The hidden costs of a CMS: 10 things to calculate TCO

By: Rich Fairbairn, 16 January 2023

All the differebt costs associated with a Content Management System

There's lots to consider when evaluating the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of a Content Management System (CMS), including developer costs, build and implementation, knock-on costs, licences, hosting, and maintenance. Embarking on a new CMS project? Here's what to remember...

Implementation and Customisation costs

In standard form, a generalised headless CMS is unlikely to be a good toolset for a serious publishing business, so remember to factor in budget to customise the base set of tools and technology to meet your demands, and also plan for how long that will take.

If you need to engage a team of developers and project managers, or a 3rd party supplier, to build and implement a CMS and integrate it into your ecosystem, remember to consider the full system lifespan costs of those engagements - bespoke CMS are not 'install and forget' items.

Also be aware that you may need to modify any internal or 3rd party systems with which the CMS must integrate or communicate, such as other CMS, paywalls, DAM, websites and apps: budget for those changes, and for full testing of those systems after any modifications.

Maintenance and Support costs

Any CMS will need ongoing maintenance and support to keep it fit and healthy, for security, and to introduce any new features it may need over time - publishing doesn't stand still. 

An enterprise CMS should have provisions for enterprise-level support with wide-ranging SLAs. If your internal teams have completed all its customisations make sure to budget for round-the-clock cover as they may be the only people who know the system sufficiently to support it. Consider outsourcing this role to an external partner should your internal teams not be the right fit for these demands.

Training and Onboarding costs

These costs can be explicit such as utilising a formal training provider, or less transparent - does the system take a long time to learn, and mean that users are slow in becoming truly productive?

Content creation costs

Not all CMS are equal in the basics of how long it takes to actually produce content and pages. The variations in time-to-site for content can be vast between systems.

A poorly designed system that doesn't think about its users or what it is being used for becomes a bottleneck for output and editorial responsiveness. Magnify those delays by hundreds or thousands of users, and the hidden costs of inefficient workflows become enormous.

Publishing businesses need quick and safe content creation tools: does your system tick those boxes? If it is slow, or has poor publishing control,  it's costing you money invisibly.

Migration costs

If you are switching from one CMS to another, there will be costs associated with migrating your content and data to the new platform. Depending on the condition of your legacy content, this migration cost can be highly volatile and take place over highly variable timescales.

Hosting and Usage costs

A headless CMS will need to be hosted somewhere, be that in the cloud or (very rarely now) on-premises at a site of your own. 

Cloud hosting can be managed by your own personnel if they have suitable expertise, or outsourced to a 3rd party or the CMS provider if they offer that service. In either case, be certain to check service and support levels to ensure they can match your needs: a fixed hosting cost might look attractive, but be more costly in the long run if your sites are slow or you incur severe penalty costs for exceeding traffic figures.

Costs will typically comprise of usage-based elements - broadly a measure of how much data is in the system, how it gets moved about, and how many users the CMS has -  and traffic-based elements linked to your various consumer-facing outlets. Requested improvements such as beefed up security or better global availability can add extra costs. 

Should you be trying to manage hosting on-premises, then account for hardware purchase and maintenance costs, associated licences, personnel to manage your tech stack, on-call and out of hours support and site access, power and cooling costs and the square-footage costs of floorspace. Self-managed hosting of your data and systems may also incur significant additional site security and disaster recovery costs/protocols.

Overall, it's important to carefully evaluate all of these costs to get a complete picture of the TCO of a CMS.