In this guide, we hope to demystify some of the choices available and help you focus on the real issues at the heart of the CMS selection process. Are we going to push our own bespoke CMS at the end of the guide? Well, kind of…but not really. Of course, we wholeheartedly believe in our own system…but we also firmly believe that every business needs to find the right CMS for their particular set of needs.
So the dreaded moment has arrived - it’s time to think about choosing a new Content Management System (CMS).
How do you work out the best system for your needs?
- Will it actively contribute to your marketing and business development?
- Will it keep your data secure?
- Will it help your business grow?
- Will it save you time in updating your website?
- Will it integrate with your other systems?
- Who will maintain it?
- Will I get fired for choosing the wrong system!?!
Are you sitting comfortably?
There is a land... a magical place... where everyone, in every marketing department, in every company is just wild about their Content Management System.
But back in the real world, our experience of running events for marketing professionals over the last few years has taught us that the #1 bugbear of most marketers (well, perhaps just below ‘my sales team doesn’t understand me’) is frustration with their CMS system. We have long argued that if any business or organisation has a website, that website has to do something other than just look pretty and offer your contact details. A website is a business tool, like any other, and therefore it ought to be working hard for you. Obviously, every business has different needs, and some organisations will require more sophistication from their CMS than others, but here are a few basics we believe need consideration before you begin your search:
- Are you paying for features you don’t need?
- Is it capable of growing with you?
- Is it going to save you time rather than cost you time - ease of use, ease of maintenance, how many upgrades and how often, etc?
- Is it secure? A very relevant question under GDPR and the forthcoming E-Privacy laws.
- Is it SEO optimised?
- Never mind what the online reviews say, is it right for your specific purpose? It’s often worth finding an analogous business and asking them for their experiences using it.
- Are you able to have a hands-on demonstration of reasonable length before you commit?
Not all platforms are created equal
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the benefits of different popular platforms, we should consider in greater detail some of the issues that are likely to influence your decision. Some platforms are better at certain aspects than others. This section will help you determine which considerations are most important for your business.
In our view, security should be a primary concern when building a new website and choosing a CMS. Security has two main bearings on platform choice.
1. Reputational damage
Often a hacked site will be infected with malware, and your unsuspecting visitors may end up inadvertently downloading damaging software. In our opinion, this is a risk, but we would hope most computer users now have an excellent Anti-Virus solution. The more significant issue with malware is that Google and leading AV vendors can blacklist your site. If Google blacklists your site, then visitors from the search engine or pay-per-click adverts are presented with a red warning screen explaining that the site is not secure. If an AV vendor blacklists your site, their users (worldwide) will not be able to visit your website even if they type the URL directly or click on an email link. The other risk of a hack is that sites are often defaced with pornographic or political / terrorist based propaganda which can damage your brand by association.
A hacked website can also lead to penalties under the GDPR if personal data is stolen. This kind of consideration will likely be significantly more relevant to B2B companies under the forthcoming E-Privacy laws.
Maintenance & New Features
As firm proponents of evolution, not revolution, we believe that a site will provide a much better return on investment if frequent small changes are made rather than spending miserable years with an ineffective, under-performing website, scrapping it entirely in a mad panic and then rushing to get a new one live while under pressure.
Our advice (and indeed our approach) is to cultivate a long term relationship between client and agency/development team. Do your research alongside them (the immersion phase) before all else so that you are, in effect, co-creating the brief. You know your business and they know theirs - you will each need the benefit of the other’s expertise and experience to create an end product that meets your business’s requirements. Once your site is live, work with them to make small but incremental changes to the pages that are doing well, or indeed not doing well enough. There are a plethora of tools to measure the effectiveness of your content, building on the basic information provided by Google Analytics and augmenting data from other online channels (social media, display advertising, syndication, external blogging platforms etc). This data allows you to measure the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns, making changes that benefit your target audience with precision and thus achieving greater return on your investment. We suggest you put aside a budget of c. 30% of your capital cost on an annual basis once your site has been live for around six months, which gives the agency time to identify patterns and trends in the analytics data. We also suggest allocating budget for ongoing support and maintenance, bug fixes (once the warranty period has expired) and security upgrades to the core CMS or framework. For example, it can be a false economy to manage WordPress updates on your own; 95% of the time they are seamless, but on occasions, they require an intervention from a developer.
