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Giving a Clunky Old CMS the WordPress Treatment

Giving a Clunky Old CMS the WordPress Treatment

When it became clear eMusic's old, custom-built content management system was becoming a drag on the company, the search was on for a replacement. WordPress offered an open source tool with a passionate developer community. The CMS switch worked out well for eMusic in the end, but it wasn't always easy. Here are some lessons learned in the process.

By Richard Caccappolo
09/30/11 5:00 AM PT

eMusic's old, custom-built content management system (CMS) was slowing the team down. We're a digital media company, and our team has to be able to react quickly and share content on hot topics. When reviewing the different content management systems out there, we found that WordPress was an ideal solution to suit all of our CMS needs.

We wanted an open source tool with support from a passionate community of users -- WordPress developers. We also wanted a mature platform. Since WordPress powers millions of websites, we knew it would work as our enterprise solution. We also have the internal talent to customize WordPress to serve the needs of our business and eMusic members.

We decided that the majority of the hardcore business logic will live in services, but the content, UI and community will live in WordPress. This meant that transition was going to be a substantial project. We have massive amounts of content (album reviews, editorial pieces about artists, etc.) that not only give us a competitive advantage, but are also crucial to our business. And our service is built around our community of members, so preserving and then amplifying our community features is essential.

The CMS switch worked out well for us in the end, but it wasn't easy. Here's what we learned in the process.

Ensuring a Smooth Transition

Some questioned, "You're not putting your WHOLE website in there, are you?" The answer is yes, gradually we are. A transition like that takes a carefully coordinated team effort and a lot of planning.

Getting our full team up to speed meant that we had to first learn the vocabulary. For example, we learned about Custom Post Types. In Theming, know what flexibility is available to you. Another last WordPress word of advice: Read the Codex!

When you decide to move ahead with a big WordPress transition like we did, don't underestimate the importance of planning. Here's a quick planning checklist:

  • Make an inventory of your content
  • Make a site map
  • Agree on how to export the content -- WordPress schema? XML files?
  • Strategize a modular import process
  • Don't import unless you can easily re-import / update (deltas)
  • Allow for turbulence / changing requirements

Even with the best planning, there might be some "gotcha" moments. (What, you forgot to tell me that every piece of content HAS to be regionalized? Something imported wrong; can you re-import all of the content?) But you can address most big issues in advance.

During the transition process, we worked with the experts over at WordPress to make everything happen smoothly. We'd advise others to do the same. Open source CMS and blogging tools are very mature. There are expert consultants and enterprise support from software makers available. Use them.

Plug-Ins: Why Your Team Will Think They're Awesome

Once you've researched what's already available out there, see what you can use and what you need to build. Some plug-ins that we used include Batcache as a memcached full-page caching mechanism, bbPress for bolt-on message boards, and Gravity Forms, which our eMusic Member Services team loves.

While plug-ins are awesome, they are not all A+ quality and ready to bear the burden of your business. Think of this as a positive: You can be the first! Some plug-ins that we had to build out of necessity: eMusic Radio, which is supporting our new currated radio program product; eMusic Comments; eMusic BuddyPress; Like Buttons; and about eight others.

During this process, make sure you really understand the cost of everything. For example, plug-ins add code, may add database queries and may add CSS and JS unexpectedly. We'd suggest using the Debug Bar plug-in to keep yourself honest and learn what benchmarks matter to you. Run tests often.

A New, More Flexible Platform for Our Community

WordPress is an ideal solution. It has allowed us to create a platform on which we can present content from many different groups, including our editors, labels, artists and eMusic members. It's also a platform with tools for discovery, which allowed us to create a place for our passionate community of serious music fans to come and contribute content.

We were able to improve our user experience. We've given our editorial staff the ability to publish in real-time. This is particularly important for us, as our unique editorial is a key differentiating factor for us in the marketplace. Now our editorial team can be more relevant, spot and react to trends, and communicate with our users.

Now we can also integrate more community and social sharing features by using WordPress' strong set of built-in community features. Our users can now more easily socialize with each other and share music recommendations.

Finally, WordPress sped up the performance of the site, which is good for everybody. We're looking forward to expanding the number of content contributors.

While this was an ideal solution for eMusic, we'd still caution others to do their own research before making a similar transition. There are many conflicting reports about the good and terrible aspects of open source tools like WordPress. We've read plenty of horror stories about scaling and sites crashing. You should know your own needs and perform your own evaluation to decide what is right for your business.


Richard Caccappolo is CTO of eMusic.


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