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WCM alternatives: build, buy, customize - what would you do?

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher December 15, 2015
Picking a content management system used to be about proprietary versus open source. But the market has shifted. Now the lines between build, buy, and open source have blurred. Barb Mosher Zinck reframes the options.

For years, the big web content management debate was proprietary or open source. The debate went something like: “use proprietary WCM because you can trust the software, it's more stable, it's supported, and so on” versus “go open source because you control how it's built, you have access to the code to do whatever you want, there are large developer communities for support, and it's cheaper.”

It was an interesting and often heated debate, and there were good and bad points on both sides, but it's pretty much over. There's a new discussion today that's gaining momentum: should you buy your web content management system. or should you build your own?

At the Gilbane conference earlier this month, we heard about two approaches to WCM alternatives, roll your own (build) and use WordPress (customize an existing platform). There was even talk about buying out of the box.

There was good discussion, but in the end, there was no clear winner. That's because there's no simple right answer. The approach you take to web content management is going to depend on many different factors. Let's take a look at the three different approaches, and you can decide if one works better than the others.

Buy your web content management out of the box

This is probably the easiest option to talk about, if for no other reason than there are hundreds of WCMs available on the market today. The web content management industry is booming, and it's evolving rapidly - attempting to keep up with the demands of the brands that use them.

You have options here - small, mid-sized, enterprise, open source (yes, some open source solutions cost money), vertical solutions, horizontal solutions, cloud-based, headless, pure play, web experience, digital experience, and more.

All you need to do is ask Google. and you'll have a nice list to work with. More and more capabilities are built into web content management systems every year that enable the creation of personalized and contextual customer experiences. Many WCMs also integrate with other key systems needed to support CX strategies such as marketing automation, CRM, ecommerce and so on (some even include them natively).

Maybe you want a WCM that allows you to build your front-end in the latest web technologies with no limits or restrictions, but gives you back-end content management capabilities - look to the headless CMS. Maybe you want a pure-play WCM that offers only content management and content publishing. Or maybe you need a WCM solution that includes personalization and profile management capabilities, along with the ability to publish to multiple channels and devices - this is web experience solution. Whatever your needs, there are any number of potential solutions out there.

Most of them are good products, and the reality is, many organizations do not have the development resources or skills to build or customize a WCM to get the functionality they need. If your business is not building software, then why would you go through the effort of doing it for your Web CMS when you can find a perfectly good one ready to plug in and go?

Customize an existing Web CMS

This is the story that John Eckman, CEO of 10up. promotes when he talks about using WordPress as your web content management platform. Eckman made a great point in his talk at the Gilbane conference - there is no such thing as an “out of the box” WCM.

It’s rare that an organization can buy or use a WCM and simply install it, turn it on and go. There is always some level of customization that will need to be done because you can’t build a CMS that works out of the gate for every organization and every situation.

Eckman’s company provides design and development consulting services around WCM platforms like WordPress. He talked about how WordPress is enterprise fit (despite what some might say) with a core technology and set of APIs that offers a range of enterprise capabilities including workflow, permissions, content types, metadata, multi-site, multilingual, and more.

He made a great pitch to use WordPress - it’s a platform that you can customize based on your specific needs. But it’s also a pitch for other similar WCM platforms that are either open source or built on open standards.

If you have the development resources, or a great partner, and a lot of custom requirements, then consider implementing a WCM platform that gives the ability to customize it to your specific needs. Look for a platform that doesn’t necessarily allow you to modify the core code, but integrate or snap in custom modules, connect custom or third-party APIs, or create custom code that includes your specific functionality.

This is what WordPress enables, but it’s also what a number of other WCM solutions enable as well. Open source platforms are a perfect fit here, but there are also some proprietary platforms that support the same customization approach. The key is to look for “platforms” that follow and support open standards.

Roll your own web content management solution

Building your web content management solution is a big deal - it’s not something you want to do without a lot of thought and market research. But there are cases where it makes the most sense.

John Peterson, a programmer and founder of Sutro Software, firmly believes you should build your own WCM. At Gilbane Peterson talked about some of the objections to building your own CMS, such as “why reinvent the wheel?”, “it costs too much money”, and “it takes too long.”

His perspective? Work on your site first before you buy a WCM. Then, over time, organically develop the tools and editorial controls to manage it. It’s a good point. Far too often, organizations go out and buy a web content management system before they really understand what they need. Or, they list a million requirements, both past, present and future, and look for a WCM that meets everything, even though some of it they no longer need, and some they’ll probably never get to use.

Peterson talked about the opportunity to innovate and come up with a solution that meets your specific needs. This doesn’t have to be a case where your needs are so specific and unique to you that you have to build your own. It can be an opportunity to think outside of the box and create something that works the way you want to work, without having to change your own processes, or work around something already built to work a certain way.

Here’s an important point to consider: even if you do build your own WCM, you are not going to build every piece of code from scratch. There is far too much open source code available to leverage to not take advantage of it. For example, you’re not going to build your own authentication protocol when you can use something like OAuth. You will take pieces of code already available, incorporate your own custom code and modules and get, essentially, a home-grown solution.

Another point Peterson made that not everyone agreed with, but certainly sparks some conversation - we are being told that to be successful today, every organization needs to become a media organization, that we need to think like a publisher and create the best content to capture consumers attention and interest. Peterson says not only do we need to become a media organization, but we also need to become a software company - we need to create the software that enables us to do the things that make us and/or our customers successful.

My Take: Six of one, half dozen of the other

Which option is the best? Like I said at the beginning - it depends. But here’s another thing to confuse the answer - in many ways these three approaches are the same.

It’s almost impossible to implement a WCM out of the box and have it work exactly as you need. You will need to customize it to fit your requirements. You won’t custom build every single piece of code if you roll your own WCM. What these three options all make clear is that there’s a lot of WCM capability out there today you can leverage. It's simply a question of how much work you want to put into your WCM.

Don’t assume a build-your-own is the most expensive, I’ve heard many horror stories about the cost of customizing a purchased WCM, and just as many trying to customize on top of platforms like WordPress. The best answer for you depends on your budget in terms of cost and time, the skill level of your development team and/or your partner, the functionality you need, and whether you think like a software company, an integrator, or an organization who just wants the simplest answer so they can focus on the job they were created to do.

Tough decisions - all with their pros and cons. All exciting in the right environment.

Editor's note: this piece is a companion to Barb's prior article, To move (or not to move) to a new web content management platform, which looks at the pros/cons of making a WCM switch.

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