The professional WordPress website scene has been dominated by custom development using Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) and Custom Post Types (CPT) for many years, but Elementor and other page builders continue to gain momentum. 

As a digital agency, you might be considering what’s best for your business–and for your clients. 

This article will take you through the different options to help you choose your strategy going forward.

Custom WordPress Development and Page Builders

WordPress developers have traditionally spent their time just coding, matching the front-end to custom Photoshop or Adobe XD designs prepared by web designers. Page builders were considered a shortcut with significant limitations and an option best suited for those who couldn’t code. 

At White Label Agency, we work with many professional digital agencies across the world and have a good pulse on the trends. 

Our default and the preference of most professional agencies has long been to use ACF and CPT for coding custom WordPress themes, but we’ve seen a trend where more and more are opting to use page builders. 

Beaver Builder and Visual Composer used to be favored, but in the last year or two (at the time of writing, December 2020) Elementor has become very popular. 

According to statistics from Elementor, their popularity has grown steadily since their start in 2016, but the last year has shown an uptick in their pace of growth. 

 

Elementor Installations Chart

Number of Websites with Elementor Installed

How ACF and CPT Works & the Benefits for Your Agency

ACF is a plugin that allows you to add custom meta fields on WordPress pages and posts. Since it’s been the standard for most custom WordPress development, it’s likely that you’re already using it or came across it before.

How ACF & CPT work

Together with CPT, it’s a powerful way to create dynamic pages for e.g. services, team members or products on a website. A typical case would be to add fields for name, title, phone and image content to a team member CPT. 

You simply set up a Custom Post Type for team members, allowing you to create unique pages (or “posts”) for each member, then set up the fields (position, email, phone etc.) in ACF settings that should be viewed in the backend when you create and edit member pages specifically. 

 

Team Member CPT

Example Team Member CPT

 

In order to display the content you’ve added in the custom fields on e.g. a team member CPT, you will need to code the front end to read the meta-variables from the relevant post being visited. 

CPT Code

Example of a custom field called in code

 

Team Member Front End

The front end display of a custom field for “Position”

If you’re not already familiar with ACF and CPT, I recommend these videos since they do a much better job at explaining them than I can do here: 

Benefits of ACF & CPT for your agency (and your clients)

With ACF and CPT, your development team can do just about anything with WordPress. That means your designers have complete freedom to design custom websites for your clients. 

Since the front end is coded in PHP, Javascript and HTML, your clients will most likely leave the workings and design of their websites as is. The beautiful site you made for them is not threatened by creative ideas that your clients may have post-launch. ACF & CPT usage makes it very easy to direct your clients exactly where they should be changing, adding, or removing content when they sign into the WP Admin dashboard. 

If your clients would like to have something changed or added, above and beyond what was originally set up, you can easily have your developers make those changes. All professional WordPress developers will be familiar with the way of coding (as long as your original developers did a good job). Also, you can charge your clients for the time needed to do so, either on retainers or at an hourly rate. 

Another benefit of ACF & CPT is that it’s very cheap from a licensing standpoint, and it’s compatible with the most useful plugins that you’d ever need to have. 

A very useful addition to the ACF & CPT setup is to use ACF Flexible Content. It gives you the option to add blocks and drag & drop them around on a page. ACF Flexible Content makes the editing experience more similar to the page builders we will discuss next, but it does have the drawback that you cannot preview the result directly in the editor. Read more about that in our comparison of ACF Flexible Content and page builders

How Elementor Works and the Benefits for Your Agency

With page builders like Elementor, you can drag-and-drop sections and elements of the front-end instead of coding the front-end yourself. 

Among the agencies that we work with, this is less common than ACF & CPT as a preference but the interest is growing. 

Benefits of Elementor type setups for your agency

Elementor and other page builders unlock a number of benefits for your agency. 

Combined with a strategy of sticking to more templated designs, you can speed up development with predefined sections and templates that you simply drag-and-drop and tweak to fit your client’s needs. 

By specializing in a specific page builder like Elementor, you can standardize the skills needed for your developers and make do with less senior talents. Not only does it help you keep costs down, but you also avoid the headaches of replacing talented developers that are hard to come by. 

