Building a community: Choosing a CMS

by Martin Reed on 28 March 2008 in Articles

How to choose a CMS content management solution

This is the seventh article in what I hope will be an indefinite series about the processes involved in developing a brand new community from scratch. I am currently developing a brand new online community and will detail its development on this blog. As I have said before, I think it is far easier to learn by example rather than simply reading another person’s theories and ideas.

Choosing software for a new online community

Because there would effectively be two sections to my new community website (articles and a forum), I considered the following:

1) A WordPress/phpBB integration

I could have my design coded into a WordPress theme, and have a phpBB forum integrated into the WordPress software. Ultimately I decided against this as I was uncomfortable using two completely different pieces of software together. If I updated WordPress, would my phpBB integration still work, or vice-versa? This seemed a little too ‘patch it together, and hope for the best’ for my liking.

2) A vBulletin installation with CMS plugin

I have seen a number of sites using vBulletin with a CMS plugin, or a custom-coded design. After some research, I found that I just didn’t like the end-user experience of vBulletin when used as a CMS. Some vBulletin based sites with a custom solution (eg SitePoint) look great, and are closer to what I was after but the potential costs involved of custom coding (both up-front and ongoing) left me hesitant to pursue this option.

3) An integrated CMS solution

A Content Management Solution would allow me to publish articles and use an integrated forum by the same authors (ideally) as the CMS software. Keeping the whole site under one piece of software seemed like the best idea in terms of overall consistency and scalability, so I decided this was the way forward for my new site.

The CMS options

There are a wealth of CMS solutions out there. I investigated Joomla, Drupal and ExpressionEngine. Ultimately I chose ExpressionEngine, based on my own opinions as well as the thoughts of a couple of designers and coders experienced in using the three different systems.

I dismissed Joomla as it seemed to be a little too ‘patched together’ for my liking. There was a lot of bloated code, it didn’t appear to be overly intuitive in both it’s front-end and back-end, and it isn’t particularly compliant with current web standards.

Drupal seemed a lot more professional, stable and web standards compliant. Unfortunately it has a very steep learning curve for non-techies and customisations can be difficult to do. I wanted a CMS system that I could easily customise once the initial coding was done, and Drupal just looked a little too complicated for my needs. Additionally, I really didn’t like the forum system – as this is to be a focal area of my site I just couldn’t go with Drupal.

In the end, I chose ExpressionEngine – it looked easy to maintain, easy to customise and had a strong emphasis on adhering to Web standards. The template system employed by ExpressionEngine is something I would be far more comfortable using to keep the site up-to-date and looking just how I want. I also liked the integrated forum, its functionality, usability and design. Sure, you have to pay for ExpressionEngine whilst Joomla and Drupal are open source and free, but for the right type of software I was willing to cough up the cash.

Finding a coder

Now I have chosen the CMS solution to be used for my new community website, it is time to find a coder. Unfortunately the one I had lined up is now fully booked, so I will be looking through ExpressionEngine’s Professionals Network and contacting a number of coders requesting quotes and examples of sites they have coded/designed for ExpressionEngine in the past.

When choosing a designer or a coder, it is important that you fully research each one – don’t choose one based solely on price. You need to work with someone that understands your vision, is professional, trustworthy and capable. Ask for references and ask for evidence of their work. Find out how long they estimate it will take to complete your project. Contact people they have worked for and ask them whether they were happy with the work produced. Don’t make the potentially costly mistake of choosing a designer or coder on a whim, and always sign a transfer of rights agreement when the work is done.

What’s next

I am hoping that in my next update I will be able to describe the coding process, and perhaps even show you a sneak preview of the new community prior to its launch. I was initially aiming to launch the site at the beginning of April, however this will probably be moved back to around May/June now.

Your thoughts

Do you use a CMS solution for your online community? Which one do you use? Why did you choose it? If you don’t use a CMS, why not? Did you consider one before starting your website? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.

Share this community building advice


Similar Posts

Previous post:

Next post:


Michelle from the Coulee Region March 28, 2008 at 1:26 pm

I use that Drupal that you decided not to go with. ;)

I came to Drupal 3 years ago when I needed a CMS to go with Gallery 2. Now I don’t use G2 for much anymore but I use Drupal for everything. It has tons of functionality already built in > 1500 free modules and is really easy to customize. There is a lot of ongoing work to make it into a killer CMS for social networking, which is my field of interest.

