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Tips For Picking a Content Management System For Your Site

January 21, 2010

GrowthSpur’s Dave Chase, who owns and operates the very successful local site SunValleyOnline, recently upgraded the site’s content management system. In this post, adapted from Online Journalism Review, Dave discusses that transition and the criteria SunValleyOnline used in choosing its new platform. His experiences complement our earlier post that explains that you don’t need to spend big bucks to build a site.

One of the biggest early decisions a hyperlocal site entrepreneur makes is what Content Management System (CMS) they will use. This decision is similar to picking a spouse: You are going to live with your decision day and night for a long, long time. Also, similar to choosing a spouse, each person has different criteria. I will share the criteria I used for my hyperlocal site (www.sunvalleyonline.com) so that you can consider them and prioritize them based upon your needs. Think through these criteria, or your “spousal” choice may leave you feeling like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses.

Before I get into that, I will share my experience and scenario which gives you some perspective on my situation. I’m a tech industry veteran (about 25 years), though my hands-on coding experience is ancient (roughly 20 years ago). But as a non-technical person goes, I’m reasonably technical—though I’ve been on the business and editorial side of Web properties the last 15 years.

Part of my background includes being part of the early team at early local network Microsoft Sidewalk, starting in 1995. At Sidewalk, I ran a team that supported the city sites, and about half the cities reported through me. So I’ve been working with CMSs in the local arena for nearly 15 years. SunValleyOnline (SVO) has been around for about 5 years and was built on a proprietary platform that hasn’t changed in years. We are in the final stages of the transition from the old to the new site. SVO has been self-sustaining for a couple years with a small team of three people. We rely on a mix of community and staff contributions. I have personally blogged for several years and have used blogs built on Blogger and mostly WordPress. (While there’s lots of merit in WordPress and the ecosystem built around it, I felt it came up short on the criteria I established for SunValleyOnline).

Here are the criteria I used in choosing a new platform for SunValleyOnline, with a brief explanation of each. While everyone will have somewhat different criteria, I listed the items in priority order from most to least important based upon my experience and needs.

  1. No Developer Required: In my opinion, it is no longer necessary for 98 percent of sites to have a Web developer on staff. Fortunately, there are many off-the-shelf solutions that don’t require an in-house technologist. There may be occasional needs where a developer can be contracted to do specific work, but at the early stages of a site’s development, I think a site should be focused on doing things other than custom development. As long as your CMS has the ability to be extended and expanded later, you can defer bringing on a technologist and save yourself money. Of course, there are hyperlocal sites founded by people with technology skills, and they can certainly take advantage of that, but it’s not a requirement to get off the ground.
  2. Easy to Monetize: Most sites are limited to generating revenue using standard display ads. While that is the right place to start, this is a highly dynamic sector and thus it should be easy to expand your revenue base with other ad types, whether it is turning standard display ads into video ads or incorporating high-quality ad networks. It should be as easy as “copy and paste” to add these capabilities to your site.
  3. Open: It should be very easy to add and delete modules to a page or the entire site, such as social media features, inbound RSS feeds (i.e., pulling in a news feed from another site), and widgets of all types from weather to Flickr slideshows to polls to various monetizable elements from any number of third parties.
  4. Community Generated Content: It should be very easy for members of your community to contribute articles, pictures, video, classifieds, reviews, etc. The CMS should give you the ability to determine whether a specific user is able to post directly to the site or whether the contribution should go into a publication queue for review/approval. It should also allow your community to submit articles via e-mail. Among other things, this can allow them to e-mail pictures and video from their smartphones, which can be critical when there are breaking news events in your community. The CMS we picked has nailed this part. It gives someone who might be witnessing a breaking story the opportunity to submit stories to the site, including pictures (and mapping those pics). What’s more, once the article is posted, you can update it via e-mail replies from the e-mail confirmation the CMS sends when the article posts. This may be the coolest single feature the platform we chose provides.
  5. Off-The-Shelf Cross-Promotion: It must be easy to add features that help internal site promotion. Having features sprinkled through as site such as Most Viewed Pages, Recent Comments, Highly Rated articles and so on are very helpful at increasing the time people spend exploring your site.
  6. Outbound RSS: Just as you can and should pull inbound RSS feeds from complementary sites, you should also make various outbound RSS feeds available so that others can pull in your content to their pages. A CMS should automatically create a range of RSS feeds (e.g., Top Headlines, department and author specific feeds, etc.).
  7. Design Templates and Flexibility: CMSs usually come with pre-built templates, as well as the ability to customize the look and feel. If you don’t like the pre-built templates you can preview, ensure that the process to change the site design is straightforward. (Side note: I have, unfortunately, heard of designers charging sites thousands of dollars for a WordPress template when a few hundred dollars should get you a solid design.)
  8. Pictures and Video: Not only should it be easy to embed code that pulls in photos and video from sites such as Flickr and YouTube, the platform should allow you and your community contributors to upload directly to your site. Allowing users to rate photos and videos is another way to increase engagement with your community, which is vital for your success.
  9. Integration with Social Media: Your CMS should enable you to easily integrate with Facebook (and Facebook Connect) as well as Twitter. This includes enabling you to automatically post items to your accounts on the Social Networks, including shortening URLs (i.e., using a tool such as bit.ly). It also should be easy for your users to send articles, photos, etc. to the major social tools (Digg, StumbleUpon). Don’t forget e-mail—still the most popular way to share an article. “Send to a Friend” should be baked into the system.
  10. Analytics: Not only should it be easy to add third-party tracking tools such as Google Analytics and Quantcast to a site, there should also be the ability to measure success and reward contributors based upon how well read one’s contributions are.
  11. Events: A community-powered Events Calendar is a great way to connect with the community. Not only should a CMS have this capability, it should allow your community to easily submit events. The system should allow for plotting of the events on a map and have the basics of an Events Calendar such as support for recurring (i.e., multi-day) events.
  12. Classifieds: While craigslist has made it to many communities, it doesn’t work well today for hyperlocal. If you are only interested in garage sales in your immediate neighborhood, for instance, craigslist can be unwieldy. Thus, there is an opportunity to fill a niche where the big boys aren’t servicing your community very well. Naturally, having features you expect in articles (maps, photos, etc.) is important for classifieds as well.
  13. Maps: The importance of maps/location continues to increase with the popularity of smartphones. A smart CMS will be able to recognize a photo or Tweet having a GPS coordinate appended to it. This gives your community another way to navigate your content (via location) and becomes more important as mobile consumption increases.
  14. Mobile: Another item that I expect to rapidly grow in importance is mobile. A CMS that allows for your site to be easily consumed on various mobile platforms will be a big asset. At the moment, mobile requires a lot of custom development, but this should change in the relatively near future.
  15. Search Engine Dashboard: Not a common feature yet but one we expect to become more prevalent. Sites such as the Huffington Post are very sophisticated in analyzing search trends to drive headline selection, tagging and how visibility of articles is raised or lowered based upon search term frequency.

