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The zero cost CMS

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I've always been a bit intolerant of content management systems. It's a problem, and I'm trying to address it.

Photo credit: mindweb from

The source of my problem is a feeling I have that content management systems are often a barrier to doing great digital communication. The digital communications teams I've worked in have all spent too much of their time finding ways around the CMS, and not enough time actually communicating.

When I worked at the Cabinet Office a few years ago, the content management system involved a central e-media team saving pages of HTML on to floppy disks, and then walking the disks across the room to the single publishing-computer to FTP the revised files onto the live server.  It was a quaint little system and it kind of worked, but - as with many content management systems I've used since - it meant that the digital team had to spend an awful lot of time just working through the mechanics of the publishing process. If you wanted to post an update, you had to go back to your desk, save new changes to your floppy disk, and then join the queue for the publishing machine. It didn't leave much time for planning creative content.

Now, my heart sometimes sinks when I'm faced with long requirements documents about content management systems, or a change request form. Because once I'm set on doing something, I want to get through the mechanics and start thinking about content as quickly as possible. I want to spend less time in the queue for the publishing machine.

My colleague Tim Lloyd was moved to blog the other day about the satisfaction he was getting from creating content for 2 of our newer digital channels at DH. It really struck me that the removal of typical CMS barriers was helping him to get much closer to the creative process and the content.

Successful social media platforms have solved the CMS problem - they enable people to get straight to the content, without really noticing that they are using a content management system. Creating a set of photos using Flickr or running a poll using Yammer doesn't feel like content management at all.

Which gets me to the subject of this post. I've long hankered after a zero-cost-and-still-brilliant CMS. And I'm sure it's entirely possible, because many brilliant tools are available to use and combine for free. And I have a nagging feeling that there might be an inverse correlation between the cost of a content management system, and the satisfaction of the digital communicators who use it.

It feels like we're getting closer to a zero-cost CMS at DH at the moment. If you visit some of the pages on our Modernisation channel for example, you can see that pages are created using a range of free and already-brilliant content management systems. So if you visit one of our conversation pages, you'll see that it uses:

  • YouTube for the embedded video
  • Delicious for the list of tagged stories
  • Feedburner for the RSS feed and email alerts
  • WordPress for the overall page template

Elsewhere we're using Disqus to manage comments and Coveritlive for webchats. We're not using free tools to manage content across the board at the moment, but we could.

I suppose there are risks in this approach. It certainly means we have a bit less control over our content, and the availability of our content. If there's a problem with Feedburner our feeds won't work; if Delicious disappears tomorrow (as it might) we will lose our stream of tagged stories. But with a zero-cost CMS we can quickly swap one service for another. And by picking the best, proven, market-leading tools we mitigate the risks. YouTube doesn't really have availability problems, and Google isn't likely to go out of business any time soon; there's far more chance of a proprietary CMS becoming obsolete than WordPress.

I can see us managing more of our content like this. We may even end up with a zero cost CMS.

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  1. Comment by Shane Dillon posted on

    Of course it depends what CMS you use. Of course the large enterprise level CMS's that run large websites could in some cases pose more difficulties than an open source CMS that runs a website using for example Joomla! So in essence it depends on what CMS you are talking about.

    From my perspective the type of CMS that runs a website with masses of content can get in the way of creation because

    Time is spent navigating not creating: like a map of the New Forest in the sense that if you do not use the CMS on a regular basis navigation is a problem. You need to edit a page but where the hell is it on the CMS.

    Links roster: sorry just a bug bear of mine, lazily I just like to highlight text and insert a link rather than add links to links roster in the hope that one day I will use that link again. Yes in some cases a links roster makes sense but is it not time we stopped making sense.

    Expertise: Quite rightly the large scale CMS that runs a large website is the capable hands of skilled web editors who know their way around. But even these people can get frustrated. However having been exposed to the CMS for most of their working day they use a CMS with speed and agility leaving tortoises like me far behind.

    One observation about websites that may indicate a frustration with CMS's is when you come across a website that has not been updated yet the same organisations Facebook and Twitter has regular updates. Would this be because adding content to Facebook and Twitter is easier, enjoyable and with a small 'c' creatively satisfying?

  2. Comment by Bookmarks for February 23rd through April 4th | DavePress posted on

    [...] The zero cost CMS | Stephen Hale – "The digital communications teams I’ve worked in have all spent too much of their time finding ways around the CMS, and not enough time actually communicating." [...]

  3. Comment by Kate Brown posted on

    Hello, great post. I've referenced you here

    I've been fiddling around with a similar kind of thinking for a while now - nice to start finding others thinking along the same lines.

  4. Comment by Aaron Skinner posted on

    @d9aa1341b9fe4a995873d35bca845b28:disqus makes a good point with regards to the type of interaction the publisher and/or web master has with a CMS.

    As a software developer in the NHS I find that there's a certain trend in most software, including both internal apps and public domains, and that’s as long as something functions programmatically then the user interface becomes a secondary factor in development.

    From what I’ve experienced this has sometimes deterred users from fully engaging with the product, due to the mundane and lengthy methods of creating and updating information.

    I personally think it’s very important in being able to present very user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing applications to staff, which in effect are my ‘customers’, so that if they use it to its full potential, then the public and/or patients will do so too. And this starts with a good CMS.

  5. Comment by Bill posted on

    Having seen and heard of many bespoke software sytems that never get used or are far less functional than hoped for or expected I think using these methods has distinct benfits in potential cost savings and lack of redundancy.

    The end of white elephants?