There is a multitude of content management systems available on the market today ranging in price from “free” to thousands of pounds/dollars and I often find clients gravitating towards the “free” ones.
What does “free” mean?
I want to dispel the illusion of what “free” means in terms of creating a website and selecting a CMS.
Generally, a “free” CMS is one that you don’t have to pay any licensing fee to use. I use quote marks around “free” because the word alone implies that there is no cost to using the CMS in question… this is the illusion.
Even a “free” CMS, such as WordPress, Drupal or Joomla, will require both time and money to be effective. There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or a free CMS.
Time will be spent customising the theme of the site, creating pages and initial content and in most cases creating custom functionality or integrations.
More time will be spent post-launch creating new content, updating old content and generally keeping the site “fresh”. Without this, your search rankings will degrade over time.
The time you and your employees spend getting the site ready for production use costs money.
You also have to host it somewhere, this costs money. Generally speaking, if you skimp on the hosting the site will be slow and perform poorly, reducing its usefulness and its return on investment.
Finally, there is almost always some form of custom behaviour, functionality or integration that is required. To acquire this you will need to pay a developer.
In addition, a typical website has a lifespan or 3–5 years before the design begins to look old and outdated. After this time you will need to look at refreshing the site design. It’s also possible that your requirements will have changed in that time and you might even want to “rebuild” the site to take advantage of newer technology.
Total cost of ownership
You’ve probably heard this term before. TCO or Total Cost of Ownership refers to how much money you will spend on your website over the course of its life.
If you assume that a given incarnation of a website lasts up to 5 years, that’s:
- 5 years of hosting fees
- 5 years of paying employees to update the website content
- 5 years of a support retainer (without this if your site goes down you’re on your own!)
- Ad-hoc payments to developers to make additional functionality changes to your website to accommodate changing business needs
- Ad-hoc payments to designers to make design changes, landing pages, etc. based on business requirements
- Digital marketing to bring people to your site (such as Google Ads, SEO work, etc)
So how do you choose?
Workflow & Process
Start by understanding your own work-flow and processes.
- Who will update the website?
- How often?
- Are there any other systems involved that need to be integrated with the website?
- Who is your intended audience?
- Why do people come to your site?
By understanding these things you can choose a CMS that will optimise the time you spend managing the website. The more efficiently you and your staff can accomplish tasks on the website the less time you will spend on the website allowing you and your employees to be more productive elsewhere in your business.
Use this understanding to create a “short-list” of 2–3 CMS that meet your requirements.
Some content management systems are very easy to extend and customise, acting more like a framework than an “out of the box” website. Others will get you up and running with a basic site much faster but will be that much harder (and more costly) to customise later.
Think about what customisations you might need and what other systems you want to integrate the website with. Ask your developers to review the short-list of CMS, keeping the customisations & integrations you will need in mind.
They should be able to tell you which one will be the easiest to work with from a development perspective. This usually means less time spent developing which can lead to cost savings, though you will have to find the balance that works for you and your business.
A different path
So far I’ve been talking mostly about traditional “monolithic” CMS. The kind of CMS where the “editor” area and the “visitor” area of the application generally reside on the same web server and use the same database.
These have their place, but there is a new option available now… Headless CMS.
A headless CMS offers you more flexibility in how you use your content but it also requires a radical change in how you think about your content.
Consider, instead of thinking about “pages” or “blogs” you begin to think of your content in a more structured way. A blog might be an “article” or a “recipe” or an “instruction manual”. These are very different types of content.
Before you’d have just created these each as “blog pages” and placed the content in some kind of “rich text” editor field that spits out HTML code to be rendered on the website.
Now, with structured content, they are each their own specialised “content model” with fields specially tailored to their purpose. A recipe will have a list of ingredients. An ingredient will have a name, description and measurement.
All of a sudden this same content can be used anywhere.
“Alexa, find me a recipe with rice”
How does headless work?
There are many headless providers out there (Kentico Cloud, GraphCMS, ButterCMS and others) but they all work in a similar way.
Your content is stored within a CMS-Service hosted by the headless provider. The provider gives you access to a web-service or “API” that your developers use to retrieve content items from the CMS.
This means that you can build the front-end of your website independently from the CMS. You must also host it somewhere too, but generally, this hosting will be a little cheaper because you don’t need a database or media storage and the server isn’t doing as much because your editors are not also using its resources when editing content.
Another benefit is that you can move the front-end hosting easily without needing to re-do any content. You can even have multiple front-ends serving the same content in different formats:
- Voice assistants
- Digital billboards
- Social media platforms
What does headless cost?
The price varies from provider to provider, as do the available features. A typical cost breakdown might look like this:
- CMS monthly service cost
- Hosting for the website front-end
- Up-front developer fees to build the custom front-end
Also, remember the “total cost of ownership” I talked about above. You’ll still have the ongoing “5-year” costs to think about but if you consolidate your content management for multiple channels into a single unified headless solution then headless could reduce your overall costs in the process.
Choosing a CMS is a big decision as you’ll be stuck with it for at least the next 3–5 years in most cases. Take your time and weigh all of your options.
If in doubt, talk to a few digital agencies and get their opinions, they’ll often have done much of the leg-work from the development side already and with a little understanding of your business and processes they should be able to recommend a couple for you to look at.