A Few Good Tools to Manage Content on Simple Sites

Updated for 2014

Are you embarrassed by your organization’s website? (Come on, you can admit it.) Was it built in a volunteer’s nephew’s basement — or does it look like it was? Does it feature events or breaking news that are sadly out of date? Are you still trying to get around to adding that program you started last year?

These days, it’s critical for every organization to have a solid, professional-looking, reasonably up-to-date website. Just like your physical address or a good brochure, a professional website enhances your organization’s credibility and helps people understand what you do. If you’re hosting a big event but nothing is mentioned about it on your website, or if your site prominently displays news from last year, these inconsistencies raise questions about your ability to get things done.
 

Your organization needs not only a website, but a reliable way to update it. That said, not every organization requires a complex site or sophisticated software to manage it — sometimes, a simple 10- or 20-pager is sufficient for your needs. In this case, a complex content management system designed to update sophisticated sites just doesn’t make sense — such systems are time-consuming to set up, and are overly complicated by a bunch of functionality you’ll never use.

What content management software would make sense? We asked six nonprofit technologists with extensive experience with small websites what solutions they would recommend. Our experts offer a number of tools that have worked for them — including simple sitebuilding tools, WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) software, nonprofit integrated tools, and robust content management systems. Maybe these options will work for you as well.

Relying on a Trusted Person

Many organizations rely on a trusted staff member, consultant, or volunteer to build and update their websites for them. If you only need to update your site a couple times a year and you don’t expect your organization to grow or your website to change substantially, this method can work in a pinch.

This solution is not ideal, however. In many cases, the inevitable delays of handing off text will cause site updates to become increasingly infrequent. If a consultant is charging you for updates, these fees can mount up over time. Moreover, what will happen if your trusted Web designer is no longer available, or decides to charge more than you want to pay? If you do rely on one person for updates, make sure you have a backup person who knows how to update your site, and ensure that the site is built using standard tools that another technical person could learn if necessary.
 
For most organizations, however, having a website that can be updated by a number of people in your organization and that can provide a platform for your future growth is worth a small investment in one of the tools described below.
 

Simple Sitebuilding Tools

Let’s say you need to put up a simple website quickly, and you don’t have any technical expertise, graphic-design skills, or experience with websites. Simple sitebuilding tools are designed to help you in this situation. These tools allow you to go to an online site builder, pick out a design and layout from hundreds of templates, upload a logo, define your navigation, and create your text and images — all with easy-to-use tools that are intended for anyone accustomed to using software like Word or Outlook. They're inexpensive as well — typically little more than you would pay to host a website.

Moreover, sites built with a simple sitebuilder will only scale so far. When you’re ready to add more functionality or create a section with another 30 pages, you’ll likely need to start over with another tool. On the other hand, these kits offer a very quick way to set up a site, and there’s no reason you can’t use them to create a temporary site now and then discard it when you’re ready to replace it. You can usually try these tools out on a trial basis to see if they will work for you.

Wix (www.wix.com)
Wix provides a polished and user-friendly interface for creating smaller, simple sites. The vendor provides a wide range of premade templates, which offer a good degree of flexibility and customization and allow you to create a version of your site optimized for mobile devices. Organizations with a larger web presence or multiple content editors may not find Wix the right fit for their needs, as the tool cannot handle multiple user accounts with different roles or permissions—all your content editors must share a single login credential. Additional features or tools are available as free or paid add-ons from the vendor-curated App Market. Wix can be used under a free account, but for your own domain, additional storage, and an ad-free site, paid plans start at $6.90 per month (with a discount for annual subscriptions).

Weebly (www.weebly.com)
Designed with less tech-savvy users in mind, Weebly provides a polished, user-friendly interface for creating smaller, simple sites. When first creating a site, users are presented with a wide range of flexible and customizable pre-made templates, all of which will automatically create a mobile-optimized version of your site. And while nontechnical users can easily customize the structure and look-and-feel of a site, Weebly does not currently provide add-ons or apps to extend system functionality. Weebly can be used under a free account, but for your own domain and premium support, paid plans start at $4 per month.

WordPress.com (www.wordpress.com)
WordPress.com, by Automattic, is best known as a blogging platform, but for a small organization looking to create a simple site, it provides many of the same features as its cousin, the open source WordPress.org. Its user-friendly interface puts site setup within reach of even nontechnical staff members, and the vendor provides over 200 prepackaged graphic themes—most of which are free. Pricing is based off of a “freemium” model—while you can get started with a free account, you’ll need to pay for upgrades and additional features, like removing ads, adding your own custom domain, or the ability to add custom CSS stylesheets. Paid accounts, called bundles, start at $99 per year for the premium plan and up to $299 per year for the Business plan, which includes all upgrades, premium themes, and unlimited storage.

