What To Look for in a Content Management System (CMS)

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Behind every website, there’s a CMS. Whether your site sells goods or services, or you use it to share your thoughts to the world, you’ll use a CMS to populate it with content. You’ll also use that CMS to update your content, whether you’re adding a new product page or correcting a typo.

Here’s a primer on CMS software and the world of web content management.

What is a content management system?

A content management system, or CMS, is a software application used to author, edit, publish, and generally manage digital content without writing code. Essentially, it’s the interface you use to publish content on a website. “Publishing content” can include blog posts, multimedia web pages, and product listings in an online store. A CMS also allows you to add or modify elements on your pages.

A CMS can be part of an all-in-one website builder, in which you design your site and upload content to it in a single application. This type of CMS allows you to build a website using a templated design and populate that design with text and media. In these solutions, the back end (where you input content) and the front end (what a visitor to the site sees) are handled by the same tool. 

A CMS can also be “headless,” meaning the back end is separate from the front end. A headless CMS integrates with other tools you might use to manage your site.

Features to look for in an all-in-one content management system (CMS)

  1. User roles and permissions
  2. Editing and publishing tools
  3. Media management
  4. Analytics
  5. Responsive design and mobile optimization

There are CMS platforms for businesses of all sizes, budgets, and use cases. Any good all-in-one CMS should have these five components.

  1. User roles and permissions. A CMS lets you establish particular roles for the people creating your company’s digital content. You can designate people as site administrators, editors, writers, and more. Each role has its own set of access privileges.
  2. Editing and publishing tools. All of today’s popular content management systems come with user-friendly interfaces that make it easy to create new content and publish it to the web. For instance, if you’re drafting a blog post, you’re likely to see an edit window that looks like a word processor. You don’t need to know how to code to publish on a modern CMS.
  3. Media management. A good CMS makes digital asset management easy, creating a library of all the images and videos you’ve used on your site.
  4. Analytics. Many of today’s CMS platforms come with analytics tools, which can help you understand how much time people spend on your website and what pages they’ve viewed. Note that analytics are not typically included in free CMS solutions.
  5. Responsive design and mobile optimization. With more people than ever shopping on their mobile phones and tablets, you need a website that renders properly on these devices. Standard all-in-one CMS platforms do this automatically, ensuring your site looks good no matter what device it’s viewed on.

Note that a headless CMS may not have all of these features. In a headless CMS architecture, you may choose other tools to accomplish some of these workflows.

Features to look for in an ecommerce content management system (CMS)

  1. Product and inventory management
  2. Order tracking
  3. Customer management

Ecommerce businesses have specific needs from their CMS. If you’re looking for a CMS for your online store, make sure it has these three capabilities.

  1. Product and inventory management. A good ecommerce CMS should help you manage inventory and product listings. If your CMS doesn’t come with inventory tracking capabilities, you can add a plug-in that supports it. There are Shopify plug-ins to do just that for Shopify websites, WordPress plug-ins for WordPress websites, and so on.
  2. Order tracking. You’ll need to track an order once you ship it. A robust CMS can handle this as well, or you can use an order-tracking plug-in for your CMS.
  3. Customer management. Enterprise CMS software typically can store customer names, contact information, purchase history, customer service history, and more. If you want to go more in-depth, you’ll use a related product called customer relationship management (CRM) software.

Four tips for choosing a content management system (CMS)

  1. Identify your needs and goals
  2. Compare features and pricing
  3. Weigh ease of use vs. maximum flexibility
  4. Determine your customer support needs

As you shop for a CMS, you’ll find there are a lot of services vying for your business. Here are four guidelines to help you choose the right one:

  1. Identify your needs and goals. Identify your company’s goals to figure out what you need from a CMS. Will your website center around an ecommerce store, a portfolio, a blog, or something else entirely? Your CMS should make it easy to maintain the right type of website for your company. Keep in mind that you can have one CMS for your core website and one for your blog. 
  2. Compare features and pricing. Basic plans for all-in-one website builders like Wix, Squarespace, Shopify, and Weebly range from $8 to $12 per month. WordPress, which powers some major websites, offers a wider range of functionality and prices. 
  3. Weigh ease of use vs. maximum flexibility. An all-in-one CMS reduces the amount of technical overhead you’ll have with your website, giving it a big advantage when it comes to ease of use. The primary downside to an all-in-one CMS is that you may be limited by the templated design and functionality it offers. A headless CMS allows for far more customization and complex functionality, but you’ll typically need technical resources to build and maintain a site with headless architecture. 
  4. Determine your customer support needs. Some all-in-one CMS platforms come with customer support as part of a paid subscription. Other platforms may post product explainers and video tutorials, but they may not offer as much one-on-one customer support. If attentive user support matters to you, take time to directly compare what type of support each platform provides to its subscribers.

How to implement a traditional content management system (CMS)

  1. Connect the CMS to your domain and assign admins
  2. Import content and set up the website structure
  3. Customize the design and functionality
  4. Train users and establish workflows

In general, implementing an all-in-one content management system requires the following four steps.

  1. Connect the CMS to your domain and assign admins. Once you’ve chosen a traditional CMS, the first step is to connect it to your domain. Then, you’ll assign site administrators to maintain your website. These platforms offer different pricing tiers that accommodate different numbers of administrators.
  2. Import content and set up the website structure. Once connected, you’ll likely choose a design template and use it to start building your site. All sites have a homepage; beyond that, you might add a blog, a store, or ancillary marketing pages. The exact site structure depends on the nature of your business. (Note: You can use different CMSs for your primary site, your store, and/or your blog. This adds complexity, but is possible.)
  3. Customize the design and functionality. With the basic structure established, you’ll be able to customize the site’s design, navigation, and interactive features. Having a working knowledge of user interfaces (UI) and user experience (UX) can help you with this step.
  4. Train users and establish workflows. With the site now set up, administrators can train other team members—marketers, writers, sales directors, and more—to use the CMS. These team members will be given specific site permissions that let them add new content without inadvertently crashing the site or causing it to misbehave.

Content management systems (CMS) FAQ

What are three types of content management systems (CMSs)?

CMSs come with different levels of functionality. The most popular type is an all-in-one CMS, which handles the back end and front end of your site in the same tool. This type of CMS is available from vendors like Wix, Squarespace, and Shopify. An open-source CMS (or open CMS) can be accessed at no initial cost, but it requires extensive knowledge of website building. WordPress.org is a popular open-source CMS (and is not to be confused with the all-in-one CMS offerings found at WordPress.com). Yet another option is a custom CMS, where a software vendor uses open-source code to build a customized product for a commercial client. These combine the user support of an all-in-one platform with the flexibility of an open CMS.

What does a CMS do?

As the name content management system suggests, a CMS is a tool that manages all of the content on your website. It’s the interface you use to create web pages and upload text and media to those pages. Robust all-in-one CMSs also serve as a database for all published content, offer ecommerce inventory management, provide SEO tools, and integrate with analytics software to reveal how people are discovering and using your website.

What are the basic components of a CMS?

There are two basic components of a traditional CMS—the front end and the back end. The front end of a CMS presents content to a visitor. The back end of a CMS is where you add and manage content.