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What is a Content Management System (CMS) | The Complete Guide

Getting down to basics — in its simplest terms — a CMS is a ‘system’ that ‘manages’ ‘content.’ Some define it as a software platform providing a collection of procedures used to manage workflow in a collaborative milieu. It’s derivatives WCMS [Web Content Management System], Enterprise Content Management [ECM], Digital Asset Management [DAM], Headless & Decoupled Headless CMS are variations on a theme that have emerged as this technology has transitioned over last three decades.

The evolution of content, from Egyptian scribes to the technological advancement of the World Wide Web, has moved from the hands of a few to those of the masses. Today virtually anyone can create a webpage with limited technical know-how.

What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

A Content Management System [CMS] is a software platform that lets its users create, edit, archive, collaborate, report, publish, distribute and inform. Its Graphic User Interface (GUI) makes interacting with a website's database user friendly.

Websites use HTML (the Hypertext Markup Language) and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to create and design its pages. They are two of the essential core components to create Web pages. HTML provides the structure of the page, CSS the visual and aural layout.

A CMS allows users without any coding knowledge to amend, modify and edit content to websites using a WYSIWYG interface, an acronym for "what you see is what you get." The data entered into CMS software is stored in a database, which renders the web page via a template. The CSS of that page can then control the output.

In recent years, it has served up an alphabet soup of sorts, which at first blush is somewhat blurred, and confusing to decipher. However when separating the wheat from the chaff, there are some distinct differences pertaining to CMS, WSMS and ECM.


Once you become a bigger brand or organization, finding the right software for your company use case can be a little trickier. And so, the question remains: should you use a WCMS or CMS?

What is CMS?

CMS: Content management system is often considered a subset of WCMS and ECM. As noted above, CMS is software used for developing, editing, managing and pushing out content. A CMS works best with structured content, such as documents or database records, but it may also be used to manage content such as video and audio files.

What is ECM?

ECM: An ECM [enterprise content management] combines tools, such as software, with a strategy for incorporating an organization's business processes with its content. It can manage structured and unstructured content. An Enterprise Content Management System is when a company’s content strategies, software, tools, and team intertwine together to manage content effectively.

What is WCMS?

WCMS: Web content management system is considered by most industry professionals to be a subset of a CMS. The line between a WCMS and ECMS is thin. The primary differentiating factor is that a WCMS is more applicable for web content, while an ECMS is refers to a holistic business processes.

How Does a CMS Work?

A CMS allows users to manage content from an internal user interface or dashboard. There are a good number of CMS software available with one-click installs. This facilitates and makes it easy for a non-technical marketer to use and navigate. Most of the top-rated CMS programs for smaller startups are open source and free.

This means you do not have to be proficient with other components of the CMS alphabet soup, namely JavaScript [programming language commonly used in web development,] HTML [Hypertext Markup Language,] CSS [Cascading Style Sheets,] PHP [Personal Home Page or hypertext processor,] and MySQL [an open source relational database management system based on the structure query language (SQL.)

Building a website with CMS is analogous to playing with Legos’ plastic bricks from our childhood. You can select what bricks work best to build your site. It allows you to write text and insert pictures and graphics directly from a control panel.

Websites are built with databases similar to Excel spreadsheets, with a secure and easy-to-use interface. With newer iterations, most CMS’s are managed and continuously updated as the web evolves.

New CMS web building platform options are numerous. The traditional option is WordPress. Wordpress is open source with multi-faceted features, templates, themes, and plugins and take no time to install and create live websites. WordPress is the de facto software used by approximately 75 million websites. It currently accounts for over a quarter of all websites. [However, WordPress has experienced recent vulnerability and security issues which is discussed below.]

