementing the project.

No matter how good the WCM system itself is, if the people implementing the system are inexperienced or just plain bad developers, the end result will not be good. So it is crucial that you do what’s possible to try to assess how good the developers are. Maybe consider hiring a consultant to evaluate their technical skills if you don’t feel capable of doing it.

It’s a pretty common strategy to bring the most senior developers for client meetings, but the project itself is done by other developers. To make sure the developers are capable, ask for the resume’s of the developers that are going to work on the project. Make sure that they list the projects they have worked on.

One thing we have seen is that when a project is implemented by overseas developers, the likelihood of problems goes up, not because the developers necessarily are any worse, but because of the communication lag. So make sure that you ask any implementation company if they use local or overseas developers, and how they manage the communication if they do.

Good communication is a key to the success of any web project!

Using a CMS as a band aid for broken internal processes.

We’ve seen many companies that have a lot of problems internally, something they often are the first to admit. But instead of trying to fix the internal issues, they use the CMS as a band aid for the internal processes. The results from such projects are often far from optimal.

One example is a huge multinational company we met at our stand at Internet World in London in April 2010. The marketing department was looking for a CMS for their UK sites. They had a range of requirements that would be fairly easy to comply with, but they were not following best practices and even common sense in some situations, and would quickly lead to a nightmare to manage and develop further. When I asked them about why they had such requirements, they said they had problems cooperating with the IT department, so they wanted a solution where they didn’t need to contact them more than absolutely necessary. But the IT department was going to implement the site. Maybe not the best starting point for a new project?

I warned them about the problems they were going to face with their current strategy, and they seemed to understand that they needed to improve the internal processes and cooperation before they embarked on such a big project.

Sadly I don’t know if they have finished or even started their project. Our CMS was dropped as a potential candidate for the shortlist like a hot potato when we showed them our pricelist, even though they liked our system a lot. Companies that are that big rarely buy a WCM system where the list price for the Ultimate license is $12,000.

Selecting a CMS that isn’t suited for the project

Different CMSs have different strengths. Not all the different systems are suited for all projects. Even so, quite a few projects are started where the selected CMS is unsuited for the project in question. So the project is shoehorned into the confines of the selected system, and the end result is often very bad: lots of hacks made to CMS to make it almost suitable, which is costly in itself, but such systems are often maintenance nightmares, that can be very expensive to keep running.

All CMS projects involve customization to a degree (at least when you think of anything more complicated than a 10 page glorified blog) to make the CMS fit with your requirement. What is important is to make a distinction between customization and hacking. I view customization as “changes to the CMS setup that are within the scope of the intended built-in flexibility of a CMS.” Such customizations should not introduce problems with other functionality in the CMS, or cause problems for upgrades of the CMS (compared to a normal upgrade). The customizations become hacking when the changes go outside those boundaries. 

Trust issues between the implementation company and the customer.

This is a problem that also crops up from time to time. The customer selects a company to implement their new website, but the customer doesn’t trust or acknowledge the competence and/or integrity of the implementation company. The implementation company is received with a hostile mindset. Every suggestion is seen as an attempt to either simplify their work or as an attempt to get the customer to agree to work in addition to the contract.

Such an attitude can poison a relationship. If you as the customer don’t trust the company you have hired to develop your website, you have a problem. I don’t say that you should say yes to every suggestion, but listen to what the implementation company is saying, and consider it. Only if it makes sense for your requirements can you begin to think how it fits with your budget. If it doesn’t, put it on a list for features to consider for phase 2.

Don’t forget that there are implementation companies out there that want to help you develop good solutions, and not focus on how they can get the most money from you.

Ambitions are higher than the budget allows.

A lot of companies have very high ambitions for their website, which is a good thing. But it’s not always a good thing when the budget doesn’t reflect the ambitions at all.

Such companies often end up hiring a small company or a startup that’s either desperate for work, or because they are so inexperienced that they grossly underestimate the amount of work needed. Sometimes such solutions work out very well for all parties, the customer get their ambitious website done for a low cost, and the small company get a good reference project, but a lot of the times it fail miserably. Often we see the same project again, but with a bigger budget, 6 months later.

For cases where the ambitions are bigger than the budget, we encourage you to try to increase the budget, by explaining that it won’t be possible to complete the specified website with the budget allocated to the project. If there is no chance of getting any more money, try to split the project into phases. But think about what you include in the different phases. When the first phase is completed, the resulting website must demonstrate the potential of the whole project. If it doesn’t, it can be hard to convince the people allocating the budgets to justify spending more money.

Some companies are very focused on saving money and squeezing every last penny out of an implementation company. You might get a small monetary gain, but how will they prioritize your work compared to better paying customer if they get a shortage of resources? And will you get their best people? IMO, it’s important to see such a project as a start of long-term relationship. And your partner is in business to make money. The value of a successful relationship, on a number of levels, far outweigh saving a few dollars. I’m not saying that getting a fair price isn’t important, but obsessive price negotiation will only kill any motivation the implementation company has to work with you.

Do you have any other advice? What do you think about the advice above? Comments are welcome!

Posted by: Vidar Langberget
Categories: CMS 
Comments (3)
by Eric
9/15/2010 - 4:01 PM
Good article! One common problem in projects I've been involved in is a clash of personalities. It can really poison a project..
by Apocaron
11/24/2010 - 10:19 AM
Very nice article! I can just support every word.
Every point comes from a practical life.
by Chris Lewis
5/4/2011 - 5:06 PM
Nice article. Are you attending Internet World this year? If so, try and catch my seminar - we're going to talk about some of the challenges with bad CMS implementations from the point of view of our own company and how we remedied them in our recent project. (
Add comment
Captcha Image