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To CMS or Not to CMS? THAT is the question

Rock Em Sock Em robots with Wordpress and HTML5 logos for heads

I admittedly can be a bit of a rabble-rouser at times. I believe a lively, but productive and civil, debate will often bring about some breakthrough thinking and cutting edges ideas for solving challenges, especially those of our clients. Taking on ourselves as our latest client, I figured I would stir the pot a bit to create some debate around development of our new website.

Our internal debate mirrors a larger one that is going on in the open source communities today about whether content management systems are even needed when building websites. This is something I have thought a lot about the past couple of years, and I have come to the conclusion that it really depends on your needs.

In developing our new brand, we had three high-level goals:

  • Establish ourselves as a top-tier digital creative agency servicing the nonprofit sector;

  • Increase lead generation through thought leadership and increased involvement in the nonprofit technology community; and

  • Establish long term relationships with a diverse group of clients.

C.M.S., SCHMEE.M.S.

After reviewing our goals and doing a thorough assessment of our digital marketing needs, I felt that we didn’t need a content management system for the development of our new website. I sent a company-wide email looking for feedback on this idea. Here is an except of that email:

John and I spent a half hour tossing around some awesome ideas (thanks John!) about what we really NEED as an agency to communicate who we are, what we do, and what we love. To highlight a few of those things:

- Show our personality;
- Demonstrate more confidence in our work;
- Have some attitude;
- Show how much we love the work we do; and
- Produce great content!

The last point resonated most with me. As I have been auditing our current website, I have come to realize the content needs a fair amount of improvement (to put it gently). A more important realization that I had is that we are planning to produce content for the wrong reasons.

We don't need a lot of content on our website. No one comes to it. No one really uses it. For those who do use it, they want to know three things:

- Who we are as a company
- The services we offer
- The great work we have done

That's it.

My main argument was that we could invest upwards of one-hundred staff hours in building a publishing system for a site that rarely gets visited and does not generate revenue. We generate business by building relationships, primarily offline. While our website can, and will, play a role in lead generation, it won’t be the primary source of our business.

As an alternative to building our new website in Drupal, I suggested the following:  

I propose we build a beautiful HTML5 website, of no more than 4 pages, that really shows who we are, not just as a company, but as individuals. We make the website dynamic, but all interactive elements are handled through JS and JQuery. No database. No hassle.

We then invest our staff resources in developing great content for social media that helps to build better brand awareness for the company. We host our blog on Tumblr. We host our videos on Youtube. We publish presentations/whitepapers/case studies to Scribd. We use Behance to highlight our design work. Then there is the typical posting to FacebookTwitter, and Google+ to highlight our thought leadership and company culture.

Benefits:

- Faster production;
- Lower cost;
- Easier maintenance;
- Faster performance (which will increase user experience and search placement); and
- Better SEO.

Drawbacks:

- We may be perceived as not eating our own dog food (but who gives a sh*t)
- Lack of control over user experience as social media platforms change (also a non-issue as we will need to know the platforms to better advise our clients on using them)

You Eat What You Are

My proposed alternative, as expected, was received with mixed reaction. We were almost split down the middle - half the staff loving the idea, and half not.

As we debated this via email and in staff meetings, there were some very compelling counter arguments made:

  • As our editorial needs evolve and we implement more and more of our new company marketing and communications strategy, we will need to move to a CMS;

  • Drupal would offer us more flexibility to make quick changes to landing pages, prototype functionality, and integrate with external services for inbound and relationship marketing via contributed modules;

  • Using our own distribution of Drupal would cut down significantly on development time, especially in making the website responsive;

  • Developing the website in raw HTML5 and Javascript would require a level of ramp-up time that would extend our timeline; and

  • We would not need to worry about scalability or performance, since that is offloaded to Pantheon, our hosting provider, to deal with

At the end of the day, we realized either solution would support our business goals. Torn between the curiosity of building the website from scratch and our commitment to supporting Drupal, we decided in the end to use Drupal. While it may take a bit more of an investment to build the website up front, we are setting ourselves up for longer-term success.

Taking the Long View, Block, and Node

My greatest takeaway from this experience is that short-term needs should not hinder long-term investment. While we only need some static content and a blog for the launch of our new website, investing in a content management system now will allow us to better support or needs as they evolve down the line.

I find it ironic that we struggled with this challenge, since we often coach clients in making this same decision. While we are unable to predict with certainty what our technology needs will be in the future, leveraging Drupal puts us on a modular platform that can evolve with us as our agency grows and changes. I’m sure the same holds true for many organizations.

Be all Our Sins Remembered

If we may be so bold, below are a few lessons that we learned the hard way. Hopefully these will help you plan your next website development project:  

  • Let your content strategy be your guide: Look at the types of content you produce, and your processes around content creation and management. If you have various levels of review and approval, you most likely need a CMS.

  • Keep your endgame in mind: Again, you cannot predict what your needs will be in a few years, but you know where you will want to be as an organization. Write down some different scenarios that will help you get there, and determine what tool will best support each of those scenarios.

  • Debate, debate, debate!: One of the greatest ways to get buy-in and get people to take ownership of your website redesign is to sit them down in a room and ask for their opinion. Allow people to chime in and they will thank you for it. But it is important to not put too much weight on people’s personal opinions and ask them to make fact-based arguments for either direction.

  • When in doubt, get outside help: There are plenty of consulting firms, like 4Site Studios of course, that help you to develop content strategies for your website and facilitate the process of making these types of decisions.Contact us if you are having trouble making a similar decision.

Will you need a CMS for your website redesign project?  Aye, there's the rub.