Wednesday, November 30, 2016

5 Ways Your E-Commerce Business Can Recover From A Growth Setback

Facing growth setbacks is part of the risk of doing business.

While most companies may only highlight their successes to the public, it’s important to understand that every business has its own group of challenges. The key is to recognize the issues and take the necessary actions to move forward.

“You may be facing your share of woes from financial problems to employee shortages to increased competition. Just because those setbacks are occurring and you are struggling to survive, doesn’t mean you can’t turn your circumstance around,” says Inc. contributor Carolyn Brown.

Let’s explore how your team can bounce back from a growth setback.

1. Reassess Your Business Strategy

When major issues arise, reevaluating your strategy is essential to realizing what happened. Moreover, your team can pinpoint the mistakes that stunted your ecommerce business growth.

So, where do you start? Begin with the problem.

Learn why the setback occurred, when it began, where it originated, and how it flourished into a setback. Dive deep into your analytics to assess your sales and reveal any gaps in your system.

Senior management recognizes that failure isn’t caused by a singular event. Instead, it’s usually a series of activities that slowly lead up to a business disaster. So, examine your current procedures to set up safeguards.

“The way we win business has changed radically, largely thanks to the internet and social media. Companies that are not up to speed digitally won’t exist for much longer, so make sure the business is using all the technological tools it can to build momentum,” states Andrew Morris, CEO of the Academy for Chief Executives.

Nike reworked its international expansion strategy. Rather than spending an exorbitant amount of money on sponsorships to gain a global audience, the athletic apparel company initiated the NikeID co-creation platform. Allowing customers to design their own products helped the business deliver unique products that align with different cultural preferences and styles.


Upgrade your business strategy. Keep what works well and toss the rest to the side.

2. Deliver Customer Value

Research shows that “for every customer complaint there are 26 other unhappy customers who have remained silent.” In a market full of competitors, it’s easy for consumers to try another brand.

To deliver remarkable customer value, start by analyzing your consumers’ purchasing habits. Learn what they like and how specific brand interactions make them feel.

For example, if you know consumers prefer assistance via live chat rather than by phone, your team should take steps to be available online.

Collect this data by instructing your sales representatives to jot down notes during customer conversations. Or simply ask consumers to complete a short suggestion form.

Think of customer value as a cycle. You must discover the opportunities, create the offering, deliver the value, and communicate it to your audience. Then, the process starts over again after receiving the customer feedback.

customer-value-delivery-cycleImage Source

Peepers, an innovative eyewear company, offers its shoppers more value by customizing the checkout experience. With personalized messages, customers trusted the brand and believed their credit card information were safe. As a result, Peepers received a 25-30% increase in its organic traffic conversion rate and 15%-20% increase in its average order value.

Offer unprecedented value that your consumers can’t receive anywhere else. They’ll be happy and your ecommerce company will reap the revenues.

3. Differentiate Your Product

Sometimes, your team must do things differently. And it might just include changing the product.

In today’s economy, consumers possess a wide variety of choices. They don’t have to settle for products that fail to solve their problems or fall short of satisfying their needs.

Product differentiation is a marketing technique to make your product more attractive than the alternatives in the marketplace. This difference could include customer value, design, price, or even quality.

“Don’t focus on features alone, then. Instead, emphasize the benefits of those features. Your advantage lies in how your product or service ties into the emotional needs of your target audience. People make decisions on the basis of either logical reasoning or emotional impulses,” writes Entrepreneur contributor Ray Beharry.

Conduct market research to learn if you should modify your product or change the way you sell your product. To find pertinent data, host a focus group or invest in heatmap tools to monitor website interactions.

Oscar Health Insurance offers customers transparency and only focuses on a small, niche network in four U.S. states. The brand separates itself from the competition by presenting health plans in common language without the jargon.


It may be time for a product change. Find out how to fulfill your customers’ desires through differentiation.

4. Hire Employees With Diverse Skill Sets

During tough times, employees are the best assets for your business. And as your company begins to change directions, you will need people invested in your brand values.

In a recovery transition, recruit talented workers with skills that complement your current workforce. Experts claim that future work environments will need people who know how to work with data, understand virtual reality, and can apply the Internet of Things to industries.

Beyond technical skills, interpersonal character traits matter, too. Focus on hiring individuals who know how to develop connections, work on multiple cultural teams, and make creative decisions. Personal finance writer Erika Rawes agrees:

“Your ability to engage in conversation, get to know someone personally, and develop meaningful relationships will provide a competitive edge over the future.”

In addition, retrain your current employees by informing them about new business strategies and expectations. It’s a chance re-engage employees and to develop people professionally.

disengaged-employees-statImage Source

Revitalize your workforce during growth challenges. Let your business experience new talent with different possibilities.

