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 (www.sunvalleyonline.com) 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 bit.ly). 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?

About Dave Chase

I am the owner/publisher of http://www.sunvalleyonline.com and co-founder of www.avado.com. Avado's mission is empower the healthcare partnership.

Comments

  1. Hey Dave,
    I liked the piece, and I agree with pretty much all of what you said. I, too, chose Neighborlogs (their first Virginian, and maybe their first east coaster to do so) for many of the reasons you mentioned.
    The one real sell for me was the focus on local ads for local news. The best print weeklies that survived the past couple of years were the ones that had a deep reserve of many different local advertisers. It seems to me that there’s room for that sort of support on the web as well
    Thanks for the article,
    Steve

  2. 66.241.81.95 says:

    Dave,

    Thanks for posting this blog and sharing some of your experience. My first comment is that I entirely agree with the following points you make. These are critical to the success of any hyperlocal blogger.

    1. You Don’t Need To Hire A Tech Team To Do It
    2. You Need To Be Able to Quickly and Easily Monetize Your Site
    4. The platform must allow for community generated content

    Although I have not used Neighborlogs I will give it a review, now that you have shared it.

    On the other hand I am highly experienced with WordPress and feel that without a doubt it is currently one of the best platforms to use for starting and launching a hyperlocal blog.

    I wrote a blog about wordpress being used for hyperlocal platforms here if anyone wants to compare and contrast.

    http://hyperlocal101.com/best-software-for-hyperlocal-blogs

    Thanks for your post.

    Shields Bialasik
    http://www.hyperlocal101.com

  3. 152.33.49.94 says:

    Hi Dave,
    Thanks for your under-the-hood look at Neighborlogs. I did a review of content management systems that included Neighborlogs among others:
    http://michelleferrier.wordpress.com/2009/11/09/pro-con-short-list-hyperlocal-focused-content-management-systems/

    While we have similar criteria, I think one of the key characteristics you mention is the responsiveness of the development team. That alone will kill or grow a project.

    Michelle Ferrier
    http://www.locallygrownnews.com

  4. this is a good checklist for decision-making, but it would be more constructive and valuable if you mentioned more systems that met some of these requirements than the one you eventually chose. perhaps a second installment?

  5. especially noting that neighborlogs is a hosted only product, it is definitely important for local bloggers and startups to be able to host their own sites as they desire. how you could cook-book a drupal, joomla or wordpress site to check off these decisions would be very valuable indeed.

  6. 216.205.224.10 says:

    It was exciting to see a post that even broaches this subject. I think some key needs are missing from your list. There are many more, but I would like to suggest two more –

    (1) The ability to easily geo-tag content in the CMS. There are in existence today geo-tagging engines that automatically extract geo-references from content and assign a LAT/LON or multiple LAT/LONs.
    (2) Outbound Geo-rss and KML feeds so that mashups can be built quickly and easily from the content created/added to the publishing tool.

    Your list intimated these two features, but I felt it valuable to specifically spell them out because they exist today in some publishing systems.

    Ian
    http://communicationcontent.blogspot.com/

  7. Interesting list of criteria. Some I wouldn’t have expected in their specificity, for example, your notes on calendars and classified ads, though that makes perfect sense.

    I would, however, love to see a comparison across the board of the major offerings using your criteria. Too much work for you, I know, but something I would love to see.

    Also, as someone who’s worked more on a national level and thought about projects for a national or international niche audience, I honestly don’t see how these criteria are particular to hyperlocal.

    I think it’s a good start for making a list of criteria for any community oriented web news site since hyperlocal is, in many ways, simply one form of community.

  8. Thanks for all the comments. There were some great suggestions on additional criteria, as well. For example, the ability to geotag content is something that neighborlogs does do.

    The comparison I did in depth was really WordPress vs. Neighborlogs. I just implemented WordPress for a consulting client of mine (not a hyperlocal site) and it’s what we’ve used for 4 years on our site and think it’s terrific for lots of scenarios…just not my situation. However, one of the areas I don’t think it does a great job is multi-user blogs. If you are a solo blogger, it’s not an issue. In contrast, most of our content comes from the community so optimizing for that is a place I felt neighborlogs shined.

    To Michelle’s point, unless I have my own wordpress support person, the support I get from neighborlogs is superior simply because there’s an actual person (albeit a busy person) I can reach out to. He does a good job of triage from what I have experienced.

    I’ve also seen solid CMS’ built on top of Django and Drupal but they both had tech wizards attached to them which I can’t afford which is why they weren’t preferred options for my circumstance.

    By comparison to my choice, I felt WordPress fell short on criteria #1, 5, 11, 12, 13 (it can probably do some of these items but not in a no-brainer fashion – i.e., it requires some deeper platform knowledge than I possess). Even some of the other items aren’t trivial whereas they are with my choice.

    I appreciate all the comments/suggestions.

    I should also mention that if one is talking about a larger, sophisticated and resourced operation there are other options out there. They cost real money, however, and will assume some level of internal support to take full advantage of their capabilities.

  9. 74.70.76.124 says:

    I’ve never tried Neighborlogs, but I have worked with both django and drupal. If you don’t have a developer, I’d run away from django like the dickens. That said, it’s a far more flexible platform and can take care of custom apps that you’d end up jumping through hoops to get accomplished with some of the more off the shelf options.

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