As a digital marketer in higher education I want a website that lets our audiences complete their top tasks.
Building effective university and college digital presences (services) means discovering and understanding the tasks visitors want to perform and designing coherent paths for their completion.
Delivering well designed user experiences is achieved through increasingly sophisticated content management systems (CMS). And, in higher education those CMSs are expected to not only support digital marketing and communications, but also address the digital needs of students, faculty, staff and others.
It’s a big ask. So, we examined 2,000 US university and college homepages to better understand which CMSs US institutions have chosen to support their digital services and content publishing needs.
This survey’s dataset comprised institutions offering 4-year degree programmes as categorised in the NCES/IPEDS database. We used this selection criterion to produce results comparable to CMS surveys for Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. We note that several commercial CMS vendors were negatively impacted by our omitting 2-year institutions, where they have material market share.
The initial data set included about 2,500 institutions with unique IPEDS identification numbers. We cleaned the dataset to eliminate mis-classified institutions, duplicate records, incorrect URLs and institutions that had closed or merged since the data was collected.
Data scrubbing produced a final dataset of 2,330 (2,332) institutions. We tested each institution’s homepage with our CMS detection software to identify the underlying content management system, if any.
Our software can readily scan the complex web estates at larger institutions. However, expanding the survey to all websites at over 2,000 institution is a massive and resource intensive project. So, we limited the survey to each institution’s main website.
After, three iterations through the list, manual resolution of ambiguous results and sample checking, we detected the CMSs for 2,039 of 2,332 sites (87.4%).
Commercial versus Open-Source
We uncovered 61 different CMSs in use across 2,039 university and college homepages. Sixty percent of the 2,039 websites were published on an open-source CMS: overwhelmingly, WordPress or Drupal. However, by number of CMSs used, open-source solutions represent just 13 of 62 (21.3%).
Almost 3 in 5 (57.8%) higher education websites in our dataset use WordPress or Drupal. The next 20% (409/2,039) of sites run on one of three commercial CMSs, Cascade CMS, OU Campus or TerminalFour. A final ten CMSs, Adobe, Adobe Experience Manager, DNN, dotCMS, Episerver, Expression Engine, Joomla, Kentico, Sitecore and Sitefinity take the cumulative coverage to 90% of all sites:
Chart 1: Top ten content management systems used on the main websites of 2,039 4-year US higher education institutions
CMS Popularity Varies with Institution Size
Overall the top ten systems meet the needs of 90% of the institutions surveyed. However, the popularity of individual solutions varies with ‘institutional size’, which we measured by student enrolment as the data is readily available.
We divided the survey’s 2,039 institutions into quartiles; three groups of 510 colleges and one of 509. Group 1 comprises institutions with fewer than 625 students (very small). Group 2 includes universities and colleges with more than 625 and fewer than 2,125 students (small). Group 3 contains institutions with between 2,126 and 6,400 students (medium). Group 4 represents all institutions with more than 6,400 enrolled students (large).
The top ten CMSs suppliers to each group are shown in the four bar charts below.
- WordPress dominates Group 1, with Drupal and a collection of website builder solutions rounding out this group’s most popular content management systems. The ten systems shown in the chart for Group 1 represent a 90.2% share of all the institutions in the group.
- As student enrolment increases, we see a trio of commercial CMS suppliers emerging as WordPress and Drupal competitors. And, in Group 2 Drupal has doubled its relative market share compared to Group 1. The ten systems reported in Group 2 account for 87.8% of all universities and colleges.
- Group 3 reflects further market share gains by commercial suppliers, which collectively have a market share of 26.3%, similar to that of Drupal or WordPress. The ten Group 2 systems, shown in the chart, represent 84.7% of all universities and colleges.
- Group 4 shows the market shares for the largest 510 institutions. The five dominant suppliers shift their relative positions, with WordPress dropping back to represent only 1 in 8 institutions. In Group 4 ‘big five’ market concentration is slightly greater than in Group 3 at 78.8% compared to 74.5%. Group 4 also sees Adobe Experience Manager and Sitecore appear as digital experience platform alternatives to the big five.
