You Don't Need a CMS

Sam Rapaport / 2023

Photo by Debby Urken on Unsplash

Content management systems were widely popularized through open source systems such as WordPress and the proliferation of drag and drop editors like Squarespace. In more recent years, “no-code” website builders like Webflow have taken web design and content management to another level by enabling creatives and businesses to build and iterate on very decent and capable websites with little to no code. However, businesses and creators looking to build a strong and elevated brand identity still look to experienced professionals to craft custom websites that a no-code editor can’t deliver.

At Really Dope Digital, we work primarily with businesses that appreciate the importance of good design. They are looking for a small team of passionate creators and developers that can both conceptualize and execute on creating strong branding that will elevate their business above the competition. Oftentimes, the idea of launching a new website with a fully-capable content management system (CMS) comes into discussion during the discovery phase. While there are plenty of benefits to a CMS which we won’t cover here, we typically advise to shy away from this approach despite it being less profitable for us as the development agency.

The truth is, most businesses are better served working directly with a team on content management for the first few months post-launch. This is the secret that most agencies won’t admit. They are focused on getting clients out the door as quickly as they come in. At RDD, we are focused on building long term relationships and want to not only save our clients money, but ensure that their web presence can evolve beyond the constraints of a CMS, while delivering the same exceptional brand experience that we create together during discovery and design.

Good design is conversational. Think of your website as a digital space for visitors to explore your brand, product, or services. It should facilitate a conversation that eventually leads to a sale, booked call, or whatever action you want them to take. Unless your business is centered around content itself (if this is you, we have a different approach), then design should be your number one priority. Good design facilitates conversation. Design is visual communication, and communication is key. Your website is a visual, often interactive sales tool that informs readers about your brand, product, or service.

The standard approach for good web design is to first understand the conversation you want to create with your customers and design an experience around that. At RDD, we call this Content-Driven Design. If the content informs the design, then building out a system to manage the content means that the design itself is locked into the constraints of that system. You’re limited by decisions made in the past and it becomes difficult to iterate or pivot on design moving forward.

You may be thinking, “Why is this such a problem? I’d still rather edit everything myself!”

There are a lot of factors that go into an overhaul of your website. New branding decisions are made. Sales copy is updated. Maybe you even take the opportunity to restructure your service offering or launch new products. Ultimately, a lot of decisions are made leading up to the redesign and launch of your website. At Really Dope Digital, we are strong proponents of iteration. In fact, it’s the third step of our three-step process in every project we take on. We believe that a good product is never finished. True creativity is a constant refinement. The best thing that you can do after launching your website is to analyze the results in the wild and use that data to iterate and refine. This is the first problem of launching your new website immediately with a CMS: it becomes a lot more difficult to make meaningful iterations. Only after you have valuable user feedback should you be thinking about systemizing the product. Launching with the freedom to make quick, professional, and informed changes is not only more cost effective (you’re not paying for CMS functionality), but allows maximum flexibility before your website cements into something more permanent.

The second problem with many content management systems is that they often lead to bloat and become outdated, leaving you with performance issues on the front end as well as administrative frustrations on the back end. Think of your website right now. Are you on WordPress? Some custom CMS a team slapped on for cheap a few years ago? It was probably great the first couple of times you were able to change the content quickly. How about now? Are you still happy with the dashboard and editing tools, or have rapid marketing decisions and aging technology turned it into an administrative nightmare? Maybe your product or service has evolved so far beyond when you started that you’re having trouble even communicating what you do within the confines of your once glorious CMS. This is the second problem with premature systemization of your website.

Not only can premature systemization create an administrative nightmare, it is likely to impact performance on the front end. Website performance is critical for SEO, user engagement, and conversions. While CMSs provide tools for optimizing website performance, such as caching and image compression, they may not offer the level of optimization and fine-tuning that a design and development agency can provide. As the CMS begins to age, more bloat and outdated tooling can really start to impact search rankings and site load time. If you don’t believe me, go run your site through a free page speed test on Google (takes 10 seconds) and come back. A skilled agency can ensure that the website is optimized for speed and performance, providing a smooth and fast user experience. Again, these optimizations can and should be rolled up into a CMS eventually, but in many cases it is better to wait until the right moment. When you work with RDD, we will be upfront and honest about when we think that moment is, before you even commit to the project, so that you can make an informed decision wherever you go.

Speaking of information, uninformed content changes can start to degrade the intent of your website. CMSs allow for easy content changes, which is a great benefit for many businesses. However, if the changes are made without an understanding of the website's design and intent, it can start to degrade the overall user experience and impact the website's performance. A design and development agency can help businesses create a content strategy that aligns with their goals and enhances the overall user experience. Again, this content strategy is likely to pivot and evolve quickly in the first few months as we begin to optimize following launch. Until it has become solidified, a CMS is likely to either hold you back or worse – allow for uninformed decisions leading to a degraded experience for your visitors.

While CMSs offer many benefits for managing website content, businesses may instead choose to work with a design and development agency to ensure that their website design and performance are optimized for their specific needs, and that changes to website content are made strategically and thoughtfully. As the concept cements into a concrete and proven brand, then it becomes time to talk about how a CMS might be beneficial. Until then, we recommend our clients to save the money and focus on working with us to ensure the best possible experience for their website visitors and customers. One of the many benefits of working with us at Really Dope Digital is that we cover these types of decisions and many more during the discovery phase so that you can make an informed decision regardless of who you end up using to execute on your vision. Of course, we hope it will be us.