A Content Management System (CMS) is a web application that enables you and your team to edit the content of your webpage in a simple and interactive way.
In this article we are going to look at how a CMS can help you take control of your content management, reduce your reliance on developers, and give you a foundational understanding of the different types of systems you can choose.
Let’s start with the overall benefits that apply to almost all CMS options you might consider.
Six benefits of a CMS
1. Ease of use. First and foremost, a CMS is easy to use for the non-technically minded and those who don’t have a background in web development. Hunting through code just to change or update your website can be a nightmare. But almost anyone who can use word-processing software can use a CMS for basic functions like content updates.
2. Enables multiple users. There could be many people who need to update content on your website. A CMS allows you to manage website roles and publishing permissions so that multiple users are able to add content and make edits under your supervision. It allows your copywriters to submit blog posts and your communications teams to update product pages.
3. Get an overall view of your content. A CMS gives you an overall view of all the content on your website, drafts and final copy included. This makes it easy to integrate upcoming content with your marketing plans. You can see past changes and updates and plan ahead by scheduling future posts and content to go live when you’re ready.
4. Easy site maintenance. Without a CMS, making a change on your site could mean searching through dozens of pages to make changes on each individual page. With a CMS, you can make universal maintenance updates. Your CMS also plays a role in keeping your site content backed up in case of a technical problem or failure. It will deliver ongoing compatibility checks to make sure that a new software update or content type won’t make your site crash. It’s effectively a safety net for this key part of your business.
5. Design asset management. Changing design assets is simple with a CMS. The content of your website, like copy, images, and videos, are kept in a separate virtual box than your design. This is useful because you can make design changes while keeping the site functional. Instead of being held up by renovations, your site can stay open during construction. A properly configured CMS (and only a properly configured CMS) also enables universal design changes, like the universal technical updates we just mentioned. A single change will propagate across your entire website which is essential to give it a memorable, unified aesthetic, and reduce the chance of missing any needed updates, which could damage user perceptions of your company.
6. You’re in control. A CMS gives you the ability to make regular changes instead of relying on an external vendor or developer.
Before we run through your CMS options, it’s important to keep in mind the criteria you’ll want to use to evaluate which option will best address your needs. This includes:
- Cost. An open source CMS will be free to install but may have paid plugins and themes. A proprietary CMS will require a paid license right off the bat.
- Usability. Make sure your CMS is user-friendly enough for those who aren’t technically-minded on your team, but still robust enough for your developers.
- Scalability. If you want your website to grow, it’s important that your CMS can handle it. Think ahead to your future vision for your website. Right now you may only need a landing page and a contact form but in the future you may want to sell your products online. Choose a CMS that can evolve as your website needs do.
- Size of community. Online communities are incredible troubleshooting resources. A large and active community will help you with any questions you may have with your CMS, from plugins through to content updates.
- User permissions. Think about who is going to use your CMS. How many people are going to be contributing content or updating pages? Make sure your CMS can accommodate everyone that needs access today and in the future.
- Technical Support. A proprietary CMS will have dedicated technical support. An open source CMS relies on community troubleshooting. Consider what level of support you need.
With all those factors in mind, let’s look at the varying CMS options you’ll choose from. While this isn’t a comprehensive list, it does include the major CMS options in use right now.
Four different types of content management systems
1. Open Source
An open source CMS is free to use and requires no license to get started. They are created and maintained by a global community of talented developers, who provide a massive amount of documentation and support.
So what exactly does ‘open source’ mean?
Well, the “source” here refers to the source code, the technical foundation of the CMS. With an open source CMS, the source code itself is available to anyone. Any member of the tech community can extend, modify, and create new features. Some of these features will be just what you need for your project. But be careful: just because anyone can develop features doesn’t mean that everyone should. Always choose trusted and well-reviewed plugins.
An open-source CMS offers countless customizations to meet different business needs. From ecommerce to search engine optimization (SEO), there’s a plugin that will provide the functionality your website needs.
Although an open-source CMS is free to download, at Tiller we do sometimes use paid plugins if the build needs them. We charge for initial setup and integration to ensure your site is built right and will help you achieve your goals. And we charge if your team requires training on the CMS. This typically saves you money over the long term because you can avoid the costs of hiring an agency to make every little change you need. You can do it yourself.
An open-source CMS can be simple, easy-to-use and robust. All at the same time. It can support something as targeted as a single landing page or as expansive as a website with dozens of pages.
Let’s take a look at three of the most popular open source CMS options.