While I’m disappointed you decided to go with propriatary software for your community, I understand that everyone must use the tools that work best for them. I’m a bit of a Drupal evengalist but I know the functionality and flexibility it offers makes it complex and scary to non techies. One thing I don’t understand, though. If you’re hiring a coder anyway, why does Drupal’s learning curve matter? It doesn’t sound like you’ll be the one customizing it. Or am I misunderstanding?


T.Thion March 28, 2008 at 2:42 pm

First of all – sorry for poor english, I’m still learning. I’ve tried many CMS in the past including Drupal and Joomla – I was extremely disappointed – every CMS I’ve tried was slow, with tons of unnecessary features and with documentation written in a way I just couldn’t understood a single line of text. I can remember when I was trying to plug template into Drupal – it was terrible. Then I’ve discovered WordPress…

It’s fast, with a lot of plugins, with so easy template system, and I can understand both “Codex” and WP syntax. I like using WordPress because with knowledge about php you can do anything with wp – anything. It’s so simple. And in most cases, integration with forum scripts is not a problem for me.

I just can’t imagine using something else but Wordpress.

Brandon March 28, 2008 at 3:25 pm

Welcome to the ExpressionEngine world! Much like you, I tried Joomla/Mambo, Drupal, Wordpress (which I still use in a few places) and a slew of others. I think your assessments are accurate. Joomla/Mambo is a mess, but okay if you just want quick and dirty. In the days of making things easy for the user, Drupal seems to have missed the memo. I know they have a nice sized user base, but with most open source software, when you need help the most, all you get are crickets chirping.

To clarify on a point from Michelle, while licenses are sold for ExpressionEngine, it is not proprietary the way most software would be. The code is completely open so you can modify freely. If you use it, then decide to take the code elsewhere (or Ellislab were to cease to exist), you aren’t locked in to something that you can’t continue to improve.

Somewhere along the way, people started to decide that FREE was the right price for software. I think that is wrong. If anything, I’m paying to reduce the number of stress headaches I get and keeping my hair from turning gray. If you don’t like the idea of paying for software but want ExpressionEngine, just consider the payment to be for the support you get. The tech support is super quick to respond and I have yet to find a more helpful community. ExpressionEngine also offers a free core version for you to experiment with.

I’m a little partial I suppose though. I run EE Design, a site that focuses on design issues for ExpressionEngine.

Eric Martindale March 28, 2008 at 3:50 pm

Y’know, I’ve found that phpBB3 with a decent SEO modification really serves as a GREAT CMS system. You have the ability to upload files and images, and style them with familiar language (BBCode), and it even allows comments (replies), and a full host of permission levels.

Mr Woc March 28, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Hi there

I dont have much experiance of any of the other cms, but i do have experiance of vbulleting, and like your said in your blog post a licence is expensive.

But i dont regret my purchase of it at all, its very powerful and easy to use, and you can have fun customising it.

Mr Woc

James Burrows March 28, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Hi Martin, thats an interesting breakdown of competing CMS’s. Its interesting that standards compliant output was a big deal for you and that in the end you chose to pay for a system rather than go for something which is free but not quite what you want.

We’ve been developing a CMS (called Microcyte) for sometime now and we’ve taken a slightly different approach to the other CMS’s you’ve mentioned. Our CMS ‘layers’ over the top of the site and gives the user in-line editing over the actual webpages, rather than going for the whole back-end admin area type experience.

This means the developer ends up building the site how they want it to look and work and then makes the bits they want content managed. Of course this doesn’t address that you wanted a forum solution built-in but the approach is light enough that it gets out of your way when you do want to add something bespoke.

Chat March 28, 2008 at 10:59 pm

I do use a CMS for my main community, The way i see it these days with all of the apps and features an online community has to have to compete with bigger online community sites its almost impossible not to have a CMS solution.

Mine was totally custom coded, I found my coder on about a year ago. He was good with his abilities. But i did have lots of problems with his dedication and in the end he left me with an almost finished slightly buggy piece of software. For the past little bit on my free time i have been going through and slowly trying to fix the loose ends which in a way is allowing me to learn lots.

