Review: Six Small Business CMS and Web Marketing Systems

August 29, 2011

What’s the best web content management system (CMS) for your small business? Should you look at something beyond a CMS—a web marketing system (WMS), that provides additional functions like customer relationship management (CRM) and email? There’s no shortage of options, and the decision is an important one: you’ll be “married” to the platform you choose for as long as your current site is up.

Content management systems are valuable tools for small businesses that 1) don’t want to make a big investment in IT infrastructure, 2) don’t have web development (HTML, CSS etc.) expertise on staff, and 3) want to be able to maintain their own web content (adding new pages, text and images) over time, without needing to learn web coding skills.

“Free” CMS options such as WordPress, Joomla and Drupal have an obvious appeal (price) to small businesses, but none are cost-free. All require some level of technical expertise, and Joomla and Drupal particularly have steep learning curves. Low-cost, fee-based tools are generally more user-friendly, provide more features, and most importantly come bundled with support. For businesses looking beyond “free” tools, here are six CMS and WMS options that can help you get more sales and marketing productivity out of your website, while being easy on your web content contributors.

Keep in mind that all of these tools impose some design limitations; if you need a truly custom look and feel like these sites, your only option is to hire a professional web design and development firm. But if you can live within a template (and most of these tools do offer a respectable array of options), you can save thousands of dollars on design and coding costs.

CMS Only

These platforms offer website building and content management tools with hosting, but no “extras.” If you are just looking to get a site up on the web and already have systems in place for CRM and marketing automation, these tools are worthy of consideration.

Squarespace

Pricing: $150-$600 per year ($12-$50 per month)

Squarespace LogoSquarespace is a generally well-regarded tool with reasonable design functionality for building natively search-optimized websites and blogs. It offers a solid set of features including site search, multiple permission levels for different types of contributors, a form-builder, and  built-in analytics. The learning curve is far less daunting than most free CMS alternatives, and a strength of the tool is its mobile support. For anyone looking for an inexpensive, easy-to-use, basic website building and management tool, Squarespace is definitely worth consideration.

UPDATE: After closer examination, SquareSpace is not worthy of consideration, due to weaknesses in search engine optimization, specifically:

  • • Custom meta title tags for high-level pages are limited to 50 characters (even the most conservative SEOs recommend 65 characters for the title tag).
  • • Meta title tags inside a section (e.g., “blog”) will always begin with the section name. You can customize the section name, but you can’t override the fact the all-important first few characters of every page title in that section will contain it.
  • • You can’t create custom meta description tags (!) which are essential in “selling the click.”
  • • The people behind SquareSpace seem to lack understanding of how SEO works. True, manipulative tactics don’t work, but solid, white hat SEO is essential to getting a website ranked highly. Their information is both inaccurate and offensive to legitimate SEO professionals.

LightCMS

$240-$1200/year ($20-$100 per month)

LightCMS LogoLike the other tools listed here, LightCMS is low-cost, easy to use, search-optimized and provides tools like a forms builder. What sets it apart is better design flexibility than most of the alternatives, calendar tools and built-in ecommerce functionality. For developers and agencies, LightCMS also offers one of the most attractive partner programs. Considering all of its features, LightCMS is another shortlist-worthy tool for basic website creation, particularly for smaller B2C companies who want an easy-to-manage online store.

Solution Toolbox

$300 per year ($25 per month)

Solution Toolbox LogoAnother website building option that includes extras like ecommerce functionality with credit card processing, and nightly backups. The site is a bit cheesy, but the functionality of the tool is solid. Solution Toolbox provides their own comparison of their system to Squarespace and LightCMS, but take it with a grain of salt; it’s biased in their favor of course and some of the specifics are out of date (for example, Squarespace now includes a forms-builder). Still, for smaller consumer marketers who want to run an online store in addition to their basic website, this is worth a look.

Web Marketing Platforms

These suites combine CMS functionality with additional web marketing applications to provide more than just a website, but a complete online marketing software system.

Business Catalyst

$480 per year ($40 per month)

Business Catalyst LogoBusiness Catalyst combines the features of the products above—a CMS, forms builder, and ecommerce tools—with email marketing functionality and a basic CRM system. It provides respectable design flexibility and support for mobile devices. Though the product had issues in its original incarnation, Adobe has fixed many of these issues since acquiring it in late 2009 and continues to invest in product development. The catch? Business Catalyst isn’t sold directly to users, only through web developers and agencies (though there are ways around this).