At the risk of sounding like a sales pitch, I was very impressed with the flexibility and extensibility of the Neighborlogs platform we chose. It met nearly all the criteria listed above. Progressively, I’m learning the platform more and more and finding more slick things it can do. If I had to summarize why it’s a great fit, is because it is purpose-built for the hyperlocal space, whereas WordPress, Drupal, Django and other options are great general-purpose systems but not geared specifically towards hyperlocal sites. Like WordPress and the others, you can’t beat the price (free). Neighborlogs currently charges only a revenue share on the self-serve ads that are purchased through their advertising tool.

To provide a bit of balance, let me share some areas of constructive criticism for Neighborlogs. The platform developers are running their own hyperlocal site and local network and are very busy. They aren’t always quick to respond, though it’s certainly better than WordPress, where you just have a developer community and no dedicated team to support you unless you hire your own team. There are a few items that are not perfect in how Neighborlogs pulls in RSS feeds and the accompanying social media features. Their ad system isn’t as robust as some of the ad servers out there, but the shortcomings weren’t dealbreakers for us. Being a relatively new company and platform, there’s always the risk that Neighborlogs wont survive, but, as good of a job as they have done, I think others will discover the benefits themselves.

Overall, I’d encourage people to clearly define their own criteria. My criteria aren’t applicable to everyone. Establishing your own will greatly increase the chances you’ll be happy long-term. I encourage others to share their experiences, good or bad, with various CMSs they have used. I also welcome feedback on our new site. What works for you and what doesn’t?

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7 Comments
  1. Anuradha permalink
    January 30, 2010 9:14 am

    Very useful article.

  2. February 5, 2010 9:46 am

    nice article.
    hope this may help me.
    Thanks for sharing.

    good article

  3. February 15, 2010 11:24 pm

    One of the criteria you mentioned was templates. Are there, in fact, lots of publicly available templates you can use for Neighborlogs? The look of the SunValleyOnline is very blog-like, while there are plenty of templates for WordPress (and even Blogger) that gives the user a more news or magazine styled look. Also, is the template you are using easily customized (I assume so, but would like your opinion). Thank you.

  4. April 5, 2010 3:56 pm

    D.B. – I’m sorry I didn’t notice your comment/question. As far as templates go, the answer is no in the WordPress sense. It’s straightforward to modify the template and you can see how other sites powered by neighborlogs have done so. On the other hand, there are some many pre-built module templates, that far outweighed the desire to highly customize the general site template out the chute. We may do that in the future but it isn’t something we’ve viewed as critical. I also liked the drag and drop ability to add/remove/edit modules. I didn’t need to touch a line of code to do what we did on our site and I had zero tech help. Total cost (other than my time) – $0.

  5. Douglas Crets permalink
    March 7, 2011 2:35 am

    Thanks for writing this article. I had come to the blog post by search to find out more about RSS feeds and how to splice them into the backend of the CMS. I have been looking for ways to incorporate RSS feeds into the daily workflow of the backend editing and blogging I am doing in the CMS. Do you know of any widgets or hacks that work to make this happen?

Trackbacks

  1. Picking a CMS | Tom Davidson
  2. Starting a Local Site: Creating a Budget « GrowthSpur Blog

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