WordPress is by far the most popular CMS, powering over 60 million websites worldwide. At Tiller, we regularly use WordPress to develop websites for clients across industries. Developers and users alike love it.
WordPress is simple and user-friendly. It installs quickly and updates constantly to ensure compatibility and performance. A streamlined and intuitive back end allows users to easily find their way around the administration section. It’s excellent for non technically-minded copywriters and experienced content managers.
There is also an enormous amount of documentation and user support available online in case you run into difficulties. It is a great resource to draw from when you change themes, make design updates, or simply run into an unfamiliar problem.
Although it was started as a blogging platform, WordPress isn’t just a basic CMS. There are plugins for almost every potential use, from website speed to security. One of the nice things about WordPress is that you can make your site as simple or complex as needed. If you just need a simple landing page for your business, you can easily create one. If you need a robust website full of content, WordPress has you covered.
Finally, since it’s so widely used, there’s a good chance that you, or someone in your company, is already familiar with the platform. That familiarity can save your users the time and effort of getting ramped up on a platform. Simply because they already know it.
Drupal is used more often for enterprise clients who need a powerful CMS to handle their feature-rich and content-heavy websites. It can handle large databases and is a good fit if you need something with really robust technical capabilities. Drupal shares 1.21% of the CMS market and powers 6.96% of websites in Google’s top 100,000.
Drupal is highly customizable and offers huge extensibility as your website needs change and grow. Like WordPress, Drupal has a very active user community and excellent support. It does require more technical expertise to manage and would most likely require working with a developer if you used it for your site.
Joomla sits between the intuitive ease of WordPress and the robustness of Drupal. It isn’t as powerful as Drupal but it is more powerful than WordPress for companies with intensive needs.
Joomla is now somewhat out-of-date. Most digital agencies don’t recommend it much anymore. However, a lot of legacy projects and older websites still run on Joomla.
As opposed to the communal nature of the open-source options, a proprietary CMS is the legal property of the organization, group, or individual that created it. You need to purchase a license to use the software and you pay a monthly or annual charge for access, updates and support.
You might be asking, “why would I spend money on a license and monthly charges for a CMS when I could just download an open-source one for free?”
Quality is one answer.
Some people believe that open-source has a lower standard of quality in its plugins, themes, and applications, just because the source code is available to anybody, developer or not.
Another difference is the quality of user support. An open-source CMS often has massive online banks of documentation and user support. However, even if there’s a great community supporting it, you still may have to do the work to find a solution, especially to an uncommon problem. A proprietary CMS will have dedicated support staff that can identify and remediate nearly any problem you may encounter, saving you the time of hunting around down an online rabbit hole.
Security might also be a concern. A proprietary CMS can offer better security than one that is open source. WordPress powers almost half of all websites and many people try to hack it for exactly that reason. If set up properly, WordPress isn’t a security risk. But a proprietary CMS has fewer users and, as a result, just isn’t as desirable a target for hackers.
Craft is a WordPress alternative for development-oriented publishers who want high-quality proprietary plugins and themes. Craft is a more immediately “premium” option than WordPress, meaning that the interface is sleek, well designed, and aesthetically pleasing.
If you want a purely “set-it-and-forget-it” website, Craft may be a better option as it is incredibly unlikely to be hacked.
Now that companies and brands are developing websites, mobile sites, apps and digital displays, some traditional CMS’ are failing to keep pace. Why? Because a traditional CMS only makes content easily available to your website. Your mobile apps and other platforms have no way of accessing it. So if you have a website, mobile app and another platform all in use, you have to manage three different versions of the same content.
As more and more brands are looking to diversify their content and create on a variety of platforms, a CMS that can consolidate and streamline processes is essential. That’s where a headless CMS will shine.
With a headless CMS, your content exists separately from the website and code. You are able to send that content to your website, mobile site, and apps from a central location. This makes diversifying your content platforms simple and more intuitive. You don’t have to keep track of a ton of content in different places. You don’t have to spend development time and money making sure your content works on each platform.
Like the other CMS options we’ve talked about, a headless CMS gives you universal control over your content. If you update a piece of content or design in one place with your headless CMS, it will be updated on every platform.
The next benefit is more likely to make your developer happy than anything but it should be noted. With a traditional CMS, you will be locked into the coding language it is built on. A headless CMS lets you develop the site in whatever coding language you want. It gives your developers the choice to work with what they know best. Although most developers would be very familiar with the code used by the popular traditional CMS options, this gives you the option to develop your website with exactly the tools and features you need.
