This week, I’m going to take you back in time.
I suspect this post will be more of a sermon than a technically detailed post, so bear with me.
As we all know, the web content management industry is taking what appears to be a subtle U-turn. Back in the early days of the Internet (which I’ll define in this post as being prior to 2000), almost all websites were built on custom software. There weren’t any real usable and extensible content management systems to choose from. Websites were built by actual designers and developers—folks who knew how to code custom solutions in a scalable, reliable, and artistic way. We utilized archaic, yet efficient code such as CGI for scripting, and simple HTML for rendering pages.
Ah, the good ol’ days!
Then the CMS was conceived and, over time, evolved. Everything changed. No longer were websites built only by the most talented developers and designers. Instead, those engineers were spending more time either building out complex web applications or other projects of interest. They left lower-tier engineers to handle simple web design and CMS integrations.
This meant that for the majority of customers looking to develop a website, the talent pool was not necessarily shrinking; it actually was growing in size and being commoditized with less talented individuals.
Now, I realize this is a pretty startling accusation against the agency industry. But it is very real. As the talented developers and designers moved on to more complex projects, it ushered in a new era of web professionals who only knew how to work with software packages that already did most of the work for them.
You may have experience with this. Maybe you hired a “web developer” who, in reality, only knows how to install and customize software like Joomla or WordPress. You’ve probably gotten pretty far into your project, only to realize that they can’t figure out how to develop a certain feature you are highly dependent on. This feature is likely a bit complex and won’t work off-the-shelf. The developer would have to custom-code the solution within the platform, and as you try to get this new concept to work, you’re realizing that your developer is maybe not a true developer at all.
And now you have a real dilemma. Do you continue with this individual, or move on? Or, even worse—have you chosen not just a bad developer, but a bad platform too?
How can something like this happen? Well, it’s because consumers of web development services are unable to navigate the muddy waters of web design and development. The artisans of the Web, especially in the old days, have been replaced by what can best be called the factory workers of today. Coding, which used to be an art, has been replaced by individuals who simply connect parts like an assembly line.
As this change occurred, clients and customers were unable to distinguish the subtle shift. And to this day, the waters remain muddy, with the results in many cases costing companies millions of dollars per year, or even costing many a CMO his or her job for the failure.
Hiring bad help is just one nightmare case study that is leading more and more corporate or enterprise organizations to entertain the idea of building a custom CMS.
I’m sure you can hardly believe that these things actually happen. Well, I can assure you it does—at the highest levels of the corporate world. I’ve seen publicly traded companies that have thousands of employees hire “developers” who have no idea what they are doing. We literally saw, in one example, a developer take a theme off the shelf and plop a logo on it, passing it off as being custom designed and developed!
Why? Because the CMO who hired them was sure that web design and development were simply a commodity. He thought he could price agencies against each other, and that using this approach would result in fantastic results.
What he didn’t know was that the true artists, the creative agencies that can guarantee results, will never play the game of price matching.
He chose poorly. He’s already out of a job.
So what can a smart CMO or other consumer of web agency services do? It is possible to mitigate the risk of choosing a bad platform developer by hiring an actual developer. And instead of utilizing a bloated, off-the-shelf platform, you can rely on a trained professional developer to build you the right solution from day one.
This is the outcome that we have come back full-circle to: the idea of utilizing qualified web professionals to craft custom solutions that actually work, as opposed to relying on order-takers to put together parts without knowledge of what those parts really do.
What’s worse than finding the wrong talent? Investing in a platform that isn’t in it for the long haul.
It starts with the understanding that a website redesign is in order. Executives at an organization are aware that their web presence is not up to snuff. It’s old, clunky, and outdated from a visual perspective. It also may be performing below industry standards in terms of metrics and statistics. Executives hand the project down to their marketing team, who begin the process of sourcing a vendor to assist in design and development of the site.
After an exhaustive process taking many months, they settle on a vendor. Most likely, they chose the lowest bidder, and that person has a preferred CMS platform.
Then the design and development process takes longer than predicted and becomes wrought with frustration. Maybe the developer is unable to achieve the functionality the company wants within their preferred platform, which leads to frustration with the vendor.
But despite the odds, with a little luck, the site gets done and is pushed live.
At this point, it goes into maintenance mode. But from day one, the website is already slowly becoming outdated. Perhaps it’s hard to keep up with updates or upgrades issued by the vendor. Maybe there’s a security breach. Maybe the CMO is afraid to ask for a budget to cover maintenance—something they didn’t plan for at the beginning.
And then it all begins to fall apart. The CMS itself becomes outdated because no one is supporting it. At this point, you are stuck! What will you do? Keep an outdated, insecure platform online that no one is supporting, or restart the entire process?
We’ve seen this process begin literally the day after a site is launched: clients who undergo a lengthy redesign and redevelopment project based on off-the-shelf software, then refuse any ongoing support or maintenance. Their sites will be out-of-date within weeks, and vulnerable. After a year, they may require a major overhaul to secure.
The careful selection process actually led these organizations down a dead-end path with a lack of control and flexibility. If only, from day one, they had made the commitment to build a custom CMS. The software lifespan could be significantly longer. The organization could achieve all of their functionality goals. And the company would have a reliable, valuable asset that they own and control.
When we speak to potential clients, the number one reason they cite for their interest in custom CMS solutions is the dissatisfaction with their existing CMS. Nearly 9 out of 10 times, they are on some off-the-shelf platform that does not meet expectations. And almost as often, there have been issues with a previous vendor or agency as well.
On one hand, I empathize with the previous vendor. After all, they are typically trying to extend these software packages to do what they weren’t meant to do, which is a Sisyphean task in most cases. And since finding agency business is hard enough, it’s rare they will turn a client down.
It’s a difficult spot to be put in. But they take the business anyway and struggle, resulting in a failed or weak final product. And that cycle puts pressure on the industry as a whole.
All of these cycles are toxic. And it’s invading all levels of industry, from small business to large enterprise. As more and more marketers and business owners grow up thinking that web designers and developers are a commoditized industry, we’ll see more cases similar to those I described above. More people will spend their budgets on unqualified vendors. And more websites will rot in a cycle of continuous upgrades and updates—all while quality, custom solutions are out there.
These cycles are the precise reason why custom CMS platforms are making their way back to the table as viable options. Building a custom CMS enables organizations to have control. They enable organizations to know they are hiring qualified talent. And they help companies make investments in assets they can own with a predictable lifespan.
The web development industry, along with may off-the-shelf platforms, are in a bubble. If nearly every customer in the marketplace has experienced one of the nightmare scenarios above, we simply can’t continue having low-quality vendors producing low-quality results with software originally intended to do something completely different.
Eventually, marketers will learn from their mistakes and start to trust custom solutions again. And there is no better place to start than by building your website on top of a secure, scalable custom CMS platform.