No one wants to call their web developer every time they need a small change in their website’s content. And no one, including your web developer, likes to have to fool with File Transfer Protocol (FTP) when updating a website.
In the early days of the internet, before content management systems and content management software (CMS) (two ways to say the same thing), publishing to the web was kind of complicated.
I’ll spare you the whole “walked uphill both ways” spiel. Let’s just suffice it to say that a CMS allows anyone with a login to add, remove, or change a website’s content without any coding skills.
In this post I’ll offer:
- A brief explanation of what a CMS is
- Its core functionality
- Alternative types of similar software
- Who uses a CMS
- Some key considerations when choosing a CMS
- A quick overview of a few popular CMS options
Essential CMS functions and components
The two things every CMS will have is a WYSIWYG editor and FTP. A WYSIWYG editor looks and acts like a word processor (e.g., Google Docs or Microsoft Word).
FTP just means, when you’re done editing a page, all you have to do is press a button and it goes live on the web.
Beyond that, the vast majority of CMSs allow for multiple logins and permissions levels, meaning you can make users administrators, editors, and writers depending on what you want them to be able to see and change on the website.
Alternatives to a CMS
If you’re planning to start a business blog for the purpose of sales and marketing, you may want to choose content marketing software rather than a CMS. Content marketing software often has most of the functions of a CMS, but with several additional features.
Most content marketing software includes a shared editorial calendar so everyone knows which posts are due and when. Workflows make it easy to tell who is responsible for which task and what the next action on a piece is.
Some content marketing software will analyze your content for reading level, time it takes to read on average, and SEO. And many tools have built-in analytics dashboards that will let you know how your content is performing in terms of traffic and shares.
Here at Capterra, for example, until recently, we used Google Calendar along with a separate collaboration tool to manage our editorial calendar and workflows. Recently, we replaced those disparate systems with formal content marketing software, which provides a centralized location for an editorial calendar, workflows, and analytics.
Three other alternatives, which could be better options if your content is mostly for internal use or will be created and/or used by customer support teams, are: knowledge management software, document management software, and virtual data room software.
If the content you’re managing is for sales teams, check out sales enablement software.
4 Steps to Choosing a CMS
1. Decide what you need your website to do
Do you need a whole website, or just a blog? Free blogging software such as WordPress.com or Tumblr allow you to easily get up and running with zero coding. (Note: WordPress.com is not the same as WordPress.org, which is more full-featured CMS. I’ll explain more about WordPress.org below.)
If you see ecommerce in your future, you’ll either want to build your website on an ecommerce platform or pick a CMS that offers ecommerce capabilities, add-ons, plug-ins, or modules.
2. Decide what you want to pay for
Nothing in life is free. Sure, there are CMS options that don’t cost anything to use. But that also means you’ll have to take care of some things a paid option would include, such as hosting and tech support.
According to Eli the Computer Guy, most people will use a CMS for five years. It’s possible you’ll end up paying more in tech support and hosting trying to use a free CMS over that period than you would pay for a CMS that included those features. And don’t forget the pain-in-the-butt quotient of having to deal with multiple vendors.
Going back to ecommerce, if you’re using a free CMS, you’ll need to pay a third party to get an ecommerce store on your website.
You’ll also probably need to either pay someone to customize the look and feel of your website, buy a theme, or potentially both. The same goes for security, comment moderation, and so on and so forth.
Decide what functionality you need ahead of time, so you can estimate what the total cost will be including all necessary add-ons, plug-ins, and modules.
Here’s a great breakdown of what it costs to run a typical website.
3. Decide what features you need
Some features of a CMS include:
4. Decide who is going to set it up and maintain it
Many decision-makers who pore over reviews and features sets when choosing a CMS will then barely think about implementation and maintenance. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it can be costly.
When you’re installing and implementing software, some choices are easy to go back and change later. Some are more difficult. That’s why you want a vendor or third-party organization to help you implement your CMS in a way that fits your business processes and objectives. For instance, you want a CMS that is customized for your needs, but not so custom that it’s a nightmare to update and maintain.
“A bottom-drawer content management system implemented with care will often be much more useful than a top-drawer system pulled straight out of the box and shoved onto your server,” writes Rory Douglas for A List Apart.
When searching for a CMS, ask the vendor how the software is implemented. Is implementation part of what you’re paying for, or do you have to purchase it separately?
It’s the world’s most popular content management system, according to (possibly biased) winningwp.com. WordPress owns up to 60% of the content management software market and some estimate that it powers more than a quarter of all websites.
WordPress is very customizable, but it doesn’t offer a WYSIWYG editor on the design/CSS side. You’ll also have to buy your own hosting and your own domain name through a third-party service such as GoDaddy.
If you like the idea of an open-source, self-hosted CMS, check out this list of WordPress alternatives for more options.
Drupal is open-source content management software with an active developer community, tons of modules, image styles, taxonomy, comments, and configurations available in multiple languages. Capterra reviewers say Drupal is easy to use. One writes, “plenty of options are available for turnkey themes, and many third-party modules exist to rapidly turn Drupal into a solid framework for everything from ecommerce to social media aggregation to academic collaboration.”
However, noncoders should steer clear; Drupal is best for creating very customized websites. Another reviewer: “The only issue is that you need to have a good sense of what you’re doing with respect to MySQL and PHP in order to set it up and get going.”
Joomla is an open-source CMS that’s more customizable than WordPress. It allows you to easily create deep navigation for larger, more complex websites. It automatically creates SEO-friendly short links. It’s great for experienced bloggers who are comfortable with code.
dotCMS is a CMS for websites, intranets, mobile apps, and anything else with an internet connection. It pushes content to geographically distributed servers or CDNs. It’s geared toward large organizations that need customizable workflows and easy integration with marketing automation software, ecommerce platforms, CRMs, and ERPs.
Capterra reviewers like its flexibility, extensibility, and “powerful multitenant hosting for managing multiple websites.”
Hippo CMS has built-in analytics dashboards, so you can easily track which of your authors and pieces of content are converting best and run experiments to see which variants better achieve your business goals. However, based on feedback from Capterra user reviews, be sure your implementation partner knows what they’re doing.
Magnolia is a Java-based open-source CMS intended to help enterprises create and maintain multichannel, multilanguage, and multisite digital experiences. It’s also got a free Community Edition for smaller organizations. It focuses on offering high speeds, scalability, easy integration, and ease of use. Capterra reviewers appreciate the feature set and the “extensive set of well documented APIs.”
Takeaways and next steps
All right. So we’ve learned that the two essential CMS components are a WYSIWYG editor and FTP. There are lots of alternatives to a CMS, including:
- Content marketing software
- Knowledge management software
- Document management software
- Virtual data room software
- Sales enablement software
Once you’ve decided that you need a CMS, you need to decide:
1. What you need your website to do
2. What you want to pay for
3. What features you need
4. Who is going to set it up and maintain it
Once you’ve got all that figured out, check out our content management software directory to compare your choices. To weed out the other types of software that are hiding in the list, check the Web-Based, Permission Management, Rich Text Editor, Rule-Based Publishing, SEO Management, and Template Creation options.
Looking for Content Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Content Management software solutions.