More than the sticker price: budgeting for a CMS

Whether you’re buying a high-priced sports car or a budget ride, we all know that there’s more to the cost of a vehicle than the list price on the window.
Options, service plans, upkeep and on-going costs (regular maintenance, insurance, gas, parking) have to be factored into your total budget so you can be assured you’re allocating your funds to where you’ll derive the greatest value. And the same consideration is needed for budgeting for web content management systems (CMS).

Many people are used to paying the “sticker price” for software and assuming that all software is shrink-wrapped, packaged and priced the same. But CMSs are complex to operate within any organization’s environment, and there are costs that need to be considered beyond what’s quoted in a sales brochure or on a vendor’s web site.

Let’s take a look at the common cost categories of a web CMS so that you can gain awareness of what you’re most likely going to pay for.


The price for a CMS that is first presented by most vendors normally refers to the most obvious—the cost to license the software. There are almost as many different pricing models for CMS’ licenses as there are solution providers (and that number is in the hundreds) but this particular cost is normally a function of several common factors:
  • A set or unlimited number of users (those who will be using the CMS itself—not the final web site), including content contributors, publishers, and system administrators.
  • The number of web sites that you wish to manage, which can be defined either by URL/domain/subdomain (e.g. and/or or site licenses that cover combinations of public sites, intranets and extranets.
  • The processing horsepower the software requires, sometimes quoted on a per-CPU basis (i.e. how many computer processors are required or recommended to ensure the CMS software runs smoothly).
If the software license doesn’t cover all of these considerations, there are usually upgrade options to address the eventual growth and scale of your site, for example: as more CMS users are added, or more web sites need to be managed via the CMS. These license upgrades, of course, can introduce additional costs, like air conditioning and better tires would on a car.

In the same way the cost of owning a car doesn’t end when you buy one and drive it off the lot — with insurance, maintenance, parking and gas— you have to budget for ongoing CMS costs.

Annual fees

When you buy a car and drive it off the lot, the cost of your shiny new ride doesn’t end. You’ll need to maintain that car to keep it running smoothly. It’s the same with CMS software. Vendors will, almost without exception, charge an annual fee that allows customers to keep their CMS in shape. These annual charges are intended to cover a number of on-going aspects of the software, including:
  • upgrades, bug fixes, and, usually, a specific number of new version releases
  • service, troubleshooting and maintenance
  • access to technical and/or training support
  • access to knowledge bases, libraries, and user communities
Vendors will normally charge a mandatory fee for at least the first year of the service program, and then strongly encourage continued membership in the second and subsequent years.
Typically, annual fees are billed at about 20% of the license fee(s), which can add several thousands of dollars to a CMS budget.

Often, purchasers within an organization have only been given a set, one-time budget amount to allocate to acquiring a CMS, and cannot “go back to the well” for more money. Since these annual fees will be incurred beyond the implementation of the CMS itself, it’s important to factor in this particular cost over several years—the anticipated lifetime of your CMS implementation.


The completely intuitive and quick-to-install software system has yet to be built, so your staff are going to require training that covers not only the use of the CMS, but also its installation, testing, and configuration, as well as any customization and, often, web page design and/or template development. As with licensing pricing models, vendors approach training in different ways. Some offer set courses over a defined period of days or weeks, aimed at different types of users (contributors/ authors, technical installers, site administrators, designers, etc.), while other vendors may offer flexible packages of course “credits” or banks of hours to address the specific and unique needs of your organization and web site deployment.

One of Prescient’s clients was so skeptical of a CMS vendor’s claim that three days of training for their system would be sufficient, that the client insisted on a pricing quote from the vendor for twice the recommended amount of training.

Purchasing a CMS is going to require the assistance of the vendor in some capacity, whether it be training in the system’s use or how to properly install and configure it to work within your environment.

Professional services

Professional services are sometimes included with training. However the professional services that a vendor (or sometimes a vendor’s partner or integrator) offers can also vary in scope with customer needs, and therefore warrants a separate consideration. Services offered — and which are sometimes required — can include installation, integration, system environment configuration, design and web page template development, administration tool development, information architecture design, and testing.

Again, the model for costing professional vendor services can vary from fixed, clearly defined and itemized pricing, to “time and materials” or banks of time that can be applied to customized service contracts. Regardless of the method of billing, it’s almost guaranteed that if you purchase a CMS, you’re going to need the vendor’s assistance to get it up and running.

It’s important to note that these professional services are a separate entity from the annual fees that vendors charge. Vendor services are normally provisioned with clearly defined deliverables and deadlines and deal primarily with the initial setup of the CMS.

Other costs

So far we’ve talked mainly about the costs associated with CMS software, but there are often other considerations that should be budgeted for when acquiring a CMS:
  • Hardware: The actual computer “box” that the CMS software must be installed on. Usually an existing server can be leveraged or repurposed for the CMS to run on, but if one is not available, a PC with the recommended processing power can add several thousand dollars to your bill.
  • Databases and web server licenses: If you have an existing web site up and running, chances are that your IT department already has an adequate web server set up and licensed, but it’s always good to keep in mind any CMS specific requirements that could arise. Also, not every CMS solution comes with an integrated database, and if one is required for the CMS to function, but is not included, the additional cost of a database license could also add another thousand dollar line item to your CMS budget.
  • Time: Time is money, although it’s the most invisible of all CMS costs. Chances are that you’re going to have to devote people’s time to the endeavour of acquiring and implementing the CMS, so make sure that you account for this in your overall project costs.
It’s easy to see how the ballpark figure you scribbled on a napkin and labeled “Cost of CMS” can be more involved than the initial figure that a vendor’s brochure or sales rep states. I was once sitting with a client on a conference call with a CMS vendor sales rep who was asked about what training costs would run. The client’s eyes widened noticeably when the sales rep quoted a fee that was greater than the initial CMS license! The client was then further taken aback when they were informed of the extra (and mandatory) annual support and upgrade fee.

In the same way that you can load your car with options and then have to consider paying for freight, taxes, administration, financing charges, insurance, and parts and maintenance, the costs of purchasing even a basic CMS can add up. And just like buying a car, you need to understand what you can afford — which means developing a budget that goes beyond the sticker price — and knowing the difference between what you need and what you want.To engage Prescient for help in selecting the best CMS for your organization, please see our service or directlly.

To engage Prescient for help in selecting the best CMS for your organization, please see our CMS Blueprint  service or contact us directlly.

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.