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Content Management Systems: An Introduction

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Content management systems

Publishers who have launched multiple sites on different online content management systems end up with valuable lessons about picking the right CMS.

Small businesses that want a strong marketing presence can take these lessons to heart in choosing what system to use.

Robust content sites need a CMS for several important reasons. A CMS will save staff time from coding pages, have rich functionality such as search and display consistent templates that don’t confuse site visitors.

From a marketing perspective, a good CMS makes it easier to implement search engine optimization, social media links, email signup forms and customer interaction functions.

It also makes it much easier for a small business to implement changes that affect many pages. The small business owner who manages a business and maintains the business website will find that simplicity is an important factor to consider in choosing a CMS.

What Are Content Management Systems?

A content management system allows a publisher or small business to post, edit, organize and display content on a website. The content is usually both text and images.

More advanced systems have other features called plugins, modules and extensions. They offer a wide variety of capabilities including such features as content search, polls, message boards, business directories, classifieds, site security, photo galleries, memberships, subscriptions, ecommerce and search engine optimization. Some of these capabilities come with the default system, some are free add-ons and some require extra money or effort to implement.

Plugins are simple capabilities while modules and extensions are more advanced. All three may be developed by the company that built the CMS or by outside developers.

Although content systems have many of the same features, they also tend to have different areas of emphasis. For example, some have great flexibility and others are more restrictive but easier to use.

Three types of CMS platforms are available: commercial, open source and customized. Commercial systems have fees ranging greatly depending on the size of the site, functional requirements, amount of technical support and other factors.

Free, open-source CMS platforms including Drupal, Joomla and WordPress come with no support other than community message boards. Dedicated support is often available for a monthly fee.

A custom system usually combines parts of other platforms, most often open source. Only large organizations with a dedicated technical staff have the ability to handle a custom CMS.

5 Important CMS Factors to Consider

Here are some primary considerations in making a choice among commercial, open source and customized systems:

  1. Price: balancing limited budgets with capabilities that grow audience and revenue
  2. Technical support: staff versus outsourced
  3. Training and documentation: strongest with commercial, inconsistent with open source
  4. Usability: Is it intuitive or easy to use for staff with limited technical skills?
  5. Productivity: Make sure the time savings in the long run exceed the effort needed to launch or maintain a site.

Commercial CMS Positives and Negatives


It is important to keep in mind that different content systems have different strengths and weaknesses.

On the positive side, a low cost commercial CMS is inexpensive and has some obligatory technical support through message boards. These less expensive systems are more suited for small or mid-sized sites.

They may have a rich set of site features that are especially good for content sites, including flexible templates, easy publishing, email newsletters and robust search. It requires little maintenance effort once the site is built.

On the negative side, flexible systems such as ExpressionEngine have more upfront labor. Sites that need flexibility in design will require many labor-intensive templates. This CMS has a unique tagging system on top of the standard HTML that is not intuitive.

Publishers with larger budgets and much larger sites can obviously buy more expensive systems and get much more capability and support. But I have known $1 million systems to fail as well. Each option has different rewards and risks.

Open Source CMS Positives and Negatives

In contrast, an open-source content management system such as Joomla, WordPress or Drupal is free and usually easy to set up and launch. They also have many add-ons created by other developers.

A publisher with strong technical people can customize an open-source system and develop their own modules and plugins. Many of these systems use MySQL and PHP scripting, both of which are heavily documented online.

But the negatives include possible security issues and no support other than community message boards. If something goes wrong, a publisher is painfully on his or her own.

Some members of the community will offer help in some situations and little to no help in others.

Customized CMS Positives and Negatives

Finally, a customized Web content management system has the greatest potential for giving publishers what they want exactly the way they want it.

This option is good only for publishers with a strong technical staff, plenty of time and plenty of patience while waiting for the new system to roll out.

But it has great upfront labor costs, and if the prime architect of the system leaves, the publisher is left with the difficult task of finding and training the replacement.

Even riskier, if the prime architecture makes some critical errors in the development stage, corrections may take even more time and labor.

Whatever the choice, a publisher must act carefully and thoughtfully in building or buying a content management system. Thorough testing is essential. So is plenty of patience and determination.


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