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 Does it feature events or breaking news that are sadly out of date?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.
Simple Sitebuilding Tools
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 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).
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, 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.
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
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.
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.
The CMS Your Trusted Web Developer Knows
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.