What is a content management system (CMS)?

If you’re new to the web, in a digital role, or modernizing your company’s online presence, you’re likely to hear a lot of acronyms and jargon.

Content Management Systems (or CMS) are often talked about and have become a standard aspect of most websites.

I’ve been working in the digital space since the early days of content management, and even before it was standard practice, so I’m excited to share the details based on where we are in current times.

In this article, I’ll explain what a CMS is, its importance, how they work, the different types of content management systems, and how to consider the best options for you.

What is a CMS?

A content management system is functionality that allows administrative users to update, maintain, create, and manage their own content without having to code or have a developer do it for them.

Typically, to access CMS functionality, admin users will have a private login page or area to authenticate and navigate to a separate menu or portal that has options for specific content that can be edited.

There are various types of CMS platforms and ways this can look like. I will go into some of the best systems for your consideration later on.

No matter how customized or standardized the system is or how limited or robust, the ability to manage your site and have control over content without coding is powerful and can be crucial in how you manage your web presence.

Why is a CMS important?

A content management system is a powerful thing that saves time, money, and effort when it comes to being able to add and update text, images, videos, pages, and important elements and page structure for your website.

It is essential that you can edit everything you need within your website.

Even in corporate environments or industries that require compliance reviews, approvals, and other steps for specific content before it goes live, a CMS can be very helpful with those steps built in.

How does a CMS work?

At the highest level, a CMS works by giving you the power to influence the live content of your site through edit boxes, upload options, and other behind-the-scenes features.

When you edit text, you’ll do so in an edit box that often has similar functionality to a program like Microsoft Word. Some systems have more controls and options than others.

Whether you’re editing text, uploading images, or creating pages, you’re doing it through easy-to-use controls in the admin that make edits to the site’s databases and let you publish them to the live site.

This replaces the fact that a web developer makes the modifications directly in the code.

In some cases, if you don’t have the controls you want or need, you can have your developer or the platform itself add them.

In other cases, you may experience CMS limitations and may need to look at other options to land on the right platform for your overall site.

WordPress page editor exampleWordPress screenshot, October 2022

How many types of content management systems are there?

Types of content management systems include:

  • Content Websites.
  • Focused on the blog.
  • E-commerce and shopping cart.
  • Nonprofit.
  • Focused on industry-specific functionality (eg donations, ticketing, customer portals, etc.).
  • Online learning and development.
  • Open source.
  • Property.
  • Custom built and functionality.

Depending on the types of content you want your site to feature, the level of security you need, how integrated your site needs to be with back-end systems for fulfillment or customer access (e.g. online banking), or how flexible you want the content to be, you have options to find the right technology and CMS platform.

In addition, there are content management systems based on open source technologies or platforms (WordPress, Drupal, etc.), those that are built on closed platforms or SaaS-based products (Shopify, Wix, Squarespace, etc.). ), and opportunities to have your own custom CMS built.

Popular content management systems

Content management systems are in use on approximately 796 million websites.

The top 10 CMS by market share globally include:

Keep in mind that roughly two-thirds of all websites use a CMS.

This alone should validate the importance of a CMS for so many businesses and organizations around the world.

CMS Features

There are a number of specific content management features that are the main reasons why CMSs are so valuable, including:

  • Create pages.
  • Manage navigation.
  • Edit text.
  • Upload and manage images.
  • Upload and manage video content.
  • Manage product information.
  • Contact forms.
  • Blog content.
  • Management of styles and themes.
  • Analysis and reporting tools.
  • Boards.
  • SEO and marketing tools.
  • Integrations.
  • Content staging.
  • Approval processes.
  • private content.
  • Security and third-party support.

There are many more too.

Depending on what your top priorities are for your content management needs and the custom nature of those needs, you may want to prioritize some factors over others.

Should you build a CMS from scratch or use a popular system?

More than twenty years ago, your options would have been limited and you would probably have been considering a custom CMS as your best (or only) option.

The explosion of options and adoption rate of content management systems has changed the decision from “if” to “what kind” when planning a CMS.

In many cases, an open source CMS is better for content sites, shopping sites, and those that don’t need an unusual level of customization.

Even the open source CMS can provide many options to customize through plugins or custom code to create the necessary features, functionality and integrations.

However, if you have a very unique product, service, or web-based application, you may be better suited to creating a custom CMS.

Reasons may include lack of existing necessary open source technology, unique integration needs, unique client or user characteristics, or the need to limit access and have closed systems for security reasons.

Challenges companies face with CMS

CMS of all types (like almost all websites or web-connected interfaces) require specific monitoring and action to keep a site secure.

Custom code and the CMS can have code and database risks if not updated and maintained to anticipate known vulnerabilities.

Open source CMS can have a similar exposure with outdated cores, plugins and CMS versions, and without proper control to ensure versions are promptly updated and patched where possible.

Beyond security, there is also the potential challenge of having too many plugins, extensions, or add-ons to manage properly. Changing a setting in a plugin may break something elsewhere on the site, for example.

It can be a challenge to do proper QA and manage plugins and third-party aspects of a CMS.

Also, sometimes it can be difficult to scale in a CMS. Often creating a new feature requires removing old plugins and code and rebuilding, or the risk of having conflicts and not being able to get something to work as desired.

The best content management system

It’s hard for me to objectively tell you which is the best CMS.

As I stated earlier, the goal and my wish for you is to find the best one for your online presence and content needs.

The most popular CMS in the world is WordPress. It’s my favorite and the main technology my team uses to build websites, so you can tell if you disagree or think I’m biased.

What we have found with WordPress is that it is robust enough to do almost everything we need.

However, it is easy to use, allows for all the SEO optimization we need, and can be integrated with a wide range of other technologies. It has a higher ceiling than platforms like Squarespace, Wix, and more basic content management systems.

However, there is a place for lighter systems, just as there is a place for heavier, more enterprise-grade systems.

While WordPress is great for eCommerce with WooCommerce, there are reasons for some businesses to be on another eCommerce CMS, like Magento, or a lighter/easier to onboard platform like Shopify.

Once again, the “best” CMS is subjective. You’ll want to determine the right option in terms of features, functionality, scalability, ease of use, and cost for you and your digital presence needs.

Ultimately, you must weigh specific factors related to your situation:

  • How well the CMS is supported/updated (for open source or how it will be handled for customization).
  • The number of plugins or extensions available and/or you need to manage.
  • Hosted vs. self-hosted.
  • The cost of licenses, hosting, administration, and general ongoing maintenance, both short-term and ongoing.
  • Your ultimate goals and the return on investment the site can provide.
  • Opportunities and limitations for SEO, marketing, customization and scaling by specific systems.
  • Other unique aspects related to your business or organization.

The best CMS for marketing

When it comes to marketing, if you’re doing any type of digital marketing, you need to make sure that the CMS you select can support your campaigns.

Questions to ask include: How easy is it to create landing pages with this CMS? To integrate conversion and event tracking? To implement analytics? To do technical and on-page SEO?

If any of those things are important to you, be careful and select a platform that doesn’t limit you.

For example, I often find clients frustrated by the limits of the simplest content management systems who end up having to reinvest in a new site and platform (eg, migrating from Squarespace to WordPress).

This is what can happen when you don’t think far enough ahead or ask the right questions before fully building a site on a specific platform.


Understanding how content management systems work, why they are important to your business, and how to choose the right one for your business needs is very important.

Switching platforms after establishing your site and content can be time consuming and expensive.

I recommend going through a thorough process to determine which one is right for you and thinking both short term and long term so that you make the best investment and decision for your business.

More resources:

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