Lacked a content platform with JSON-encoded output
Struggled to find a CMS that would easily integrate with trusted static site generators
Previous content solution didn’t support collaboration within the authoring environment
API-first content platform facilitates integration with static site generator Middleman
Support for parallel workflows encourages collaboration among dispersed teams
A content hub centralizes and structures content for reuse on future projects
"In Contentful, we finally have a tool that respects the time and effort of creative people."
Water is essential to human life. It maintains our health and wellbeing by lubricating our joints as we move about our days, carrying nutrients to the cells in our body and flushing out toxins. With so many basic functions dependent on this resource, it's hard to imagine many in the world don’t have access to it. Water For People is a global non-profit that connects underserved communities in Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, India, Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda with clean drinking water. The organization introduces sanitation solutions and educates the public on using them and maintaining them for future generations.
Water For People’s mission to create “a world where everyone has lasting access to safe drinking water and sanitation” is valuable. Still, like many nonprofits, it struggled to share this message in an increasingly digital world. If Water For People wanted to drive donations and fundraising and attract volunteers and partners, it needed to optimize its website.
Water For People lacked an in-house development team. At first, the company thought a dynamic site was a smart investment. What it didn’t account for was the maintenance and optimization the site would need to drive traffic, eliminate downtime and make updates reflective of modern user preferences. Although such a set up worked for some businesses, Water For People found their dynamic site was too costly and ineffective for their use case. The company considered the alternative to this — a static website. Launching one which would present its own set of rewards and challenges. The organization looked to Contentful as a possible platform to support this shift. It seemed to be one of the few solutions capable of addressing limitations that previously made this approach an unviable alternative.
Taking static websites beyond the command line
Using static site architecture for the website would present Water For People’s team with one main challenge: Static websites require source data to be saved as individual files and encoded in one of the specified data formats (e.g., JSON, YAML, HAML). Without a unified user interface, its editors would likely struggle to navigate between entries. It would be difficult to collaborate on, and nearly impossible to create structured content. For Water For People’s globally-distributed team, these difficulties could not be overlooked.
For the shift to a static website to be worth it, the platform selected would also have to simplify content creation — which is where Contentful came in. As an editor-friendly content platform with an API-first infrastructure, it would offer content creators and editors a space that was easy to navigate within and publish from. And, any content, media or tools they might need for the project would be readily available. At the same time, all articles created by editors could be saved in a JSON format to be accessible programmatically.
With such promising features and the ability to easily connect with Middleman, the static site generator selected to support Water For People’s new site, the team in charge of re-platforming was eager to try their hand at setting up the site. “The SDKs are well-documented, and popular generators have plugins for pulling content from its API. So pairing Contentful with the framework I chose was insanely easy,” noted Perry Kibler, the developer in charge of the website redesign. In less than two days, the team had a working version of a new website, proving just how easy Contentful made static website publishing.
Contentful’s developer ecosystem was responsible for driving incremental improvements to the new site. By replacing front-end HTML files with an AngularJS module built by a fellow developer, new content on Water for People’s site now appears in 30 seconds, not three minutes as it had previously. Perry couldn’t have said enough about the community. “It’s great to see open-source contributions like this. They make static websites more awesome than ever and cement Contentful’s position as the backend of choice for such projects.”
Create familiarity, build trust
In terms of getting the site set up, Contentful proved a simple-to-use solution with supportive documentation. Water For People hoped the same could be said about creating and publishing content within the platform. Most of the organization’s editorial team, which consists of dozens of contributors in Central America, East Africa, India and the organization’s headquarters in Denver, come from non-technical backgrounds. They occupy a multitude of time zones and operate on busy schedules. As such, there were — and still are — limited opportunities for virtual or face-to-face training, which historically made these team members apprehensive about testing out new tools. With Contentful, the learning curve was nearly invisible, making the content platform instantly more desirable.
“What we ultimately liked about Contentful was how simple it was to use. There was no need to hold training workshops or develop user manuals. If you were familiar with publishing on Tumblr or Pinterest, then you could also publish in Contentful,” observed Maranda Bodas, content strategist at Water For People. This opened the way for regional teams to migrate country pages within Contentful.
Once processes were in place for publishing content generated within the organization, Water For People looked for ways to authentically showcase its involvement with local communities. Many of the organization’s most inspiring moments were often captured through social media, personal blogs, news articles and project updates. Editors liked how easy it was to reshare this volunteer-generated content on Water For People’s Facebook page. It hoped to introduce similar functionalities on its static site.
Contentful’s ability to generate a rich link preview helped achieve this. As long as a field is set to use the URL widget, any link pasted into that field is automatically parsed to produce a snippet of neatly formatted content. The inline card view utilized by the Contentful UI matched the way external content was displayed on the website, under the stories section, making it very easy to use the CMS for reposting and resharing.
The dividends of content-as-a-service
It’s been several months since the organization adopted Contentful, but the marketing team already credits the new content platform with changing how it views digital projects. It’s not difficult to see why. Take the technical architecture: a clear separation of concerns makes it easy to improve the website in incremental steps. “If needed, we can replace the static generator, introduce new design templates or rework the content model without worrying about the entire site going down in flames,” said Perry. “That’s the beauty of keeping all these software layers independent of each other.”
The Contentful approach to storing content also has large implications for building mobile apps, something the organization has planned for the future. Mobile projects are often shrouded in uncertainties. Even minor technical issues can introduce week-long delays or inflate costs by thousands of dollars. Contentful goes against this trend. Since entries are broken down into discrete chunks and exposed through a powerful API, mobile teams are freed from maintaining the back end. This arrangement helps teams build apps three to five times faster.
“In Contentful, we finally have a tool that respects the time and effort of our creative people,” said Steve Riggins, chief marketing officer at Water For People.
The new approach values editorial time as well. With all entries stored in one hub, content featured on the website can be immediately re-used inside a mobile app, when that becomes available. As Steve noted, “With Contentful, you can launch new platforms without re-creating content from scratch — that’s huge.”