Do you need a CMS?

Clients often ask if they need a Content Management System (CMS) to help manage website changes. In theory, these allow organizations to effectively manage their own site changes. This post will delve into the pros and cons of using a CMS.

As their name implies, Content Management Systems are software packages that make website maintenance more systematic and (in theory) easier. Typical features include:

  • Security — Password protected logins and different levels of control over site design and content.
  • Multiple users with multiple roles — Different users can have different capabilities so that, for instance, many people can create new content, but only certain editors and administrators can make those changes part of the live website.
  • Templates — Standardization of web sites and site sections, and removing the need for special formatting of each new piece of content. Also enables some things to be changed site-wide very easily.
  • Simplified content creation and editing — Most common CMSs allow users to create and edit content without knowledge of HTML and CSS.
  • Task automation — Automatic creation of menus, navigation tools, sitemaps, RSS feeds, etc.
  • Expanded functionality — Many CMS systems support “plug-ins” that provide additional functionality like blogs, email list management, usage statistics, etc.
  • Lower cost — Simplified content creation and editing saves time and reduces the reliance on technical services and outside vendors.

The above list is by no means complete, but it summarizes the basic capabilities and points out the most popular benefits. There are hundreds of different CMSs that offer a variety of additional capabilities that may be valuable for particular situations.

The most common alternative to a CMS-based strategy is to built websites using standard HTML and CSS (and perhaps limited use of ASP or PHP). Much of the initial design and development work is the same for sites that do and do not use CMSs. You will either have to know or pay for HTML expertise to make changes, but there are tens of thousands of people and firms that can help, which cannot be said of event the most popular CMS.

So what are the downsides of CMS use? Well, there are many potential challenges:

  • Software cost — There are many open-source (hence “free”) CMS tools, but there are many that cost hundreds to thousands of dollars.
  • Installation and configuration cost — Any CMS must be setup and configured for a particular site design, group of users, initial information organization, and any additional features of the CMS or integration of other tools. This process requires significant technical expertise and experience with that particular CMS. The required level of expertise is typically much greater (and more expensive) than HTML and CSS authoring. Typical installation and configuration costs run from the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Database dependence — Virtually all CMSs rely on database software. This adds technical dependencies that static websites do not share and may require the skills of database experts for advanced configuration issues.
  • Lack of portability — Unlike static websites, CMS-based sites typically require a variety of technical steps to be relocated from one server to another, and the underlying server software usually needs to be the same. Moving a static site is usually as simple as copying files form one location to another.
  • Maintenance — While a CMS may make creation of content easier, systematic changes to a site require expertise with the particular CMS and specific implementation, and they can be expensive.
  • User training — Content authors, editors, and anyone else who will be using the CMS must be trained on its use, which includes how NOT to create new problems in configuration.
  • Upgrading — A CMS is a piece of software that must be upgraded periodically to insure that any security patches or bug fixes are implemented in a timely manner.
  • Vendor dependence — The cost of making systematic changes is usually lower if you work with the people that installed the CMS because of system and installation-specific knowledge. This makes it much harder to cost-effectively to change vendors.
  • Security — Any software that allows multiple users introduces the risk of abuse by a user or someone who gains access through other means. The risk rises as more users are granted access. Integration with other systems (e.g. lead management) can introduce security risks for those systems.
  • Breadth of failure — In a site that relies on “static” HTML and CSS, problems are typically isolated to a particular page and are not catastrophic. Problems in any software-dependent system can bring down an entire site. Such instances are rare, particularly with high quality CMSs and skilled vendors, but the risk is not zero.
  • Feature additions — If you need a capability that your CMS doesn’t offer, it may require custom programming that requires integration with the existing system. This can be simple or it can get very complex, and any integration may complicate subsequent upgrades to the CMS.

With all of these challenges, it should be pretty clear that for very small sites and those that are changed infrequently, CMSs can be a very poor investment. For larger sites and those that require frequent updates, a CMS might be a good solution.

In a future post, we’ll delve more into what website and organizational characteristics may determine if a CMS is a good solution.

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2 Responses to “Do you need a CMS?”

  1. Karen Anderson Says:

    The WordPress content management system is ideal for small, basic sites where the site owner would like to be able to change or update text, photos, and links or add content, such as video, in widget formats. I’m seeing a growing number of small companies that can get by with simple “brochure” websites (without ecommerce features) getting their sites built with prefab or customized WordPress templates. One advantage WordPress has over customized content management systems is that it’s easily portable if the business wants to move the website to a different server or host.

  2. Success Coach Says:

    This used to be one of the questions that I was pondering on: Do I need a CMS or not? And my mentor told me the same things that you said. Therefore, I only used a CMS for my big sites and it has helped me a lot in managing these sites.