Should your union invest in a proprietary CMS?

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I’ve been having a few conversations with people around the traps about content management systems for websites.

For those who may not be familiar with the lingo, a content management system is the online software that runs websites. Most complicated websites use a content management system (CMS) to look after all the various pages and applications that a website may have. There are lots of CMSs out there – many of them are proprietary and cost a lot of money to license, while others are open source and free to license. It’s like the difference between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice, or Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox.

Almost every union has a website, and lots of them were originally created years ago before many of the open source CMSs were developed. Thus, many unions have proprietary CMSs that cost a lot of money to license, maintain and upgrade. An increasing number of unions are starting to redesign their websites to modern standards, and so the question is posed: should you license a proprietary CMS or use an open source one?

Proprietary CMS

There are lots of custom-made content management systems available. Most large web design companies have their own in-house system. These can offer integration with other union systems – usually as a package. For example, the website may integrate with the union’s membership database or accounting system. In this case, both the database and accounting software are also typically licensed and proprietary.

There are some very good examples of proprietary content management systems. The most famous of these is the Obama campaign’s website, which was a custom-designed system made by Blue State Digital. Another well regarded proprietary CMS is ExpressionEngine, which is a very powerful (and complicated) package – Senator John McCain’s website by FortyAgency uses ExpressionEngine.

The risks of using a proprietary system are fairly high however. The license fees are generally very high, and may have ongoing costs. For a union, this can be a significant factor. Furthermore, proprietary systems means that you are tied to the web design company and the programmer for a long period of time. You had better hope that your relationship remains good – or that the company doesn’t go bust, or the programmer doesn’t disappear. I have heard of several unions who’ve invested in a custom made CMS, only for the developer to vanish for months at a time, or for the company to go bankrupt. Needless to say, this left the unions in a difficult situation.

A further risk is that unless the CMS is under constant development, new features and upgrades are unlikely to come along unless you pay for them. This can leave your union’s website looking stale after a few years, and can put your data at risk from spammers. Old content management systems can have serious security flaws that only become apparent years later, as spammer/hacker technology develops.

Wordpress is a widely used open source CMS.

Open source CMS

As noted, there are many free, open source content management systems available, most of which are supported by large contingents of (mostly volunteer) software developers. The two most well-known open source CMSs are WordPress and Drupal.

WordPress is (according to Automattic, the organisation behind WordPress) used by over 6 percent of all websites – 100s of millions, and receives regular security updates and new features. There is a small army of programmers and designers who can provide almost any feature or design, either for free or for a small cost. WordPress is one of the simplest CMSs to install from scratch and start using straight away. This website and most of the sites I create for my work (such as these ones) use WordPress. The UK Prime Minister’s website No. 10 also uses WordPress.

There has been a view that WordPress is mainly a blogging platform. This certainly used to be the case, but the latest versions of WordPress in the last 12 months have made it almost equal to fully fledged content management systems. Another benefit is that it is very intuitive and simple to use. It does do blogs very well, but it also does other kinds of sites – and there are hundreds of (easy to install) plugins that expand on the core features. Certainly, as far as getting an inexpensive, good-looking, feature-rich campaign site up and running with minimal technical knowledge, you can’t go past WordPress.

The other major open source CMS worth discussing is Drupal. Drupal is a very powerful content management system, and is used by the Whitehouse to run its website. Like WordPress, Drupal has a large number of programmers and designers producing high quality designs and plugins, mostly for free. It is more complicated than WordPress to install and manage, but still possible for a non-expert.

For unions considering getting a campaign site up, there are many professionally designed Drupal themes to buy or download for free, as well as lots of plugins to add special features.

There are loads of other open source CMSs out there, like Joomla. For union sites, you probably want to stick to the well known, widely used ones, as these are the most stable and have the largest knowledge base to help you. They are also the most secure, as security updates occur fairly frequently, and vulnerabilies are discovered by the army of programmers.


If the Whitehouse can use an open source content management system, then why can’t your union? There are loads of benefits and few downsides – and what’s more, the price is fantastic.

I strongly recommend your union consider an open source CMS for its next campaign site or main website redevelopment.

One response to “Should your union invest in a proprietary CMS?”

  1. Ralf Avatar

    Great sites and good articles.
    From personal experiences I can concurre with the points you are making about free and paid for; CMS or Blog.
    I.e. WordPress in its free version is somewhat limited and very restricting. While there are plenty of free themes for it that have very good elements, I haven’t found one that fully satisfies me and unfortunately in its free version doesn’t let me pick and chose or alter the theme fully.
    I also found some nice CMSs over the years, some more user friendly than others, however the biggest problem with free was always the support and many never coming out of a beta stage; having so much input from various contributors that changes were so frequent that many plugins didn’t keep up or vice versa that plugins improved and portability was not maintained.
    At the moment I am maintaining a small union website for the PSAC Alliance of Canada’s Kingston AreaCouncil using free WordPress on WordPress.
    While the above mentioned limitations exist and it took me some time to find a suitable free theme, there is one major thing that impresses me the most on WordPress and that is its spam filtering.

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