Wednesday, January 20, 2010

15 criteria for picking a content management system for an ad-driven hyperlocal news website

One of the biggest early decisions a hyperlocal site entrepreneur makes is what Content Management System [CMS] they will use. One can think about this similar to picking a spouse. You are going to live with the decision day and night for a long, long time. Also, similar to choosing a spouse, each person has different criteria. I will share the criteria I used for my hyperlocal site ( so that you can consider them and prioritize them based upon your needs. Think through these criteria or your "spousal" choice may leave you feeling like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses.

Before I get into that, I will share my experience and scenario which gives you some perspective on my situation. I'm a tech industry veteran (~25 years) though my hands-on coding experience is ancient (~20 years ago) but as a non-technical person goes, I'm reasonably technical though I've been on the business and editorial side of Web properties the last 15 years.

Part of my background includes being part of the early team of Microsoft Sidewalk starting in 1995 where I ran a team that supported the cities, as well as about half the cities reported through me, so I've been working with CMSs in the local arena for nearly 15 years. SunValleyOnline (SVO) has been around for about 5 years and was built on a proprietary platform that hasn't changed in years. We are in the final stages of the transition from the old to the new site. SVO has been self-sustaining for a couple years with a small team of three people. We rely on a mix of community and staff contributions. I have personally blogged for several years and have used blogs built on Blogger and mostly Wordpress.

To jump ahead, there's lots of merit in Wordpress and the ecosystem built around it, however I felt it came up short on the criteria I established to make the decision.

Listed below are the criteria I used with a brief explanation. While everyone will have somewhat different criteria, I listed the items in priority order from most to least important based upon my experience and priorities.

  1. No developer required: In my opinion, it is no longer necessary for 98 percent of sites to have a Web developer on staff. Fortunately, there are many off-the-shelf solutions that don't require an in-house technologist. There may be occasional needs where a developer can be contracted to do specific work but at the early stages of a site's development, I think a site should be focused on other items rather than doing custom development. As long as your CMS has the ability to extend it later, you can defer bringing on a technologist and save yourself money. Of course, there are hyperlocal sites founded by people with technology skills, and they can certainly take advantage of that, but it's not a requirement to get off the ground.

  2. Easy to monetize: This relates to the next point ("Open"). Most sites are limited to generating revenue using standard display ads. While that is the right place to start, this is a highly dynamic sector and thus it should be easy to extend your site with various other capabilities whether it is turning standard display ads into video ads or incorporating high-quality ad networks, it should be as easy as "copy and paste" to add these capabilities to your site.

  3. Open: It should be very easy to add and delete modules to a page or an entire site, such as social media features, inbound RSS feeds (i.e., pulling in a news feed from another site), and widgets of all types from weather to flickr slideshows to polls to various monetizable elements from any number of third parties.

  4. Community Generated Content: It should be very easy for members of your community to contribute articles, pictures, video, classifieds, reviews, etc. The CMS should give you the ability to determine whether a specific user is able to post directly to the site or whether the contribution should go into a publication queue for review/approval. It should also allow your community to send in articles via an e-mail interface. Among other things, this can allow them to e-mail pictures and video from their smartphones, which can be critical when there are breaking news events in your community. The CMS we picked has nailed this part. It gives someone who might be witnessing a breaking story the opportunity to submit stories to the site, including pictures (and mapping those pics). What's more, once the article is posted, you can update it via e-mail replies from the e-mail confirmation the CMS sends when the article posts. This may be the coolest single feature the platform we chose provides.

  5. Off the shelf cross-promotion: It must be easy to add features that help internal site promotion. Having features sprinkled through as site such as Most Viewed Pages, Recent Comments, Highly Rated articles and so on are very helpful at increasing the time people spend exploring your site.

  6. Outbound RSS: Mentioned earlier was inbound RSS. Just as you can and should pull in RSS feeds from complementary sites, you should make various RSS feeds available so that others can pull in your content to their pages. A CMS should automatically create a range of RSS feeds (e.g., Top Headlines, department and author specific feeds, etc.).

