Best free CMS to quickly create landing pages

Concrete 5 vs WordPress vs Subrion vs Microweber vs ImpressPages

Disclosures: Some of the links on this page may be affiliate links.  People’s Host kindly provided the hosting environment in which these tests were made. 

Here I pose the question: “What is the best free open-source CMS for landing pages?” If you are a domainer and want to demonstrate the concept of how a site might look for that domain, you’ll want to put up a landing page. I wanted to see which types of CMS could be best appropriated for that purpose.

The CMS’s I considered had to:

  • Be open-source and free.
  • Be available on Softaculous for ease of install and backing up.
  • Have an easy learning curve for getting started fast (I did not consider Drupal or Joomla for these reasons).
  • Have been updated within the past 12 months at the time of testing.

From these characteristics, I came up with a shortlist of 5 candidates: Concrete 5, WordPress, Subrion, Microweber, and ImpressPages. Please note that each of these is actually designed to create fully-fledged sites, even very large sites. My mission here though was to see which one was best when used for the specific purpose of making a landing page quickly.

The ideal CMS should have the following features:

  • Speed: Be able to be used by a complete beginner to put up a landing page quickly.
  • Aesthetics: Be able to create a modern, professional-looking landing page.
  • Security: Have appropriate security features in place, in particular protection of the admin account.

I set myself a 1.5 hour time limit for all CMS’s (except those I was already familiar with, handicapping myself at a 1 hour time limit). What would the resultant landing page look like 1 hour after installation? You can see this below!

Let’s dive in:
FYI – I’ve shown the version numbers used of each CMS. In all cases these were the most up-to-date versions available on Softaculous at the time of testing.

I used a logo and pictures and basic text to create a (fictitious) example site of a landing page for snap-together custom gardening frames.


Concrete 5 (v 8.0.3)

Overview
Concrete 5 is a drag-and-drop CMS, meaning that once you install it, you can go to your site and literally drag and drop things where you want them to be. This makes it ideal for constructing a landing page, where you might not want to be heavily constrained by a specific theme. One of the huge advantages of Concrete 5 is that you can create a variety of different looks from just one theme. There are also different themes available if you want to go with a pre-made look. If you’ve used website builders like Weebly before, then you’ll find Concrete 5 similar in concept.

My findings
You can put pretty much any type of content in any area in Concrete 5. Blocks are bits of content like text/html, photos, horizontal rule, testimonials, contact form, FAQ, etc; areas are pre-designated spots where you can place your blocks. This makes it ideal for creating landing pages.

Things that are hard to do in WordPress (like change placement of things, add in sliders or more complex content) are really easy to do in Concrete 5. Your theme is large and in charge in WP, locking you into a certain look. However, this cuts both ways: in Concrete 5 your CSS is large and in charge. If you want to change fonts or colors, you either have to declare new styles for each thing in a manual way, OR go to the Page Settings Design > Theme > Customizer (this latter is probably the best). In particular, changing the CSS to center an image after the fact of loading it into a block is not at all obvious – I still couldn’t find out how to do it. Likewise, blocks seem to go from top down in their area, so it you want to bottom-align blocks in an area – a common thing – you’ll have a hard time. For a landing page, the drag and drop ability is great, but the poor UX with CSS makes it hard if you want to change colors or fonts.

Pros of Concrete 5

  • Comes bundled with everything you need for a landing page out of the box (contact form, security features, image slider, and much more). For most other CMS’s, many of these things need to be installed as separate modules, whether free or paid.
  • Excellent SEO. Attributes for each page have the SEO meta title and meta description built in. You can get to it from page settings while on that page in point and click manner.  In that regard, it’s better than WordPress, which doesn’t even have that built-in to the core (and should!)
  • Default fonts and colors can be changed in a point-and-click manner from customizer, although only a limited set of these are available for each theme. If you want to make changes beyond those, it’s not easy or obvious.
  • You can have the option to apply CSS changes to the entire site or just to that individual page (something which is very hard for other CMS’s like WordPress to do).
  • Impressive and easy-to-use image slider: It’s very intuitive how it works, and you can add text on top of each image as you load it. It’s perfect! It even automatically ensures your pics show the same size even if the originals are different sizes. This ease of use is something we don’t see in other CMS’s often.
  • Confused at any point? Simply click on question mark at top right of your site, and you can access videos of common “how-to” things (how to add a page, etc).
  • If you choose to purchase a paid theme from the official Concrete 5 marketplace, it’s fairly cheap compared to a paid WordPress theme. However, Concrete 5 themes are typically licensed per site, so for more than one site it’ll add up fast.
  • You can create a bunch of changes and visualize them, then click “publish changes” – your changes remain behind the scenes until you hit publish (unlike WP where there is no easy way to hold off on those types of design changes except for page/post content).
  • Excellent built-in security options, including IP lockout for X amount of time after Y number of failed login attempts within a certain period of time.

