Choosing a Content Management System (CMS)

If you own a business or sell a product, the use of the Internet as a promotional or eCommerce channel should be up front and center for you. People from all walks of life are using the web to search, evaluate, and purchase products and services. It isn’t a fad. It isn’t “just for youth.” It’s how a significant percentage of both consumer and business sales take place. Even if the actual sale takes place in a retail space (such as the purchase of an automobile), the web plays a significant role in the sales process.

Along with understanding that the web is an ideal mechanism for “getting your story told,” the ability to manage the content within a website without the need for knowledge of HTML or engineers is quickly emerging as an equal value requirement to using the Internet at all. Content Management Systems (CMS) are the framework for developing today’s web environments.

[ Learn more via Wikipedia ]

A CMS can be used for many uses beyond the typical website. Many organizations create intranets or extranets to promote collaboration between employees, customers, and vendor partners. These sites are often portals which integrate third party web applications, document management systems, and user personalization, and may touch thousands or even millions of people. Respondents to a 2009 Aberdeen Group survey strongly indicated that their top marketing channel was their website, followed closely by email marketing programs.

So, how do you select the right CMS?

It starts with a good story. The product or service you’re offering is more important than any technology solution. If you start with the technology, you’re likely missing the point of how to maximize you’re use of the Internet. I believe it’s extremely important to begin with designing your service or product offering, and then finding the tools that will maximize your opportunity to benefit.

There are enterprise content solutions that entail millions to develop and employ, and hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to support. Consider the number of entries, users, and data in a daily newspaper or television network and the cost of managing a CMS becomes significant. If the CMS involves significant user transactions or sensitive materials, such as a bank, the performance and cost of the CMS will increase even further.

There are also free or open source CMS solutions. These web applications are free, but typically come without a manufacturer or primary retailer to support them. Still, they’re free, and as such, become attractive to many types of entities who are either uncertain of the web’s impact on their business, or for which there is limited budget.

The number of CMS products on the market has grown significantly over the years, with both proprietary and open source solutions available. Each has benefits and potential pitfalls.

Closed v. Open Systems
There are many “closed” (proprietary) CMS systems available in today’s web market. And while these systems may be considered “out of the box” solutions, they rarely are. A typical installation will include the creation of templates, custom code to address those features not included or for which the organization deploying the website requires.

Developing a CMS-driven website using a closed system is not inexpensive. If the license is $10,000, then expect to pay between $10k and $25k to create the initial modifications you’ll need. A support plan for a system like this may run from $3k to $10k per year, depending on the services provided.

Open source CMS systems are made available for very low or no cost and typically make their full source code available to developers. There is a lot of “developer community” support for this type of CMS, as it provided a foundation upon which to sell individual or boutique developer services. At the same time, when the entire source code structure is made available to anyone, the guys with the black hats will have an opportunity to discover weaknesses or other methods of defeating security and/or access to the CMS and related site. Note that most bad guys are more interesting in cracking access to your server, but it’s still worth noting.

A key issue to bring up is the false notion that an open source CMS will have more developers with intimate knowledge of how to create modifications, templates, etc. Most enterprise web environments today are built with fairly standard development environments, such as .NET or .PHP. The issue in both cases is finding engineers who are classically trained, or have enough practical experience to create code that other engineers will understand (and respect).

User Experience
There is nothing more important in the overall web deployment process than the user experience. There are a number of CMS solutions that are not actually developed for use by content creators. This is one reason why IT departments continue to implement the content that some organizations create.

It’s vital that content creators have the ability to build pages on their own, integrate images and other media, and ultimately fully control what appears on the page. Not only are such systems less expensive to operate, they’re easier to learn as well.

The issue of work flow comes into play here. Some CMS solutions (typically open source) allow administrators and users. There is no workflow related to people – just content. Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to choose a CMS solution that permits different levels of access, editing, and publishing. Even if your organization doesn’t need that level of security to begin with, if you’re successful, at some point you’re going to want/need workflow management.

Technical Support
The level of outside support you can find for a given CMS system varies wildly, especially among open source solutions. On one end of the spectrum is the professional support you expect to  receive with a proprietary system— typically at a price. On the other end are free open source solutions, which may offer only online advice from the user community, and their community may be small. Some open source CMS systems which have a more solid business foundation provide a middle ground to these two extremes. These open source-based businesses may offer mission critical support options to the users of their software with support which is often indistinguishable in responsiveness and quality from proprietary CMS vendors. At some point, your organization will likely need help with your CMS system, whether it’s a question about a patch or something more significant like advice on a site migration.

R/com supports a range of content solutions. For smaller applications, we often implement a common consumer-level CMS called WordPress. This is one of the most popular open source CMS options in the marketplace. For certain smaller sites, it’s a terrific, stable option. We tend to spend a lot of time ensuring that templates are properly constructed, page designs are laid out properly, and file management has been designed – not just implemented.

For mid-level solutions, there are other open source or low cost solutions, including Joomla and Expression Engine. Joomla is very restrictive relative to the architecture of a website, but it is very stable and fast. Expression Engine is essentially a framework, and there are those “do it yourself” entities that want their CMS to operate in a unique manner. Unfortunately, Expression Engine is not a completely open or standard solution, but we have clients who ask for it, so we support it.

We also offer an extremely powerful, enterprise capable CMS called R/com WebManager Pro. Built on the Sitelitte Application Framework, this is a turn-key solution ideal for those organizations that want to have full control over workflow, users, publishing of content, security, and scalability.

The key is that we don’t rely on a single solution. Our job is to help our clients find and use the best possible solution. You can learn more about what we do for our clients who use a CMS via our website.

[ Learn more about R/com CMS solutions ]

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