5. Continue to Seek Growth Opportunities

Whether your company is undergoing a setback or not, your team should always continue to seek ways to expand. A proactive plan prepares your brand to handle challenges better.

Opportunity is a subjective term. What’s great for one business may be a disaster for another.

Therefore, before making any hasty decisions, work with your team to know what your business needs to recover. Do you need more qualified traffic to your website? Or more skilled sales reps to close deals?

And refrain from relying only on your own experience. Your company may benefit from building ongoing partnerships with other brands.

“Don’t limit yourself by your own knowledge base and expertise when your back is against a wall. Find partners who can help you implement the new strategy that makes the most sense, not the one that’s easiest to execute,” writes Fast Company contributor Carson Tate.

Below is a brand partnership example from Adidas and Spotify. The companies teamed up to offer their consumers a new product called Adidas Go. The app lets customers who exercise with their iPhones listen to music through Spotify that is automatically linked to the pace of the workout.

adidas-spotify-partnershipImage Source

Growth is a continuous process for companies. Uncover new opportunities to respond to infrequent difficulties.

Aim to Recover

Challenges are inevitable in business. It’s vital to understand how to handle setbacks when they occur.

Reevaluate your strategy to ensure it fits your desired outcomes. Deliver unmatched customer value that competitors can’t duplicate. And continue to seek partnership opportunities that will benefit your brand.

Push through setbacks. Grow your business.

About the Author: Shayla Price lives at the intersection of digital marketing, technology and social responsibility. Connect with her on Twitter @shaylaprice.

from The Kissmetrics Marketing Blog

from WordPress

How to use breadcrumbs (the right way)

Bread crumbs…they bring up associations with the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, where Hansel leaves bread crumbs to help him find his way home again. Although the association with bread crumbs is perhaps still stronger in the realm of Grimm stories, that’s gradually changing as breadcrumbs in navigation help web designers create a better user experience for site visitors.

This graphical control element serves a very useful purpose as a navigational aid on a site, provided it’s designed intelligently. It can be a godsend for less-experienced visitors who need to rely on a trail to help them keep track of where they are on your client’s site.

A trail of breadcrumbs will keep track of and display every page that’s been viewed by visitors, sometimes in the order said pages were viewed, other times in different arrangements.

Here’s how to integrate breadcrumbs into your navigation meaningfully:

Three main types of breadcrumb navigation

There are three main types of breadcrumbs you’ll usually encounter on any given site, with two being more popular than the last one.

Location breadcrumbs

One of the two most popular kinds you’ll encounter, location breadcrumbs tell your users where they are in regard to the site’s hierarchy. Its straightforward organization that orients users in a clear-cut manner within the site makes this type very widely used.

Popular among sites that have numerous levels of content and layers of navigation, location breadcrumbs empower users to efficiently get back to previous, higher levels of content with a simple click. Also, location breadcrumbs are static (they never change), making them a reliable way of helping to reorient users.

1-800 Flowers provides the classic example of functional location breadcrumbs. Each time a shopper visits the It’s My Birthday floral arrangement page, he’ll see that he first had to click on the Birthday category after starting from the homepage. Of course, he can click on each higher level breadcrumb to get there instantly.

Attribute breadcrumbs

Attribute breadcrumbs are the second major type you’ll encounter. Unlike location breadcrumbs, these work sort of like filter choices in that they’re not static and continually change based on the preferences of the user.

They won’t tell you your location on the site, but instead display meta data about the page’s content. Attribute breadcrumbs are therefore popular with e-commerce sites where you’re able to customize what you want to buy, such as on car sites.

As a result, you can’t necessarily use this type of breadcrumb approach to find your way back to pages you already visited.

To see what I’m talking about, check out’s breadcrumbs. When you search for cars by make and model, notice the breadcrumbs near the top-left of the screen, just underneath the site logo. The year, make and model all represent previous searches on the site, but they don’t provide a reliable trail to revisit old pages that you already viewed.

Note the difference between this type of breadcrumb and the location breadcrumbs, which allow you to revisit exactly the pages you recently visited.

Path breadcrumbs

Path breadcrumbs are the least popular of the three because, quite frankly, all they do is replicate what a browser’s back button already does! That’s not helping to improve UX at all; it’s rather quite redundant.

Also known as a history trail, path breadcrumbs really aren’t that helpful since they don’t give additional context or information to visitors who land on a page that’s already deep within the site’s hierarchy. An example would be a visitor landing on a product page because he found a search result that he clicked on.

Because of these UX problems that this type of breadcrumb causes, it’s getting increasingly rare to find it on sites today.

Which type is most appropriate for what site?

The breakdown of the three main types of breadcrumbs begs the obvious question, which is most suitable for what purpose?