Cons of Concrete 5

  • If a designated area is empty, it will display as a small amount of white space in the site itself, which is a little frustrating.
  • Not so user-friendly when it comes to making changes to the CSS beyond the theme pre-sets.

Results for Concrete 5
I could have made a lot better site a lot faster if I’d signed up for the marketplace to get an alternative free theme that was slightly better suited than the default theme, OR if I’d spent more time changing around the layout of the default theme.

For about an hour, this is what I got (see below), but please note that you can do way, way more than I’ve put here. Concrete 5 comes built-in out of the box with everything you need, both back-end and front-end! (Except cookie notice, and you can add that in easily as a separate module).

Concrete 5


WordPress (v 7.2)

Overview
Bear in mind that unlike most of the other CMS’s here, WordPress is designed primarily for the purpose of blogging. You can certainly make something other than a blog out of it, and there are plenty of themes suitable for creating professional-looking landing pages. However, the whole structure of WordPress is designed around the notion of blogging and facilitating the easy addition of content without having to change or update the layout of each page. This means that the idea of moving a particular item to a different location on the page is not easy like it would be in Concrete 5. Instead, WordPress locks you sharply into the look of your selected theme. Unless you want the hassle of modifying your theme code, you’ll have to pick a theme that suits your purpose.

So yes, you can use WordPress for a landing page, but bear in mind you’re using it in a way it wasn’t really designed.

My findings
The WordPress core by itself isn’t as useful as you would think for landing page purposes: you’ll need to install a few plugins, including a security plugin, SEO plugin, contact form and cookie notice (none of which are built into the core).

As mentioned, you’ll have to find a pre-built, customizable theme that has the overall look you want. For this test, I used Catch Responsive from Catch Themes. You have an incredible number of free themes to choose from in the WP theme repository, but the downside of that is that it can be really hard to narrow down to the ones you want. There is a set of filters you can use for search terms, but they’re not very helpful. This process can take a lot more time than you might think.

If you want a quick-start guide, I would recommend taking a look at all themes by Catch Themes – they do an excellent job at creating robust, highly customizable free themes with fancy features like slider, featured content, header image, etc.  You can get even more options for customization (fonts, color scheme, etc) if you upgrade to paid. (No, I have no relationship with Catch Themes and they are not paying me to say this!) I have often used various themes from this maker for landing pages, and they’re my go-to theme maker when I need to put together a modern professional landing page quickly. Catch Themes can handle everything beyond landing pages too: a choice of page layout options makes them ideal for a full-featured blogging experience or for corporate sites, but they’re also one of the few theme makers whose work is, without further modifications, suitable for a landing page.

Pros of WordPress

  • Well-known CMS, plenty of online tutorials if you get stuck.
  • A huge range of free themes, many of which will be ideal for a modern professional-looking landing page. You can therefore create many totally different looks for different sites with minimal effort on your part.
  • Ability to use WordPress in multi-site mode: you can administer multiple landing pages for different domains from one admin interface. I prefer completely separate WordPress installs, but if you handle many landing pages then multi-site mode could be the way to go. Be aware that not all plugins are compatible with multi-site mode though.

Cons of WordPress

  • You’ll have to install plugins for any features you want like security features, a contact form, SEO, etc and this takes a little extra time. It’s easy to do without having to leave the admin interface, but you need to be aware that the WordPress core does not come bundled with these things.
  • You are forced into doing what your theme does – the idea of moving a block somewhere else is not really an option in WordPress (without having to deal with theme code). However, the upside is that you do have a lot of free themes to pick from, so odds are there’s something out there that will work for you.

Results for WordPress
After an hour, this is what I had. Again, I could create a much better look with a longer amount of time, and remember you have a huge bunch of options with different themes out there.

Wordpress


Subrion (v 4.0.5)

Overview
Subrion is an incredibly powerful CMS which is designed specifically to be multipurpose and can handle directory sites, blog sites, landing pages etc beautifully. It boasts a bunch of sleek, modern themes for free which look incredibly sophisticated: you typically would have to spend $$ for a premium theme to get that type of look in WordPress.

My findings
To quickly set up your page, your content is made of blocks that you should edit. You can then easily assign your blocks to positions on the page by going to Dashboard > Content > Blocks. It’s point-and-click, not drag-and-drop, but it’s still extremely easy to place your bits of landing page content wherever you want them.

