Don’t Let the Website Kill the Party: Part 1, Watch Out for Free…It’s Expensive


Anyone developing digital/social media properties to manage events knows that in spite of technology advances, it remains one the biggest costs (and risks) to your business.  This is one reason why a free and open source website content management system (CMS) like Wordpress is so popular. Also popular are for-profit CMS products with free versions, such as Wix and Weebly.   Many website owners/administrators figure, why pay for something like Sitecore when there are good free options available?
But is open-source the right way to go?  A free CMS is actually anything but free.  Here are four ways that open-source can turn out to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

1. Costs go down but hours go up. 

Even if you consider your staff to be sunk costs (overhead), labor isn’t free.  Every hour they spend managing website issues could be spent doing revenue-generating activities.  Here are just a few of many common processes that can be efficiently automated, but are labor intensive with most “free” content management systems:
  • Editing content or correcting errors across multiple websites
  • Creating a new web site with the same branding as an existing one
  • Managing members, attendee lists, event calendars, or email lists.
  • Updating software (CMS version updates, theme updates, plug-ins, managing conflicts)
Takeaway: plan for staff time when figuring your web budget. CMS systems have different labor requirements.  If a system automates business processes that are mission critical for you, it may well be worth any extra cost. 

2. “No-coding” becomes “lots of coding”. 

You might figure you can get what you need with no coding.  Sure, if you need a developer in a pinch to change the code, you can always hire one. However, with an open source CMS, these “under the hood” changes are often expensive.  And worse, you’ve changed the code. Now every time the CMS gets updated, it has the risk of creating a conflict with your new code (or overwriting it), so you can be locked into repeatedly “fixing your fix”.
Takeaway: talk to a developer and ask him to analyze both potential functional and UI changes you may need, and address the feasibility of making those changes at the code level.  Assess the technology, and operate with a bias toward common languages that are in wide use with large developer/ support communities. 

3. Support?  What support? 

Support is like insurance.  You hope you never need it…but when you need it, you really, really need it.  Open-source software is not supported, and this can cost you time and money searching for answers.
And worse, critical features on your site may be dependent on add-ons and plug-ins.  The good news: plug-ins are often supported (albeit for a price).  The bad news: many developers are one-man operations; if they make a career change, you now have a ticking time bomb on your site.  When (not if) it fails, you can hope there’s a replacement, create one from scratch at great expense, or say good-bye to that site feature.
Takeaway: support can be manna from heaven.  Often support personnel will have familiarity with your problem and resolve it quickly and easily.  Consider the cost of down time to your business and factor that in to your budget.  Good support can pay for itself many times over.

4. Plain old hidden costs 

There is plenty of stuff you need to build a great site.  But there is no truly free way to do it.  Here is a list of some expenses with open-source software that are often included with paid alternatives. 
  • Website theme (design template).  Not expensive but not free.  Hard to revise.
  • Add-ons and plug-ins.  Some are free.  The best ones cost money.
  • Support: if you want expert troubleshooting (and you do) it will cost.
  • Maintenance (including inevitable software and plug-in updates).
  • Custom coding (and yes, you will need it).
  • Revenues lost to down time, obsolete plug-ins, or lack of support.
Another hidden cost shows up in “freemium” service models, where the use of the platform is free until certain usage thresholds are reached (e.g. storage limits or outbound emails).  These thresholds are often set too low to be realistic, and you’ll be at the mercy of escalating costs.
Takeaway: do your homework and analyze the total “cost of ownership” for your website.  Think ahead, and imagine the website you will need in 3 or 5 years.
Does this mean open-source (or “freemium”) is never the answer?  No, for some it is.  But if you do your homework, you may realize that paid services come with a lower cost than free ones.
Next week: Managing multiple lists of attendees/members?  We’ll talk about how to simplify the process. 

Learn more?

Here's a video with three ways you can do things for events in Brick River (2:05)