Genoo

$2,400/year ($200 per month)

Genoo LogoGenoo is a solid, easy to use tool, very strong on email marketing / marketing automation. It offers some of the best built-in SEO tools of any of these packages. Genoo doesn’t provide native CRM functionality, but does have a pre-built integration to Salesforce.com. This is ideal for midsized companies with at least moderately sophisticated internal marketing resources who are already using a separate CRM system and are ready to graduate from hosted email marketing services. Genoo’s offering includes training on how to use its lead-nurturing capabilities.

ePROneur

$1,800/year ($150 per month)

ePROneur LogoThis is a complete web marketing package for smaller, non-ecommerce businesses. It provides a robust CMS for a website and blog along with native CRM, email marketing, and forms-building tools, as well as comprehensive strategy guidance for making all of the pieces work together. The ePROneur package uniquely combines hosting, software, services and strategy to help companies with limited resources effectively generate leads and revenue online. The web marketing resources section of the company’s website also offers a wealth of free strategic and tactical web marketing information.

Any of the alternatives above can help small to midsize companies cost-effectively build and manage their web presence with no IT infrastructure and limited technical expertise. The key from there is to choose a platform whose strengths match up with your business type and needs. And also to investigate multiple options to determine which tool, and company, you are most comfortable working with.

FTC Disclosure: Webbiquity has no affiliate relationships with any of the vendors in this review.

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8 Responses

  1. Great article with worthwhile advice. But, in my humble opinion, not looking at WordPress these days would be a mistake.

    WordPress Version 3x changed the ground rules for web development and literally hundreds of developers have already used it to develop thousands of themes. You can buy these themes outright for typically less than $100 and you don’t need to be a programmer or designer to make it all work. Some of our clients, non-technical people, have built incredible sites using this combination.

    And then if you add a product like Loopfuse into the mix, you get powerful and sophisticated marketing automation capabilities as well. And it, too, can be free. Can be, because they offer a free version to users who have less than 2,500 names in the database. When you get to 2,501 you start paying $500/m. But until then, your WordPress solution and theme will be around $100, and your marketing automation and email package (built into Loopfuse), will set you back zero dollars. A very powerful combination and – apart from a one time cost for the theme – free.


  2. Tom 

    Eric – no question. I’m a big fan of WordPress for blogs (like this one) but I’ve seen technical problems when it’s used as a full-blown CMS. What fee-based platforms offer is direct vendor support (hand-holding) and input into future product direction and development. In addition, there’s no worry about incompatible plugins and those sorts of issues.

    WordPress is an outstanding platform for blogging, but for a small company website – I’m just saying, these alternatives are worth serious consideration.


  3. Jo La 

    You are missing an excellent CMS Trunity Connect.


  4. Tom 

    Thanks Jo La! I’ll check that one out.

  5. I like the review section and I think that it was a nice concise write up of 6 alternatives, but I don’t agree with your intro section.

    “Content management systems are valuable tools for small businesses that…2) don’t have web development (HTML, CSS etc.) expertise on staff, and 3) want to be able to maintain their own web content (adding new pages, text and images) over time, without needing to learn web coding skills.”

    While the general idea of this is right, it’s not fully true. Someone would still have to setup the CMS system, which requires at least familiarity with website development. It’s not essential to learn the coding skills to work with the free versions, no, but there is a need if things break, which often happens when working with different themes, plugins and widgets.

    “…if you need a truly custom look and feel like these sites, your only option is to hire a professional web design and development firm.”

    This is a blanket statement. There are plenty of graphic designers and web developers that are able to provide the same look and feel without being attached to a corporate firm. Whether you use the label of freelancer, consultant or something else of the sort, they still are able to do the job sometimes just as well as a large firm. And if you are targeting this article towards small businesses, many of the freelancers/consultants can often give you the same look, feel and value without the hefty price tag of a full development firm but still at a reasonable cost.


  6. Tom 

    Hi Bret – thanks for the detailed and thoughtful comment. With regard to your first point, all of these systems are hosted and provide templates, so a small company could (theoretically at least) get a site set up with virtually no technical web skills.

    With regard to your second point, you are correct – I should have included freelancers, particularly for small businesses. The only caveat is – make sure your freelancer will be around for a while. I work with an agency, and I can’t tell you how many clients have to us needing web help because their freelancer moved or took a “real job.” That said, there are good and dedicated freelancers out there. Good point, thanks for making it.

  7. I’ve heard good things from pulse CMS, in case you want to add it to your list !


  8. Tom 

    Thanks Jacky, sounds like another one to check out.

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