I actually found Subrion a lot easier to use than Concrete 5 or Microweber in terms of creating a nice landing page and moving things around. Compared to WordPress, Subrion has a slightly faster learning curve IMHO (and given that I’ve been using WP a lot more than Subrion that’s saying a lot). However, WP is very theme-dependent, so you could do what you want to very easily with a theme that has what you want built into it (e.g. slider, etc etc) – on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to do anything in WordPress that your theme doesn’t already “want” to do, and in that regard Subrion is better.

Security – the built-in “security by obscurity” allows you to change the admin folder name, which makes it less likely to get brute force password attacks. I reached out to the developers for you about whether there is an IP lockout mechanism to protect against brute force attacks, and they have some good news: IP lockout for failed password attempts will be implemented in the upcoming version.

You can get Subrion themes from your admin interface by going to Extensions > Templates. You don’t need to create a community account or anything like that. You start with Kickstart theme, which is great but not amazing, but still IMHO better than the default Concrete5 or Microweber themes. The Subrion BusinessCard theme in particular is ideal for a corporate or technical site; it’s 100% free, but looks way fancy.

The BusinessCard had more extra blocks than I needed (e.g. Google maps section, extra stuff that I didn’t care about), but it’s easy to switch blocks on or off as needed in the blocks menu in admin. There are also free plugins you can get, although the CMS is so fully-featured that the only plugin you’ll probably need is the Contact Us (creates a 100% functional contact form and a page with address & map).

Pros of Subrion

  • Modern design built in.
  • Fast learning curve.
  • Compared to many other CMS’s, you have a faster, smoother path to an awesome looking site using Subrion.
  • You can change the location of blocks very easily.
  • Many of the Subrion themes lend themselves immediately to landing pages, which impressed me. In particular, BusinessCard, Agency, or Creative would all work great.

Cons of Subrion

  • There is not as much of a range of different themes as there are for WordPress.
  • Lack of easy ability to easily change fonts or colors within themes.
  • A few of the Subrion themes were clearly designed for other types of sites (e.g. directory sites) and won’t work without those directory packages installed (which costs $$), but there are still theme options that will work with a standard Subrion core CMS.
  • It’s not obvious how to change location and phone at top of the Subrion page – a must for landing pages. Go to Content > Phrases and search for “website_phone” and double-click the value to change it. Likewise for “website_address”. This is pretty non user-friendly and should have been long since been changed to their much more user-friendly ways of updating your social links.


Results for Subrion

I was highly impressed with Subrion and feel it is a CMS that every domainer should know about. It’s much better suited to landing page work than WordPress is. After about an hour, this is what I had, and you can easily do a lot better.

In particular it would have been relatively easy to unsquash the 3 content block pics and make them all even with each other; I just didn’t have time to do it within the deadline I’d restricted myself to.

Subrion

 


Microweber (v 1.0.7)

Overview
This is another drag-and-drop website builder (e.g. Weebly, Concrete 5). A major difference of Microweber is that it comes with built-in support for a store. From a landing page perspective, this could be helpful if you want to create a landing page with a built-in example store without having to install separate e-commerce software.

My findings
It comes pre-installed with 2 themes; you’re able to get others easily from admin page without needing a marketplace account. Almost anything you want to change, color, etc is easily done in “live edit” mode – a great feature. The drag-and-drop editor is great. You can add in almost anything, almost anywhere you like.

Pros of Microweber

  • An “undo” button is available in live edit mode, something which is absent in many other CMS’s.
  • You can resize your standard static pics on the fly in live edit (but not slider pics). Resizing on the fly is a huge advantage when making landing pages and is a feature sorely lacking in many other CMS’s.
  • Comes pre-loaded with placeholder content/pics (handy).
  • The pre-made contact form is perfect.
  • More intuitive to use than Concrete 5.
  • Each page may use its own template that you can point and click to change around.

Cons of Microweber

  • No obvious security or hardening against brute force attacks.
  • Poor font choice abilities. Fonts depend purely on theme pre-sets and are not even somewhat configureable as they are in Concrete 5, at least from what I could see.


Results for Microweber

After 1.5 hours, this is what I had (below). Please note that I would not recommend Microweber because I couldn’t see any evidence of security features to protect admin accounts, not even the “security by obscurity” approach that Subrion uses. I feel that Microweber has a lot of potential and a user-friendly philosophy. Therefore if security options were offered such as IP lockout after X amount of unsuccessful password attempts – something which the developers could do in the future – then it would become an incredibly strong contender for a landing page CMS. As it currently stands though, I can’t recommend it.

I’ve actually been following Microweber’s development for years, from since it was in a pre-release stage through to its debut on Softaculous. I’m still watching this space, and I feel Microweber fills a unique niche and has a lot to offer – it just needs a way to block brute force attacks.

Microweber


ImpressPages (v 4.10.1)

Overview
ImpressPages is a drag and drop website builder, similar to Concrete 5 and Microweber.