Let’s start off with the one you likely shouldn’t bother with anymore: path breadcrumbs. At the very least, this doesn’t help the UX; the worst-case scenario is that users might actually get confused by path breadcrumbs since they don’t show the proper hierarchy of different levels within the site.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s focus on just the location and attribute breadcrumbs.

Location breadcrumbs are more appropriate for bigger sites that have very deep and levels of content. An excellent example of this is eBay, which is a huge store because of all the items that are up for sale or auction. Accordingly, location breadcrumbs are perfect for this depth of content, as visitors can clearly use the extra orientation.

Now let’s turn our attention to attribute breadcrumbs.

As seen in the above example with, eCommerce sites that offer shoppers many customizable options will greatly benefit from having this type of navigational aid. Sites with various customization options can be overwhelming to shoppers. That’s why giving them these filters makes more sense than location breadcrumbs since shoppers will want to keep track of the various changes they’ve made to their search results and orders.

Best practices for breadcrumbs

In general, when you follow these tips when designing breadcrumb navigation for your client’s sites, you can’t go wrong:

  • Ensure that there are no duplicate elements in your trail of breadcrumbs (read: pages that fall into multiple categories or levels of content) since that can actually confuse users.
  • Use the greater-than sign (>) to break up the links in your breadcrumbs, as this is what users are already expecting from years of site familiarity and conventions.
  • Use keywords that you want to actually rank for in SEO when deciding on the names of your different categories within your breadcrumbs, as this helps SEO.

Breadcrumbs: great idea, but not always used properly

As with many concepts in design and UX, a great idea that can be very helpful to users becomes a difficulty if it’s not implemented correctly. That’s what this brief guide is for: to equip you with the knowledge to empower you to design breadcrumbs to optimize UX instead of making no impact or even hurting it.

While not an absolute necessity on every kind of site, breadcrumbs can provide users with an extra layer of navigational help when they’re either faced with many layers of content or a lot of options that they’d like to filter. Either way, the usability derived from breadcrumbs ultimately comes down to how designers implement them on their clients’ sites.

By making sure that you understand the purpose behind each type of breadcrumb navigation, you assist yourself in making the right choice for the type of site you’re designing. And when you choose intelligently, you’ll have satisfied users, happy clients, and good referrals, so take some extra care the next time you’re dealing with breadcrumbs.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

How Fixing Client Analytics Can Help Agencies Sell More

A completely accurate client analytics account is few and far between.

That forces you, brave agency veteran, to roll up your sleeves and try to make sense of the chaos you’re looking at for each unique scenario.

You didn’t plan for it. You didn’t charge for it. And now, if you don’t fix it, you’ll face an uphill battle in trying to prove the resulted you delivered.

Like it or not, addressing this issue head-on and fixing client analytics can help you sell more, and sell more profitable work.

Here’s why.

The Problem with Pricing Digital Services

Most clients have no idea what we do.

They pay us – very well in some cases – despite not truly grasping how we’re going to deliver the goods for them.

Sure, they might grock the buzzwords a little bit. They understand the jargon and the high level perspective. But it’s mostly a superficial understanding.

When you get down in the weeds, and start describing how exactly to get from A -> B, you start to lose them a little as glazed over eyes stare back at you.

That’s not a knock; it’s just reality.

In the same way you probably could care less about what’s wrong with your car engine and how a mechanic is going to fix it. You just want to know if you’re going to be able to make it to Happy Hour in time this afternoon.

More often than not, clients are paying us based on trust. Or a leap of faith. Or our smiles and fashionable clothes.

And when they don’t fully grasp the full context of their problem, or the work involved in each painstaking individual step you have to take to fix it, they gravitate towards the one thing that’s easy to separate you from everyone else that says they do exactly what you do: price.

Cue competitive bids and escalating downward pricing pressure.

So what do you do the next time around?

You piece together a meager cost plus estimate that rarely includes Profit (and you’ve undoubtedly underestimated Project Management), double check the marketplace, and rush it out the door.

In contrast, the best, most profitable agencies use value-based pricing. Instead of starting with what their internal costs might be, they start with forecasting:

  1. The new revenue a client can generate, or
  2. The cost savings a client might see as a result of working with them.

For example, you can take a look at their historical averages of traffic and leads. If you’re able to come in and bump that conversion rate by 10%, 15%, or even 30% over the course of a few months, what does that look like in new revenue based on their average customer value?


Boom. If simple conversion tweaks and changes can lead to $40K-$160K+ in new revenue, there’s MORE than enough room to pay you 20-30% of that.

That covers your software, payroll, meetings, and then some. You can actually scale a business on that.

Even better, is if you can show how increases in results – less your agency costs – results in NET gains too.


But there’s a problem.

You can’t even begin to forecast potential revenue for clients like this when they’re missing a critical piece of the puzzle.

