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Content management system

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What is a content management system (CMS)?

A content management system (CMS) is an application that is used to manage content, allowing multiple contributors to create, edit and publish. Content in a CMS is typically stored in a database and displayed in a presentation layer based on a set of templates like a website.

The following are common functions of a CMS:

  • Content creation allows users to easily create and format content

  • Content storage stores content in one place, in a consistent fashion

  • Workflows assigns permissions for managing content based on roles such as authors, editors and admins

  • Publishing tells the software when and where the content should go live

  • Optimization helps you improve digital experience and learn from your content

Benefits of a content management system

One major advantage of a CMS is its collaborative nature. Multiple editors can contribute, schedule or manage content to be published. Because the user interface is usually browser-based, a CMS can be accessed from anywhere by any number of users.

The second major advantage of a CMS is that it allows non-technical people who don’t know programming languages to easily create and manage their own content. The drag-and-drop editors of a typical content management platform allows users to enter text and upload images without needing to know any HTML or CSS (programming languages).

When a company uses a CMS to publish its web pages, it reduces its reliance on front-end developers to make changes to the website, making it quicker and easier to publish new web pages improving the digital experience for users and visitors.

When a company uses a CMS to publish content to other channels - like social, mobile apps and ecommerce, it can drastically reduce the amount of development a company needs to do and make it easier to distribute content to different channels simultaneously.

What is the difference between a website and a CMS?

TL;DR a website is a collection of web pages you can browse and a CMS is the software that the website runs on.

Wikipedia probably describes it best—“a website is a collection of web pages and related content that is identified by a common domain name and published on at least one web server.“

In contrast, a CMS or Content Management System, is a piece of software that allows you to store, manage and publish said web pages. Most websites use a content management system, but you could make one without a CMS, writing directly in a programming language like HTML and CSS. More often though, it’s easier to use a CMS to manage content for the editor instead of building a website from code.

What are some examples of a CMS?

While there are hundreds of CMS platforms each with their own unique functionality, some of the best and most popular CMS providers are:

Specifically for online stores, although Optimizely Monetize, Adobe Magento and Shopify also manage content similar to a CMS, they are typically not considered a true CMS as much as an ecommerce platform with some added functionality.

What to look for in a CMS

Before choosing a content management system, it is a good idea to start with thinking about how your website and content will be consumed.

You will need to begin by making a list of the goals you are trying to achieve as well as any specific requirements you may have. This will help you choose the right content management system – the one that supports your business requirements – rather than the most popular or well-liked. Common goals for CMS’ are getting more readers on a blog, increasing purchases in a shop or optimizing your content for search engines (SEO).

CMSs come in all shapes and sizes, each with its own set of features and benefits. Some are ideally suited for bloggers; others may be tailored to ecommerce sites with features for pricing and online store functionality. Specifics will vary based on your company’s size, needs and resources.

Media: CMS video

Here are some questions to consider when picking the best CMS for your situation:

What is your budget?

If you have infinite resources to spend, there are some very complex content management systems with features designed to make content creators’ and editors’ lives easier. With a limited budget, however, your choices will be more limited. Your web content management system will need hosting, so it's good to take costs for a domain and web hosting into account when deciding.

Common components that make up a CMS's costs are:

  • The hosting - where your website lives

  • The domain name - 'example.com'

  • The content management system itself - the piece of software that stores and manages all the content

  • Any development work required - for example templates, custom functionality

  • Maintenance fees - often required for larger sites to keep them up to date and secure

What kinds of content and processes does the CMS need to support?

Next, think about what kinds of digital content will be managed in the CMS. If you're just publishing blog articles, a simpler CMS might suffice, however in most cases sites and apps have different kinds of content. Does your company need to publish hundreds of new videos a day? Change prices on thousands of products per day? Host images for blog posts?

Publishing a lot of changes and authoring new content can be a lot of work to manage with your team members. Consider using a Conent Marketing Platform to make managing and collaborating on content easier.

What technologies does the CMS need to support or integrate with?

If your company already uses a CRM or web analytics program like Google Analytics, you’ll need to consider a CMS that has integrations with existing online marketing software. If you have developers in-house, a solid API and documentation might also be needed.

