You’ve heard me say it a thousand times: The content management business is a confusing landscape to navigate. At the core, every customer has similar yet different requirements, and every CMS vendor, open-source project, and agency is trying to sell one single solution that can meet all of them.
But the bottom line is that no one size fits all, ever. Every project, every customer, and every desired outcome is different.
At NPG, our expertise lies in developing custom solutions—both front end and back end—to help clients achieve their digital goals. This means each client will be matched to the proper solution based on their needs.
We’ve all heard the cliché, “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Obviously, we’ve spoken about our preference for custom solutions before, especially on the back-end CMS side. But we’ve also said that custom CMS solutions aren’t for everyone, just as we’ve said WordPress or Drupal aren’t a perfect fit for every situation either.
At the end of the day, we primarily see clients falling into one of three different tiers when it comes to content management:
- Custom software
- WordPress / Off-the-shelf
In this post, I want to talk about these three tiers and dig deeper into the pros and cons of each, as well as which tier makes the most sense for which application. We’ll start with the complex and work our way down to more common use cases that we see.
(As a side note, this post could have easily been called “Custom CMS vs Drupal vs X vs Y vs Z.” We’re focusing on the above specifics simply because these are the most popular solutions we recommend in almost 90% of potential development projects.)
Tier 1: Custom CMS & Custom-Developed Software
While custom CMS software represents a large portion of our overall business, it isn’t for everyone. Custom CMS installations are appropriate when the upside of having custom workflows is worth the expense of developing the solution. This mostly occurs in companies with a 100% digitally-focused business, one which requires a high level of custom functionality that is not achievable with software taken off the shelf.
Custom solutions as we build them aren’t necessarily focused at any one industry or type of business, but rather aimed at solving problems for their owners. However, we do see certain use cases more often than others.
Most applications that end up as custom projects are from one of these following categories:
Online publishers have the most to gain from custom CMS solutions that allow them to operate a single-screen solution for their content creation and distribution teams.
The business of publishing content is complex, and the methodology of distributing content is even more involved. Custom solutions allow publishers to integrate all of these needs and requirements into a single platform that allows for flexibility and longevity. In these cases, decoupled or headless solutions make a lot of sense.
In addition, as more publishers are monetizing via multiple methods, custom systems make the integration of advertising and subscription models part of the core functionality, not afterthoughts. The merging of CMS and monetization methodologies is a major reason the largest publishers in the world have invested heavily in custom content management solutions.
Software as a Service providers benefit greatly from custom solutions. These platforms typically require a back-office management platform to enable the day-to-day operations of the business.
Our belief is that a single portal to manage the business, reporting, and the marketing website allows for the most comprehensive and cohesive ongoing infrastructure. These solutions are now being developed in the decoupled methodology, but may also benefit from an integrated development approach.
Custom Lead Generation
Lead generation is a common area that we see a need for custom-developed solutions. This is because lead management varies from company to company in more than a few ways.
For example, different companies acquire leads from different sources. They may “triage” or organize the leads and shuffle them to appropriate destinations differently. Furthermore, they may clean or check the accuracy or value of the leads before ever acting on them.
While off-the-shelf systems exist to handle some of this, tying that above functionality together with reporting and key performance metrics is a challenge, with many marketers juggling multiple platforms to understand their manually gathered statistics.
Custom solutions make streamlining and automating this much easier, as every company processes this data differently looking for a statistical advantage.
Custom Portals & Complex Logical Applications
This is usually a no-brainer, with the client already knowing they need custom development as they have researched and found nothing off the shelf that can accomplish their needs. Or in some cases, they realize this after trying the hard way to modify software to get the job done.
High security is the most likely reason that a simple project evolves into a custom-built one. We see this with marketing websites for high-security companies, political sites, and even banking or finance applications. Custom solutions will always be easier to secure than off-the-shelf systems. When security matters above all else, site operators are very wise to choose a customized approach to development.
So, what about circumstances that aren’t a great fit for custom CMS solutions?
As I’ve said before, custom development projects (and budgets) aren’t for everyone. Again, think about how the potential benefits outweigh initial costs, or how the desired outcome can be calculated to have a meaningful ROI. That typically means that informational sites, simple marketing sites, microsites, or any other small-scale projects typically don’t make sense as custom platform candidates.
Our Approach to Tier 1 Projects:
Engage in a thorough discovery and architecture process to properly define, architect, and estimate the costs and timeframes to develop the project properly.
Key Takeaways for Tier 1:
- Highest flexibility
- Longer development timeframes
- Higher budget
- Complete ownership
Tier 2: WordPress (or other OTS solutions)
The middle tier of projects we see typically involve customers that either are a fit for off-the-shelf solutions or request it from day one. The most typical use cases involve:
Informational / Marketing Sites
WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, SiteCore, and all the other major CMS platforms available really make their bread and butter with these types of applications. In many cases, it makes sense to consider these systems for a simple marketing website. The question to ask is how far you want to bend them to meet your needs.
One way we determine a platform’s fit is to ask about future plans, including future functionality. Websites that will always deliver to the Web and won’t ever need to introduce complex functionality like portals, log-in walls, or other similar features are usually fine to utilize these systems.