Why Fixing Your Client’s Analytics Should be Priority #1

Value-based pricing includes showing a client the outcome and end results of your work in clear-cut business objectives that they can understand (like leads gained or costs saved).


If they don’t have a complete view of their marketing and sales funnel – which, like 97.75% of companies are guilty of – you’ve got a problem.

To make matters worse, these issues can be tough to spot ahead of time, before you dive into their account (which means you probably didn’t plan for it in your timeline and you sure as hell didn’t charge for it as a line item).

Maybe the conversion-tracking pixel is on the wrong page (or even worse, sitewide). Or perhaps they’re using legacy CRM software that doesn’t allow you to figure out what happens after someone becomes a lead (like, where’s da revenue coming from?!).

Either way, before you even touch a single line of code, fix a broken link, or put together a wireframe, you need to get an accurate benchmark of where a company is at right now.

Here are three reasons why.

Reason #1. Determine Where Results are Currently Coming From

A quick view of a company’s Acquisition Channel performance in Google Analytics can give you a snapshot of where they’re at, and how they’re doing.

Sure, the visits or sessions piece is moderately helpful, cluing you into which campaigns are delivering (or not).

But the real value comes in analyzing which channels specifically are driving leads and customers (and how much each is worth).

Now you start crossing over from raw data to insight. You’re able to draw lines between where budget is being spent and where results are coming from.

This helps you figure out what’s already working for clients so you can pour on more, and spot what’s already been tried that hasn’t worked (so you don’t make the same mistakes).

Arguably more important though, is that it will provide you with a baseline to compare against after you deliver your services.


Reason #2. Isolate Campaign/Promotion Attribution

You hear that?

The screeching tires. The scent of burning rubber. A loud crash.

That catastrophic train wreck of epic proportions you’re about to witness is your new client’s analytics.

Their complex, multi-faceted business has taken its toll, with independent systems for each department that don’t work well together (and would require a quant-jock, Business Intelligence analyst to figure out).

Instead of relying or messing with existing systems, setting up a third-party analytics solution to isolate how your campaign and promotion is performing might be an easy way to sidestep the nightmare.


This Funnel Report will not only show you which promotional efforts are driving awareness, but also give you insight into the funnel performance for each channel, helping you identify patterns and discrepancies between how visitors from each channel (like cold vs. warm traffic) add items to your cart or complete a purchase.

You can dive even deeper into the individual customer profile, taking a look at the specific steps they took prior to purchase. This can help you identify which pages are assisting conversions, and also spot any bottlenecks or gaps that others keep hitting that causes them to bounce.


Reason #3. Make Better Marketing Decisions

Leading indicators are helpful. To a point.

They give you a preview or snapshot of what might potentially happen on down the line.

For example, SEO is a lagging indicator. Sure, you can measure new pages built and new links generated, but it’s still gonna take some time for Google to reindex, new rankings to fluctuate, traffic to start dribbling, new leads converted from said traffic, and only then do you get some verifiable sales opportunities to start tracking.

That means you’ve got a waiting game, and in the meantime you’re making a bunch of changes and assumptions based on incomplete information.

Things get especially challenging when some of these indicators can lead you astray, like when that high conversion rate might backfire.

Here’s how it works: you run some headline A/B tests with generate more initial leads. Numbers go up and you pat yourself on the back. Only problem? Sales – the number that actually matters – go down as a result.

Fortunately, the Kissmetrics A/B Test Report can help you run split tests that will only declare a winner when an event is met further down the funnel, which helps you avoid getting too excited over an increase in clicks (which aren’t super helpful) and waiting for the big payoff instead (conversions).


How to Sell Extra Work with Analytics Insight

Design is subjective. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

My favorite thing to witness is a fiftysomething executive who has literally zero knowledge of art and design, or the owner of an old-school insurance brokerage, make specific design critiques and changes (like, “I think that shaded border should be gold instead of gray”).

Which, if I were a designer, would surely cause me to become a statistic you hear about on the Nightly News.

So how can design, something so subjective that every client thinks they can do better than your Creative Director, deliver quantifiable results that will allow you to charge more?

Look for leverage points.

For example, why does someone need that new landing page?

“I need a landing page design for an AdWords campaign,” says the client.

Ok cool – then in reality they don’t just want or need one landing page, but they’re gonna want (and need) multiple ones. Here’s why (and how to sell it).

Landing page design will help dictate Quality Score, which has been proven multiple times to influence your Costs Per Click (and thus, Cost Per Conversions).

cost-per-conversion-quality-score-graphImage Source

“If your quality score increases by 1 point, your cost-per-conversion decreases by 13%,” according to Jacob from Disruptive Advertising.