Here are some examples of a headless CMS.
Contentful is an example of a subscription-based headless CMS. It is proprietary, so you pay a monthly fee for services. Contentful markets itself as “content infrastructure” which means that it provides your developers the building blocks and cloud-based services to construct a website that fits your needs.
Contentful has less off-the-shelf features than WordPress. This means that it is more complicated to develop. Your initial web development services costs could be higher than with other options. But there are also distinct advantages here.
Contentful could be seen as a huge toolbox for developers as opposed to the more pre-assembled CMS choices. There aren’t as many pre-built features, but in the hands of the right developer Contentful enables you to build a truly bespoke website.
Another benefit of Contentful is that it’s cloud-based.
What’s the big deal about being on the cloud?
Say that some piece of content on your website goes viral. If your site is built on a basic WordPress platform, there is a chance that it will crash with the increased traffic. In the case of a huge influx of users, Contentful would scale your computing power to match the increased traffic. This is one reason why you pay by the month – your computing power will automatically scale with your needs so you don’t have to pay extra for the increased capacity.
If you’re looking to build a custom website from the ground-up, or you expect a huge surge in website traffic, or you’re not getting all the features you want out of a traditional CMS, Contentful could be the right choice for you.
WordPress (headless version)
WordPress also possesses a headless option. Normally, we wouldn’t recommend WordPress as the go-to option for a headless CMS, but there are some instances where it’s an option.
Say that you already have a large website built on WordPress. You have tons of content, images and text but now you want to develop an app that uses the same or similar content. Instead of rebuilding you could use the headless version of WordPress to get all your website’s content onto your app.
A CMS designed for ecommerce follows the same principles as a traditional CMS. You can still edit the content of your website in a simple, intuitive way. But in this case, your content will be focused on the products you have for sale.
Although that’s the biggest difference, an ecommerce CMS is a specialized tool that includes features specifically for online shopping.
Let’s dive in to some of the most popular choices for ecommerce:
Shopify is one of the most popular choices for ecommerce and powers over 800,000 websites. Like Contentful, it is a cloud-based subscription service with basic plans starting at $29 USD per month. This gives you the scalability we were talking about. If your products make a big splash, your website won’t run out of capacity to handle all of that traffic. The only thing you want to be running out of when your products hit the market is inventory, not computing power.
So what else do you get with that monthly payment?
At a basic level, Shopify gives you all the essential features you could need to run a new online store. You can list an unlimited number of products, sell across multiple channels such as Facebook and Amazon and even create discounts for your customers.
It’s also responsively-designed. Responsive design means that your content will automatically adjust to mobile devices and tablets, saving you development time and money. At Tiller, we only design responsively. It is industry standard and optimizes your website so that all users get an immersive experience, no matter what device they’re using.
Shopify works with many different payment providers. But it’s important to note that it’s most cost effective to use their in-house payment gateway, Shopify Payments. That way, you’ll pay lower fees per transaction, and the more you sell, the more you’ll notice the difference. It’s also the only way to support multiple currencies so if you’re considering selling internationally, it’s your best choice.
Shopify is wonderfully easy to set-up and, since it’s subscription-based, you get dedicated customer support for any difficulties.
Overall, Shopify is a solid all-in-one ecommerce choice.
As we noted in an earlier blog post, it is a myth that WordPress doesn’t work for ecommerce. WooCommerce is the ecommerce extension for WordPress and has hundreds of thousands of users. Although it might not be quite as robust of an ecommerce option as Shopify, there’s a good chance that your website uses WordPress, so why not integrate your ecommerce offerings right into your existing site?
WooCommerce has lots of extensibility options and features that will help make your online storefront a valuable part of your business. Just because WooCommerce isn’t a standalone ecommerce option like Shopify doesn’t mean that it can’t fulfill your ecommerce needs. It will be cheaper, faster, and less hassle to add WooCommerce to your existing WordPress site than to build a separate ecommerce platform on Shopify or another competitor.
Overall, it is key to think about what you need from your ecommerce platform and, if you have one, how you plan to integrate it with your existing website. You’ll get the most value out of your online storefront if you do.
We get it. In the world of content management systems, there’s a lot to know.
And even when you’ve done some research, it isn’t always clear which CMS will work best for your business or organization.
That’s why we recommend finding an expert partner who can take pains to understand your requirements from both a business and technical perspective and then recommend the right choice to address both. This is always our approach at Tiller.