When You Should Build a JEEP of a Website

Last week I published this graphic comparing websites to glaciers, encouraging organizations to heed what’s under the hood as strongly as they consider design.

I then spent the weekend on the phone helping people pick the right website platform. Success! So this week, I’m following up with more details to help pick the right engine for your site — the CMS or “content management system.”

When I led the sales team at NationBuilder, we’d often surprise prospective customers by suggesting other platforms to better suit their needs. The reason? These CMS choices can be wildly different and we didn’t want to ultimately annoy a customer, since choosing wrongly can drastically harm an organization’s effectiveness.

The analogy I use is this: you’re not picking different types of cars; instead you’re picking entire modes of transportation. A website needs to get you where you’re going, and you need to choose wisely. You probably want to take the train from NYC to Philadelphia, drive from Tampa to Orlando, and fly from Chicago to New Orleans. Maybe not in certain circumstances, but probably.

That said, campaigns and advocacy organizations need to avoid the classic mistake of designing a Ferrari of a website that they can’t drive on dirt roads, breaks down a lot, and is expensive to repair.

Here’s how…

There is no perfect solution, so the key is understanding the options and the trade-offs you make. Below I’ve charted the design vs. organizing orientations of the most common platforms used to launch community-building websites.

If you’re in the progressive advocacy/campaign world, you might be asking, “what about Blue State Digital or NGPVAN?” These databases aren’t actual content management platforms that launch websites. Instead they use Expression Engine (BSD) and WordPress (NGP) and connect each database manually. That’s why you can’t change the entire site template inside BSD or NGP.

Here’s the breakdown:

We’ll travel from least oriented to organizers (right) and advocates, to most (left).

A) Squarespace

Pro’s: Squarespace is designed for anyone to create a very cool website without coding or design experience. It is 100% template-based, which allows you to simply drop-and-drag elements to create your site.

Con’s: Squarespace’s template code bases aren’t easily manipulable like other template-based platforms (Wordpress, NationBuilder), which means a professional designer probably won’t consider it an option. It is more like creating a great brochure online. As a result, there’s no real useful backend. You won’t be able to run any sort of organizing effort — petitions, volunteering, donor programs, etc. — and forget about data.

Use if: You’re a restaurant and need a menu online fast; you’re creating a temporary page to make a point and want a cool design without spending money; you’re a small business that doesn’t need e-commerce but needs to be listed online ASAP.

B) Drupal and Joomla

We’ll take these together because they have similar overall orientation in the marketplace. Drupal generally finds more use among advocacy website designers than Joomla because it has some usability advantages — in this regard Joomla is like being Tom Brady’s backup quarterback. But generally they’re the same mode of transportation.

Pro’s: These are the platforms true designers love to build on. They’re made for design firms that take on hefty websites and build them from the ground up. If you have a site with thousands of pages and you’re willing to invest money for completely unique look and feel, this is your zone.

Con’s: Because they’re built for design experts, these platforms are nearly impossible for organization staffers or laymen to use. Compared to Squarespace, it is at least *technically possible* for a field organizer or communications director to use the platform, but highly unlikely. Without in-house or retainer-based designers, you’ll never be able to treat your site like a living, breathing community. Or you’ll have a really significant lag every time you want, say, a new event invite or any other new component created.

Use if: You’re a museum with a big staff and plan your exhibits months in advance; you’re tasked with handling large information directories; you need to push content simultaneously across dozens or hundreds of site pages; or you have Drupal programmers already on the payroll.

C) WordPress

Pro’s: Everybody knows WordPress and it has become somewhat of a standard. You can build 90% of the great design elements of Drupal using WordPress, do it for less money, and eventually train others to use it too. WordPress has a huge community of designers who sell custom templates, meaning design can look great and somewhat unique, without serious expense. For these reasons, it is the Toyota Camry or Nissan Maxima of site platforms, and the analogy extends to market share and designer availability.

Con’s: You’ll notice WordPress lives in the middle when it comes to organizer usability. This is because every action item or data capture mechanism has to be enabled through a “plugin” — essentially connecting a module of functionality to the basic WordPress system. This makes it difficult to routinely launch new page types that organizers need. For instance, optimizing a series of different event RSVP pages with tracking codes for tracking and measuring various social media ads would take inordinate effort without paying for an entirely separate CRM tool (Action Network, Salesforce, NGPVAN, etc.). These plugins aren’t difficult to figure out, but your fundraiser or political director will never have the time.

Use if: You’re a small non-profit with stable operations (not high-growth), and want to save money while looking good at the same time.

D) Expression Engine

Pro’s: Expression Engine combines much of the power of Drupal with the usability of WordPress. This makes life easier for designers who are frequently asked to build site elements that campaigners and organizers want. Expression Engine works nicely with some of the premium database products, so you can create a 1–2 punch of very effective organizing technology.

Con’s: Expression Engine is probably the least-known option on this map (at least in the political world). As a result, you really need to hire specific experts who know their way around the system, and this can become very expensive.

Use if: You’re a big non-profit and trust consultants over your in-house staff to handle your overall digital presence.

E) NationBuilder

Pro’s: Notice there’s a pretty significant gap between NationBuilder and the other CMS’s on the “made for organizers” axis. This is because NationBuilder is the only platform that comes with a fully integrated communications system (email, text, social media, phones, mapping). Secondly, NationBuilder has built in most of the tools organizers need when launching a page, like how to organize captured data, how to share socially, what action comes next, and how to measure impact quantitatively. Third, launching any new page can be done by even the least experienced volunteer who is willing to fill out all of the forms in NationBuilder’s control panel. This makes organizing highly efficient; for these reasons the platform is like a JEEP that might be a bit boxy but can drive through the mud over the rocks and keep on truckin’.

Con’s: As the newest kid on the block and most specialized for organizing efforts, NationBuilder has the most limited templates (though they’re all very easily customizable). Likewise, designers are in short supply and the top designers are often overwhelmed with business. You’re also buying a website platform and a data/comms platform together, so you may need significant new training or transition time. Lastly, some of the page types are pretty rigid and tough to manipulate compared to a WordPress plugin or Expression Engine — and that often frustrates designers who are less familiar with how campaigns work.

Maybe a con, maybe a pro: Because you’re now running your communications and database systems off of the same backend as the website, you may incur extra costs. Or you might save a lot of money by eliminating the need for expensive, outdated databases. It depends on how you set things up.

Use if: You value speed and have a lot of people who need a lot of things online all the time; you value significant social media integration in your website; you need to connect online data to voter files or other data sets.