Awesome. So in order to increase that quality score as much as possible, you’re going to need specific and relevant landing pages for each campaign you’re running. Which means you’re going to need multiple versions of the same page so that you can align message match to drop your Cost Per Conversion and increase the total conversions you’re getting.

Now, that’s going to require some extra work.

You, dear client, will also want to make sure that copy and content changes for each page and that you set-up at least basic analytics to make sure we can track all of this and make iterations on-the-fly. That’s going to require these new additional line items to our scope.

We recently went through this exact process on a new website redesign and performed a quick analysis after 30 days with the new AdWords landing pages.

The results?

We compared results to the same period, prior year to rule out seasonality. So in 2015, their Cost Per Converted Click was $482.41 and their Conversion Rate was only 4.08%.


During the new 30-day window in 2016, their Cost Per Converted Click dropped to $147.65 and their Conversion Rate jumped to 12.76%.


Total score?

  • Cost/Converted Click: 69.39% cost reduction
  • Conversion Rate: 212.74% conversion rate lift

Now multiply those ‘efficiency’ metrics against the results (like total leads, or the amount spent for those leads), and you can quickly highlight your financial value.

Think there was enough room in that budget for a few extra landing pages? And now some more work?

Our only job as a consultant is to improve the client’s position. (I think that comes from Alan Weiss.)

You’re the expert, not them. And as such, you need to fight for the scope (and thus the required resources and budget) it’s going to take in order to deliver the results a prospect or client is looking for (whether they understand what it’s going to take or not).

Because my hairline is becoming increasingly more like Jason Statham’s, and jawline has never resembled Brad Pitt’s, the only way I can figure out how to do this is through cold, hard, analytical data.


Clients commonly don’t fully understand the scope of what you’re being asked to do.

That’s OK. It’s manageable.

But only if you can translate your value into something they do understand – like marketing KPI’s or business objectives like revenue and costs.

The problem is that becomes impossible without a strong foundation for analytics.

There’s no way to benchmark past performance, to isolate your individual campaigns, or spot customer bottlenecks along the way.

Fixing or addressing a client’s analytics problems then should become priority #1.

Because it will not only help you justify the current work you’re doing for them, but also sell the results in the future to them and new ones just like them.

About the Author: Brad Smith is a founding partner at Codeless Interactive, a digital agency specializing in creating personalized customer experiences. Brad’s blog also features more marketing thoughts, opinions and the occasional insight.

from The Kissmetrics Marketing Blog

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The ultimate guide to CMS, part 1

Gather ’round friends, and I’ll tell you a story that is pure fabrication on my part, and also probably how it happened: Once upon a time, around 1995 (as far as I can figure out from searching around the web), some poor guy who worked as the “webmaster” for some large company was putting nearly every written piece of marketing content they had online. He was doing this because someone in management figured it couldn’t hurt, and he didn’t have that much else to do.

As he wrote endless lines of HTML code by hand, he thought, “There has got to be an easier way to do this.”

He began to imagine a system that could, perhaps, manage content more efficiently, and take some of the pain out of his job. Since he knew some basic scripting, he started to lay the groundwork for what would become the first Content Management System.

That’s how a lot of humanity’s problems get solved: people get bored, and sick of their work. In response to this stimulus, or lack thereof, we now have more CMSs than I personally care to count. They’re everywhere, and they can do just about anything. Now, the problem with this kind of endless choice is that, well, people don’t know where to start. How do you pick a CMS anyway?

That’s what this article is about. I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible to understand what a CMS does, and what kind of CMS you’ll need for different kinds of websites.

What is a CMS, exactly?

Think about a website. Any website. What’s on it? Stuff like words, pictures, videos, maps, contact forms, quizzes, polls, and more. All of that stuff (which we call “content”) needs to be organized.

It needs to be made available, and easy-to-find for the people who actually run the website, and for the users who browse it. It also needs to be easy to add more content, delete the stuff you don’t want anymore, move it around, or rename it.

Most CMSs allow only a select few to manage content. Community CMS like forums and social media sites allow every user to manage their own content, and then make that content available to everyone else.

Yes, you could do all of this manually. For many smaller websites, this is exactly what people do: they mess about with files and folders, and edit their pages in a plain text editor (like Notepad, but they usually use something more complex). If you only have, say, five pages, and you know what you’re doing—or can pay someone who does—then you’re set.

You probably don’t need a CMS.

But if you can’t afford to hire a professional, don’t have the time to do it yourself, and/or need a site that is larger and more complex, a CMS is worth it. It simply isn’t practical to build a website that big without something to automate at least a part of the process.

If you need to have more than one person contributing to a website, you absolutely need a CMS. Giving people access to the raw files would be a recipe for catastrophic user errors. Better to give them a system that allows them to add content without accidentally destroying anything important.

Who is this for?