When it comes to selling websites with Elementor, you can make the argument that your clients can do a lot themselves after launch. With page builders, your clients can create new pages and make adjustments to existing pages without knowing how to code. Tutorials are readily available online that explain how to use the controls of the page builder backends. 

Allowing clients to make their own edits is great if you don’t want to bother with small requests and prefer to focus on higher-value activities. However, many agencies have a business model to sell maintenance and other post-launch services (often as retainers), so keep that in mind when you price your projects so you don’t miss out on key revenue streams. 

What Elementor is and how it works

Elementor is a WordPress plugin that includes pre-built elements (as the name suggests) that you can add and tweak with settings in their “builder mode”. For the beginner, the ready-made templates and themes in Elementor help them put together a site in a very short time. 

Elementor has about the same number of active websites as its competitors Visual Composer and Beaver Builder, but its popularity is growing fast. 

The reason for its success seems to be the powerful features in combination with being quick and easy to use. The builder loads quickly, and you’re not overwhelmed with buttons and options that you rarely need. 

Historically, the drawback of such page builders has been that they are static, and don’t allow you to use dynamic content as you do with ACF and CPT. Instead, each page was statically designed/built with the content you wanted it to include. If you needed 10 service pages that looked identical apart from the content, you needed to create 10 pages and edit the text within the builder. 

In newer releases, the builders allow dynamic content to be included in a powerful way to make them competitive also for professional uses in larger websites. 

The workflow for creating websites with Elementor can now replicate that used with ACF and CPT – creating templates and then setting up the content in meta fields. 

We’ve adopted this combination with great success for agencies that prefer builder-style backends, and we’d like to share how we do it. 

The Case for Using Elementor Together with ACF and CPT

At White Label Agency, we’ve trained all our developers in successfully using ACF and CPT to build websites from the ground up following custom designs provided by the agencies we work with. 

We also offered page builders as an option for agencies that preferred it, but all our developers didn’t have experience with all of the page builders out there. 

As more and more agencies requested page builder backends on their websites, and as page builders became more powerful, we decided to invest our time in educating our developers in the page builder we received the most requests and positive feedback on from our partners – Elementor. 

We have opted to use Elementor with ACF and CPT in order to set up sites dynamically and allow the website users to easily create new posts and pages with ACF content without having to poke around in the builder. At the same time, their power-users can use the builder to make tweaks that they want to see on their page templates and have it show across the site. 

Many of our Elementor-based builds are done for agencies that use our WordPress web design services as well. These agencies have positioned themselves selling mid-range sites that are custom, but not too custom, and thus more affordable and easier to maintain for their clients. For such projects, we create designs that are custom but easy to realize with Elementor. Pretty smart!  

In conclusion

A bit simplified one can say that your agency has four options to choose from when considering Elementor and ACF/CPT approaches, ranging from the most code-intensive to the most end-user friendly: 

  1. ACF & CPT
  2. ACF Flexible Content & CPT
  3. Elementor with ACF & CPT
  4. Elementor (without dynamic content)

All these options serve different purposes with their respective pros and cons. Elementor has definitely been trending in requests we have received over the last year, but it may not be the right fit for your approach with clients. 

That being said, WordPress themselves have already replaced their “Classic Editor” with their Gutenberg block editor–and they’re only finished with Phase 1 out of 4 in their rollout plan in that effort. A few of the agencies we work with have tried to use Gutenberg, but with varied success. We will be keeping a close eye on the development and release of the “Site Editor” feature in phase 2 of the Gutenberg rollout plan. 

Our prediction is that ACF & CPT will keep a significant share of the market for quite some time, but we expect the next phases of Gutenberg and the continuous improvements made on Elementor and other page builders to garner more attention from professional agencies. Having the ability to preview changes right in the editor and create new pages with existing building blocks are substantial improvements for most website administrators and content creators. 

If you want to discuss the options to find the right strategy for your agency’s website projects, we’re happy to offer a free consultation. Click the button to schedule an appointment at your convenience, or fill out the form below.