  7. Design templates and flexibility: CMSs usually come with pre-built templates, as well as the ability to customize the look and feel. If you don't like the pre-built templates you can preview, ensure that the process to change the site design is straightforward. [Side note: I have, unfortunately, heard of designers charging sites $5,000 for a Wordpress template when a few hundred dollars should get you a solid design.]

  8. Pictures and video: Not only should it be easy to embed code that pulls in photos and video from sites such as flickr and YouTube, the platform should allow you and your community contributors to upload directly to your site. Having users be able to rate photos and videos is another way to increase engagement with your community, which is vital for your success.

  9. Integration with Social Media: Your CMS should enable you to easily integrate with Facebook (and Facebook Connect) as well as Twitter. This includes enabling you to automatically post items to your accounts on the Social Networks including shortening URLs (e.g., using a tool such as Also throughout your site, it should be easy for users to send your articles, photos, etc. to the major social tools (Digg, StumbleUpon). Don't forget e-mail - still the most popular way to share an article. "Send to a Friend" should be baked into the system.

  10. Analytics: Not only should it be easy to add third-party tracking tools such as Google Analytics and Quantcast to a site, there should also be the ability to measure success and reward contributors based upon how well read one's contributions are.

  11. Events: A community-powered Events Calendar is a great way to connect with the community. Not only should a CMS have this capability, it should allow your community to easily submit events. The system should allow for plotting of the events on a map and have the basics of an Events Calendar such as support for recurring (i.e., multi-day) events.

  12. Classifieds: While Craigslist has made it to many communities, it doesn't work well today for hyperlocal. If you are only interested in garage sales in your immediate neighborhood, for instance, Craigslist can be unwieldy. Thus, there is an opportunity to fill a niche where the big boys aren't servicing your community very well. Naturally, having features you expect in articles (maps, photos, etc.) is important for classifieds as well.

  13. Maps: The importance of maps/location continues to increase with the popularity of smartphones. A smart CMS will be able to recognize a photo or Tweet having a GPS coordinate appended to it. This gives your community another way to navigate your content (i.e., location) and becomes more important as mobile consumption increases.

  14. Mobile: Another item that I expect to rapidly grow in importance is mobile. A CMS that allows for your site to be easily consumed on various mobile platforms will be a big asset. At the moment, mobile requires a lot of custom development but this should change in the relatively near future.

  15. Search Engine Dashboard: Not a common feature yet but one we expect to become more common. Sites such as the Huffington Post are very sophisticated in analyzing search trends to drive headline selection, tagging and how visibility of articles is raised or lowered based upon search term frequency.

At the risk of this sounding like a sales pitch for the platform we chose, I was very impressed with the flexibility and extensibility of the Neighborlogs platform we chose. It met nearly all the criteria listed above. Progressively, I'm learning the platform more and more and finding more slick things it can do. If I had to summarize why it's a great fit, it is the fact it is purpose-built for the hyperlocal space whereas Wordpress, Drupal, Django and other options I consider are great general-purpose systems but not geared towards hyperlocal specifically. Like Wordpress and the others, you can't beat the price (free). They currently only charge a revenue share on the self-serve ads that are purchased through that tool (no split on the ads you bring to the table).

To provide a bit of balance, let me share some areas of constructive criticism for Neighborlogs. The platform developers are running their own hyperlocal site and local network and are very busy. They aren't always quick to respond, though it's certainly better than Wordpress where you just have a developer community and no dedicated team to support you unless you hire your own team. There are a few items that are not perfect in how they pull in RSS feeds and the accompanying social media features. Their ad system isn't as robust as some of the ad servers out there, but the shortcomings weren't deal breakers for us. Being a relatively new company and platform, there's always the risk that they don't survive, but, as good of a job as they have done, I think others will discover the benefits themselves.

Overall, I'd encourage people to clearly define their own criteria. My criteria aren't applicable to everyone. Establishing your own will greatly increase the chances you'll be happy long term. I encourage others to share their experiences, good or bad, with various CMSs they have used. I also welcome feedback on our new site. What works for you and what doesn't?


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