How To Select a Content Management System CMS

content management system CMS

Would you be surprised to hear the term content management system is a straightforward description of what it actually does?

Yes. At its core, a CMS enables you to manage digital content. Technically, a content management system could be used to manage offline content. But, most people associate the term with managing websites and building web applications online.

Why Do You Need a Content Management System?

content management system CMSThink back to the early days of the internet. In the ’90s people began creating websites one page at a time. You’d write content, source your images, then use HTML code to string it all together into individual, static pages.

It certainly was an improvement over rudimentary text appearing in the earliest web browsers. But it wasn’t that easy to update, add new pages, or combine pages into cohesive websites.

That example is a bit simple. But it helps explain why you’d want a content management system.

How Does a Content Management System Work?

Essentially there are two parts of a content management system. The content management application (CMA) is the interface you see in a web browser page when you add and update content on your website. Then, there is the largely unseen content delivery application (CDA) that delivers core functionality.

content management system user interface WordPress

Here’s a look at the WordPress content management user interface for this page.

A general point of a content management system (CMS) is to enable your average content editor to add and update website content without needing to know more complex things like HTML, CSS, or PHP.

My “Aha Moment” toward understanding how a content management system works came when I initially learned WordPress. First, consider that many websites use templates called “themes” to help shape the visual presentation of a site. The content itself is mostly words and images. (Like the words and images you see right now on this page!)

As these words and images are added to each page within the CMS interface, they are tagged and tracked within a database in the background. The content management system essentially keeps track of the words and images you’ve added to the site. This frees you to focus on shaping the content the way you’d like.

What Else Does a Content Management System Give You?

B2B MarketingAnother way to think of a CMS is as an “online publishing system.” Beyond the ability to manage text and images, key functions include format management, revision control, indexing, and website search.

From here, we could go down several different paths to help illustrate what a CMS is, and what it delivers. But for the moment, I assume you might want some guidance on how to select one.

content management system CMS

Content Management Systems:
A Simplified Overview

Three content management systems are responsible for the vast majority of websites on the internet. Beyond those three CMS’s there are a number of others that play in the same space, so-to-speak. But there are also scores of customized, proprietary, and focused use content management systems out there.

Which CMS is right for your business will depend on a number of factors. Let’s start with an overview of the top three solutions:

content management system CMS WordPress1. WordPress
By a wide margin, WordPress is the most widely used content management system on the planet. Does this mean it’s the best? Not at all. But, some reasons WordPress has become so popular include:

1. Ease of use (relative to other CMS’s)
2. Open Source, with a community of contributing developers
3. Wide variety of themes (templates) to accommodate different kinds of websites
4. Wide range of plugins to customize functionality
5. Free to use

WordPress is a good choice for small- to medium-size businesses that don’t require a ton of complexity. Since the user interface is pretty straightforward, WordPress is also a great option for businesses that don’t want to become bogged down with complex coding.

A content management system like WordPress or Drupal enables you ongoing organization and flexibility.

A content management system like WordPress or Drupal enables you ongoing organization and flexibility.

People critiquing WordPress might be developers with more technical skill. Experienced developers would often rather build and customize websites in ways that make more sense and provide more options for them.

Other cons folks might cite are a reliance on plugins and the fact that many plugins are untested or outdated. An untested plugin could lead to a potential vulnerability, though when a security issue is found with an app or plugin, it’s usually shared among the user community very quickly. More plugins may increase the potential for a website to exhibit speed/performance issues. But again, the fix for that is relatively simple; keep the number of plugins to a minimum.

content management system CMS Joomla CMS2. Joomla
Most people say that in terms of complexity and functionality, Joomla is somewhere between WordPress and Drupal. It’s easier to use than Drupal, but unlike with WordPress, website managers and content editors need some tech skills to get the most out of it. On the plus side, this gives developers who have those tech skills more freedom to customize and build websites the way they’d like to.

You could say Joomla is geared toward medium- to large-sized businesses. But like all in this top three, it can really be used for any business. Though Joomla facilitates the use of themes and plugins like WordPress, it also delivers native benefits in the areas of commerce and social networking.

Folks who might critique Joomla as a CMS option would cite the same potential drawbacks that WordPress has – reliance on plugins and untested or old plugins that might lead to vulnerabilities.

content management system CMS Drupal CMS3. Drupal
Though considered a CMS, some categorize Drupal as more of a content management framework than a system. As mentioned, it’s more advanced, so it requires developers and content editors with more technical skill. Developers are attracted to Drupal for many of the reasons they’d like Joomla. It’s powerful and affords more freedom to build websites and web applications they way they’d like to.

