Written By Shaun Walker, DotNetNuke
Maintaining a strong web presence is fundamental for any serious organization today. For a business, their web site is typically the first stop for prospects on their way to a purchase decision—and the place where customers go for support and information after a purchase. Likewise, many organizations today create intranets or extranets to foster communication and collaboration with their employees, customers and 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. Educational and governmental organizations also require a strong presence. Their web site may convey important information to their constituents, present key information for current or potential students, or allow information sharing among employees. From a marketing perspective, the evidence is indisputable: Respondents to a 2009 Aberdeen Group survey overwhelmingly indicated that their top marketing channel was their web site, followed closely by e-mail marketing activities.
Creating and maintaining an effective web site, intranet, or extranet that is continually updated with fresh content can be challenging. Traditionally, the people responsible for creating content were forced to turn to the IT department in order to get it published. Many organizations still operate this way, but it’s increasingly become more expensive and impractical to utilize this approach. With IT juggling multiple tasks, managing web content becomes just another to-do item in a long list of priorities. Content owners become frustrated because it takes too long to get their material on the web, iterating content changes add frustrating delays, and IT staffers are pulled away to tasks that may add more value to the company’s bottom line.
Responding to changing demands can also be an issue. As needs change over time, the web site must be flexible enough to respond to the changes and allow users and site administrators to reconfigure pages and content on individual pages.
A faster and more efficient route is to deploy a web content management system (CMS) that is both user-friendly and cost effective. Finding a good CMS that fits a company’s web and business strategies is another matter. The number of CMS products on the market has grown substantially over the years, with both proprietary and open source solutions available. But organizations should carefully consider what to look for in a CMS—and the pitfalls to avoid. Let’s take a look at some of the key issues to consider before making a decision on a CMS system.
Closed v. Open Systems
There are many “closed” (proprietary) CMS systems on the market. But closed CMS platforms bring significant challenges. First, they almost always include hidden costs. If the CMS system does not perfectly match your business needs out of the box, you’ll pay the vendor extra—maybe a lot extra—every time you want to add new features to your web site. It’s a good idea to do a detailed cost breakdown on a proprietary CMS system. In typical scenarios, the cost for purchasing proprietary CMS software represents only about half the price of getting a system that functions according to your organization’s needs and specifications. Because there is a relatively small pool of technical talent that has the expertise to customize a particular closed system, that talent can get away with charging a lot of money for their work.
Open source CMS systems are distributed at no cost and make their full source code available to developers. If an open source CMS achieves significant market adoption, this approach can encourage innovation among third parties who create add-ons for the open source core and allow much more freedom for market principles to work. This may result in a wide range of products and solutions you can use to customize your CMS system at a much lower price than in a proprietary system. If there is high demand for particular functionality in a popular, open source CMS system—for example, e-commerce capabilities—third-party developers will respond, innovate, and compete with one another. It is a win-win scenario because organizations can install a highly functional, affordable CMS system that is easily customized to meet current and future business requirements. At the same time, it unleashes the creativity of third-party vendors who can deliver great products in a competitive marketplace.
As noted above, there are still organizations where employees rely on the IT department to publish web content. This is an expensive approach that introduces significant delays. But there’s a simple reason why it still exists: some CMS tools are not designed for non-technical users. Organizations looking to replace or upgrade their CMS systems, or install one for the first time, should gravitate towards CMS platforms that offer built-in, easy-to-use text editors and which allow users to easily add pre-defined functionality to their editable web pages. These systems typically require minimal training and might be as simple as showing content owners how to use an easy-to-use content editing tool. Assuming most web content owners already know how to use PC-based word processing tools, non-technical employees can begin posting their content as soon as the system is installed, reducing or eliminating the need for IT assistance.
You expect your business to grow and expand over time—and your web site should be able to keep up. Many CMS systems are adequate when an organization is small, but cannot scale as the organization grows. If your CMS is not scalable—if it cannot grow in tandem with your business—it can be very expensive and complicated to migrate your web content to a new system capable of providing more features and handling more site visitors. Be sure to find out whether a potential CMS system can run in a web farm, where server hardware can easily be added to accommodate growing numbers of web site visitors.
Your web site may be the public face of your organization or the primary portal for your employees to collaborate and access your digital assets so there is considerable risk if you don’t have good tools to control what, when, and how content is published. Serious damage can be caused even by your best employees through inadvertent publication of sensitive or incorrect information. When looking at CMS systems, find out whether they include easy-to-use tools and features that allow business managers and IT administrators to establish granular user permissions and automated content approval processes. These features are critical in ensuring that only authorized users are allowed to post content in specific areas of your web site, and that all new content goes through a content approval process before it goes live.
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 high 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.
Another important factor to consider—one that is sometimes overlooked—is who can help you build and modify your web site. Your needs a few years from now may require enhancements and additions to your web site that are not on the radar today. So it’s important to look at the community of web design firms, web hosting companies, training providers, software companies, and others who know and support a particular CMS system. Look for a CMS platform that comes with a rich “ecosystem” of partners who can provide a broad range of services and solutions to help you get the most out of your CMS investment. This is especially important for open source CMS solutions where a rich ecosystem of third-party software developers can generate a large variety of software add-ons which can quickly, inexpensively add functionality to your web site.
Software usually evolves over time. You might get by using older versions of some software. However, it’s important to keep CMS systems updated to keep current on security patches and new features that can deliver more web site functionality. Open source CMS packages may offer no notification when a feature has been added or modified or when a security vulnerability has been identified in the software. You may be forced to continuously monitor the open source community to identify new patches and security concerns. Again, some open source CMS systems which have a more solid business foundation, offer proactive email alerts for notifications of patches, security updates, and other changes that will keep your CMS running smoothly and safely.
Licensing can be one of the most confusing—and potentially costly—aspects of acquiring a CMS system. All CMS system licenses come with a variety of privileges and restrictions. If there is any possibility your organization may build an application on top of a CMS system—for example, your developers might create a solution for a specific vertical industry that you will sell—it’s important to know whether you can sell the product while retaining the rights to your intellectual property. Some commercial licenses restrict you from reselling or redistributing a CMS system. Some open source licenses such as the GPL have restrictions which require you to contribute all of your proprietary code back to the open source community. Business-friendly open source licenses such as the BSD license provide the maximum freedom, allowing you to retain and commercialize your intellectual property.
Creating and maintaining a web site is a necessity in today’s marketplace if you want to grow your organization and communicate effectively with the customers, suppliers, employees, and partners who help your business thrive. Knowing what pitfalls to avoid when searching for a good content management system is an important step in making sure that your web site fills its mission as a vital business asset.
Shaun Walker is the Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of the DotNetNuke Corporation. He is the creator and chief architect of the DotNetNuke Web Content Management Platform, the company’s flagship product and the leading open source Web Content Management System project available for the Microsoft ASP.NET platform. The DotNetNuke platform powers over 600,000 production web sites worldwide, has been downloaded over 6 million times, and has nearly 800,000 registered community members.