The 5 hidden costs of running a CMS

We all know content management systems (CMS) can be beneficial for most websites. However, they do come with five hidden costs.

Many think of a content management system as a magic bullet that solves all of their content woes. Unfortunately the cost of a CMS is greater than its price tag. Before making a decision about whether to adopt a CMS, or indeed which CMS to choose, you first need to be aware of the hidden costs. These include:

  1. The cost of training
  2. The cost to quality
  3. The cost to functionality
  4. The cost of redundancy and flexibility
  5. The cost of commitment

It is important that you understand the impact of each beginning with the cost of training.

The cost of training

Probably the most obvious hidden cost is that of training. No matter how well designed the application or how good the documentation, some level of training is normally required. In my experience training is particularly important with free open source systems. These tend to have less documentation and the interface is often designed by programmers rather than user experience experts. The result is a great learning curve.

The more content production is delegated, the more people it is necessary to train. Whether this is done through onsite training or video tutorials it is still a considerable cost.

Although training maybe an obvious expense it is not without surprises. Organisations often fail to consider that training has an ongoing cost. The more people using a system the higher the likelihood somebody will need to be replaced. This carries with it a cost in both time and money.

This ongoing cost is not limited to training new CMS users. Existing content provider also require refresher courses if they are not using the CMS regularly. I have often provided training for an organisation only to receive a call six months later because people have forgotten how to login. This is because they used the system so infrequently.

Unfortunately the price of having a lot of people editing your site is the cost of increased training. However, that is not the only cost that grows with numbers. So does the cost to quality.

The cost to quality

In some ways, what a CMS gives with one hand it takes away with the other. Quality and control are classic examples of this. Enterprise level content management systems have complex workflow tools that prevent new content from going live until it has been checked and double checked. This is designed specifically to ensure the quality of content being posted online.

The problem with this is two fold. First, this kind of functionality is only normally found in more expensive systems. Second, few organisations implement this kind of quality control because it creates a bottleneck in the approval process. This bottleneck is precisely the kind of problem a CMS was supposed to solve.

I think this highlights a substantial problem with content management systems. They are often implemented in the hope they will solve what is an organizational rather than technical problem. Unfortunately technology cannot solve everything.

At one extreme you can open up your CMS to allow anybody to post to your site. This will lead to a decline in the quality of your content. On the other you can limit access and create a bottleneck where only one or two individuals can make content live. The technology can offer you lots of options along that sliding scale. What you need to do is find a happy medium.

Of course, at least a CMS offers this control. That is more than an HTML driven website can. However, a non CMS driven site does allow more flexibility when it comes to functionality.

The cost to functionality

When you have a website that is not built on a CMS the possibilities are endless. Because you have complete control over your code, it is possible to build any additional functionality you require. However, once you commit to a content management system things become more complex.

Although it is possible to build additional functionality that sits alongside your CMS there can be problems with integration. For example, if your CMS does not have a forum and you wish to add one, you may have to ask users to login twice. Once for the site and once for the forum. Equally you may find it hard to tie your CMS in with other systems that you later purchase.

Some content management systems provide plugins to add additional functionality. However, often you are forced to either compromise or wait until the next release of the CMS and hope it supports your requirements.

Although you may find yourself frustrated by a lack of functionality, it is equally possible to be frustrated by too much.

The cost of redundancy and complexity

Unless you have a bespoke content management system, developed to your exact requirements it will probably contain functionality you do not need. That is because off the shelf solutions are designed to appeal to a wide audience.

Not only does this mean you pay for unwanted functionality, it also adds complexity to the user interface. The more functionality, the more complexity, the more to learn.

It is a problem that applications such as Microsoft Word have suffered from for years. Word is very powerful and provides an enormous range of features. The problem is that the majority of people only use a fraction of what is available. The result is that most pay for functionality they do not use, and struggle to learn what is a complex application. This is the problem many content management systems are facing.

