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Types of Content Management Systems (CMSs)

There’s a CMS for everyone, but which is right for you?

Content management systems (CMSs) support more than 73 million websites, but which CMSs are used depend on the organization, content goals, and internal user bases. 

So, which CMS is right for you? 

Before we answer that, you should understand that a CMS isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. You must consider your unique business needs, organizational goals, customer needs, the digital experiences you want to serve, and how a CMS — type notwithstanding — will help achieve those ends. 

This guide clarifies the three types of CMSs available, key considerations for each, and the architectures they may have. By the end, you’ll have clearer vision when it comes to choosing the right CMS for your business.

Let’s get started.

3 Types of Content Management Systems

There are three types of content management systems:

  1. Open source
  2. Proprietary
  3. Software as a Service (SaaS)
     

We address them in more detail below and then will review important architectures in which these systems operate: traditional, headless, and hybrid. 

1. Open Source CMS

A CMS built on open source software offers the continuous support and contributions of large developer communities. For organizations seeking that level of flexibility and that have dynamic goals for the future, this type of CMS is a great choice because open source grows with you. (Just look at Acquia CMS powered by Drupal, an open source CMS.) It’s an especially good fit for enterprise-level organizations with more complex digital properties and multiple websites.

We’re pretty partial to Drupal for content management here — our CTO Dries Buytaert co-created Drupal — but there are other players in the game, such as WordPress and Joomla.

2. Proprietary CMS

This type of CMS is built with proprietary software, a closed system that means users can't control or see which features are being built for or are planned for removal.

Sitecore and Adobe Experience Manager (AEM) are examples of proprietary CMSs. Like other proprietary CMSs, they own and control their codebase, which you have to pay to use. It’s common for a proprietary CMS to be one platform in a suite of software. 

All CMSs call for you to have a well-defined use case, but it’s especially important with a proprietary CMS because you play by the vendor’s rules. Know your use cases and have a reasonably clear digital roadmap that aligns with the vendor’s plans for the product or suite. 

Why worry about aligning your digital roadmap with a product’s future? Knowing which capabilities a vendor plans to add or remove is crucial to your content because you’re highly reliant on that software. Content is king, as they say — but what kind of throne is it if your content is overthrown by a single change to the software? 

3. Software as a Service (SaaS) CMS

A SaaS CMS is a cloud-based service that hosts all of your content management functionality and integrates with other popular services. A few SaaS CMSs you might be familiar with include: 

  • Optimizely
  • Wix
  • Squarespace
     

They work well for smaller and mid-sized businesses that need to establish a digital presence quickly. The learning curve for them isn’t steep, and their subscription fees usually come with ongoing user support. That’s why they’re favored by individuals and SMBs: They require little technical overhead and scale smoothly. Larger organizations with more complex sites are likely to find them restrictive.

Content Management Architectures

Let’s turn to the kinds of architecture that support CMSs. Understanding each framework will help you evaluate whether it and the software — open source, proprietary, and SaaS — are a match for your content management needs.

Keep in mind, though, that each CMS type isn’t locked into any particular architecture. An open source CMS, for example, can be either traditional, headless, or hybrid.

Traditional CMS

Otherwise referred to as a monolithic CMS, this is what most casual CMS users are accustomed to. In a traditional CMS, the back end and front end are tightly knit. You create content on the backend, then publish it via the front-end rendering layer tied to that CMS. 

WordPress can have a traditional architecture, for instance. Users create content and design it on the back end, then push it to a WordPress website, which is just fine if all you want is to serve content to a WordPress website. 

Most organizations want their content going to more places than just a website, though. If you want to publish content to other media like mobile applications, AR/VR, or IoT, you’ll need something more powerful and flexible than a traditional CMS. 

Headless CMS

A headless CMS provides content to multiple channels and devices through API endpoints, but lacks its own front-end presentation layer. These APIs can send content to whatever front end your organization might use — ideal for omnichannel publishing — but a headless CMS on its own doesn’t have a front end, leaving developers in charge of front-end presentation and delivery.

This CMS architecture focuses on API-first methods for delivering headless and decoupled CMS solutions. Examples include Acquia CMS and ContentStack.

A headless CMS is usually a good fit for any organization that wants to deploy content to numerous digital channels. Whether it’s a big enterprise or a midsized business that pushes content to several media, a headless CMS is a good way to make sure everything goes where it’s supposed to.

Hybrid CMS

There’s no perfect approach to a CMS, but a hybrid CMS may be the next best thing. A hybrid CMS allows organizations to take the best parts of traditional and headless CMSs and tailor those strongpoints to business goals — CMS nirvana! 

Users can build content through an editing interface and store it. Then, when it’s time to serve that content, they can deploy it through the built-in front end or via APIs to the front end of their choice

As technology progresses and we’re introduced to new media platforms, a hybrid CMS is the best choice for businesses looking ahead. With traditional CMS capabilities for supporting monolithic content delivery, as well as headless/decoupled capabilities to support new media, a hybrid CMS gives organizations the power and flexibility to keep up with the technological rate of change. 

Best of all, it’s user friendly for technical and business audiences. Developers and marketers can work separately and produce content that doesn’t interfere with each other’s work. 

Get Started With a CMS Today

Those are the different CMS types and their architectures in a nutshell. Remember what we talked about in the beginning: CMS types may matter, but to choose the right fit, you must map your organization’s business needs and digital experience goals against how a CMS will get you there. 

Let’s recap the types: 

  • Open source CMS: Free or low cost, malleable to diverse business needs, can grow with you
  • Proprietary CMS: Pay to play, target audience is mainly larger businesses, locked into vendor agreement
  • SaaS CMS: Subscription model, made for SMBs, plug-and-play
     

Each can be designed with any of the content architectures we explained earlier: traditional, headless, or hybrid.

Now that you’ve taken the important first step of identifying the different CMS types, it’s time to align your business needs with the CMS that fits you best. Fortunately, we know a thing or two about the wide world of content management and would love to chat. Reach out anytime!

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