My findings
I found it much easier to use than Concrete5, even though they are both geared toward the same type of user and the same way of working. Adding pages is easy in ImpressPages. It comes with built in contact form. It also comes with built in SEO for every page; simply point and click, then enter your text. I found it was very easy to deal with the menus. It has a nice, complete text editor. Overall, ImpressPages was by far the easiest and fastest path of all I tried to getting a look that worked well for what I wanted.

In my opinion, this CMS has by far the best user experience of all 5 I tested in terms of making landing pages. There has obviously been a lot of thought put into its development and design, with a great deal of success! The only criticism is that its security features were non-obvious to me. In most other CMS’s security settings are either a) more clearly shown in the admin panel, or b) better-documented in the user guide.

I reached out to the developers for you about security: they informed me that brute force protection is built-in to the core (wonderful news!) with defaults of a 1 hour block per IP address after 20 failed attempts.

Pros of ImpressPages

  • Edit any text on your page on the fly.
  • Ability to edit your image’s placement and size within its block outclassed other CMS’s – this is something sorely lacking (or present but non-obvious/ poor UX) in all others except for Microweber who also performed well there.
  • Super-easy to add ImpressPages plugins right from admin page, most are free. Some noteable free ones for landing pages: Mailchimp subscription widget (makes it even easier for you to include your mailchimp signup form) and Facebook tags (adds Facebook meta tags to make your website look great when shared on Facebook).
  • Customizable theme color options by point and click.

Cons of ImpressPages

  • Some fairly simple functionalities cost a little for plugins, e.g. adding FontAwesome or Google Fonts to the site. Rest assured this is not a big criticism, since this is not an attempt by ImpressPages to upsell you. It comes from the fact that plugins are created for the official marketplace by third-party developers, who set their own prices. Most of the really “must-have” things are built into the core anyway. Admins who are familiar with the huge array of free WordPress plugins will have to remember that the ImpressPages core instead begins with a much more complete core already containing the features you need.
  • There is good security protection against brute force attacks built into the core, but the admin panel doesn’t show you these settings or let you easily change them. This is not a big criticism, since the whole philosophy of ImpressPages is to completely simplify the back-end for admins.

Results for ImpressPages
ImpressPages has an incredibly huge potential and in my opinion is the best-suited all-around CMS out there for landing page use. This is because of a) its sheer ease of use and b) its modern templates.

Here is what I had after a really short time – as you can see, it’s the most complete-looking of the 5 because ImpressPages has such an incredibly fast learning curve. Different themes and the ability to put anything anywhere means that you are limited only by your imagination.

ImpressPages


The verdict

So… what’s best for landing page purposes when you go head-to-head with Concrete 5 vs WordPress vs Subrion vs Microweber vs ImpressPages?

If I had to name one, and just one, as the best CMS for landing page purposes, it’s not easy. It’s a close call, and the answer to that really comes down to what sorts of things you want to do and what features are important to you and your sites. There is therefore no hard-and-fast answer to which is best.

Still, if you really want me to come up with something from the shortlist, then I’d say it’s a tie between ImpressPages and Subrion as my number one all-around choice.

However, bear in mind that it’s not a case of “right vs wrong” but rather  a case of all 5 CMS’s having different types of strengths and weaknesses. They’re all built differently with different features, giving them different “flavors” rather than being superior or inferior to each other. To give you the best sense of each CMS for landing page purposes, here is when you might like to use them:

  • Concrete 5: “Fully featured”. When you want a drag-and-drop CMS for your landing page that has all the features needed built right into it and ready to go – no mess or fuss with plugins. You concentrate on the drag-and-drop; it does everything else.
  • WordPress: “Vast number of themes”. This is for when you’re building a ton of different landing pages and want a ton of totally different themes out of the box, so long as you don’t mind the very limited customization within most of the themes.
  • Subrion: “Slickest”. When you want a really good all-around CMS for professional landing pages with a fast learning curve.
  • Microweber: “Great niche for the future”. When they add brute force protection for the admin account, this CMS will be ideal for when you want to show a landing page that also includes an example e-commerce site.
  • ImpressPages: “Great all-around”. Its ease of use, excellent features and modern themes make this a must-have.

 

Hosting recommendations

I carried out all the tests in this article on the cheapest level of shared hosting at People’s Host, and I can attest that this host handled every last one of these CMS’s flawlessly. As a bonus, their cheapest shared hosting plan covers multiple domains, unlike most other hosts where you have to upgrade to handle more than one domain. For those two reasons, I recommend People’s Host for landing page purposes.

People’s Host easily handles large fully-fledged sites and I would recommend it for those needs also. Their offerings go from shared hosting to VPS and all the way up to dedicated servers. You can take a look at their plans here.

PeoplesHost Web Hosting