Custom coding can be great but it can also can give alot of head aches.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 29, 2008 at 3:37 pm

Michelle – I am aware that you use Drupal and it works for you; that’s great. Yes, I will be getting a coder at first, but after the initial coding is done I want to be able to easily make changes and further customisations myself. The templating system in EE will allow me to do this without much trouble.

Drupal does seem to be improving for the better – who knows, I may change over to them in a few years. Never say never!

T.Thion – Your English is great! WordPress is brilliant; it’s the only blogging platform I have ever used but I just can’t see myself ever moving Community Spark away from it.

The reason it wasn’t suitable for my new community was because the new site will have even more of a community aspect to it – including integrated forums. Using WordPress for such a task would have been too unwieldy and complicated, hence the move to EE for my new site.

Brandon – Thanks for your comment. I think you make a valid point that quite often, you do get what you pay for. It’s a similar argument to the phpBB vs vBulletin debates – you pay your money for vBulletin and are supposed to receive a more secure product and better support in return.

At the end of the day, a CMS may well be suitable for one project but not for another. We just need to choose what is right for our own needs.

Eric – I understand what you are saying, but it still seems a little too ‘patch it together and hope for the best’ for what I am after.

I am lucky that I can use the revenue from Just Chat to invest in my new site. If I was on a tighter budget, an open source integration would probably have been my chosen path.

Mr Woc – Custom vBulletin systems like those used at SitePoint are great. I just don’t have the time or motivation to invest in heavily customising an existing product. I would rather use an out-of-the-box system and customise the site appearance through an intuitive template system, as used in EE.

James – Your CMS certainly sounds interesting, and I wish you the best of luck with its development.

Cody – You highlight one of the reasons I wasn’t looking for a custom solution. If you lose your coder or they do poor work you are kind of stuck. If you get a good coder and have the budget, a customised solution is hard to beat.

Smiley March 30, 2008 at 2:21 pm

I have several CMS features on my resellers account, but no idea what they’re used for. I thought it was a community builder or something at first, but it seems it’s just for posting articles and such.. I was going to play around with it and create a new community using it, a different type of one.. they seem too complex for simple minded moi!

Nicole Price March 30, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Off late I have been using Wordpress for all my sites. Its pretty easy to maintain regular sites with wordpress.

Hayden March 31, 2008 at 4:38 pm

A ‘patch it together and hope for the best’ CMS solution is a nightmare. I recently worked on a system where the server it was hosted on crashed. The system had to be moved over to a new server and I was asked to get it all up and running again.

What a mission. A “patch it together” approach had been used, resulting in at least a dozen “configuration / database connection” files being required throughout the site. What was essentially a five minute job took ages of sifting through endless lines of code.

“Patch it together” is for quilting, not website development. Sticking to a good CMS that provides for your needs now and can accommodate any future plans you have in mind is the best way to go.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 2, 2008 at 12:50 pm

Smiley – Some can be complicated, some can be easy to use. The problem with many is you need to customise them otherwise you have a site that looks just like everyone else’s. Have a play around with them when you have time though – who knows, you may like what you see.

Nicole – I agree that WordPress is a great blogging platform. I don’t think it is quite there as a full blown CMS yet – but it’s getting there!

Hayden – I couldn’t agree more. What may be an easy solution now could come back to haunt you in the future. You should plan and prepare for growth right from day one if you want your site to develop efficiently.

Eva White April 4, 2008 at 12:38 pm

I use wordpress and I am pretty satisfied with it. By the way by when do you intent to launch you new online community?

Michelle from the Coulee Region April 6, 2008 at 3:15 am

“I am aware that you use Drupal and it works for you; that’s great.”

Well, you _did_ ask… :)

“Yes, I will be getting a coder at first, but after the initial coding is done I want to be able to easily make changes and further customisations myself. The templating system in EE will allow me to do this without much trouble.”