Enterprise Level CMS | Everything You Need to Know

An Enterprise Level CMS requires vastly more than a standard CMS for smaller organizations. As a marketer or IT employee of an enterprise seeking a CMS, you have to make the whole team happy. IT requires security. Web development requires flexibility to create sites without limitations. Marketing requires a non-technical interface and software that will increase their conversions while allowing them to distribute content for campaigns quickly. There’s a handful of components that go into ECM to stay aware of during your exploration of Content Management Systems.

Enterprise Content Management is known as a collective term that represents the synchronized process, tools, and methodologies used to represent an enterprise’s strategy. As such, it delivers critical data to business stakeholders, inclusive of consumers and a company’s staff members.

ECM streamlines the lifecycle of data with document management and automates process workflows. The breakdown of an ECM includes five distinct components. The AIIM [Association for Information and Image Management] identifies the purpose of each as follows:

  • The Capture component involves creating information by converting paper documents into electronic formats, obtaining and collecting electronic files into a cohesive structure, and organizing information. Information can include invoices, contracts, research reports and more.
  • The Manage component connects, modifies and employs information through means such as document management, collaborative software, web content management and records management.
  • The Store component temporarily backs up frequently changing information in the short term within flexible folder structures to allow users to view or edit information.
  • The Preserve component backs up infrequently changing information in the medium and long term and is usually accomplished through records management features. It is commonly used to help organizations comply with government and other regulations.
  • The Deliver component provides clients and end users with requested information.

The streamlining efficacy of an ECM eliminates bottlenecks, optimizes security and minimizes cost, which results in increased productivity.

It’s incumbent on users of the enterprise to provide proper to manage content effectively. With ECMs, that content can be integrated with business intelligence and business analytics (BI/BA) applications, which helps in making informed business decisions.


7 Must HAVE CMS Features

  1. Security. 

The web continues to be risky terrain. Security attacks are far too common to jump onboard a standard CMS with little to protect your company data. Hackers today can essentially assume control over the look, feel and content of websites.

In 2017, WordPress uncovered a major vulnerability compromising thousands of their users’ websites. While WordPress of the security breach alerted users, unless companies took it upon themselves to make the appropriate changes, they remained in jeopardy. That threat prompted website users to look for alternative content management systems. The right WCMS will take care of security updates for you. Today it’s more important than ever to find a service that automatically pushes out updates when vulnerabilities present themselves.

Content creators and publishers should also consider platforms, which provide their clients with protection against DDoS attacks, as well as offering two-factor authentication to add additional layers of security. 

  1. Multilingual Functionality

TranslateMedia notes that more than 75% of Internet users don’t communicate in English and require content to be translated into their native language, or ‘localized.’ Additionally, global firms who cater to international clientele need their sites to be equipped with multiple translations.

So, to meet these goals, your CMS of choice should support the following multilingual capabilities:

  • Site architecture for global markets and languages. This will allow you to generate country sites that need to be translated locally, regionally or globally.
  • Ability to import/export text as XML or other standard formats. This will make working with your translation provider easier by allowing you to import and export text in a standardized format.
  • Full Unicode support. This ensures your website can display languages that require characters versus an English alphabet, such as Japanese or Arabic.

  1. Distributing Content

Addressing all digital touch points in today’s ever-changing communication landscape adds a security and omnichannel complexity. Going beyond hand-held devices, content needs to be appropriately formatted for the Internet of Things [IoT], Augmented Reality [AR], Artificial Intelligence [AI] and Virtual Reality [VR].

With all these device variables constantly in play, it’s incumbent on brands to proactively stay ahead of the curve to also provide omnichannel customer service. The most direct way to do that is to use headless CMS or its more user-friendly hybrid variant called decoupled CMS, which is favored by enterprises with marketing team. 