Ease of Use
This may seem an obvious consideration for the checklist when choosing a CMS, but it can get overlooked when you are concentrating so hard on all the vital features and security issues. As a general rule, well-built custom CMS systems are simpler to use. They are designed to the particular requirements of a given organisation and therefore developers and UX designers are able to focus on precisely what they know the client needs - including ease of use. Our own clients generally tell us that our bespoke CMS is easier to use than any other they have tried because we design the admin interface much as we design the website itself. Any CMS will let you enter and edit content, but not all of them make this a pleasant and seamless experience. When drawing up your site specification, please remember to balance total editing flexibility with having structured data that makes sense as it is entered. During the CMS vendor selection process you should ask to demo several systems until you find one that you enjoy using.
Content personalisation has been around for many years but in the past, it generally focussed on the B2C buyer’s journey by offering users products and content they might like based on previous usage patterns. More recently, the B2B world has woken up to the power of content personalisation for business development - especially if they are running any kind of Account Based Marketing campaigns. For example, using reverse IP lookups, it is possible to identify by sector or company name around 50% of the visitors to the average site just as the page is loading. We can then display content that is likely to be most relevant to the user’s company/sector profile in selected content containers throughout the site (including the home page). This technology can be deployed subtly to suggest other content the user may find relevant, or it can be used to serve up a completely different page for certain sectors, or even specific companies. This can be highly effective in increasing engagement and conversions. Personalisation of a header image on a page on Adobe’s website, for example, recently led to a 200% increase in white paper downloads.
Speed of Deployment & Future Proofing
In the current digital world where deadlines are increasingly tight, and companies need to move quickly, it is essential to deploy a site quickly. We tend to favour an agile / Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach where the basic site is created very quickly, and the new features and content are added once end users/customers have had the opportunity to feed back. A rapid deployment methodology ensures that users’ demands can be met quickly and businesses can react to the changes in the marketplace efficiently. This methodology can be extended once the website is live by continually developing new features rather than waiting for a period of years and starting over. This process will ensure that your web presence remains strong, avoiding peaks and troughs of development. If your website investment is slow and steady over the 3 or 4 years following the new site’s development, you are doing a great deal to futureproof your initial venture and prevent premature obsolescence. What you want to avoid at all costs is winding up with a site that no longer does what you need… leading to that mad dash to scrap it and start the whole process again in a hurry and under pressure…
Speed of Application
Google now uses website speed as a metric when deciding how to rank your websites in the search engine listings. Most modern CMS solutions are fast enough for this not to be a significant issue but choosing a good host is essential. You need a well-optimised server ideally using SSD disks. Try to avoid shared hosting plans and opt for a Virtual Dedicated / Virtual Private Server (VDS / VPS), a fast cloud platform or a dedicated server. Google page speed test can show you how fast a site is and there are a variety of third-party tools you can use to improve speed. These tend to use caching technology to save pages to server memory which is much faster than accessing the disk drive. Some of the solutions are installed on the same server (widespread with WordPress), and several solutions including Cloudflare sit in front of your server accessing server content and storing it in their cache as required.
Choosing the right platform for your business
Now, let’s take a more in-depth look at your options…
Custom CMS Platform
For understandable reasons, a lot of people are wary of committing to the time and expense of commissioning a custom-built CMS. For one thing, so many off-the-shelf systems offer selected customisable features these days. Plus there is always the worry that you will be henceforth at the mercy of the developers who build it, who will closely guard the codebase and charge you well over the odds for every change and fix. Understandably there is also an element of security in buying into a known brand - the old ‘no one ever got fired for going with WordPress’ notion.
But this is only one side of the story...
Before we proceed... full disclosure here - we offer a very smart Custom CMS ourselves, so you would be entitled to do a certain amount of ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?!’ eye-rolling while reading this... However, we stand by the facts below whether you are looking to buy from us or a competitor.
