A content management system (CMS) is a software application that provides you with the background infrastructure you need to create, edit, and publish content on a website.
A CMS helps you to build for the web without having specialized knowledge or technical skills.
A CMS has two parts. The first is a content management application (CMA), which is the interface the person building the site uses. The other part is a content delivery application (CDA), which updates the content on the website. There are many different CMS platforms available, tailored for everything from massive multi-website enterprises to simple website builders for beginners or small businesses.
Without a CMS, developers would need to build each page on the website one by one — which would be a repetitive waste of time and energy for recurring, templated pieces of content like blog posts, case studies, and other posts. A CMS allows you to standardize and manage templated pages in one place, rather than maintaining a sprawling set of disconnected individual pages.
Types of CMS platforms
There are lots of different popular content management systems, and many of them function quite differently from each other. Technically, some of these are website generators with CMS capabilities rather than fully functional content management systems. However, they all allow you to build and manage your website much more efficiently than if you were coding it from scratch. There are four main categories of CMS platforms: Visual-first CMSs, open-source CMSs, headless CMSs, and digital experience platforms (DXPs).
A visual-first CMS, sometimes called an agile CMS, is a visual interface that allows the user to create the front-end views of a website without writing any code. These platforms are equipped to develop the front end and customize the content management of a website without needing engineers.
Examples of visual-first CMS platforms:
Some platforms, like Wix, are simple and more consumer-focused. Others, like Webflow, can build enterprise-grade websites.
An open-source CMS is software whose source code is open for any developer to edit and add to. An open-source platform offers a lot of freedom and flexibility. You can use code to make your own changes, choose from a large range of themes and templates, and add plug-ins or add-ons for fairly unlimited functionality.
However, the reliance on plug-ins and the need for development resources can present security risks and inefficiencies. Plug-ins are often created by unvetted third-party companies and can become outdated and vulnerable to cyberattacks, so open-source frameworks require ongoing maintenance and updates simply to stay online
Examples of open-source CMS platforms:
- WordPress (specifically WordPress.org, not WordPress.com)
A headless CMS separates the back end of your website from the front end. The back end delivers content to the “head” of your website using an API. Separating the front and back end allows developers to build multiple “heads” for your CMS, all using the same content. Those heads could be for many types of platforms, including desktop, tablet, mobile, and even retail kiosks.
The freedom to build with multiple front-end tech stacks across multiple surface areas on the same CMS is important for companies with a larger web presence. They can build websites for multiple countries, subsidiaries, or retail locations, all using the same content system. But this approach requires ongoing engineering resources to build and update custom front ends for a headless CMS, making them more suited for larger businesses.
Examples of headless CMS platforms:
- Adobe Commerce (formerly called Magento)
- Strapi (also an open-source platform)
Digital experience platforms
A digital experience platform (DXP) is an integrated software framework that includes a suite of tools for managing content across a business’ web presence. It usually includes specific tools for ecommerce, customer personalization, and analytics, in addition to content management. A DXP is a powerful enterprise content management system that is mainly aimed at organizations that need to handle huge quantities of content across many platforms.
Examples of digital experience platforms:
- Adobe Experience Manager
Cloud-based vs. on-premise
In addition to the categories above, content management systems fall into two major installation types. A CMS can be cloud-based (like Webflow), where the software is hosted by the vendor and accessed via the web, or on-premise (like WordPress), where the software is downloaded onto your server.
The advantage of a cloud-based CMS is it is automatically updated by the company managing it. Websites built with on-premise CMSs need to be migrated to the updated version of the software every few years, which is a large and expensive undertaking.
Why you need a CMS
Different CMS platforms have very different interfaces, databases, and features. All content management systems help you organize content and build for the web. The best platforms also help you manage content more easily and provide you with a software interface that enables more seamless collaboration.
It provides a home for all your content
Your CMS stores and organizes your digital content. Websites use a huge amount of text, data, and media files, including graphics, photos, videos, and audio. Your content needs to be organized, so you can use it to populate your site design.
CMS content collections are databases that automatically organize your content types, so they can easily be inserted into your website. You might have collections for blog posts, authors, projects, or clients. Ecommerce sites might have collections for individual products or product types. A CMS also provides indexing, which allows you to label files (with names, dates, file types, etc.), so you can search for them.