Drupal uses “modules” rather than plugins, but the concept is similar. Another upside for Drupal websites is improved performance (speed and functionality) because the CMS is less resource-intensive.

Like Joomla, Drupal might be geared more toward medium- to large-sized businesses. From a business point of view, a main benefit to Drupal is that it enables you to build your app from the ground up in ways that serve all the needs of your organization. Drupal also offers a better module directory, with modules that are generally more up-to-date.

Perhaps the main drawbacks to Drupal are that the learning curve is steeper and the content editing interface is not as easy to learn or use, especially compared to WordPress. This can be a disadvantage for companies who want post more content frequently — because fewer internal people may understand how to navigate the interface and achieve the results they want quickly.

Once you get past the top three content management systems, there are a plethora of other options. Let’s take a look at some of these:

Basic Website Builders

content management system CMS Bynder CMSBynder
If Squarespace and Wix are considered good options for non-technical photographers and artists, Bynder might be a basic solution for individuals or small companies that would like to showcase more multimedia content like animations and videos. Though you can create websites with Bynder, it’s considered more of a digital asset management (DAM) solution than a conventional CMS. The interface is visual-based and designed to lead you through the process of adding and updating content. Bynder was also designed with some basic marketing features geared toward professional creatives. Pricing is a subscription model.

content management system CMS Squarespace CMSSquarespace
Squarespace might be considered more a website builder than a CMS. Squarespace doesn’t require much technical ability — the WYSIWYG interface is elegant and fairly straightforward to use. Similarly, the polished website templates deliver elegant-looking page layouts that are inherently responsive for mobile devices. Though Squarespace can actually be used for a variety of different smaller businesses – I can’t help thinking the ideal customer would be someone with lots of visual content, like a photographer or artist. Pricing is a subscription model.

content management system CMS Weebly CMSWeebly
Weebly is geared toward designers and the clients those designers serve. It’s a visual-based system that utilizes drag-and-drop customization within an intuitive interface. It’s relatively easy to learn and use. The system enables designers to preview sites to their clients and secure payment before delivering the final site. From there, a client can update and maintain the site via the online Weebly interface or collaborate with the designer or another consultant to do so. Pricing is a subscription model.

content management system CMS Wix CMSWix
Like Squarespace, Wix could be called more of a website builder than a content management system. Though, once you create a site with Wix, you can certainly manage the content. I’ve seen Wix compared to WordPress in terms of ease of use. In fact, with its WYSIWYG interface, Wix is probably a lot easier to use. Wix is also a proprietary system, not open source. On the plus side, non-techies and non-developers can build secure websites through Wix. But, overall it’s less powerful than WordPress and users may have less choice on how their sites can be customized. Pricing is a subscription model. Wix can actually be used for free if you don’t mind having a Wix ad on all your site pages. That’s not an option for most businesses, but it enables users to test drive the solution first.

Enterprise Level Content Management Systems

content management system CMS AES CMS Adobe Experience Manager CMSAdobe Experience Manager
You might consider Adobe Experience Manager more of a platform than a system. Watchwords here are powerful and comprehensive. As you may know, Adobe became an industry leader through creative business applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and later through web tools like Dreamweaver and Flash. If you recall, Adobe combined many applications like those into a “creative suite.”

The concept is somewhat similar here. Adobe created an ambitious collection of tools for building, maintaining, and iterating websites. Though Adobe Experience Manager is certainly not free, it delivers a wide variety of features that make it an attractive choice for larger organizations. Sites created with AEM can be easily integrated with ecommerce solutions, plus there are built-in marketing and analytics features.

content management system CMS Documentum CMSDocumentum
This CMS began as a robust document management system (DMS) that was expanded and improved to facilitate website content management. Documentum is powerful, but perhaps not as straightforward to use as other comprehensive content management systems like Adobe Experience Manager. Since the purpose of the original versions of Documentum was to help businesses manage vast quantities of unstructured documents like PDFs and other electronic files, Documentum can be particularly useful for organizations that need to manage both their websites and documents in an integrated, coherent fashion.

content management system CMS Clickability CMSClickability
A specialty for this cloud-based CMS is publishers that have a vast network of sites, each with similar or the same content. It’s generally powerful and not overly complex from a content editing perspective. But, it’s not quite as agile. Clickability apparently provides more than adequate technical support where needed – but since you are relying on one company, that help may not come as quickly as you always need it.

content management system CMS Magnolia CMSMagnolia
Here is a Java-based CMS designed to help your business accomplish many of the goals a more conventional CMS would. Like the content management systems that round our the top three above, the Magnolia CMS delivers a wide variety of powerful features. Perhaps a big differentiator here is that with Magnolia, you also gain the support of one company that is laser-focused on its CMS products.