Things to look for:
- Make sure it’s built on a well-known web application framework and has no vendor tie in (like ours) so that you own the code base and can take it to another developer should you decide to switch agencies.
- Make sure it’s smart. A modern CMS should be business savvy - able to integrate with your CRM and any other relevant software you use. It should be capable of personalisation. In effect, it should be almost another member of your Business Development / Marketing team.
- Make sure you do really need something tailor-made and that your particular business needs can’t be met by an off-the-shelf alternative. A good way of doing this is to make a list of your essential ‘must-have’ features and compare this against all the options out there.
For balance then, here is a list of other advantages to most Custom CMS systems:
- You get better and more personalised service - not just during the build but going forward (you won’t be #178 in line for the support desk)
- You get a team who know you, your business and your business needs and understand the importance and relevance of all your requirements.
- You have control over all elements of security and data protection and can get liability sign off from your build team for upgrades and changes.
- You only pay for features you need. Okay, it might be a larger initial outlay, but that cost is going to cover development features that are totally specific to your business needs and is not an annual charge subsidising the creation of a load of extras that are irrelevant to your industry/company.
- Security: most bespoke CMS systems are not open source, so the source code is only available to the agency and their clients. As hackers often try to reverse engineer a compromise this process becomes a lot harder with a custom CMS as they cannot look for issues in the underlying source code.
- Ease of use: As a general rule, custom CMS systems are more intuitive and you will almost certainly get one-to-one training.
A headless CMS is a relatively new concept where the storage and management of content is separate from the presentation of the data. Effectively one system manages the “back end” data and storage of information, while another system displays this content.
The advantages of this approach include:
The ability to publish to other destinations in addition to your website such as internal intranets, large screen monitors, kiosks, watches and other devices. The rise of omnichannel content syndication with the need to deliver content to the use of a multitude of devices makes a Headless CMS very attractive. As content and presentation (design) layers are separate designing and launching a new website can be a lot faster than the more traditional approach as there is no need for content migration or entry, often one of the most timeconsuming parts of a web development project.
WordPress started life in 2003 as a blogging platform, and over the years, it has morphed into a serious market contender for building both B2B and B2C websites. In our opinion, there are two main advantages of WordPress:
- The first is the vast number of sites powered by WordPress ensures a thriving developer community. You will never be short of someone who can build/work on your site.
- The second is that, as an open-source project, upgrades and enhancements are provided by the community.
There is however a flip side to this:
Due to the community-built nature of this platform, it has no real ‘clever’ element in terms of business development. It is absolutely fine for brochure sites and basic brand awareness but it won’t work hard for you as a tool to build your pipeline because, for obvious reasons, it cannot take account of your specific business needs and characteristics.
Largely because it is open-source, WordPress users also experience more security compromises than most other platforms. This report from ZDNet shows that 90% of the hacks Sucuri monitored in 2018 occurred on WordPress sites (with Magento, the e-commerce platform, second with 4.6%). The vast majority of hacks occurred due to out-of-date software (core WordPress install or Plugins). Even on WordPress sites where plugins are kept up-to-date hacks still occur as certain plugins, while technically not out-of-date, have actually been abandoned by their developer. We use WordPress for sites that are more brochure based, with limited functionality. We also have a managed WordPress update service where critical updates are applied daily and more routine updates every week. Good Web Application Firewalls (WAF’s) can mitigate some of the above risks and may also warn if plugins have not been updated for a while, or have been removed from the WordPress repository.
In conclusion, WordPress is a powerful contender for your company CMS if your requirements are fairly basic and if you opt for a managed (or inhouse) upgrade programme.