By simple e-commerce, we mean commerce applications that can be fulfilled by literally taking a platform like Magento off the shelf or taking another platform like WordPress and extending it via plugins such as WooCommerce. If you can accomplish your goals via those platforms with minimal development modifications, then they are probably a good fit.
We almost never recommend hosted solutions such as Shopify or BigCommerce, as they limit you too much to be of tremendous value. With off-the-shelf software, you have a bit more flexibility, but we recommend utilizing it as intended and not modifying it in any way that reduces its future upgradeability.
Platforms such as WordPress and Drupal do a decent job at publishing to the Web. When I say “to the Web,” I mean just that—only to the Web via web pages.
If your application calls for simple publishing with just the one distribution channel, off-the-shelf platforms may work well for you. This is especially true if you have limited editors or administrative users to please. However, if you plan to distribute the same content to multiple channels, these choices may leave you stuck when those future plans come to fruition.
Previous Experience / Preference
Many customers come to us with the requirement that we work with a platform such as WordPress based on nothing more than their own history and/or comfort level. To a certain extent, this is all well and good, but we do encourage them to review other possible pathways first to ascertain if they are viable.
Tier 2 projects can vary greatly in size, scale, and functionality. Our focus with these customers is to provide solutions that allow for the utmost customization while still preserving the underlying functionality of the platform, including upgradeability for security and functional improvements.
Our Approach to Tier 2 Projects:
Engage in a discovery process to determine the proper platform, and the pros/cons of the chosen solution. If the risks are insignificant or if the platform chosen will not be pushed past its comfort zone, it may be a good fit and we will recommend the solution with some modifications to enhance the clients experience.
Key Takeaways for Tier 2:
- Limited flexibility
- Shorter development timeframes
- Mid-level budget
- Comfort in being part of a large software community or being supported by a vendor
Beware! Most OTS platforms are built on old technology and by nature can be security nightmares.
Tier 3: CaaS (Content as a Service) or Hosted Content Solutions
We’ve written a bit about these solutions before. Admittedly, we were a bit skeptical, but we’ve spent more time as of late working with CaaS platforms and understanding their underlying technology.
We love CaaS’s core methodology: the idea that content management should always be decoupled from the front-end user experience. In our research, we’ve seen new case studies to prove the value of this approach, and we are now comfortable recommending it as our third tier of service offering.
The most comprehensive system we’ve worked with so far is offered by Contentstack, which is a provider of a hosted headless CMS platform of the same name. We spent some time recently talking to the team behind the software, as well as evaluating its functionality, including its content management tools and API-driven data delivery.
We are impressed, and we believe that there is a definite series of use cases where this software makes a ton of sense. Among them, we highlight the following scenarios where this approach could be beneficial:
Complex Front-End Designs & Experiences
For those who are seeking to develop a front-end experience worthy of a Webby while maintaining a functional and flexible CMS experience, Contentstack is an amazing choice. The administrative system is simple enough to allow marketers and editors to manage content, while the API-driven delivery of content allows sophisticated front-end developers and designers to craft experiences without the limitations placed on them by off-the-shelf platforms.
Short Development Cycles
Because the CMS is already built and basically only requires content architecture and configuration, development cycles are significantly reduced. For clients who have the pressure of time working against them, yet still are seeking an advanced front-end user experience for their site or application, Contentstack is a very capable platform.
Microsites are often projects that marketers do over and over again. The pain point is managing multiple sites that are live, each with its own environment or platform installation.
Systems like Contentstack can house many projects, allowing the administrators to control access and offer a uniform management interface. And since most microsites are wrapped around a short-term marketing project or developed within an accelerated timeframe, Contentstack makes it easy to quickly roll out the management tools required to get the job done.
Informational / Marketing Applications
I believe that more and more in-depth marketing sites can be developed on CaaS because of the nature of the technology that marketers are utilizing as part of their day-to-day repertoire. If your site doesn’t feature advanced interactivity that requires custom development and you can power your lead generation via tools like HubSpot, then there really is no reason you can’t give a CaaS environment a serious look.
As mentioned above, the best thing about headless platforms is the ability to distribute content to multiple channels. CaaS providers like Contentstack are the most true-to-form examples of decoupled, headless architecture available today, and they prove it in their ability to distribute content via API to whatever platform your site or app utilizes.
It is important for clients to realize that CaaS services are not development environments, so you can’t use them to build sophisticated applications. They are clean content management tools that are built in the headless or decoupled model. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t utilize their content management tools as part of a complex development project. But they are not yet designed to serve as a centerpiece of a sophisticated application or ecosystem.
Our Approach to Tier 3 Projects:
Engage in a discovery and architecture phase to ensure that the platform is a good fit, including understanding future project requirements.
Key Takeaways for Tier 3:
- Shorter time to market
- Multi-channel compatibility
- Ability to use emerging front-end technologies
- Lowest back-end costs
I wrote this post as part of our continuing journey to demystify the process of choosing a CMS platform. It is our belief that the above tiers will become more of a standardized breakdown of the options available, as opposed to today’s current state of the market, where each vendor aims to please every use case every time.
There are more choices than just the monolithic platforms that are available off the shelf, and it’s important for marketers, website owners, and developers to understand the differences between them before making a final decision. By understanding where your particular organization falls on the spectrum, you can get a better sense of what’s right not just for your current needs, but for your future plans and budget.