The reason people have not stopped using Word and move instead to something simpler, is that they are invested both financially and in time. This brings us to the final drawback of content management systems.

The cost of commitment

Content management systems demand a high level of commitment on many fronts. These include:

  • The upfront financial investment in implementing the system
  • The cost and time involved in training staff
  • The substantial amount of data entered into the system

The third area can be particularly tricky. Once your content is in a content management system it is not always a simple matter to get it out.

With such an investment in both time and money it is important to make the right selection of system. Changing your mind later is expensive.

So am I suggesting you should avoid content management systems entirely? Not at all. The benefits they provide are real and cannot be ignored. However, I am saying that you should go into the process of selecting a content management system with your eyes wide open. A content management system is not a magic bullet that solves all your content woes. However, it can be a useful tool if selected carefully.

Paul Boag

Paul Boag has been working with the web since 1994. He is now co-founder of the digital agency Headscape, where he works closely with clients to establish their web strategy. Paul is a prolific writer having written the Website Owners Manual, Building Websites for Return on Investment, Client Centric Web Design and numerous articles for publications such as .net magazine, Smashing Magazine and the econsultancy.com. Paul also speaks extensively on various aspects of web design both at conferences across the world and on his award winning web design podcast boagworld.

Comments

44 comments on “The 5 hidden costs of running a CMS

  1. Well-put, especially the point about commitment. That is something that goes beyond vendor lock-in. Any time you have to transmute information (and meta-information!), the associated costs are arbitrary and unpredictable.

  2. Nice summary. Another cost which I think is very important is performance.CMS systems are generally database-backed, with content fetched from the database instead of plain files. There is an overhead to this, especially on a busy server, and even more so if the database server is also being hit with time-consuming queries that are independent of the CMS.Performance is also a factor in the 'Cost of redundancy and complexity'. As each page loads, it takes some amount of time to churn through and consider all the options that *might* be used in the page.All this frequently adds up to a noticeable performance difference in comparison to non-CMS sites.

  3. Nice summary. Another cost which I think is very important is performance.

    CMS systems are generally database-backed, with content fetched from the database instead of plain files. There is an overhead to this, especially on a busy server, and even more so if the database server is also being hit with time-consuming queries that are independent of the CMS.

    Performance is also a factor in the 'Cost of redundancy and complexity'. As each page loads, it takes some amount of time to churn through and consider all the options that *might* be used in the page.

    All this frequently adds up to a noticeable performance difference in comparison to non-CMS sites.

  4. There is also a cost of Design/Integration compatibility, some CMS have easy to integrate design, some are a nightmare, so costs can goes up and up. I also have a similar articole of this, is good to have more on the net, people need to find out that there is no free site, cost always exist.
    You can see at http://www.grafxsoftware.com/option.php/180/

  5. @Valics LehelI agree completely. I have found that Drupal is much more difficult to design for than say, WordPress (or a CMS that I wrote that is used internally). A CMS that has everything possible built in is a lot more difficult to design for because you have to have extremely thought out stylesheets and markup. But it can be rewarding.

  6. @Valics Lehel
    I agree completely. I have found that Drupal is much more difficult to design for than say, WordPress (or a CMS that I wrote that is used internally). A CMS that has everything possible built in is a lot more difficult to design for because you have to have extremely thought out stylesheets and markup. But it can be rewarding.

  7. We have our own CMS tool, is not perfect, not overcomplicated, but is HTML based, templates are small parts (with 2 main template) and small parts of other HTML files. We do not use at all in HTML code any custom code what can change the design in a visual editor, so if you edit your templates, you can see in visual editor 100%. I think for us will be a nightmare to use a CMS what is hard to design. A good HTML designer, without ANY coding experience, can design it like he want.