Squarespace (www.squarespace.com)
A step beyond blogging tools, Squarespace allows nontechnical organizations to quickly and easily create or manage smaller websites. Designed with artists and designers in mind, Squarespace handles multimedia like photos and videos quite well, and strong responsive design makes creating a mobile-friendly site effortless. Templates provided by the vendor offer a large amount of flexibility and customization, as well as drag-and-drop/WYSIWYG layout editors, but you can’t create your own custom templates without using the developer platform. It starts at $8 a month, and ranges to $24 a month for the Business version.

Tools Offered by Your Web Host 
If a simple sitebuilder sounds promising for your organization, and you’ve already set up a relationship with a company to host your website, check to see if that Web host offers sitebuilding tools similar to those described above. Many hosts offer simple sitebuilding tools for free, although they vary widely in quality.

Online Integrated Systems

For many nonprofits, features such as online donations, event registration, and email newsletters are as important as the website itself. In fact, that may be all you really need for a website, at least for the time being. If this is the case for your organization, you could consider an online integrated system.

Online integrated systems allow nonprofits to manage a number of different aspects of their constituent information and web presence all together in one hosted, online package. These tools—like NeonCRM (
http://z2systems.com), Salsa (http://www.salsalabs.com), or WildApricot (http://www.wildapricot.com)—offer nonprofit-specific functionality, such as online donations and event registration, and help you to not only manage your website but also your entire list of constituents.  While the feature set is considerably broader, you are still limited to what the tools offer. If you want to do something extra, it likely won’t be possible.
 

WYSIWYG HTML Editing Tools

If you just need to be able to edit and update an existing website built on static HTML pages, you could consider a WYSIWYG HTML editor. Tools like Adobe Dreamweaver (http://www.adobe.com/products/dreamweaver.html) or Contribute (http://www.adobe.com/products/contribute.html) allow nontechnical users to directly access the underlying code of the website and easily make updates to text and images, without knowledge of HTML. 

While one of these HTML editors will work fine for an existing static HTML site, it’s not advisable for an organization to build a new site using one of these tools. Although it’s likely a better option than one of the simple sitebuilding tools above, a site built on static HTML pages is inherently less scalable than a site built with a CMS (which we'll discuss below). If you’re going to add new sections and new functionality down the road, it might make sense to choose a tool that will better support your growth.

Content Management Systems

If you’re looking to build a website to grow with you and become feature-rich over time, there’s little argument—using a content management system (CMS), is the right way to go. A CMS helps you set up your own site, create pages, update pages, add new navigation, and more, all through a Web-administration tool. These tools are notably more complex to setup, but they are also vastly more powerful—a site built with a tool like Wix or Weebly will likely be small and fairly generic looking if you stick to the templates available, but a fully-featured CMS can support hundreds or thousands of pages, display a custom look for your site, and allow you to choose from a huge menu of extra features.

Generally speaking, open source means that a system’s source code is freely available for everyone to acquire, see and change—that’s not true of proprietary systems (like Microsoft Word, for example). While a proprietary system is created, distributed and maintained by a business, open source software is typically supported by a community of developers and users. These distinctions are not as hard and fast as they might seem, however. Some systems are both available under an open source model and sold as a package by a vendor, for instance, and others are not open source but are virtually free to acquire and have a huge community of developers and users. 
 
When comparing a system’s openness and the strength of the community supporting it, it’s not enough to simply ask “is it open source or not?” Instead, you'll want to focus on what tool best meets your organziation's needs, what support is available, and, if you're working with a consultant, what they are familiar with.
 
WordPress (www.wordpress.org)
WordPress.org is a great choice for fairly small websites—a few hundred pages or less—that are simply arranged. It’s one of the easiest systems to install and understand, and is easy to maintain and update, putting site setup within reach of anyone with a sense of technical adventure. There are many predefined graphic themes available. Adapting them to your particular needs can range from trivial—if the theme allows you to select your own color and add your own logo, for instance—to a relatively straightforward process for someone familiar with HTML and CSS. Updating and editing images and text is also quite straightforward, and multiple add-on modules are available. However, might not scale as intuitively as more complex systems to support larger or complex websites. A large number of add-on modules are available through the community to add additional functionality to your site—including functionality that other systems have out-of-the-box.

ExpressionEngine (ellislab.com/expressionengine)
Somewhere between a blogging platform or CMS for simple sites and more powerful enterprise-level solutions, ExpressionEngine is a flexible system well-suited to technical users. A large number of free or paid add-on modules, both created by the vendor and the community, provide additional functionality in most areas. The system is not optimized for nontechnical users, however, and requires a learning curve to set up a site, and significant technical knowledge of both HTML and the proprietary coding language to create templates and use more advanced features. While ExpressionEngine does allow for a good variety of unusual and custom content types, the system is not as strong as many others when it comes to out-of-the-box workflow.
 