Most companies have multiple pieces of marketing software, and you could consider using a CMS plugin with:

  1. Email marketing software like Mailchimp or Marketo if you're looking to collect newsletter signups and/or leads

  2. A CRM like Salesforce, often used for personalization and targeting content to subsets of visitors (audiences)

  3. Web analytics like Google Analytics for tracking visitor behavior and demographics

  4. APIs for apps or existing software that could ingest some of the CMS content

  5. Ecommerce if you want to sell products and/or services online

How easy is it to create and edit content?

Most modern CMS' have a drag-and-drop editor out of the box, allowing you to drag and drop (hence the name) content onto a page and publish it with a visual preview of your page. However, in some cases, your digital content might not just be simple pages to be published to a website. So it's good to evaluate how easy it would be to publish what you're looking to write and create.

Typically in larger companies, the team that implements the website is not the same set of end users writing and publishing content. When these large companies have developers, designers and content writers on different teams, specific user-friendly functionality for each role is key. You don't want anyone to be able to edit everything on your shiny new website.

Some editor features beginners and advanced users should look out for:

  1. A WYSIWYG editor - What You See Is What You Get-style editors show you what content looks like while it's being edited, drastically improving the ease of use

  2. Role and rights management - So you're in control of who gets to edit and publish each type of content

  3. Updates and upgrades - Cloud-based software is typically easier to update than self-installed ones, as the operating system running the software is managed for you

  4. Ready-made integrations and modules - see the integrations section for some examples of software you might already own

  5. A digital asset manager - otherwise known as a DAM, stores your images, videos and does document management in the same way a CMS does for page-based, but more tailored to digital assets

Advanced users, who might want to build more than templates or needs a CMS for mobile apps, a headless CMS might also be a good option. A headless CMS does not come with a visitable website out of the box, which is more work initially, but also allows for greater control over the final experience.

How many people will work on the CMS?

Depending on the size of your website or company, you will have different requirements. Larger companies typically have more strict requirements for content management applications and may even require features only found in enterprise content management systems. 

Some examples of features enterprise companies might look for are: Single sign-on (SSO), scalability and what cloud-based services the back-end is built on and integrations with.

Small business however, should focus on picking an easy user interfaces and maintenance as the teams who manage the website are typically smaller and roles are shared between team members.

How will you measure success?

Depending on the goal of your CMS, like a blog or a commerce site, you should strongly consider using a web analytics platform like Google Analytics or Mixpanel to measure conversions. A CMS allows editors to make rapid changes to your content without requiring a front-end developer. You can measure how these changes are impacting your website by running an A/B test. Great CMS software allows you to do this optimization in an easy way, without building complex add-ons and integrations yourself.

Is the platform SEO-friendly?

In most cases, visitors will have traveled to your website through organic search engines like Google. Even if you're very active on other channels like social, you will want to make sure your website can be found when (potential) customers look for it. If being listed well on search engines (SEO) is important to your company, a CMS that has automation for basic on-page optimization tasks such as title tags, urls, alt tags on images, and a sound internal linking structure is very valuable.

CMS software lacking these features on installation often have free or paid plugins to help manage search engine friendliness. Practicing search engine optimization typically also has the added benefit of helping your website's appearance on other platforms like social media and when visitors share links to your website in messages.

What technology is it built on?

Most CMS platforms use custom templates and integrate with your existing marketing systems. This may require work from a developer or implementation agency, if you don't have developers in-house, and not all developers and agencies can work with every CMS. Therefore it's important to pick software that your developers and agency know how to work with. Developers often know a set of programming languages and most content management systems are built on php, .NET or server-side Javascript.

How well is it supported?

Some checks often overlooked are:

  • Is the CMS updated frequently

  • Does the CMS use the latest technology

  • How fast are bugs and security problems solved

  • How large and globally built out is the support team. If you're an international company, this is even more important

  • Is the developer community behind the software sizable and happy

Most open-source CMS’ have large developer communities, but as some systems are more targeted at those developers, it can be hard to parse all the information for less technical users. It's good practice to look out for a mix of developer and practitioner (editor, designer, writer) content and standard templates. The advantage to a sizable community is the amount of online help and documentation you will find on most aspects of customization. Optimizely's own CMS also has a large and active forum for developers that might be able to help with your website or app.