We’ve been working with Content Management Systems for a long time, first building custom systems, and more recently leveraging the growing power of two of the major open source CMS technologies, WordPress and Drupal. The one thing that I see repeatedly on the client side is a lack of foresight and understanding about what a CMS is, what it is NOT, and what the actual costs of implementing a CMS are beyond just the development. This is understandable: we’re talking about pretty advanced technology in an area that’s not really fully understood in the first place by most organizations. There are several issues that need to be considered when choosing to implement a CMS, particularly which system to use, having staff whose job it is to keep a website updated, supporting that staff with the training involved in learning how the CMS works, and selecting the right vendor to implement and maintain your CMS. And after that, I’ll discuss some of the costs of doing it WRONG, and how to recover from a poorly executed CMS deployment.
Selecting a CMS
“Free” still costs money
There are three primary open source CMSes that are exceptionally good and have large communities supporting them: WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. Unless you are doing something really off the wall, one of these systems will most likely work well for your website. Some developers prefer Expression Engine, which is a paid product that we also have some experience with. This brings up a question about open source versus proprietary software: which way to go? When people consider open source software, the first thing that comes up is typically that it’s “free.” You don’t pay anything for a license to use WordPress, Drupal or Joomla. By comparison, Expression Engine costs a few hundred bucks. If your organization is on a tight budget and looking to get a site built for a pittance, $300 may seem like a lot. Other proprietary CMSes have significantly larger price tags, but generally the higher price comes with a significant level of service to go along with it. However, many organizations starting CMS projects will be looking at spending $10,000-100,000 for the overall package, including design, configuration, development of custom features, and so on. For them, an extra $300 is a drop in the bucket. So the difference between “free” and “not free” in this case is negligible. Additionally, both WordPress and Drupal have commercial organizations that support them: Automattic makes and sells support for WordPress, and Acquia is the company most widely associated with Drupal support. The upshot here is that you shouldn’t be fooled by the “free” label on open source products. You’re still going to be paying a substantial sum of money for installation and configuration regardless of what CMS you choose. There are many benefits to using open source software, and the price should not be the only factor to a decision.
Open Source vs. Proprietary
It’s worth noting that while Expression Engine is a paid product, it is still open: you can get into the code and look around, and there is a community of developers that work with it. Sometimes a developer will have their own proprietary CMS that only they use that is not open to the public. I’ve heard justifications for this, but in my opinion, the overwhelming point in favor of avoiding closed proprietary systems is that you are locked into a relationship with that provider. Should the relationship sour, it will likely be challenging to get your website away from that developer, and even if you can, there will be no one else who can modify it. The simple fact of the matter is that most web developers are transient, around for a few years and then moving on to another job, another studio, or another career path. The trend among all major organizations is towards one of the major open source platforms, and the critical mass of community around the big three (WordPress, Drupal and Joomla) means that they are constantly evolving in a positive direction. Because of this, closed CMSes are on their way to extinction in my opinion.
So what DO you look for?
So when choosing your CMS, the things that you need to look at are the capabilities of the CMS and whether it’s appropriate for your organization’s current and future needs, and whether you can find a reputable vendor to configure your CMS. “Wait,” you say, “I need a vendor to configure my CMS? I thought I could do it all myself!” Yes, you will probably need a vendor to set up and configure the system to start. CMSes are designed to make updating your content manageable by your staff, but they’re not magic. When you install a CMS out of the box, each platform makes certain assumptions about what you’ll be using it for. Some platforms have pre-built “profiles” for various use cases, but it’s a pretty sure bet that most organizations will have needs that don’t mesh with the default setup of the CMS. What you will need early in the process is someone who is familiar with the capabilities of the system to help map your existing content structure to how the CMS “thinks” about content, and to make sure that your content strategy is making best use of the tools available through the CMS. I’ll come back around to “content strategy” in a minute.
Getting the right CMS for the job is only the first step of the process. Once you’re creating the site, you need to understand the characteristics of the content your managing and translate that to a configuration that the CMS understands and can work with. We recently built a WordPress site for a Burritt Bros. Carpet & Flooring. They wanted to showcase various types of products, as well as demonstrations about the materials they work with, and feature certain brands. The folks at Edelman, who brought us the project, were only familiar with WordPress as a blogging platform, and hadn’t worked with it as a proper CMS. They were thinking in terms of how to kludge older mechanisms into behaving like a proper CMS since they hadn’t explored WordPress 3’s new features. We were able to set up a much more intuitive configuration, making each content type unique, tailoring the input to the content type, which in turn made updating the site more intuitive.
Training and supporting your staff
Just because you CAN update your website doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to just dive right in. I’ve found that small business owners in particular have a tendency to think that they can do everything because, well, they DO do everything and it seems to work out most of the time. Your web presence is probably not one of the places where you should be doing everything. We’ve had a number of clients over the years who thought that they were good writers, and … well, they weren’t. Or at best they were ok writers, but not good at writing the kind of content that you want on a website. Having a content strategy is an important first step to knowing WHAT to put on your website. Likewise, if you just jump right in without learning the system, you’re likely to have trouble with things like proper text formatting, posting images in the correct size and scale and properly organizing pages within the overall context of the site. Having someone whose job it is to know how to do that will make your life a lot easier.
