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What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

A CMS doesn’t just publish content to websites anymore. The modern CMS is now more powerful than ever

Not long ago, your content management system (CMS) was charged with the relatively straightforward task of managing web content. Now, it’s not as simple. Content management systems are now expected to manage everything from blog posts and product descriptions to rich media assets. And a CMS needs to deliver content to more channels than just a website. 

Today, content management solutions must build, deliver, and optimize a wide and more ambitious collection of digital experiences. Organizations turn to CMS solutions to deliver content for e-commerce sites, integrate with CRM systems, personalize content, keep all their websites updated, support mobile-first initiatives, and more. 

Critically, your CMS solution must drive revenue, enhance brand awareness, and increase customer engagement and retention. To achieve all that, you need powerful technology. For example, there’s now headless technology that decouples the “head” of a website from its back end. It can also send content almost anywhere via API.

For an updated understanding of what a modern CMS looks like, we’ve prepared this guide to explain how they work, share popular CMS options, and how to get started with a CMS. 

What is a content management system?

A content management system is software that stores many content types, manages that content through its lifecycle, and publishes it to your website and other digital channels.

Popular CMS options include Drupal and WordPress. Less well-known to average consumers but equally viable examples include Optimizely, Adobe Experience Manager, and Sitecore. (We’ll cover them in greater depth below when we discuss types of CMS.) These systems make it easy to publish and modify content on your website through simple user interfaces – the days of modifying HTML code directly are long gone. 

New types of content management systems that feature API-first designs take the technology further and give your developers and product teams the ability to decouple the complex coding requirements of front-end customer experiences from the back-end limitations of a traditional CMS. 

Let’s start with the basics of how a content management system works. 

How does a CMS work?

A CMS provides an easy-to-use interface that lets you modify the content you want, and then the CMS does the hard part: presenting that content on the web in a way that’s optimized for SEO, accessibility, and more. You don’t need to build a web page from scratch every time you want to release a new product, and you don’t need to update the HTML just to add an image. These are tasks a CMS can address easily with just a few clicks.

Your CMS also stores the different versions or iterations of your content, which allows for version control, cross-team collaboration, content approval workflows, and content translation workflows. A CMS used to just publish content to websites, but the world of headless and hybrid CMS platforms has allowed content management technology to reuse content across multiple channels.

How to use a CMS solution

When you need to make a change to your homepage, you can open your CMS and add text (meta description, headlines, title tags, etc.), images or video, and publish other forms of content. 

Want to publish a blog post? Just enter the copy and media into the CMS and schedule it for publication. 

Media companies know the drill well. They use content management systems to write, schedule, and publish articles read by millions of people. With the right content management system, an editor or writer can use their smartphone to make real-time updates to articles based on breaking news.

But content management systems aren’t limited to publishers. A range of industries use them. Retailers large and small, for example, rely on them to publish and manage content on their product detail pages. If given the right user permissions, anyone in an e-commerce organization can log in to the CMS and customize product descriptions or any other product details or assets, such as an explainer video.

The best content management systems will make users feel like they can create or change any content they need without asking for help from IT. That ease-of-use can add up to significant workflow efficiencies, increased collaboration across teams, design pages, and many other advantages. 

Benefits of a CMS

A CMS helps organizations deliver content for digital experiences more efficiently and cost-effectively. Your business can use a content management system to meet a variety of high-level strategic goals and consolidate your marketing technology (martech) stack (to save on software run costs), but there are other benefits worth identifying. Not every CMS will deliver the same value, so when comparing systems, see which of your top choices have the features and functionalities that will net you most of what you’re looking for:

  • Provide a centralized content management platform for all your content, eliminating the complexity of managing multiple tools. This simplification allows your team to focus on innovation, not maintenance.
  • Support rapid production of new digital experiences. 
  • Deliver personalization tools that can be easily managed by marketers with few technical skills.
  • Offer an API-first design, affording you flexibility for supplying content to front-end applications.
  • Feature responsive design to ensure exceptional experiences on any device.
  • Integrate easily with other systems, such as CRMs and e-commerce platforms, as part of your martech stack.
  • Facilitate seamless collaboration by creating common workflows on a single platform.
  • Enable multisite functionality through one platform.  
  • Require no IT intervention for content creation, helping marketers work more quickly and at cost.
  • Share content to all sites and devices without requiring multiple content versions.
  • Simplify maintenance and upgrades by automatically delivering functionality as new technologies and capabilities emerge.
     

There are even more advantages to using a CMS, including improved brand consistency and customer experiences, but let’s go through the types of CMSs available to you. 

Types of CMS

As the digital age introduces new ways of engaging customers and interacting with content, your content management system may have trouble keeping up. Early CMS platforms had it easy, serving simple content to static web pages. Today’s CMS, however, is expected to manage content for an ever-expanding collection of front-end platforms and devices. 

From websites and native mobile apps to smart speakers and smartwatches, as well as digital signage and virtual reality platforms, your CMS is expected to provide content for increasingly diverse formats while engaging audiences, driving revenue, and promoting brand awareness. 

That expectation has led to the rise of four primary content management systems: headless, open source (e.g., Drupal), hybrid, and software as a service (SaaS). There can be overlap between them, i.e., a CMS can be both headless and open source.