  1. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Tools

Search Engine Optimization is an essential component of CMS, WCMS and ECMS. Search Engine Watch has identified the most important elements to look for when considering CMS through SEO-friendly eyes:

  • Must be able to customize page titles & meta-data
  • Drop-down navigation needs to be built into the CSS
  • Assuring SEO-friendly URL
  • Consolidate duplicate URLs with a rel=canonical tag
  • Should have a XML Sitemap Creation Function
  • Should not use or rely on frames for content display
  • Should include 301 Redirects, not 302
  • Supports pagination with rel=“next” and rel=“prev”
  • Mandatory to have alt tags
  • Include breadcrumb navigation
  • Supports fast page load times

  1. Fast Customer Support

Gartner Peer Insights is a great resource for determining if current or past clients enjoyed working with customer service for a software company. You can viewZesty.io’s CMS reviews on Gartner Peer Insights too. The best Web Content Management Software products are determined by customer satisfaction. Gartner Peer Insights allows the user to view review by company, job description, and rating. Seek out user reviews that give your team peace of mind before you purchase.

  1. Responsive Mobile

Users don’t need a “mobile-version” of their website to be “mobile-friendly.” The proper CMS can adapt your current website to any device or IoT with responsive design. This approach addresses the need to provide, optimize and tailor the viewing experience based on the capabilities and constraints of the device and its screen size.

The technology you use to create responsive design is CSS3. This is the latest evolution of the Cascading Style Sheets language, which improved upon CSS2, its previous iteration. CSS3 brings a lot of long-awaited innovation, such as rounded corners, animations, shadows as well new layouts with multi-columns and grids. Responsive design also optimizes a website with drag-and-drop layouts and other responsive rule sets.

  1. Seamless Integrations

In the early days of CMS, our content creation functioned in silos. Today, mobile CMS requires a seamless sharing and WYSIWYG. It needs to be component-based so any publisher can deliver a rich, touch-enabled experience for every screen. Seamless integration now allows for monetization to go native and live within the CMS.


What are the different types of Content Management Systems?

Traditional CMS: Traditional CMS is only one option of a few. Digital evolution moves at lightning speed. Decades are eons. Traditional CMS has only been around 30 years. Over that time, other forms of content management systems have emerged.

What’s a coupled or traditional CMS?

Traditional architectures attach the backend to the frontend of a website. The CMS backend management is bound within the same system that delivers the content, or frontend.

In essence, this means that editors writing and publishing in the backend of a website are working on the portion of the website visitors are going to view. Additionally, all of the website design and customization applications are stored in the backend as well.

A traditional CMS incorporates the following key features:

  • A front end that displays published content on HTML pages
  • A content management backend where content is created
  • A database where content is stored
  • An application in which publishers and designers create and apply design schemas, which lives within the content management backend]

What is a Decoupled CMS?

Decoupled CMS architecture divides the backend and frontend management of a website into two disparate systems. In a decoupled CMS, the content management system (backend) operates separately from the delivery component (frontend). This translates to when content is created and edited in the backend of a website, it is transmitted via an API and published in the separate frontend system.

In other words, a decoupled CMS allows the technical employees in your organization to develop and create with flexibility, without forcing marketers to use a software that’s too technical. A decoupled CMS is a recipe for making all parties happy.

A decoupled CMS consists of:

  • A content-publishing frontend that is predetermined and connected to the content management backend via an API
  • A database where content is stored
  • An admin interface comprised of an application that allows editors to create and manage content easily (depending on the platform)
  • Can publish content to any device

What is a Headless CMS?

Headless CMS architecture is similar to decoupled CMS architecture, but lacks a defined frontend system in which to publish. Many developers love a completely headless CMS, but it can hurt marketing efforts. In a headless CMS environment, the system has lite content management and editorial capabilities but then publishes to a web-service or API that can transmit content to any system with Internet access. As a result, a headless CMS can publish the same content to a website, an app, a wearable device or any device connected via Internet of Things (IoT) because the content isn’t bound by a predetermined content structure.

