(AUTHOR’S NOTE, 2017:¬†When I wrote this in 2013, it was true for me and for my clients. In the intervening years, I’ve come to appreciate other systems and use WordPress far, far more often. Still, I’m leaving this up because it’s interesting to see how quickly the world changes and how much progress can be made in software¬†development in such a short time!)

In the course of any preliminary meeting with a prospective client, the more conscientious of them will at some point ask, “So, why do you like Joomla?”

While I’m glad they ask this, and it’s a really good question, sometimes the honest answer is hard to formulate on the fly. Part of writing this post is so that I’ll have something to send to these folks in the future — in these meetings, I’m always so focused on learning about the client that I forget to do good marketing for myself. The “why joomla?” question is one I could answer from a number of angles, so I’ll approach it from all sides here.

When I first decided to learn to use and implement Joomla for my clients, I had only end-user experience with content management systems. I had worked with a proprietary system (see my previous blog post explaining proprietary versus open-source systems) in the past, and I remembered the mind-blowing comparative ease of using content management instead of having a flat file system. I also remembered, as I had become responsible for training all the other end users at my organization on this system, how hard it was for other people to grasp the concept of content management. Many of these people were incredibly efficient administrative employees who were by no means at a loss for technical understanding, but back in 1999 when I started to explore content management, it had very little market share compared to now.

The best analogy I could invent, at the time, was to ask these people I was training to imagine an enormous directory in their Windows My Documents folder, full of individual Microsoft Word files. A directive comes down from the boss to change all references to her name from Ms. Jones to Ms. Jones-Smith, and to be sure that all such references are also bold and in a dark green font. Also, the boss wants all headings in all documents to be displayed in the font Comic Sans. In a content management system, these three directives (name change, text color and weight change, and font change) could be accomplished with two or three commands. Without a content management system, you’d have to physically open every file and change every reference to the boss’ name and every single heading to the new font, one at a time.

That turned out to be the best analogy I’d use there, and as you know by now, I really love analogies.

So, fast forward a few years. I was using Cold Fusion programming to get work as a freelancer, and Cold Fusion was starting to be like a Sony Walkman in a world of iPods. It was time to make my first financial investment in my business beyond business cards and web hosting. I decided to attend CMS Expo, a conference that, at the time, offered the option of enrolling in three days of intensive training in one of three content management systems: WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal. While I could have gone to each of these systems’ introductory sessions, one day at a time, I wanted to leave this conference with something I could actually use well right away. Like a lot of my clients, I didn’t — and still don’t — have tremendous money to spend on training. I decided to pick one system and go with it.

At the time, I had already decided that I wanted to work with non-profit organizations and small businesses, and I knew that these types of clients needed a system they could learn to use quickly. Many of them — particularly the small businesses — might have been just fine with WordPress, which was a solidly basic system back then and has only grown since. However, I did have clients who needed more than basic content delivery software — they needed a system that could extend to include complex calendars, commerce systems, multiple menus, and other things I knew I couldn’t even predict at the time. I knew pretty much right away that WordPress wouldn’t be enough, and crossed it off my list.

That left Joomla and Drupal. There are so many articles on the web that compare these two systems better than I could, and so I won’t reinvent the wheel. If you’d like to read them, here are some good links:

Site Builder Shootout: Drupal vs. Joomla vs WordPress (Sept. 2011, a little outdated but very detailed)

Drupal vs. Joomla vs. WordPress: CMS Showdown (July 2013, doesn’t include recent release info for Joomla)

The Best Drupal and Joomla Comparison of 2013 (March 2013, looooong ebook — I will make you cookies if you read the whole thing)

If you search for “Joomla versus Drupal,” you’ll get many more. All I can tell you is the three things that decided it for me:

  1. Joomla looks nice. This sounds silly, but it really isn’t. Even the early interfaces for the Joomla back-end looked user-friendly. There has always been a lot of white space, a lot of good labels for all the fields that needed completing, clearly written error messages, an easy demarcation between the live site and the administrative interface, and intuitively placed buttons. Before the trainer uttered her first word at that first training session I attended, I could tell by looking at the screen where I would need to click first to create a new article.
  2. Joomla has a wide range of users. I looked around me in that room at the conference and saw the following mix of people: freelance developers; communications directors from small to medium sized companies and local government offices; professors and other educators; small business owners; graphic designers; and administrative assistants. All of them stayed in those sessions the whole time — no one sneaking out in frustration, no one trying to hack the back end and write their own code. It was actually a pretty good cross-section of the kinds of people with whom I enjoy working. All were able to have success with this system, and, after years of implementing Joomla for most of my clients, there simply haven’t been any who haven’t liked it. All of them have even been through an upgrade, showing their commitment to the system. Pretty great!
  3. Joomla has a huge community of professionals around it. More than 200,000 people have accounts at joomla.org, where they can ask and answer questions, sign up for email updates about the software, and help build the software itself, if they want. That number only reflects the people who have wanted to get involved at that level — but my guess is there are hundreds of thousands more who don’t interact with the joomla.org site. The software has been downloaded 35 million times. You can read about its growth at a very dull page here, but the big takeaway for me is that if I get hit by a bus and break both hands, making it impossible for me to do any keyboard work for two months, my clients will not be left high and dry. That’s a really comforting thought for them — and as long as I don’t picture my hands in casts, it’s a comforting one for me, too.

The reality is that any of my clients could have ended up with the same quality of site if they’d chosen someone who worked in Drupal. I think these systems can both build what my clients need. The reasons that I chose Joomla have a lot more to do with the means than they do with the end. It’s in the journey where these products differ the most.