Guide To Owning a Craft CMS Website
This is a guide about being a proud owner of a Craft website. In this guide we’ll tackle the following questions:
- What is a Craft CMS?
- Why should you care?
- What’s involved in the care and feeding of a Craft CMS?
What is Craft CMS?
Craft is a content management system (CMS) developed and built by Pixel & Tonic, a company with many years of experience in the CMS world. Craft is known, first and foremost, for its intuitive and flexible authoring interface (i.e. It’s easy to publish stuff). Whatever your editorial team may have hated about WordPress or Drupal, they will love about Craft.
When installed and configured by professionals, Craft is capable of handling heavy traffic loads and robust publishing schedules. It can and does support editorial teams numbering in the hundreds. It is a highly flexible CMS, capable of being extended and expanded in virtually any direction possible on the internet.
'Why Craft' is pretty much the first question I address on most new business calls. Craft is extremely popular among web developers of the creative development class.
In a lot of cases I am talking to clients who did not even get to choose Craft as their CMS. Somewhere along the way in their new website project they were shown the control panel and told that this was the 'backend' of their new site. In some cases a client was able to try out Craft and explore the editorial and management experience before signing off. With this short evaluation period a client gives their thumbs up. Or, you inherited a Craft site with your new job; it’s new to you and you’re trying to figure it out.
Regardless of the way you ended up on Craft, you're here now. The designer or agency who built your site has said thank you for the fun project, congratulations, here are the keys, goodbye! (Or maybe you told them goodbye). And now, here you are with a Craft powered revenue generating website and you’ve got to make sure it keeps working and stays at pace with the market.
Why should you care that it’s a Craft CMS?
There are tons of CMSs out there; what’s the big deal about this one? Let’s take a look.
The Main Virtues of Craft CMS
At Solspace we use Craft as our exclusive licensed CMS option. We’ve used others in the past, but the market today has brought us to Craft. (We also build on other frameworks like Laravel when more specialized applications are needed).
There are 3 main reasons owners of Craft CMS websites love the platform.
- Craft affords an easy, highly customizable editorial experience. Your company may have only a few editors and content authors or it may have hundreds. Regardless, each of these people needs the underlying CMS to stay out of their way. I have yet to find a client that complains about publishing in Craft. In fact, the first question a new client asks me is normally, 'was Craft the right choice?' My answer is a question, 'how do you like the editing experience?' That usually ends the conversation.
- The second major feature that is popular with users of Craft is the live preview capability. A content author can edit a post in the control panel, click a button and immediately access a live preview of what the pages will look like live. This is tremendously reassuring to authors. Knowing how your content will appear once published is critical for most of our clients.
- The third major feature that clients love about Craft is how mobile friendly it is. Sometimes you need to edit content on the fly, from the road. Craft is ready for you. Just visit the Craft Control Panel on a mobile phone and you will be met with an interface that is easy to use from a smartphone screen. Naturally you don't want to do all of your content editing this way, but in a pinch it's nice to have.
More reasons to rely on Craft
We went over the “big three” for Craft. Here are a few more that specialists on your team will probably be interested in.
Craft CMS is a LAMP stack CMS. It runs on open source software like Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Craft competes in the CMS marketplace with WordPress. But unlike WordPress, Craft is far more secure.
In 2018, WordPress accounted for 90% of all hacked CMS sites. WordPress is used by more than 40% of websites. So it should be expected that it is a favorite hacker target. WordPress does not dominate 40% of the web because it's awesome. It's used so widely because it is used so widely.
Craft can claim an excellent record of security in part because it is such a smaller hacker target compared to WordPress and other platforms. But that actually matters. We're almost 30 years into the consumer-facing internet. Best practices for securing websites are now widely known and adopted. Craft adopted these best practices from the very beginning. Security is native to the platform and one of the core value propositions of Craft.
Craft is built on an underlying PHP framework called Yii. A framework packages things up into well designed components that can be brought to bear in a variety of ways. This means Craft inherits high value optimizations and best practices from Yii developers in the community. Craft is a stable and reliable application because Yii itself is stable and reliable.
You can't predict the future, but you can definitely predict that in the future you will need to adapt to change.
A proper, modern CMS is capable of being adapted and extended in a variety of ways. You may want to integrate your CMS with other systems by way of API connections. You may want to add a major new marketing section to complement a new product line. You may branch out into new global regions and need to adapt the site to new languages. Sometimes you may need to add plugins to the system, custom written by teams of your choosing, to enable new capabilities on your website. Craft is ready for all of these cases and more.