A headless CMS is comprised of:

  • A content management backend
  • An API
  • Does not have a predetermined content publishing frontend and can publish to any device connected via IoT

So what CMS platform is the public favoring going forward? Many CMS platforms no longer need to rely on IT for design, development and content deployment. A Decoupled Web Content Management system can empower marketing to work independently and gives them the ability to create once and deploy it anywhere.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Content Management Systems

How to choose a CMS for building microsites?

If you have a specific campaign or content publishing effort coming up, a microsite might be the answer to test the waters and build a client-base. In essence, a microsite is small website [in many instances, a one-pager] that can pack a big punch in capturing leads, building loyalty, spreading your marketing message and creating a buzz around a specific topic.

So when looking for a CMS that can help build microsites, seek out one that addresses these key features:

  • Up and running in minutes
  • Cost effective
  • Ease of publishing, preferably with one to two clicks.\
  • Permits fast content editing
  • Streamlines the review process to obtain content changes quickly
  • Offers a robust infrastructure that scale to meet growth and large bumps in traffic

What’s the key difference between WCMS vs CMS?

A content management system [CMS] is software application or set of related programs used to create and manage digital content. A subsection of Content Management is Web Content Management or WCM. A WCMS is a program that helps in maintaining, controlling, changing and reassembling the content on a webpage. They differ from the traditional CMS in that they need less IT personnel to work on servers, update software and prepare for scale.

What are the best CMS platforms for marketing?

There is a good number of CMS offerings available for various uses. Here’s a closer look at two:

  • Zesty.io. -- Larger companies in need of a WCMS look to decoupled options like Zesty. Our platform is loved by marketers and approved by IT. This is a great option for Enterprises who need to push content out and need the security standards other options can’t provide. Zesty.io also compliments tech savvy benefits with social media integrations and other marketing tools to increase engagement on your site.
  • WordPress -- A free and open source WCMS based on PHP and MySQL. WordPress can be utilized as part of an Internet hosting service (WordPress.com), or it can be deployed on a local computer to act as its own web server (WordPress.org). It is immensely popular amongst the blogging community and was initially created for bloggers. There’s a lot of negatives because of that. It’s not the most suitable CMS for enterprises, but startups love it!

Will a CMS eliminate the need for hiring a web developer?

Not necessarily. While most of the CMS platforms in the market today provide the marketer with a greater ability to DIY, there are areas where programming knowledge may be required. The goal of your enterprise should be to find a software that limits any bottlenecks that keep marketers from moving fast with content on your site.

While Zesty.io and other CMS platforms provide the inexperienced with a number of templates for styling and site design, database creation and basic knowledge of stylesheets might require an experienced programmer.

CMS Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Recommendations

SEO [search engine optimization] is key to increasing traffic to a website.

For your Search Engine Result Pages [SERP] to rank high on Google and other search engines, you need to put forth a major SEO effort. This is why many WCMS (Web Content Management System) vendors include support for SEO by automating some of the processes involved with optimizing a page.

The SEO elements of the greatest concern fall into three major categories:

  1. Content: If you’ve ever heard the phrase “content is king,” content is what it’s all about for search engines. Good content needs to be relevant, fresh [not dated] and must contain a sufficient number of well-selected keywords.
  2. Architecture: ‘Crawlability’ allows for a website to be indexed by the search engines. If a page can’t be crawled, the search engines won’t index it. All pages need to be accessible by links – and a sitemap listing all relevant pages will improve your searchability. 
  3. HTML: Hypertext Markup Language is the format for which a webpage is offered to the web browser and the search engines. So, it’s incumbent on this format to be compliant with current web standards. This means the title, the headers, the metadata and the alternative text description for images [alt attribute] need to be formatted properly for the best search results.

When you’re in your next WCMS demo, make sure to ask your representative to show you their SEO tools and how they work.


By Chloe Spilotro

Hooked onto the platform since first using it through the Zesty.io Incubator Program at the University of San Diego. Passionate about all things marketing, IoT, and helping businesses leverage technology to grow and become major players in their industries.

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