Chart 2: Top Ten CMS Suppliers to Group 1 - Institutions with Fewer Than 625 Students
Chart 3: Top Ten CMS Suppliers to Group 2 - Institutions with Between 625 and 2,125 Students
Chart 4: Top Ten CMS Suppliers to Group 3 - Institutions with Between 2,125 and 6,400 Students
Chart 5: Top Ten CMS Suppliers to Group 4 - Institutions with More Than 6,400 Students
Too Many US Higher Education CMS Suppliers?
While 15 suppliers cover the CMS needs of 90% of the institutions in our dataset, a further 46 vendors address a 10% (203/2,039) ‘tail’ of the 2,039 institutions. These vendors are a mix of new (Wagtail.io, or Gatsby), those with material presences in other regions (TYPO3 or Plone) and legacy installations (Open Text or XOOPS). In fact, a residual 1% (20/2,039) of institutions have unique CMS installations, which are unlikely to be under active development and evolving to meet higher education’s digital services, marketing and content needs.
The content management systems and suppliers found in this survey were:
Table 1: Links to CMS Suppliers Discovered in Survey
Website Builder Adoption
Approximately, 2% (35/2,039) of US higher education institutions have opted to use website builder services, such as Squarespace or Wix, for their websites. Our visual inspection of these sites suggests the focus is more content publishing than sophisticated digital marketing, but smaller institutions may find this an acceptable trade-off between cost and needed capability.
Content management system selection exercises are usually initiated by website re-designs. And, the orientation of a re-design exercise is, in turn, guided by the sophistication of digital marketing and marketing technology teams.
User needs and functional requirements should logically come first and the choice of CMS platform come later. But, a mix of agency and internal experience and skill along with peer choices often push CMS choices ahead of functionality. And, we can see the effect has been to concentration market share among 15 vendors.
And, looking at who uses which CMS platforms offers one way of segmenting a market of over 2,000 disparate institutions.
Smaller institutions want a web presence to communicate why their college will be a good fit for potential students. There is relatively little marketing to alumni, communication of research or online services for current students. This segment of the market has adopted a mix of website builder tools from Go Daddy, Squarespace, Weebly or Wix.
A second group that has embraced WordPress are US art colleges. Their sites emphasise visual design rather than digital marketing capabilities. In fact, after looking at hundreds of websites while checking our results, these institutions have some of the most visually interesting content.
The content first group is rounded out by institutions that have implemented in-house CMSs or maintain legacy content management solutions. They may be stuck with relatively inflexible and developer-intensive solutions until such time as they migrate to newer CMS. And, the legacy nature of their underlying systems is reflected in the dated look of their websites.
Some institutions in the content first group have gone to outside agencies and followed their recommendations for digital marketing and communications platforms. These sites have implemented commercial CMS solutions with clear ongoing development (Umbraco or Episerver), even if the particular solutions aren’t heavily represented in the US higher education sector.
Digital Marketing First
Institutions in the next market segment have adopted Drupal as a framework for developing ancillary applications and services, as well as publishing content. Or, they’ve implemented a digital experience platform or selected one of the specialist higher education CMS suppliers to support their digital marketing needs.
The digital marketing first group also uses WordPress, which with its wide range of plug-ins, readily available pool of expertise and underlying hosting support can scale up to service most institutions’ needs. Hence, its 37% market share – almost double that of Drupal
An interesting sub-group is the small number of institutions experimenting with headless or decoupled CMSs that use their in-house development expertise in recognition of the increasing need to deliver content to many different platforms.
In examining the CMSs institutions use on their main websites we can draw four general conclusions about the characteristics of the successful systems and suppliers.
- Product vision – leading vendors have articulated their vision of how their solution fits the higher education market and how it is going to meet evolving institutional needs.
- Community of Practice – the more successful solutions have associated communities of practice, with regular conferences, networking, online discussion and other forums to share experiences and challenges.
- Focus – the solutions with material market share tend to be the vendor’s sole focus and not just a component of a solutions portfolio. And, organisationally providers are either open-source communities or private companies not fuelled by venture capitalists looking for rapid returns on their investments.
- Evolution – there is a regular and predictable delivery of new product versions and there aren’t awkward silences between releases.
US University CMS Market Share Data
We have only checked the CMS for each institution’s main website. An institution may have hundreds of additional sites, sub-sites or microsites. And, subsidiary websites may use different content management systems from a main institutional website. It may be misleading to extrapolate our results to an overall higher education CMS market share estimate.
If you have observations, comments or feedback about the data, how we collected it or want to see the underlying detail, please be in touch.