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.
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.
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.