If you want a solution that is relatively easy to implement but still effective for much larger sites down the road, Joomla may be a great choice. Joomla focuses on usability, and anyone who’s technically adventurous can get a substantial site up without the need for any specific skills. Each piece of content is typically associated with a single page. This makes the system more straightforward to understand, but can be cumbersome to update and limits very advanced structures (like structuring the site around a multifaceted taxonomy). Add-on modules support a wide variety of functionalities, from directories to shopping carts to community features, providing a solid base for many different kinds of sites.
 
For more complex sites, organizations willing to hire a consultant should also consider the open source Drupal (https://www.drupal.org/) or Plone (http://plone.org/), which require more technical implementation up-front, but in turn offer more advanced features and functionality.
 

The CMS Your Trusted Web Developer Knows

What if one of your staff members, or a trusted consultant or volunteer, is advocating a CMS that they’ve used before? This might make sense—after all, one of the biggest factors in choosing a CMS is the learning curve. Moreover, there are many systems that would be compatible with a variety of sites. Before going this route, however, take into account the following considerations.
 
Is there a community of users for the CMS? If your Web developer has built a CMS herself, chances are that there won’t be a lot of people to help you with questions or in expanding the site. However, if your website is built on a reasonably well-known CMS, there’s likely to be a whole community of users who can help provide support or website development if the person who built the site is no longer around.
 
Can the CMS be hosted on a typical shared-hosting environment? Ask your developer if there’s any special hosting needs for the CMS. Developers who come from a corporate background in particular may not realize that building on, say, a .NET or Python platform may require special hosting considerations.
 
Can you understand how to use it? Ask for a demo of how you would edit articles, create events, or other everyday activities, as well as of less-common features such as creating site users, updating navigation, or the like. Some of the open-source CMSs in particular are geared towards more technical users, and can be difficult to use.
If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, then go for it. Using a CMS that’s familiar to the person who’s developing the site can save a lot of time and frustration.
 

Finding the Right Solution

When choosing a content management method, start with the technical expertise that’s available to get you up and running. If there’s no one technically adventurous to help you out, then you’ll be limited to simple sitebuilder or hosted integrated tools. If you have someone adventurous and technically oriented but without specific expertise, a less complex CMS like WordPress or Joomla may be a good solution.
 
If, on the other hand, you can find or hire a professional to build the site for you, you have more options. Building a site to be updated through a WYSIWYG HTML editor is an inexpensive option that allows even technophobes to make updates, though it’s not a platform that will easily grow with your organizations through the years.

Joomla, WordPress, or another standard CMS your developer recommends might also be a great choice for a scalable website that can grow with you.
 
At the end of the day, what's important is to choose a tool that you’ll actually use. Regardless of what people may say is the “best” tool, if you’re not comfortable with it, then it won’t help you create that up-to-date website that will show the world the importance of your cause, the credibility of your organization, and all the great things that you’re doing.

 
 
Thanks to TechSoup for its financial support of the original article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:
 
Steve Backman, Database Designs Associates, Inc. 
Heather Gardner-Madras, gardner-madras | strategic creative
Michelle Murrain, MetaCentric Technology Advising
Eric Leland, Leland Design
Laura Quinn, Idealware
Kirill Sokolov, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary
 
License: 
Copyright © Techsoup, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.

Comments

We tried using SquareSpace

We tried using SquareSpace for our genealogy organization last year. We started out with SS v.5 and had no problems. Then they changed over to v.6 and everything fell apart.

The editor was designed more for mobile phones and teenagers with perfect vision.
1- Who designs an editor page with light grey letters on a black background?
2- Who decided standard pages would be light grey with light grey text which is oh so hard for 40+ year old eyes to read?
3- Who designs choosing colors for elements by a color wheel and not by the usual hex or RGB numbers? If you have arthritis in your hands, its way too hard to spin that color wheel precisely.
I could go on and on with what's wrong with SS v.6.

If your organization wants a website with the latest bells & whistles for those under 25 -- then SS v6 is what you want. If you want to appeal to all ages, I don't recommend SS, its just too confusing and limited.

 Someone here doesn't know

 Someone here doesn't know how easy it is to change the colors of anything you want on SquareSpace. 

Content Management + Issue Tracker

 

Along with Content Management, how about we get an issue tracker to track the work progress of the various teams in a typical web application development environment. 

Checkout <a href="http://www.contrich.com">Contrich</a>. With features like inline content editing, content review, automatic page verification and much more it can tremendously enhance the team's productivity.