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Finding the Right CMS for Your Media Project

This guest post is from Land of Opportunity, creators of an interactive web player demo

CMS: Content Management System.  If it sounds utilitarian, that’s because it is.  Like so many innovations in the wide world of the web, CMS’ exist to make it easier to create cool stuff online.   If you’ve never heard of software like WordPress or Drupal before , here’s a quick intro: Unlike static websites, which require you to dig through dreaded code to make changes and updates to content and style, CMS’ allow us to insert and edit our content to suit our needs, while the program does the heavy lifting on the back-end. In other words a CMS allows you to have the most control over your content you’re liable to get without a degree in computer science.

Okay, so we’ve established that CMS’ are handy. It’s possible you’ve seen one in action before (if not, surprise, this blog is WordPress-driven). To be clear, there’s a cornucopia of CMS’ out there today, both open-source and proprietary, and this post is not intended to go through the pros and cons of each one.  On the Land of Opportunity project, however, we’re realizing that what matters is understanding the thinking behind choosing your CMS flavor to ensure it truly serves the evolving needs of your project. 

There are two big categories of CMS’ out there in the wild today: Proprietary and open-source. The former, while likely more expensive, could potentially be tailored to your project’s exact needs. If you have multiple videos that play one after another, the proprietary system could, from scratch, be built up to handle that function…and only that function. There’s no need to try and adjust to a generic “out-of-the-box” solution, because one has been made for you (cue high-five). One big problem we’ve found with proprietary systems, however, is that they can hamper a truly collaborative and cooperative approach to building and designing your web-native project .

Unlike open-source systems which can be used and studied by anyone, proprietary systems may be a mystery outside of the company that built them.  The developer ends up becoming a de facto “gate-keeper” since you have to go through them for most structural changes to your site.  Even if your relationship with that developer is good, like ours, it’s just a straight-up  hassle making changes on on a tight schedule and even tighter budget.  We want the transparency that allows folks to look at how we built our interactive video experience and incorporate some of that code into whatever they’re doing, which is pretty hard if you can’t get a peek behind the curtain.

Wait, don’t shoot! We’re not saying proprietary systems are evil. Quite the opposite in fact; depending on the organization, it’s essential to have that customization both for security and for cost-saving down the line. However, for media makers who are often operating on a less-than-ideal budget (i.e., all of us) and are unwilling to sacrifice freedom or flexibility  there’s a potential pitfall in choosing this option. Open-source content management systems offer a solution to those who are on a smaller budget, but still want to use something very powerful for the benefit of their website.

Of course if you go open-source, your project is no longer wed  to a single developer or company, but only to the community of developers that builds or operates on that software. Which is not without its challenges (is anything ever easy, you ask? Well, of course not, we answer.)  So what do these bummers look like? Let’s say you have an issue and your developer isn’t able to find a solution (because he didn’t build the whole thing); forums and documentation are now the only real hope of fixing whatever glitches spring up. While Drupal and WordPress are most popular on this side of the coin, there are a ton of open-source systems that could be used (right now on Land of Opportunity we’re using MediaWiki, WordPress, Drupal…the list goes on).

So, with all of these mind-boggling options, how can you make a good choice ? In our experience with the Land of Opportunity interactive video experience demo, we’ve boiled it down to a few key factors:

How big do you plan to grow?

If the content of your project is largely artist-driven, you may not need to build a new Youtube to accomplish your goals. On the other hand, if you’re like us and planning for community growth and extreme use then you need a big tough system that can handle all that extra strain. Drupal is currently our CMS of choice.  We keep hearing the Drupal  is a yacht (big and solid) and WordPress is a sailboat (agile and flexible) analogy.  Go figure.

How important is it to be open-source?

If this is a consideration, either due to limited funding or personal ideologies, then proprietary CMS’ just won’t fit the bill. Plus, if you’re building a project that you  hope may one day be reproducible elsewhere, open-source is the way to go, because you know that future users will have access to the platform your project runs on, regardless of their budget.

What are you or your developer most familiar with?

C4 Tech and Design (our current NOLA-based developers for the interactive video experience) revealed that one big factor in choosing Drupal was their familiarity in building with it. Makes sense:  you can’t  take a PC into an Apple store and expect good troubleshooting. So if  your developer of choice  is an expert in leveraging the power of one particular CMS, be it Drupal, WordPress etc, then you should go with that.  It kills two birds with one stone, by having one less decision to make and receiving the strongest results. That being said, which CMS they’ve mastered may also influence which person or company you choose to partner with.

So,  go forth and navigate the thicket of CMS choices with confidence!  And share your CMS war stories/battle cries with us.  Do you have a preference? Why?