Craft allows web development teams to say "Yes, we can find a way to make that happen for you." In fact, Solspace has built two of the most popular plugins in the Craft Marketplace.
Health of the Parent Company
We've been working in the community of LAMP stack CMS's for 20 years. In that time we have learned the virtues of the CMS platform are important. But just as important is the health, commitment and wisdom of the company that owns and develops the platform. You have to ask yourself as you get ready to sign off on budget expenditures that invest you more and more deeply into a platform like Craft, "Is this thing going to be around a while? It is going to continue to steadily improve?"
When making important business decisions like those around technology, strategy and positioning I like to keep the people involved foremost in my mind. When a business goal emerges, are the people involved in executing on that goal the types of people who make good decisions? Do they inform their decision making with facts, evidence and data. Is there a moral code that undergirds their thinking? Are the decision makers capable of changing their minds once they realize they are wrong?
We at Solspace know each of the people at Pixel & Tonic personally. We know how they make decisions. We know that they approach their work with rationality, care, deliberateness, compassion and commitment.
What’s involved in the care and feeding of a Craft CMS?
Why are you looking for Craft support in the first place?
So you paid a designer or a digital marketing agency to conceive of, design and build a new website to support your company's core business functions. Perhaps the site is responsible for marketing and sales. Perhaps the site is the core e-commerce engine for your online store. Perhaps it's the hub for an array of interconnected business systems like Salesforce, Pardot, Sage, MS Dynamics, etc. It was designed, built and launched. Now, whose problem is it?
You're not the first and you are not the last to ask that. Conceiving of, designing and building a major website is already extremely expensive, often easily the cost of a handful of brand new Honda Accords. With all that money invested, shouldn't you be able to just maintain the thing yourself, in-house?
Yes, you can maintain a Craft CMS website in-house. In fact, the Solspace website you are looking at right now runs on Craft. It took a year to design and build and many tens of thousands of dollars to complete. We rarely touch it now that it's complete. However, shortly after it launched, I realized how important, at the marketing and sales level it would be to build out the 'guides' section you're reading right now. We had to implement a new architecture and template, and Craft made this straightforward and simple.
The reason you need a professional to help you with the ongoing maintenance and enhancement of your website is the same as the reason why there are entire companies of highly trained mechanics dedicated to supporting the jet aircraft of the aviation industry. These are highly complex systems that thousands of people rely on for their livelihoods. This is not your hobby website from 1995. This is serious business.
So What Kind Of Web Developer Do You Need?
Web developers tend to be one of two kinds. One kind of developer loves the next shiny thing. They love the next big technical or marketing challenge. They love to conceive of a way to solve it. Once solved, they lose interest in the problem and move on to the next shiny thing.
The other kind of web developer loves the ongoing challenge of maintaining a complex website. They love tuning and tweaking. They love learning from data and building out improved ways of achieving important business goals. Above all they love the long term relationship that develops with their clients. (BTW, we have both types of developers on the team at Solspace).
Websites are highly complex tools. There are tens of thousands of 'moving parts' in a modern day business website. Break any one of these components and the thing crashes, costing you precious revenue. Such complex systems require ongoing care. The modern day jet engine is a good analogy. And while it's unusual for anyone to die if a website breaks, it's not unusual for thousands of dollars to be lost in just a few hours when a website stops working properly.
How much should I expect to spend per month maintaining a Craft site?
This is the question you really wanted answered all along, isn’t it? People choose Craft because their needs for a website are complex. The site will be supporting important business and marketing efforts. It’s critical to invest in the site as you would when maintaining an office space or a fleet of vehicles.
When a Craft site is successful it is relied on to serve more customers and more essential functions. This means more load on servers and more marketing initiatives. It means bigger product lines, more SKUs, more complexity and engagement.
You should be prepared to incrementally increase your budget for web hosting and caching services. Plan on utilizing more of these services as time goes on and the market progresses.
You should also be prepared to invest in monthly ongoing care and feeding. Many of our smaller clients spend $3,000 per month on various kinds of up-keep tasks. Our larger clients who use Craft much more heavily and have multiple global marketing initiatives running at a time invest upwards of $30,000 per month on creative development initiatives.