  8. Another problem is when CMS's break, your site ends up displaying junk like…Warning: include(/home/carsonified/gitapps/thinkvitamin/wp-content/themes/freshnews/) [function.include]: failed to open stream: Success in /home/carsonified/gitapps/thinkvitamin/wp-content/plugins/yet-another-related-posts-plugin/magic.php on line 300

  9. Another problem is when CMS's break, your site ends up displaying junk like…

    Warning: include(/home/carsonified/gitapps/thinkvitamin/wp-content/themes/freshnews/) [function.include]: failed to open stream: Success in /home/carsonified/gitapps/thinkvitamin/wp-content/plugins/yet-another-related-posts-plugin/magic.php on line 300

  10. Out of all the Content Management Systems that I have worked with, Joomla has to be the best by far! It's easy to learn, and there are THOUANDS of extensions, themes, modules and more to make it even better.

  11. Out of all the Content Management Systems that I have worked with, Joomla has to be the best by far! It's easy to learn, and there are THOUANDS of extensions, themes, modules and more to make it even better.

  12. An additional point on Commitment — once you implement a CMS for a client they need to be committed to maintaining it.

    I've implemented Mambo, Joomla, Jamit, Simple Machines, Nukes, X-cart and other CMS-es and script. The two things that always kill me are upgrades to customized sites and security. Simple Machines Forum has the easiest upgradeability. Since these CMS-es are popular they're constantly being hit by robots for vulnerabilities. If you don't upgrade quickly, you're likely to get hit, and upgrades aren't always quick and painless!

  13. That is something that goes beyond vendor lock-in. Any time you have to transmute information, the associated costs are arbitrary and unpredictable.

  14. Expression Engine, my CMS of choice, mitigates this by extensive intelligent caching of queries, templates, and tags. The benefits of a data-driven site vastly outweigh the costs and lost opportunities of a static site.

  15. I have worked with, Joomla has to be the best by far! It's easy to learn, and there are THOUANDS of extensions, themes, modules and more to make it even better.

  16. I have been using Joomla for 2 years and it is quite flexible for adding more function. if you are looking for CMS to using for your business pls, have a look at Joomla too.
    I do agree on hiding costs very much, if you are big site better think carefully which one to choose..

  17. Pingback: Is usability the most important thing for a Web CMS? « Zahoor’s Blog

  18. I develop with Ruby on Rails. I design a mini-CMS for each of my clients sites that consists of only the things they need to be able to edit or create more of (Blog posts, Client listings, Partner listings). It is really amazing how much they love their sites, and how easy it is for them to do what they want. With RoR, making mini-CMS’s is really, really easy.

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  20. It’s very unfortunate that there STILL doesn’t seem to be a decent WYSIWYG editor available. This is a big part of the problem of the hidden cost to quality when using a CMS. Even the editors that claim to output only strict XHTML code can usually be made to generate a heap of unnecessary tags and invalid nesting with no trouble at all!

    Usually all it takes is to reformat things a few times and move elements around on the page a bit (basic stuff clients do all the time) and pretty soon you find div tags nested inside span tags, pairs of tags that apply a style containing repeated tags that undo that style and so on!

    Sometimes it’s completely invalid code, other times it’s technically valid but horribly bloated and heaven help you if you need to fix anything manually.

    Not to mention the bugs they all seem to contain, like where elements which appear to be separate are actually contained inside the same tags so you can’t change formatting on one thing without it also applying to something else that’s three lines down on the page!

    I’ve never been a fan of WYSIWYG editors but sometimes I’m forced to use them and every six months or so I check them all out again – still disappointed so far :(

  21. these are probably just the initial costs. there are many more as you start having problems and when you are looking for new features.

    before launch, training is definitely no 1.

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  24. I find the existing options in the world of FOSS cms’s pretty woeful.

    I know that a many individuals and communities and put a lot of work into them.
    But cms creators have tconsistently made interesting decisions that I think are pretty poor.

    Most cms’s out there force you to use an xhtml doctype. But, as we all know, IE can’t parse the neccessary MIME type…

    The insistence on the XHTML also means that the devs will have more work to do in the future that would have been unneccessary if they implemented better templating and editing options. HTML 5 is on the way, and very very few cms’s are for it.

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