Ah, that makes sense, then. Unfortunately, Drupal doesn’t have any point and click wizard kind of thing for theming. You need to have a basic understanding of HTML and CSS since Drupal themes are basically HTML pages. So, yeah, if you don’t know HTML/CSS and want to customize your site, I agree that Drupal isn’t a good choice. Maybe some day someone will write one of those wizards for Drupal so non techy people don’t need to know HTML. :)


Martin Reed - Blog Author April 8, 2008 at 10:36 pm

Eva – WordPress is great, it’s just not right for my new project. My new community should be ready for launch by June.

Michelle – I think Drupal will definitely become more user friendly in the future; it will have to in order to compete with other content management systems.

Bernard April 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm

Hi Martin – very interesting article.

I am a very keen Joomla fan. I was quite suppries with the low rating everyone gives Joomla. I’m not a coding expert, but I don’t find Joomla to be such a mess. One big plus is the big community supporting it and the many free extensions available.

For my forums I use the FireBoard component. I have been wondering if vBulletin or phpBB or SimpleMachines are better options, but I haven’t found any problem with FireBoard so far.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 25, 2008 at 4:57 pm

Bernard – Another really big issue for me was scalability; code bloat matters less when a site isn’t hugely popular, however as usage grows this can really affect a site’s performance. I haven’t used FireBoard, or any forum software asides from phpBB – moving to the ExpressionEngine forum for my new community should be interesting!

Greg April 26, 2008 at 3:42 am

Hi Martin,

I recently found your blog just a few days ago. This brief rundown of some of the more popular CMSs was very useful to me because after nearly a year of successful and happy blogging with Wordpress, I am hoping to expand into more of a community-based site with a forum, just as you’re describing for your own new project. So thanks for this great advice!

I would like to make a suggestion about Wordpress, though… or maybe it’s more of a question. Do you know of any sites that have created a page that lists all of the blog post headlines in a row (like the thread list in a forum), and then have the blog post and associated comments appear when you click on the headline. This in theory would give you exactly the same functionality as a forum. I haven’t tried this yet, but I am thinking about trying it. I think if you have a good coder, it should work out with no major issues.

What do you think? A forum with the simplicity of Wordpress, I would love it!

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 30, 2008 at 4:44 pm

Greg – Welcome, it’s good to have you around. I don’t know of any sites that have hacked WordPress in the fashion you mention, although I can’t imagine it being all that difficult to do. If you are looking for a really simple forum, check out Vanilla. Just be aware that although you may only need something simple now, what if your community grows and becomes more demanding in the future? Will a simple solution be scalable and the best choice for the long term?

Greg May 1, 2008 at 6:25 am

Thanks for your response, Martin, and recommending the Vanilla forum program. I will definitely check that one out.

As far as the Wordpress editing goes, I have been too busy lately and haven’t even started to try it out. If I ever get around to doing it, I’ll try to remember to post another comment and let people know how it went.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 5, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Greg – Great! I look forward to you coming back to tell us what you decided to do.

Andy May 10, 2008 at 3:06 pm


I have just started my own website which aims to show people how they can create social networking sites using joomla . Joomla is actually a very good CMS for creating social networking and community sites if you have the right extensions and plug-ins installed. I have an extended version of the community builder add on for joomla that with a little work will let you create a site the equal of any of the big the social networking sites.

You are correct about the web standards issue however it is more than possible to create a site that is fully standards compliant and search engine friendly if you know what your doing and have the right extensions.

Joomla is evolving all the time and the power of this software is truly awesome.

Andy May 11, 2008 at 2:31 am

Ill just expand a little bit on my last comment I probably should have put a bit more into it.

here is a list of the features on my joomla based social networking site.

Full user profiles like those on myspace or bebo ect. This is a fully featured suite

Full profile search, based on any field and the ability to search between a certain age range.

Fully integrated forum that links with the user profiles

The ability to let user create private user groups that links with the forum and the profiles

User blogging and user comments on site articles much like this im writing in now.

user customizable profile URLS

Users can submit their own articles to the site.

Fully featured private messaging system that is integrated throughout the site.

User can add friends to their profile and stream videos from you tube and so on.

The list goes on and on but it has everything you could possibly need.

Still think its a mess?

Smiley May 11, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Sounds interesting, Andy. I’m wanting a social networking side to my site. I’ll have a gander at your site and look more into Joomla. Thanks for that.