This article is for web design clients, business owners, and other people whose eyes glaze over when you start throwing acronyms around. Designers and developers can look these things up for themselves, and will usually know what the buzzwords mean.

But if you’ve ever gone CMS shopping and thought, “Well that all would sound very nice if I knew what the heck they were talking about…”, then this article is for you.

I suggest having a read, narrowing down your list of options, and bringing it to your designer and/or developer to figure out which is the best option for you. If you’re in a large enough company that you have a whole design and development team, you should probably let them narrow down your list of options.

Types of content management systems

Now, the thing about building websites is that nearly everybody has different needs. Sure, you could try to build a CMS that can meet every single one of these needs. Plenty of people have tried.

…choose a CMS that meets your specific needs as closely as possible

These platforms tend to be massive, slow, riddled with security issues, complex to use from both the front and back ends, and a general pain in the rear. Also weirdly popular. And actually, no, I’m not talking about WordPress.

So the generally smarter solution is to choose a CMS that meets your specific needs as closely as possible. We’ll be talking about that more, later. First, we should talk about the kinds of content management systems that you’ll find out there.

I’ve come up with a list of the most common categories of CMS. Not only are there more CMS than I can actually list, there are more kinds than I can list. This is because there are custom CMSs out there made for every conceivable need that someone might have.

For the sake of your time, and mine, I’ve stuck with the most common categories.

Managed vs Hosted

Before we move on to categories like “blogging software”, or “e-commerce”, you need to choose where you want your CMS to be hosted. Some CMSs are provided as a service, and everything technical is handled by a third-party company.

These are called “managed CMSs”, or “managed platforms”, and often “SAAS platforms” (software as a service). Examples include Shopify,, and site-builders like Squarespace.

They have several advantages, including active support, constant development, and you never have to worry about updating the software yourself. Security is handled for you, too. There’s a lot to like.

Their disadvantages include a lack of control over certain things. You may not be able to make your site look or work exactly how you want it to. You don’t necessarily own your own data. If the company developing the platform decides to ditch a feature you like, you’re on your own. If they have to shut down operations for any reason, you’re on your own.

That said, many of these services have thousands, sometimes millions of happy customers. You could be one of them.

On the other side of the coin, we have “hosted platforms”. This kind of software can go on your own server, or a third-party server that you rent from someone else. Examples include the hosted version of WordPress, Magento, and Concrete5.

The primary advantage of these options is control. You can make everything work exactly how you want. You can often even extend the functionality yourself by building your own themes and plugins. If it’s an open source CMS, or you’ve bought the right kind of commercial license, you can even alter the basic functionality of the software itself, though this is usually inadvisable.

Updates can tend to undo all of your hard work.

The other advantage is the price. Managed platforms usually cost a monthly fee. Hosted platforms usually have a one-time cost, or no cost at all.

The disadvantage is that you’re on your own right from the start. You, or someone who works for you, have to install the software, keep it updated, and look after every technical detail, including security. You may find yourself paying for some sort of commercial support in any case.

However, for those people and organizations that want to retain full control over their experience with the software, their site’s functionality and aesthetics, their data, and the underlying technology, there’s nothing better than a hosted CMS.

Databases vs flat files

It’s worth noting that hosted CMSs also get divided into two types. In this case, they’re divided by the way they store the site’s settings, content and other information. This section is going to get more technical than business-oriented, but understanding this information will help you to make more informed decisions about the CMS you choose.

The most commonly-used CMSs, for the moment, all run on databases, which are managed by database servers. In this context, the database server is just a separate program that is designed to efficiently organize information, not necessarily a separate computer. Though… it can be on a separate computer, because, you know, nothing’s ever simple.

Basically, database servers are made to organize a bunch of information inside of a single file, and retrieve specifically requested information at a moment’s notice. They’re fast, efficient, and logical.

Once upon a time, this was the preferred method of organizing all information on a site because it’s a bit easier on the actual hardware. However, with advancements like caching and content delivery networks (CDN), this is no longer the case.

The alternative to using a database is to keep all of your information in “flat files”. The difference here is that all of the site’s content—pages, blog posts, etc.—is kept in a hierarchically organized set of text files. The content is stored and retrieved directly by the CMS, without an intervening database server.

Grav is one of the more popular new flat-file CMSs.

This approach is becoming more and more popular with content management systems for small-to-medium-sized sites, and static site generators (more on those later). These systems are sometimes easier to install, but the main advantage is that they can be used on more types of servers and web hosts.

Also, using flat files instead of a database server can sometimes reduce the cost of hosting. This is especially true if you’re using platform-as-a-service (PLAAS) hosting like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, or Heroku.

Framework CMS

A framework CMS is designed to handle just about any task you care to throw at it, so long as you have some programming skills, or a developer on the team. What it does is provide a basic, well… framework… for you to build your own CMS, usually with the help of modules or plugins made by the developers and the community.