Other Solutions

content management system CMS Craft CMSCraft
In terms of complexity and results, you might compare Craft a mixture of WordPress and Joomla. Though Craft is not open source like those options, you can select from a small pool of plugins to customize functionality. On the plus side, Craft provides a very visual-based approach to developing your web pages. You can drag and drop images, text, and fields to create the look you’re aiming for. But if there’s a drawback compared to WordPress, you can’t spin up a basic website very quickly. A deliberate process should be followed with Craft. So, if you can afford to have a small team of developers focus on your site for a few weeks, you can achieve great results with Craft. Apparently, Craft was created by some former developers from the Expression Engine solution. So, the approach isn’t a million miles removed from EE — just a lot simpler and less technical.

content management system CMS Expression Engine CMSExpression Engine
By my recollection, this CMS used to be considered more widely along with Joomla and Drupal. It’s certainly more technical and extensible than WordPress. With Expression Engine, rather than apply a theme to your website, you get to direct how the template looks and behaves from within the CMS. To develop with the Expression Engine CMS, you’ll definitely need to either be a developer or have access to a skilled development team. That said, Expression Engine is very customizable and user-friendly if you are a developer. Plugins are also used to help customize functionality. If you’re a longtime EE user, you’ll probably want to stick with it. But if you’re considering Expression Engine for the first time, you will probably want to have a look at Craft before you make a decision.

content management system CMS Shopify CMSShopify
Shopify is more of an ecommerce solution than a content management system. Though technically, it can be used as a CMS for a website, you probably wouldn’t want to do that unless the main purpose of your site was to facilitate online sales. Either way, you’ll want to compare Shopify with Magento, another ecommerce solution. Though Shopify can be used on its own to help you build out an ecommerce website, it can also be used in conjunction with a legit CMS like WordPress to achieve the best of both worlds — content management and ecommerce shopping carts. Shopify is a cloud-based solution. Generally speaking, Shopify is easier to learn and use than Magento is, but you have less control over customization and functionality.

content management system CMS Magento CMSMagento
Like Shopify, the primary use for Magento is to facilitate online sales. Technically, it could be used to manage content for a website but only if you don’t have much other content. Also similar to Shopify, Magento can be used in conjunction with another CMS to achieve the best of both. Magento is meant to be downloaded on a local server/computer where it can be calibrated with your product database and your website. Magento has a steeper learning curve and is generally more technical to use than Shopify — but it delivers powerful features in return.

Consider Short- and Long-term Goals From the Start

content management system CMSThe bottom line is, selecting the right CMS for your business will depend on a number of factors. But one of the key insights I’ve absorbed is that you may want to consider two different content management systems from the start.

Many businesses will ultimately require a more robust, technical, and comprehensive content management system. But since that requires a lot more time and resources, it may serve you well to quickly create a foundational site using WordPress or similar solution. That way, you have a website that is serving your basic needs now and you’ve also bought time to plan something more grandiose in the longer-term.

Preparing to work on your next website project soon? Don’t hesitate to send me your questions. I’d be happy to help.


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Sources may include product websites and the following:
WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are NOT the Best CMS, Mike Johnston, CMS Critic
The 9 Most Popular Free Content Management Systems (CMS), Alex Ivanovs, colorlib
Content Management System (CMS), TechTarget
WordPress vs Joomla vs Drupal, Robert Mening, Website Setup
What is the Best CMS for Your Business: AEM, Clickability and WordPress, Axis 41
Going Off-the-Shelf: WordPress vs. Craft vs. Drupal vs. Shopify, Megan Zlock, Viget
ExpressionEngine Reviews, G2 Crowd

Nadia Reiman

Nadia Reiman

Senior Producer, StoryCorps

“(James) works to simplify the complex aspects of any given project to make it easier on everyone else. I’m sure Spark Creative clients must appreciate that!”