Your website is software. Software requires ongoing support and upgrades. In the case of Craft, Pixel & Tonic has a new upgrade release about every 2 weeks. Keeping current with your software means security, stability, reliability and performance. It's an activity that should not be neglected.
Think of a website like an office building. The bigger it is the more it costs to maintain. Plenty of tasks are needed to keep a building (a thing that can seem finished and static) clean, working properly, and upgraded as needed. The same goes for a website.
If these numbers sound expensive it may reassure you to know that by far our clients find this maintenance expense to be a drop in the bucket of the revenue a well built and maintained Craft site is capable of generating.
Do I need a Craft expert?
If Craft is so great, why must you have a qualified expert to work on it? Why can't a regular Joe like me maintain a Craft website?
Sure, if your web marketing needs are relatively simple, you don't need a Craft website in the first place. You will likely choose to build your site on a self-service tool. But your organization's marketing needs are more complex and support larger business units. In most cases you will be delegating the work out to a separate digital team in-house or outside digital agency anyway. In this case you’ll be in need of subject area experts.
In our experience the best business results come from specialized members of a team executing well in their domains. And while Craft is easy to use and upgrade, it’s still best done by those with specialized knowledge of how it works. What might take even a well experienced developer unfamiliar with Craft hours to figure out (imperfectly), can often be done in minutes by developers familiar with the Craft platform. Think of it like one of those fancy european cars. A pleasure to drive, but it still needs someone who’s an expert at maintaining that type of car.
Time is money, and expert Craft developers have already put the time in for you.
What sort of management strategy works best for maintaining a Craft site?
Good web development is flexible web development. Good web development means working loosely within wisely rigid rules. A light touch management strategy with frequent and orderly iteration tends to be the method that works best for managing a Craft website.
By light touch management we are making a reference to the fact that you have already wisely chosen to use professional web developers to support your web efforts. These mature experts don't need to be micromanaged. They are self sufficient.
In the context of managing a Craft site, what tends to work best are weekly check-in calls with your developer. Daily casual access such as through Slack or email. And bi-weekly or monthly sprint projects where actual 'stuff' gets built and launched. Craft's architecture supports this sensible and mature approach very well. You can think of this development team as an extension of your marketing department.
What kinds of emergencies should I plan for?
Everything complex breaks. Because of the business needs that draw clients to Craft, Craft sites tend to be complex. Therefore Craft sites can break.
The most common type of emergency on a Craft site emerges shortly after you and your developer have launched a new release of your site.
Suppose you and your developer have created a new feature to support a new service initiative at your company. Maybe it's a cost calculator that assists your customers with their purchase planning process. Suppose that this calculator is fed by a data set that is also relied on by another part of your Craft site. If you had to alter the data set to support the new calculator but you forgot about the old tool that relied on the old format, you may break something. Some time passes and eventually someone points out the problem. Murphy's Law demands that it happens at the absolute wrong time.
It's not necessarily that there was something wrong with Craft. It's that there was something wrong with the humans using Craft.
Problems like this can be mitigated by process. The most effective tool against the above kind of problem, which is by far the most common in web development, is time. Time is the favored tool here because proper use of your time allows you to flesh out your QA process so that it actually processes what it should. With a proper and proactive maintenance process developers will often notice the problem before a premature launch can break it. Hence, the emergency is avoided.
Wisdom and maturity respects the value of time. Wisdom and maturity utilizes time properly as the precious resource that it is.
Bonus: Solspace Builds for Craft
We do more than just maintain and update Craft sites; we build for them too. Solspace has built two of the most popular Craft plugins, Freeform and Calendar.
We created the most popular form builder for Craft. It allows for multi-page forms, flexible templating and is set up to easily and securely process payments. It’s even great for sites that need to register users in their own accounts.
We also built and maintain the most popular calendar plugin for Craft. Capable of handling multi-day and all day events as well as complex recurring event rules, our calendar plugin is especially developed to ensure non-developers can maintain a robust event management process.
Hopefully now you have a better idea of what Craft CMS is, why we at Solspace like it so much and how it can be a solid platform for your revenue generating website. It’s stability and flexibility make it a favorite among developers and designers alike. In turn, this means clients tend to like it too.
The goal of finding the right partner to maintain your Craft site is to keep it boring. Your work may be fascinating, complex and even challenging, but the management of your website shouldn’t be. Not for you, the client, anyway. So, whether you have a Craft site or are considering one we’d love to have a conversation with you about it.