  • A headless CMS is a cloud-based content management system that can provide content to multiple channels and devices via API endpoints. It’s a CMS where the front end that renders content is decoupled from the back end, where content is created, managed, and stored. This CMS type is relatively new to the market and focuses on API-only methods for delivering headless and decoupled CMS solutions. Examples of this type include Contentful and Contentstack.
  • An open-source CMS has a flexible modular design that eases the creation and management websites and other digital experiences. Open-source CMSs are supported by large communities of developers, are highly scalable, and easier to integrate with an open-source tech stack.
  • A hybrid CMS combines attributes from both traditional and headless CMS types. Created and stored in the database, content can be served flexibly, either through the existing, coupled front-end rendering layer or retrieved by a completely separate, decoupled front-end layer via APIs.
  • A SaaS CMS is a cloud-based service that hosts all your content management functions and integrates with other popular services. SaaS content management is purpose-built for specific content presentations and not always as customizable as other CMS types. Wix is one example of a SaaS CMS.
     

There are still more ways to categorize content management systems. Here’s another take: 

There are DXP suite-CMS players that are deeply immersed in delivering solutions for digital experiences, including a CMS. These digital experience platform (DXP) suite players typically only provide integrations or exclusively focus on integrating their own solutions, forcing customers to choose only their products or create their own custom integrations. Some systems that fall into this category include Adobe, Optimizely, and Sitecore. 

Another category relates to best-of-breed CMS players that are content management systems that focus on integrating with other solutions, which are considered the best of their kind, to deliver on a DXP strategy. Some examples of best-of-breed CMS players are Drupal, WordPress, SDL Tridion, and Teamsite.

How to choose a CMS solution

When it comes to selecting a CMS platform, must-haves for marketers include support for personalization, a seamless behind-the-scenes authoring experience, and the flexibility to connect with other systems in their martech stack. Additional requirements to consider when choosing a CMS include:

  • Centralized platform for storing content in an open, non-proprietary format and for sharing content with all sites and devices without requiring multiple instances
  • Custom design possibilities for each website, mobile app, and digital experience
  • API-first infrastructure that gives front-end developers greater flexibility for rendering content
  • Responsive design
  • Ability to easily maintain and upgrade the system without intervention from IT and to deploy functionality updates quickly as new technologies and platforms emerge
  • Tools that allow teams to work together on a single platform with common workflows
  • Capabilities for personalization that less technical marketers can use

Content management system examples

There are many content management systems on the market, and it can be a long process to identify one that meets all your needs. Here’s a short overview of some of the options. 

Drupal

Drupal is a flexible, open-source CMS solution with a modular design that makes it easy to create and manage websites, applications, and other digital experiences without needing to write code. It’s so flexible that it can be configured for headless and hybrid CMSs too.

It’s also highly scalable, enabling content to be published in multiple languages across many devices, as well as supporting unlimited users and content types. 

Drupal is supported by a large community of users who continually modify and extend the platform. It has eyebrow-raising advantages over other content management systems. Organizations like Tesla, the European Commision, and Oxford University use Drupal for their CMS. 

WordPress

As a blogging and landing page tool, marketers claim ease of use as a hallmark of this CMS. WordPress is also used to build and manage websites for some of the world’s most influential companies. It’s a popular CMS among global organizations, such as The Walt Disney Company, Spotify, and NBC.

Like Drupal, WordPress is open source software that allows for a wide variety of customization to meet your needs. If you want to learn more about this platform’s capabilities as a CMS, it’s worth reading how WordPress compares to Drupal.

Sitecore

Sitecore is a proprietary CMS that relies on third-party providers to deploy its solution in the cloud and connect it to all your martech and customer data sources. This means that if a customer requires cloud deployment, the deployment model comes with an additional cost. While that may give buyers looking for a CMS pause, users find a lot of value in the software’s content taxonomy, community / comment management, and SEO support.

Some of the largest companies in the world, including PUMA, United Airlines, and L’Oreal, use Sitecore. It makes sense for some large enterprises, but there are a few reasons why an open-source CMS like Drupal may be a better alternative.

Adobe Experience Manager (AEM)

Like Drupal, Adobe Experience Manager (AEM) is an open source system built on Java. A cloud-native platform, it’s a combination digital asset management (DAM) and content management system used by brands such as Ford, T-Mobile, and GoPro.

According to TrustRadius, popular features of AEM include its role-based user permissions, mobile optimization, and page templates. But, to access some of the marketing capabilities that the software claims, Adobe doesn’t often tell users that they need to purchase many of the company’s products separately. That may be a factor that offsets AEM’s attractions.

Optimizely

Also an open, extensible platform in the cloud, this SaaS CMS sits under the Optimizely Content Cloud along with many of the company’s products. Used primarily by midsize companies, Optimizely is known for features like its role-based permissions, the cleanliness and quality of its code, as well as its publishing workflow. Some users have described the documentation that Optimizely offers for its headless technologies as limited and that the system seems to be down often, affecting reliability.

Businesses such as Ebay, Dolby, and Pizza Hut use Optimizely.

Getting started with a CMS platform

A CMS that just publishes content to a website (or a family of websites) is a legacy tool in today’s digital landscape. It’s about much more than updating web pages — you need to gather content from many sources and send it to a long list of front-end applications. For example, your developers might need to code a customer-facing smartwatch experience and deliver content from the CMS via API.

It’s likely that a blend of CMS types will give your company all the benefits it needs from a content management platform. Acquia CMS is a hybrid headless CMS that gives you high-code, low-code, and no-code assembly. It’s an agile enterprise CMS that runs on a pre-packaged version of Drupal with enhanced capabilities exclusive to and maintained by Acquia. If you’re looking for a new CMS or want to get started on the right foot, schedule a demo here to see a CMS in action.

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