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TL;DR

MarTechExec takeaway

"Marketers tend to think that picking a CMS is a just a one-and-done decision, then figure out down the line that they made a big mistake. A CMS is a big piece of an even bigger puzzle that supports our content strategy. CMSs have a lot to offer, but we have to look past the shiny tools and cool features and ask ourselves how this will help up reach our objectives. " – Lana K. Moore, Executive Editor at MarTechExec (@martechexec)

Definition

A Content Management System (CMS) is software used to create and manage website content. It simplifies website upkeep by giving the user front-end control and eliminating the need for a back-end developer.

Guiding principles

A good CMS is like a cross-country vehicle — functional, comfortable and reliable. For the sake of time, here are the “golden nuggets” of info you need for choosing a CMS:

Measure for fit

Your CMS should be equipped with the features you need, both now and for the long haul, without being weighed down by bells and whistles.

Find features that meet the needs of your company. Don’t fall victim to “shiny object syndrome.” Define exactly what you need and look for solutions that meet that criteria.

Make yourself comfortable

Like a hardy SUV, your CMS should get you where you want to go as smoothly as possible. In other words, it won’t give you leg cramps after a few hours on the road. It should also be able to grow with you as your family, aka team, expands.

Ensure that those working in the CMS are comfortable using it and understand it well. This will prevent careless mistakes down the line and make content creation an autonomous process.

Think five steps ahead

You choice of road trip ride shouldn’t break down every 100 miles or malfunction during normal, daily activity. Not unless you have a massive toolkit on hand and know how to use it.

Likewise, your CMS should support you down the road. Have a long-term content strategy and pinpoint what you will need from a CMS to accommodate it along the way.


What’s a Content Management System (CMS)?

A Content Management System (CMS) is software used to create and manage your organization’s content.

First and foremost, understand that the “content” managed by these tools refers to any type of digital file — Text, images, documents, videos, audio and so on.

The central goals of a CMS are unity and inclusivity, meaning your entire team has access to your content library and can navigate it without issue.

CMS terms to know

The CMS umbrella includes several subtypes. And while this master series addresses CMS as a whole, taking note of its variations now will come in handy when we dig into the details later on.

  • A Web CMS (WCMS) allows you to create and publish content to the web. Rather than coding a website from scratch, a WCMS gives you front-end control of your website’s content and design.
  • An Enterprise CMS (ECMS), also called Enterprise Content Management (ECM), allows you to streamline content-sharing across your enterprise organization. Some ECMS are hosted on an enterprise’s local server, while others (most?) are hosted remotely using a third-party solution.
  • A Mobile CMS (MCMS) is similar to a Web CMS, except that it focuses on mobile-first content. Some WCMS have mobile functionality built-in or can act like MCMS thanks to these nifty little things called plugins.
  • Plugins are smaller pieces of software that you can install — or "plug into" — an existing software. Plugins give you access to third-party services with the added convenience of integration.

A cruise down Memory Lane with CMS

Pre-CMS, the creation of websites — and the content on them — was left up to programmers who had extensive knowledge of HTML, PHP, Perl and similar languages. Marketers had an “outside looking in” view of their website, which meant miscommunication was common and the margin of error was large.

In an article for The Next Web, Viktor Marohnic commented on this nostalgic era and the implications it had for creators vs. users.

“At the time, you had to be an engineer to even think about creating a website,” he said. “If you wanted a website, you had to pay someone a lot of money to set it up for you. For us geeks, those were happy times, but the same cannot be said for end users.”

Come Y2K — AKA the “dot com” boom — the market had gained early iterations of CMSs like Joomla and Drupal, which Marohnic calls “ugly and limited.” Plus, these programs still required a base knowledge of code.

But to our good fortune, the days of developer-dependent CMSs would soon disappear.

More user-friendly CMSs like Squarespace and WIX came to market around 2010, allowing us to finally take the wheel of our marketing “vehicle” and navigate without a professional guide.

Today, over 1,300 solutions make up the CMS space. According to Capterra, the most popular CMSs — as determined by number of users — are as follows:

  1. Wordpress (Released 2003)
  2. Squarespace (Released 2004)
  3. Wix (Released 2006)
  4. Joomla! (Released 2005)
  5. Weebly (Released 2006)
  6. Concrete5 (Released 2003)
  7. OpenText (Released 1991)
  8. Kentico (Released 2006)
  9. LightCMS (Released 1998)
  10. Craft (Released 2015)

CMS in the here-and-now

The “modern” CMS aims to bridge the gap between what creators want and what users need. This means that the ideal website will be both easy to make and easy to consume.

Creator-driven aspects of the modern CMS

For creators, today’s CMSs simplify a multitude of processes, like:

  • Creating and formatting content
  • Storing content in an accessible place
  • Collaborating with the creative team using individual user accounts
  • Organizing content through categorization and tagging
  • Increasing reach by delivering content using APIs

CMS-based content also benefits the end user in that it:

  • Contributes to a consistent web experience across devices
  • Is easily shareable to other platforms
  • Creates a more personalized web experiences through target marketing
  • Makes your website search-engine friendly and therefore easier to find

This might seem like a stretch — a lofty goal. It is, to an extent. And that’s why modern marketers often have a love-hate relationship with their CMS.