The most well-known example is Drupal.

This is the kind of CMS you choose if you have specific, custom needs, but don’t want to build everything (especially the admin UI) from scratch. It is not the kind of CMS you pick if you want to get up and running fast. Framework CMS are often chosen by large organizations that need as much flexibility as they can get, and that have big budgets, or in-house design and development teams.

Blogging CMS

One of the more popular kinds of CMS, blogging systems are everywhere. Nearly every developer who wants to try their hand at building a CMS builds a blog engine at some point. Most of these don’t take off, but once in a while, you get a big hit.

There are blog engines for every programming language and hosting platform. There are blog engines designed for every possible form of blogging you could imagine. There are quite possibly thousands of hosted blog engines, and easily hundreds of managed blog platforms.

Some blog CMS, like the aforementioned WordPress and the newer Ghost, have both hosted and managed versions.

The big three kinds of blogs are text-based blogs, photo blogs, and video blogs. I won’t go into too much detail on this as the names are fairly self-explanatory. Most blogs are text-based, which can obviously have embedded images and video as well. The difference is mostly about the focus of the blog. In other words, if photos are the majority of your content and the primary attraction for your users, it’s a photo blog.

An example of a Ghost blog.

Community CMS

Some CMSs aren’t just about publishing your own content for your audience to see. There are many that are designed to encourage more user interaction, with a strong focus on building a community of regulars. These come in three main varieties:


If you spent any time just browsing the Internet in the pre-Facebook era, chances are that you’ve run into one of these. For everyone who was doing real-life stuff at the time, or is just very young, forums came before Facebook pages, and are infinitely better, if you can get people to stick around.

Basically, it’s a CMS that allows any member to start a discussion with other people. These discussions are usually sorted by topic or categories set up by the site’s administrator and/or moderators. It’s slower than a Slack channel, but the entire conversation is there for everyone to see, and it gives people more time to formulate replies.

Due to their past popularity, there are many, many software options for people who want a forum (heck, there are forum plugins for WordPress), but only a few big ones. Invision Power Board has been the leading commercial solution for years, and phpBB is the biggest open source alternative.

News boards

These are a bit like forums, only instead of people starting discussions with their own words, they submit news stories. Users can then leave comments on the news board itself.

Once upon a time, Digg was the big news board in town, especially for the tech crowd. In time, that mantle passed on to Reddit. If you’ve never been to a news board, you should check out Reddit to see how it works. Or if you want something more design-focused, check out our very own Web Designer News.

Most of these sites seem to have custom CMS. The most well-known consumer option is Telescope, which is free and open source.

Social networks

That’s right, you can make your very own Facebook clone with any one of a variety of managed services or hosted CMS. Or, you could build a dating site like OkCupid. Mind you, managing a social network of any kind is hard work, and you’ll likely never get as big as the big names.

Most people who build their own social networks these days have a very specific theme or central cause in mind, much like those who build their own forums and news boards. So, all of these are great options if you have a niche. Or, you know, just start with a Facebook page.

Like news boards, most social networks are custom-built. The best free/open source option I’ve found so far is Dolphin Pro. If you don’t mind paying someone to take care of the technical stuff, you can build a social network on the Ning’s managed platform.

E-commerce CMS

E-commerce systems are usually massive and complex by design. I mean, sure, the idea is simple: they let you sell things online. The reality is naturally a lot more complicated, as you might expect when running a business.

The big-name e-commerce CMSs don’t just show your products on the front end of a site, and put a “buy” button on the screen. They help you handle inventory, shipping, currency conversion, payment processing, taxes, customer service, and anything else you can imagine. They’re built to handle business, which can easily be as complicated online as it can be in person.

The three big names in e-commerce systems are Magento (Community Edition is free), ZenCart (fully open-source), and Shopify (a paid, managed platform).

This Magento demo is courtesy of IDW.

General CMS

General CMSs have a little bit in common with bare-bones CMS in that they’re made to handle a variety of needs (usually business needs), and are quite customizable. They are also usually extended or altered with plugins and modules.

The difference is in the user-friendliness. General CMS are made to be handled by non-programmers. Sure, coding expertise is helpful, but even a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS will take you a long way. Even that’s not entirely necessary though, as they’re usually designed to be fairly newbie-friendly.

Plugins often include simple things like basic blog modules, image galleries, add-on commenting systems, and that sort of thing.

There aren’t many big names in this category, because these CMS are, in a way, the spiritual children of the old, massive Portal CMS (see below). This category began as a sort of movement to make content management simpler.

Initially, things got very simple, as in the case of Wolf CMS (Yeah, it’s still around, and semi-active!) Nowadays, Pagekit (free and open source) looks like the epitome of a general CMS.

