There's a good chance, if you have a website you update regularly, that you use a content management system (or CMS). There's also a pretty good chance that there are things about your CMS that you find incredibly frustrating. Over time you may have come to really hate the thing.
We're here to tell you that it doesn't need to be this way! We've been building websites using the same CMS, Craft, for years now — and over 100 clients later we've still had nothing but positive feedback.
Craft has a host of powerful features, and we'll be the first to admit that it's probably got more than you need for basic projects. But in our experience, when we really dig into client requirements, we almost always end up at Craft as the best solution. Read on to find out why.
What is a CMS?
First things first, we need to define what a CMS is, because a lot of time digital agencies just present the CMS as "the way you update the website" without getting into all the other things it affects.
So: a CMS is indeed a simple, visual way for users to update website content without needing any technical expertise. But behind the scenes it's also a framework for defining and organising that content, and like any framework, every CMS brings its own limitations on what you can display and how you can display it — so choosing the right one at the start of the project really matters. That's the part developers often don't tell you.
The right CMS for your content
Think of your website like a story. In theory you can tell a story in a lot of different ways: in a book, in a film, in a play, or even just sitting around a dinner table. But if the story you want to tell involves a lot of car chases and explosions, you'll probably want to make a film, because trying to put on a play with a lot of explosions and car chases would be a nightmare — and who wants to read a fifty-page car chase sequence in a novel? That's just not the kind of content those formats were designed for.
Likewise, not every CMS handles every kind of content equally. WordPress, for example, was built as a blogging platform, and while it's changed since then and has lots of third-party add-ons that expand its capabilities, it's still at its heart a blogging platform. So using it to host a full website is like trying to put a car chase on stage; you can make something work, but it might get pretty painful.
To be fair to WordPress (and Drupal, the next most popular open-source CMS), for a lot of websites it works just fine. There are plenty of WordPress and Drupal templates out there that do a good job with the most common kinds of web content — a simple restaurant site, for example, with a page for a menu and one for contact details. These are the kinds of content that lend themselves to templates, because they don't change much and they're ultimately pretty similar across every business.
But what if your content isn't so predictable? Maybe you run an architecture firm where some of your projects have video, some have images, and some have neither; maybe you run a theatre where some acts send you tiny headshots and others send you massive production shots; maybe you run a charity that caters to children, parents, and educators, all of whom need slightly different versions of the same basic content. Now all of a sudden a template brings you back to putting a car chase on stage, or a dinner table anecdote on the big screen. It just doesn't quite work.
This is why we almost always recommend Craft — because when you don't know exactly what kind of content you're going to have, Craft doesn't force you to choose upfront. Unlike WordPress and Drupal, you're not restricted to rigid page templates or specific types of content. Craft starts out as a blank canvas, onto which we build not page templates but content templates. (These are called content blocks.)
To be sure, you'll still have very loose templates for each different kind of page on your site. But rather than specifying that these always have a title, then an image, then some text, as a conventional template might, Craft templates will just supply a collection of potential content blocks that you can add (or not) and position as you like. Not only does this mean you can build a page around the content you have, it means you have the ability to add variety to your site's pages instead of having everything fit exactly the same design.
Something like this is possible on WordPress and Drupal, by the way, but only by relying on third-party plug-ins that introduce greater development overheads and security risks. With Craft, this kind of editorial page design comes as part of the standard install.
The right CMS for your budget
Hopefully it now sounds a bit crazy to go into a project saying "I want WordPress," before you've even thought about what your website needs to do. That said, there is one good reason why you might gravitate towards WordPress or Drupal or another open-source CMS early on: they're free. (Craft has a one-off $299 license fee, plus $59 a year for subsequent updates. That might seem steep compared to zero, but it's cheap compared to other commercial CMS systems like Contentful or Sitefinity, which can run to hundreds of dollars a month.)
Development costs for WordPress and Drupal also tend to look lower at first. Partly this is a case of supply and demand; because WordPress and Drupal are so widely used, there are gazillions of developers out there with experience on these platforms. More to the point, there's a much lower bar to entry, because the number of pre-built themes out there means you can be a WordPress developer without ever having to write much code of your own. That keeps costs low.
Craft on the other hand is a more specialised tool that fewer people work with, so you might pay more for the initial development. But you're also more likely to get something bespoke to you — it's like paying for built-in wooden shelves versus buying some particleboard from Ikea.
So if you have a small initial budget, an open-source CMS may well be your better bet. But buyer beware: small upfront fees don't necessarily mean a cheaper product long-term. If you opt for a template-based site to begin with, you'll need to pay for changes to the template — or for new templates — each time you want to add a new feature. When your CMS is built more loosely around content to begin with, like with Craft, you can accomplish a lot of what you need yourself, before you have to call a developer. And when you do need more development, it's often quicker because we don’t have to battle with pre-built templates.
A final point about costs: the most popular open-source CMS platforms are much more vulnerable to security risks and require frequent patches and updates, and over time the price of fixing all these can add up. (To say nothing of the costs if your site gets hacked!) Craft's security updates, on the other hand, are few and far between, because it's more secure to begin with. Throughout the platform's history there have only been 30 security vulnerabilities identified; WordPress has had more than 100 in 2020 alone, and more than 2,600 overall. (Drupal has over 1,000.)
So again, if you have the budget and expect to use your website over many years as your business grows and evolves, investing more upfront is usually the better long-term solution.
The right CMS for your developers
Almost every developer has a preferred CMS that they'll recommend to you, and we recognise we're no different. We make no secret of the fact that Craft is our preferred system, or that we think it's usually the best tool for the types of sites our clients want.
But we want to be clear that we don't prefer Craft because it's the only system we know how to work with. We're not pushing it because we have a stock of pre-made templates or components that we can roll out with a new colour scheme and call it a fresh design.
The truth is, we're evangelists for Craft because we love Craft — and so do our clients. It lets us build unique, highly functional websites with minimal third-party code to maintain. It lets us build sites that are fast, secure, easy to update, and endlessly customisable. It also lets us build sites that just sit there for years at a time without any updates at all, if that's what suits you.
Most importantly it lets us build websites that our clients can update easily by themselves, so that instead of constantly troubleshooting we can spend our time working to improve performance behind the scenes and coming up with new features and ideas. Ultimately that's why our clients are always getting back in touch with us: not to say "the CMS isn't working," but to ask "can we make the website do something new?"
And because our sites are built on Craft, the answer to that question is almost always yes.