With open-source content management systems like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, DotNetNuke, and dozens more available to choose from, it’s possible to get a website up and running with little to no programming expertise, even inexpensively. Quality of result is another matter, but there’s no doubting that these tools have enabled individuals, small businesses, and local non-profits to set up a basic website relatively easily.
But what if you’re a large, research-driven nonprofit organization, educational institution, or a business that relies on publishing high volumes of content? What if instead of being a marketing presence, your website is really a delivery platform for a body of knowledge and thought leadership that includes reports, research, interactive maps, and other dynamic online tools?
Can an open-source CMS accommodate content-heavy websites with large audiences, multiple contributors and very specific data displays? More important, how do you go about properly planning to develop a content-rich website and content management system to support it—and how do you make sure that not only your users get the experience they’re looking for, but that your organization has a tool that’s designed to easily create it for them?
Many of the best nonprofit websites are built on CMS platforms such as WordPress or Drupal. Not only do they handle common tasks like editing web content, updating menu items and uploading images very well, they can also be customized to support very specific content requirements and editorial processes.
At their best, CMSs are custom designed to be flexible, dynamic asset management databases that support all your content, which integrate flawlessly with CRM and other systems, and offer an intuitive user interface that makes it easy for non-technical people to use. Unfortunately, our experience has been that too many organizations suffer with inflexible CMSs that work against them instead of for them—creating inefficiencies, requiring too much external support, and making life just plain miserable.
So if you’re a business or nonprofit with publishing-heavy needs, how do you turn a basic, vanilla open-source CMS into a robust platform that supports the ongoing operations of your whole organization?
Well, just as a great website is the result of a thorough discovery, strategy, and design process, a great CMS is the result of rigorous business analysis and systems requirements processes. And just like great design, success with technology is all about context—creating solutions that work flawlessly to meet specific needs, challenges, and goals.
Here are three of the biggest factors Constructive (formerly MSDS) considers when we partner with nonprofits and businesses to build publishing-rich environments for content-heavy websites:
1. Your Editorial Process
A successful editorial workflow is all about understanding how your organization works. All it takes is asking the right questions during planning. Does your organization have a team of writers who produce web-ready content? Or is research development a distributed process that relies on external experts, then collects and funnels it through a central web manager? Do you often prepare major announcements such as events or press releases in advance, needing them to be auto-published at as soon as the clock strikes 12 AM? Do you have experts or staff who are responsible for managing specific sections within your site? Who has the authority to update the homepage, versus the company blog or data that appears in chart form?
What it all boils down to is that workflows, approval hierarchies and scheduled publishing need to be governed by business rules that make sense for your organization.
2. Types and Uses of Data
Speaking of data that appears in chart form, how is your content presented to various audiences? Do you have extensive data-rich research to share with your audience? Is it generated internally or sourced externally? Here’s where the effectiveness of a CMS’s design is directly informed by the quality of your content strategy. Any old CMS lets you to put text on a page. But great data-rich websites that are informative and deliver a great experience often make frequent use of data visualization. If you’ve got a lot of data and your content is updated frequently, the right tools can help make the process of updating your website much more efficient.
With a recent client, Catalyst.org, for example, Constructive developed a system using Drupal and Highcharts to create visualizations of data stored in Google Spreadsheets, not only delivering flexible live data to Catalyst’s audience, but making the workflow of doing so a snap for Catalyst’s research team.
3. Branding and Marketing Requirements
Once the “meat and potatoes” of your content has been identified and accounted for, it’s time to take a close look at all of the supplementary editorial content necessary to provide a useful, branded experience for your users. Once again, understanding all the parameters and designing a solution that supports them all is key.
Are the titles of your research papers often 15 words long, but you’d like a shorter title to featuring them ion the homepage or sidebars? Should an event be treated visually different when it’s being promoted than when it’s already past? In cases like these, effective design to promote and present your content and activities is a matter of planning for manual curating, automated display by the CMS, or some combination of the two.
CMSs are tools that support entire organizations—and which large teams of people often need to use. Getting it right not only delivers a great experience for your audience, it creates efficiency and saves both time and money. By taking a brand- and business-centric approach to ask the right questions, then developing a CMS in parallel with content strategy and the design process, you can create an incredibly powerful system that makes efficient use of “off the shelf” features while providing customized solutions where it matters most to your organization.
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