Portal CMS

Portal CMS hail from a time when every website wanted to be the next Yahoo(!), or AOL. This was back in the day when, rather than trying to get everyone signed up to the newsletter, every webmaster with ambition wanted their site to be your home page.

These sites were usually designed to show loads of information at once, anything you might possibly want from around the web. Thus, they were called “portals”. Most were custom-built, but of course people wanted ways to build their own.

One of the early options for this was Mambo, an open source CMS that died off a few years back. Now, many businesses swear by its successor, a fork of Mambo named Joomla.

Nowadays, portal CMS have been pared down a bit, as have most websites in general. They’re used to power websites for large companies who need their CMS to do literally everything. Joomla, for example, has modules for just about everything you can think of.

Naturally, this results in incredible complexity, and portal CMS often have quite the learning curve for administrators, designers, and developers alike. I personally have an aversion to that sort of complexity, but there are cases where it is necessary, and even invaluable.

If you are going to use a portal CMS, a developer is not absolutely required, but you should hire one anyway. Better yet, get one that specializes in the CMS you’ve chosen.

Site builders

Site builders have a lot in common with general CMS, in that they are designed to simplify the whole process of dealing with content for the site’s administrator more than anyone else. The difference is that they are also designed to make designing your own websites easy for anyone.

Think of these as more modern, and usually much less frustrating, versions of Dreamweaver and Frontpage. If that sent a shiver down your spine, don’t worry. Site builders have gotten a lot better.

They largely adhere to best practices and web standards. Even if they’re usually not as customizable as a site built from scratch, they usually offer more than enough options for the average website owner.

Of course, that depends on the site builder. They range from the dead-simple, template-dependent Wix, to the far more complex and customizable SquareSpace, to tools like WebFlow, which are all about designing your site from scratch, albeit with point-and-click tools.

Static site generators

Static site generators are not for the faint of heart, and almost always require some form of programming knowledge to implement. They usually don’t come with a user-friendly admin interface. Typically, content is created and stored in text files, often formatted in Markdown, and compiled into a static site for the server.

The upside to this is that static sites can be hosted on just about any kind of server. You don’t need server-side technologies like PHP, Ruby, or NodeJS to run them. They put less strain on the server itself, and often load quicker.

On the admin side, you get a lot of the data management features of a regular CMS. The data you store can be called up and displayed in a variety of ways, you can use templates, and so on. This allows you to manage blogs, or large and complex sites with a minimum of hassle, compared to hand-coding everything yourself.

The obvious downside is that whoever manages the content and updates the site will need to be comfortable putting all the content together in text files. They may also need programming knowledge.

There are dozens of semi-popular static site generators out there right now. The most well-known, at the moment, is the Ruby-based Jeklyll.


That’s right, you can get your very own wikis up and running, and for free. Most of the best wiki software is available under one open-source license or another, including Mediawiki, the software that runs Wikipedia.

Naturally, these are large, often very complex CMS, with advanced systems for determining who is allowed to edit and change what. Their use case is rather limited by definition: a wiki is a massive, encyclopedia-style collection of information, usually used for reference.

That said, you can make a wiki on any subject, and large organizations often use them to display support-related information for their products.

Enterprise CMS

These are designed, well, for enterprises. They’re huge, they’re complex, they’re meant to handle massive amounts of information. I’ll be honest, having never worked in an enterprise-level company, I’m not entirely sure how they all work.

The general idea, as I understand it, is that they rarely have much to do with customer-facing websites. Enterprise Content Management (or ECM) handles all of the documents relating to the processes that a company uses to get things done. They serve primarily as a resource and reference point for employees.

They are also being used to store documents, both those regarding the company, and the customers. For example, if you handle a lot of contracts, you might store digital copies of them in an ECM, sorted by customer, for easy access. ECM, then, acts a lot like a digital file room.

Those times when they are used for customer-facing sites, those sites tend to be massive, as enterprise CMSs are designed for handling that amount of information. Think of University sites, government portals, and other sites like them.

Custom CMS

Last, though certainly not least, we have the custom-built CMS. These come in every shape and size, and are designed for every conceivable purpose.

The pros are fairly obvious. You get exactly what you want, and only that. This usually results in a smaller, faster CMS that just does what you need it to. However, if you have the need, and the budget, you can always have your favorite developer build more functionality on top.

The downside is that your support options will be severely limited. If the original developer is no longer available, a new developer might have trouble making sense of the old code.

Also, when server technologies get updated, a custom CMS will sometimes need to be adapted to them. CMS developed by a dedicated third-party will be updated automatically. If you have a custom CMS, you’ll need to hire a developer to do it.

Custom CMSs are often best suited to companies that have their own in-house development team to work on updates, upgrades, and security fixes.

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