Andy May 11, 2008 at 2:39 pm

No problem if you need any help setting things up or with general questions just ask in my sites forum.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 6:57 pm

Andy – I decided against Joomla for the very reasons you actually mentioned in your comment. I don’t want to install numerous plugins and extensions – I want something that offers me a far more integrated solution and runs out of the box with clean, efficient code. I needed a CMS that wouldn’t cause problems for me as the site grew in the future – for me, EE was the best choice.

Andy May 12, 2008 at 9:32 pm

I see what your saying and agree partially but there is no out of the box solution that will have every feature you could possibly want in a social networking site. How do you add new features to your site if you are not willing to install extensions of any kind? Also most of the major extensions for joomla are written by professional programmers in their spare time so most of it is clean efficient code that has been tested rigorously and debugged before release, There are thousands of small buggy plug ins of course you just have to use your judgment. It does not automatically mean problems as the site grows there are lots of massive joomla sites out their. I think most of the problems that are likely to occur will happen pretty early on apart from server resources as the site grows.

Anyway keep up the good work mate. Your articles are very helpful.

Otilia May 29, 2008 at 10:33 am

I’ve played with various CMS for several years now and found that between Joomla, WordPress and phbBB… there’s really nothing more needed. I have developed my content portal using Joomla and found it to be a breeze to manage it and have it well customized; my personal site is a WP blog (still very new and working on customizing it) and am now preparing to launch a community-based niche site using Joomla + phpBB3.
Sure, documentation is not too good especially for Joomla, but all you need is a decent developer to get you started. A little customization goes a long way, to the point that the site completely loses that ‘Joomla template-ish’ feeling.

Chris Hutcherson October 2, 2008 at 3:37 am

Thanks for the useful CMS review. Plus a ton of feedback in the comments from actual CMS users. Gives me a good starting point..

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 6, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Andy – I agree; rarely will you find a perfect solution ‘out of the box’. Unless you have a completely custom solution (and even when you do), you will likely need to install extensions/new features and continue to customise and tweak the software.

Otilia – It’s great that you have found open source solutions that meet your needs; I am a huge fan of WordPress and phpBB and can heartily recommend them.

Chris – Thanks for your comment; I agree with you – the contributions made by readers have added significant value to my original article and have improved it no end.

Edward February 24, 2009 at 11:08 am

Great review and rundown of the popular CMS options (and, let’s face it, choosing a popular options offers you more support and extensions in the long run). I have heard really good things about Expression Engine. Maybe it’s time to try it?

Re: Drupal, I don’t prefer it but have found myself using it several times (I’m not the decision maker). If you have a talented web developer on-staff, I see no problem with it. However, I’d never want to dig into the code on my own!

Michelle February 24, 2009 at 11:14 am

@Edward: Why’s that? While I admit Drupal can be intimidating to novice site builders, the code is one of its finer points. I love the way it’s designed so that you never have to change the core, which makes upgrading much easier. Maybe you should dig into the code sometime. You’ll find it’s really not so scary once you understand how it works. :)


Edward February 27, 2009 at 11:24 am

@Michelle: Maybe it’s not so scary after all :), but I do think there’s a steep learning curve. This probably has a lot to do with how complex it can be if you let it; I’ve seen some amazing things with Drupal, but they were also things I’d be afraid to try on my own (Ajax menus, etc).

Maybe one day I’ll try it all by myself. :)

Wilfried April 23, 2009 at 7:30 pm

Thanks for this CMS review. I install, I use and teach people to use Joomla. For me, this CMS can be used after 2 to 3 hours of learning. In most cases, it remains compatible with the W3C standards as long as the template used is compatible.
Drupal seems less accessible for most people. And I have not yet tested ExpressionEngine.
There are also SPIP which is very comprehensive.

SJR April 28, 2009 at 10:07 am

Joomla is getting better. Most of the bugs I find are when using Virtuemart on it. Wordpress is good too if you want a simple straight forward solution. Really depends what you are looking to do with your CMS.

Christina March 25, 2010 at 6:03 pm

This has been one of the most helpful articles and subsequent comments that I have read in months. Hearing about the differences in Joomla, Drupal and ExpressionEngine from actual people has been so much more useful than my typical research.

{ 1 trackback }