Even if you’re not prone to doing it all yourself, making sure that your staff has the proper support and training is often not accounted for when dealing with a CMS. All of the major systems come with good documentation for their basic installation and features. However, once you get beyond fairly simple websites, there will be customization that’s done that will probably not be covered by the basic documentation. Also, your users will probably not use many of the functions of the CMS. Drupal is notorious in this regard for allowing you to customize EVERYTHING – even things that no one who’s not a trained professional should ever touch. The documentation for these systems is extensive, but it’s not always set up in a way that’s helpful for your staff to find what they need quickly and easily to accomplish common tasks. Further, it’s often too generic to answer the kinds of questions that your staff will have. That’s where custom documentation, training and support come in. Sure, you’ve priced out the website itself, but have you accounted for production of a usable manual, staff training and ongoing support? Many developers will gladly build a site for you, but don’t want to be bothered putting together cohesive instructions or providing ongoing support.
CMSes are complex pieces of software. The popular ones are regular targets of hackers because a hacker can write one script to target millions of websites. This shouldn’t deter you from using a popular CMS as long as you or your vendor know how to secure it and you’re willing to invest the resources to keep it patched and updated. This means that in addition to the one time expense of setting up the CMS, there will be ongoing costs to patch and upgrade it. Depending on the nature of the project, you may only need to keep the core code and 1-2 extra plugins/modules updated, or you may be in for a new jigsaw puzzle every time you need to do an update.
Because of this, it’s important to be ready to have a development environment that you can fire up when ever you need to do an update. Any website that’s of a significant size will want a staging area to test updates before making them live to ensure that the updates don’t break anything. This is an additional expense to consider – you’ll need to have a server available on short notice whenever those updates come along. Fortunately, modern cloud computing makes this relatively easy with Virtual Private Servers. Most hosts can let you either continuously run a secondary server for relatively little money, or allow you to fire one up as needed, cloning the live site so you’ve got a development area to test everything out on.
And finally, you will, of course, want to keep your old files backed up in case something does go wrong when you move from testing to live environments.
Selecting a vendor
It’s important to define your needs before selecting a vendor to do the work. Some organizations have the infrastructure to be able to analyze their needs up front – a marketing department that’s well versed in the digital space, an IT department that understands its role in synergizing with the marketing needs of the organization, etc. If you’ve got that, there’s a good chance you can do a lot of the prep work internally, and can support your staff yourself. In that case, you may just need a vendor to execute the transition to the new CMS, and don’t need the support and training components. At a minimum, your vendor should be able to demonstrate examples of successful deployments of your chosen CMS on or near the scale your project requires, provide references from happy clients, and clearly define.
If, like many organizations, your IT and Marketing departments are already stretched thin and this project needs to happen before they can make it a priority, it’s very important when selecting a vendor to find someone who can provide the additional support needed to train the staff, provide documentation, and maintain the system over the long term. What you’re looking for in this case is a vendor that has the experience with all levels of website design and development from information architecture through implementation and can advise you on what CMS will best suit your needs. They should also be able to provide training and documentation, as well as support over time. Keep in mind that these services are additional non-trivial costs above and beyond the implementation of the CMS.
Specific things to look for:
- Does the vendor have good samples of work they’ve done to tailor the CMS experience for unique content types?
- Do they have a grasp of User Centric Design principles?
- Does the vendor have a standard maintenance package for the CMS in question to handle routine updates and/or disaster recovery?
- Do they have the expertise in multiple platforms to advise you on the best CMS for your situation?
- What kind of training do/can they offer? Will it be on site? Via computer? Do they offer support if you have a question?
- Can they provide examples of documentation for end users?
Recovering from a bad CMS implementation
It’s not uncommon for CMS installations to go wrong. The documentation on the open source CMSes makes it sound like a one armed monkey with a Speak & Spell could get one up and running. There are a lot of developers who match that description who are happy to throw a CMS up and blame usability problems on the client or the software. Drupal in particular is notable for this effect: it’s a really powerful CMS that is really challenging to use if it’s not set up well for the people who will be maintaining the site, while simultaneously being really easy to set up poorly if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Last year, we took over development of a large Drupal project from a company that was failing to deliver. In addition to the challenges and costs of switching developers mid-project, the budget and timeline made it impossible to undo all the bad decisions that were made at the start of the project due to lack of planning and oversight. That means that the site will be going live with a great looking front end, but a wreck of a back end that has no rhyme or reason behind its structure and flow. We estimated that going in and fixing it to make sense will take an additional 25% of the original budget. The client is going to have to live with the problems that came from the bad setup until such time as they have the resources to fix it.
Our friends at Industrial Brand recently had a similar experience where they were brought on to help a poorly configured Drupal site. Design Director Mark Busse said “a primary reason that UBC’s PPRC hired us was to rethink not only the UI, but the broken Drupal backend on http://www.pharmaceuticalpolicy.ca/. In addition to the front end UI work they were engaged for, a primary reason for being brought on was to streamline and re-think the back end to be less awful for the staff to update.”
When a CMS has been done poorly, the cost is felt on a daily basis. Every time you’re required to make an update, you feel the cost in the time and inconvenience it takes to get the job done. Every time you hit a wall when you realize the tool wasn’t built for your needs, you’re stuck trying awkward workarounds.
-Kevan Gilbert, Domain7 (the developer Industrial Brand worked with on the UBC PPRC site)
Fortunately, once you’re in the position of having a poorly executed CMS in place, you’re not stuck with it forever. It will cost additional money and time, but the hardest part of developing a website from the staff perspective (getting content into the CMS) is often behind you. Again, the key is finding a reputable vendor who will work with your staff to identify the shortcomings of the configuration and improve the user experience.
So… what next?
We here at Medium Rare Interactive have loads of experience with this sort of thing, but of course we’re not the only vendor out there. We serve a wide range of clients, and we may or may not be a good fit to work with you. But if you are exploring a CMS project that you could use a hand with, we’d love to take a look. If it looks like something we can help with, we’ll be happy to give you a quote for the job. So get in touch!