What web software should our organization use to create and organize a network of sites?
June 19, 2011 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Our organization is looking to set up a network of sites (at least a 12 for now) for our coordinators in various cities. We have a bunch of specific requirements... Our coordinators are very smart people, but they're not necessarily web savvy. We need something that will make it really easy for them to do what they want, without needing help from us.

The requirements:
  • We need to be able to create a design template and then let our coordinators do everything within a WYSIWYG. They need an easy way to add their own logo, change colors, etc.
  • We often provide content for our coordinators to add to their sites; like new curricula, slideshows via slideshare, etc. Wed like to provide all of the coordinators with this content, and allow them to simply click something like Add this page to your site - they can then edit it or change it however they want. I was thinking that one of the sites in the network can be informative for the coordinators (an intranet of sorts), where we provide the content itself, and then they can click on a link to add (first approve, then add) that content to their site. While yes, we can email this content out to coordinators or use google groups, etc, itd be really great if we could have it all in one place. Even better is if they could share content amongst themselves.
  • It really has to be easy to use, and we have to presume they have never seen the backend of a website and really know nothing about running it. We can provide like 1/2 hour training session, but after that we really dont want to provide tech support.
  • Languages are a very very important feature. We have programs in the US, Israel and Russia. That means that we need flawless Hebrew right-to-left support for content, and Russian content support.
  • We need to own the content, and if necessary, be able to backup/export it to a new system.
We outgrew Weebly Pro, it just doesnt provide what we need. Weve looked at ImpressPages, SquareSpace, Word Press, and Virb. We currently use Drupal for our main site, but its not an easy-to-use interface. Integration with Drupal would be great though.

Are there other places we should look? What network site creation tools do people know that they like?
posted by Political Funny Man to Technology (2 answers total)
We use ExpressionEngine which has support for multiple sites but it still wouldn't work for things like changing the look of the template without a lot of setup. For those requirements, anything you do is going to require a large amount of work in the beginning to make it work with minimal involvement from you or your staff.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:08 AM on June 19, 2011

From what you're saying it seems that you're starting to hit the limits of out-of-the-box solutions. I think you realize this, and as long as you are using one, you're limited to a few options:
  1. Making compromises. You know this already, you've been doing it. But as your needs become more specific, the number of compromises you are able to make dwindles.
  2. Mass customization. Some content management systems are better at this than others. If done well, with a flexible content management system (Drupal and ExpressionEngine were built for this), you'll be able to use it and upgrade for years very happily. If done poorly, you'll be stuck with no upgrade path and your next big upgrade (which will come sooner than you like) is going to be really bloody expensive.
  3. Start fresh. This does not mean chucking everything out the window and paying someone to build a completely new content management system for you (although that is a possibility, albeit usually an expensive one). As I said in the previous option, some content management systems, but particularly content management frameworks are built to be customizable. Think of them more as a big tub of LEGO rather than a particular set with limited possibilities. The issue is that these take a lot more work to get set up initially. But they can be built to be easily deployable afterwards. If you don't have a development team that is prepared to do this, you're going to have to hire someone, it won't cost as much as a completely customized solution, and if done well, it'll give you the ability to easily hire someone else to come in to do upgrades if your old developer leaves for some reason.
I don't fully know what your requirements are, so it is hard to make recommendations, but here is a preliminary set of questions:
  • How much can your development team do?
  • How do the sites for the different branches sit in relation to your main website? Are they different subdomains, a subfolder, or do they live on a completely different server (or user/process)?
  • Who hosts and administers individual sites?
  • What are all the content types they have to deal with? How do they normally deal with them?
  • When coordinators update their sites, how to users find out? Are they posting to a blog or other news feed-esque thing?
  • How are you currently dealing with multi-lingual support? Does a single site have to also include multiple languages?
  • What do you mean when you say the other sites need Drupal integration? What sort of content are you integrating?
Without knowing more, I can only offer a few generalized suggestions:
  • Figure out your timeline, if it is in the next 60 days. Truly rethink your development process. You're going to be scrambling from one issue to another and you're going to end up stuck with the same problem again within the next 12 months.
  • Bring in a content strategist right now. (Full disclosure: I now make my living as a content strategist and developer, specializing in nonprofits.) While you may think you know your exact needs, an outsider will approach your problem with fresh eyes, and be able to pinpoint the most important things you need and offer you something you can take to your developers to say "This is exactly what we need, and here is how to do it." This person may not be who ends up helping you upgrade your websites, but at the moment a lot of developers are really bad at this part. They tend to say "yes, sir" when given a list of deliverables. In a previous life, I was brought into projects near the end of development, where there was no long-term content strategy planning and the pricetag was terrible, one project was delayed for nearly 2 years after I left. In another, the organization folded three years after launch because the flagship project never quite worked.
  • If you cannot afford to bring in a consultant, make the budget. Seriously. I wasn't joking when I said no content strategy made an organization fold. It was very well funded the first few years by people you would have heard of, it even appeared on the Blue.
  • While you're waiting for the budget for a content strategy consultant, read Kristina Halvorson's Content Strategy for the Web. Then dedicate someone on your team to wear the content strategy cap.
  • Start taking full stock of what you have and what you need. Content strategists love it when clients do their homework first.
Feel free to MeMail me if you have any questions or thoughts.
posted by thebestsophist at 8:57 AM on June 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

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