At its most powerful, a CMS can be a central storage place for huge quantities of web content (for example, product information and images for a large ecommerce site). Content can be used across multiple websites and mobile apps.
It simplifies how teams build web content
One of the biggest proof points of using a CMS is the time and energy it saves. A CMS allows you to standardize and manage templated pages in one place, which removes the need to build and maintain individual pages. As a result, teams using a CMS to manage content on their website can build for the web faster and more easily. And visual-first systems make it possible for even non-technical users to design for the web, reducing the reliance on developers and saving on labor costs.
The user interface functions differently for every CMS. Some are based on themes, templates, or plug-ins. You may change settings and enter content into forms to customize the appearance of your website. Other platforms use a drag-and-drop page builder that is a simplistic design interface. Reusable elements help you build repetitive pages faster and make sweeping changes to your design without changing each individual page. Repeatable elements are useful for marketers adding specific landing pages or bloggers publishing posts regularly.
It allows you to set user roles and permissions
A CMS is also helpful when multiple team members need to participate in building and maintaining a website. Many CMS platforms allow for multiple workspaces or different types of logins – such as editor, author, or administrator – that have specific permissions. Permissions let you introduce collaborators to your website building process while keeping them from seeing sensitive information or risking them inadvertently corrupting your design.
Logins with limited permissions allow copywriters to directly change text on the website rather than waiting for developers. Clients can have a login that allows them to upload new assets directly to the CMS for developers and designers to use. When multiple designers are working on a project, some CMS platforms will have ways of letting them hand over control of the project without interfering with each other’s work.
Key factors to consider when choosing a CMS platform
The best CMS for you usually depends on the functionality and additional features it offers. You want a platform you can afford, that is easy to use, and will help you build the specific features your website will need.
There are a wide range of pricing options available for CMS platforms. You should compare multiple different tool prices, use free trials, and calculate ongoing costs before deciding on one or just going with the CMS with the lowest price.
Some platforms offer free trials, so you can experiment with their interfaces and learn how they work. Some platforms have subscription tiers based on your specific needs or company size. Others have generally higher price tags and are aimed at enterprises only.
Keep in mind the sticker price isn’t always the final cost of using a particular CMS. WordPress, for example, is free to begin using, but you will have to pay for themes and plug-ins, which can add up quickly — not to mention ongoing developer costs and time to maintain and update it. You may also need to pay for a web hosting provider if the platform doesn’t provide hosting.
Ease of use and design flexibility
A CMS is designed to make it easier to build for the web, but some platforms are still complex and have a learning curve. The platforms that are more challenging will often also give you more control over your design and more ability to add complex functionality.
You want a tool that is easy enough to use so your website design process is still collaborative with clients, marketers, and other team members. However, you need to balance that with design control and the ability to build more complex designs for your clients or your business. Read reviews and developer message boards, look at examples of designs made on a specific platform, and take advantage of free trials to assess the right CMS for your needs.
Some CMS platforms, like Squarespace and Wix, are user-friendly and easy to learn but limit how much control you have over your design. Other platforms’ workflows have a steeper learning curve but offer fairly unlimited customization. Tools like Webflow even have features that make it easier to build complex functionality like animations and interactions.
The security of your sensitive information and protection from malicious attacks is essential for any professional website. Security features are especially crucial if you have an online store or host customers’ private information on your site.
Look at what security features a CMS offers. Features like two-factor authentication, single sign-on capability, SSL certificates, and SOC 2 certification will all help keep your website more secure. Plug-ins can introduce security risks, so be cautious with a CMS that relies too heavily on them.
Search engine optimization (SEO)
Your CMS can also impact your ability to optimize your site for search and help your audience find your website.
You want a CMS with SEO controls that allow you to customize on-page SEO like alt text, meta descriptions, URL slugs, and page titles. Some CMS platforms do this natively, while others offer plug-ins for SEO.
A CMS is where content meets design
Let’s face it, content is one of those vague internet terms that means everything and nothing all at once. The term content management system doesn’t come close to describing the power and scope of what a CMS can do for your workflow and the websites you build with it.
You want to use a CMS that is fast, secure, and organized. You also want a scalable CMS that expands your creative possibilities and empowers you to design the websites you imagine. So remember: when choosing a CMS, think of it as a tool that helps your creative design come to life while the technical pieces are taken care of in the background.