Drupal (and other off-the-shelf solutions)
Drupal is a popular alternative to WordPress, although it’s not technically a CMS but a Content Management Framework allowing developers to create a CMS. Their framework approach creates a lot of flexibility but does mean that changing developers is not as easy as with WordPress. Being open-source hacks do occur, and there have been some notable situations where serious issues allowed a significant number of sites to be compromised over a short period. Like WordPress, keeping the core and plugins updated is essential. Unlike WordPress, it can be harder as a Drupal website is not as structured as a WordPress site; hence, you need to rely on your developers following best practice and keeping the core and their features separate. Although we no longer offer Drupal services (we decided to concentrate on our own CMS and WordPress in 2011), it can be used to create a powerful CMS with advanced page editing options. In our opinion, it is far better than WordPress for complex sites when installed and developed by a competent agency.
HubSpot positions itself as a full service package for content publishing (alongside its marketing automation and sales enablement tools), with full integration to email and social channels possible. It can be a one-stop-shop for publishing tools, or you can mix and match the features you want from Hubspot with your preferred platforms. This means that small marketing teams can publish new blogs, create a landing page, and A/B test your CTA button all from the same platform. This unified system is what distinguishes Hubspot as a CMS, but it can also be a disadvantage: completely relying on HubSpot for all your CMS needs may make migration a bigger ask - getting all stakeholders in agreement at the right time. However, HubSpot CMS’s Smart Content feature allows its users to target content based on specific criteria and is a feature that you won’t find in WordPress or Drupal. Additionally, HubSpot CMS ranks above both WordPress and Drupal in terms of page loading speed, which is certainly an advantage in terms of SEO.
In summary, HubSpot CMS is a flexible and advanced tool with a comprehensive set of features, some of which are unique to its platform; however, while powerful, its complexity can be a short term logistical challenge for less experienced users.
Making the right choice
So, is this the bit where we push our Custom CMS as the obvious choice for ALL businesses, we hear you ask? Thankfully not!
With all these options available, you’re probably wondering how best to simplify the daunting task of selecting the right CMS for your business. Indeed, how will you even know if you’ve made the right choice once your site has been built?
This is a dilemma shared by most organisations, large or small. When developing a new website, the process tends to follow the traditional ‘interview agencies, receive pitch presentations, go with the most-liked idea at the time, live with the consequences for years’ process. It’s the main reason why we decided to offer something slightly different from the mainstream. Rather than pitching our ideas at you, based on a brief that may or may not address the real issues and opportunities facing your business, we offer a full Immersion Process before we start developing creative ideas.
The immersion process allows us to explore the brief, ask questions and get a better understanding of your business. It gives you a chance to see if you think we are the right team for you and your project and gives us a chance to see if we think we can help you. We believe both sides have to enjoy the process and be fully invested in its success. This is our way of trying to ensure that happens. It minimises the risk for both parties.
The Webstars Immersion
The immersion workshops are focussed sessions with the actual Webstars team members who will work on the project alongside your team.
Our clients tell us that the immersion process is invaluable. We recently built a new website for global law firm Proskauer based on our custom CMS with advanced AI and personalisation technology. The client put a large proportion of the project’s success down to the immersion process undertaken at the beginning of the project. They felt that the collaborative nature of the process led to much better channels of communication throughout the project, and meant that the project objectives aligned with the organisation’s broader marketing and company-wide goals.
The immersion workshops have the following purpose:
- To ensure we precisely understand your business and all of your business objectives for this project.
- To collaboratively develop the scope, final budget, timeline and success criteria.
- To make sure you like us.*
- To make sure we like you and believe we are the right people to help you.
- To develop an implementation plan, balancing yours and your team’s availability with enough time to do an outstanding job.
- To co-create a project vision board.
The deliverables from the Immersion Process typically include:
- Definition of success, with tangible measurable KPI’s and metrics
- Competitor analysis/likes and don’t likes
- Marketing and lead generation strategy
- Visual Identity mood board
- Site map
- User journeys and user personas
- Wireframes of key pages and the marketplace process
- Itemised budget
- Detailed timelines
- Resource allocation (our team)
Years of experience has taught us that this process saves significant time, money and stress throughout the project. One of our current clients recently told us that our “intensive and focused” Immersion Process was invaluable, resulting in a “good collaboration” and a subsequent relationship that positioned us “more like partners” than vendors.