Why people love their CMS

CMSs boast numerous benefits — especially for the not-so-tech-savvy. In fact, 26 percent of marketers said website management is their top marketing challenge.

But regardless how tech-savvy you are, using a CMS is advantageous choice for a number of reasons.

Quick and easy customization

Eliminating the middleman from content management opens up dozens of doors for marketers.

Unlike static websites, on which each page was coded individually by a developer, CMSs use a simple “one and done” system for adding custom code — a system that anyone with the slightest bit of web smarts will easily pick up on.

Any code you add will translate across your website, drastically reducing the margin of error that comes from hours of manual coding. This screenshot from Webflow offers a great example of what front-end coding looks like in a CMS.

Train without going insane

U.S. digital marketers and media practitioners spend more than a fifth of their time training existing staff on emerging marketing practices.

Because CMSs replace the need for in-house coding skills, they naturally appeal to the Average Jane and Joe. You’ll navigate a CMS in much the same way you would navigate and post to your personal Facebook or LinkedIn account.

Click. Type. Save. Done. And this translates to much less training on your part.

Workflows that work for you

The workflow functionality of CMSs “manages the publishing tasks in your CMS — from adding or editing content to publishing content.” Merged with your content strategy, your CMS’s systemized editorial process keeps your content fresh — and your search rank higher.

According to eMarketer, formal workflows are among the top three CMS structures used by content marketers.

SEO functionality at your fingertips

Because customization happens on the front-end of a CMS, optimizing for SEO is a straightforward process. SearchEngineLand advises checking any potential CMS against a list of SEO requirements, such as:

  • Hosting on a dedicated IP
  • Support for basic mobile-friendly viewport features
  • Automated XML Sitemap production
  • Customizable meta tags, title tags, URLs and content headers
  • Support for navigation rendered in plain HTML

Content-sharing anytime, anywhere

CMSs contain central content repositories, which IBM describes as being “the key source for collaboration, ediscovery, email archiving, records retention, case management and more.” Think of it like a local server that your office works in — Files, folders, content galore.

The difference, of course, is that CMSs are web-based. Any of your team members in any part of the globe can access your CMS, so long as they have an internet connection.

Why people hate their CMS

There’s no shortage of challenges when it comes to putting a CMS into practice.

According to eMarketer, only 18 percent of B2B marketing decision-makers are happy with their content management methods.

So, what’s standing in the way?

Discrepancies in wants vs. needs

By nature, all marketers are somewhat biased. Thinking we know what our target audience wants is an example of the availability heuristic at work. This bias “relies on immediate examples that come to mind when evaluating a specific idea or plan.”

And CMS vendors fall victim to the same bias when selling to us, evidenced by the fact that 41 percent of worldwide WCMS vendors struggle to implement the marketing features their customers want. They don’t know what they don’t know. And sometimes, neither do we.

Discrepancies like these lead us to settle for solutions that don’t meet our needs, either due to lack of useful features or an abundance of useless ones.

Power without practicality

Another side effect of an uninformed or downright shady vendor is failure to explain just how much work is required of their CMS — both in terms of big maintenance issues and everyday use. Flash and flair means nothing if the basic functionality isn’t there.

In fact, 52 percent of B2B marketers said their content goes unused because their sales team doesn’t know how to find it. And regarding content they do use, 38 percent said they can’t differentiate what works from what doesn’t.

Mediocre for mobile

As CMS Myth explains, “most modern web content management systems have been organized around web publishing, not the management of content independent of channel or presentation layer.”

And where does that leave us? One step behind the mobile revolution — trudging through the muck of mobile-ready, mobile-responsive, mobile-first nonsense.

Adaptive design is the latest iteration. It follows the principle that web experiences should be tailored to each individual device, as illustrated below.

But all the variations of mobile web design have different effects on CX, SEO and site speed. Of course, this doesn’t make our jobs any easier.

How do you choose the right CMS?

No two CMSs are the same — It’s a blessing and a curse. More options mean more opportunities to find a solution that fits our needs. But too many options can leave us feeling indecisive, overwhelmed and confused.

This decision-making debacle has been aptly dubbed “analysis paralysis.”

Follow these tips to sort through the noise and keep a clear head as you shop for a CMS.

Develop a CMS strategy

When asked what brands should keep in mind when choosing a CMS, Kevin Lee, Co-founder of Didit, said features are key.

“The challenge here isn’t choosing the right tool, but rather choosing what features to activate within that tool,” Lee said. “If a brand is being aggressive in monetizing a page, they might need to invest more heavily in off-page ranking factors to counterbalance that. Choosing a content management system that provides flexibility is important.”

That said, the first step to making a smart investment is to define exactly what you need in your CMS. Then, look for solutions that meet that criteria — Don’t fall victim to “shiny object syndrome.”

Put on your audience glasses

You can’t give your target audience the web experience they want if you know nothing about them to begin with. Think about it: Are you really investing in a CMS for yourself?

If so, you’re in the wrong business. But if you recognize that the ultimate goal of a CMS is to attract business, you know the customer is always right.

Make testing and research a priority, both before and during your CMS evaluations. A/B tests, heat maps and user surveys will illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of your CMS in creating a great web experience.

Take it for a test drive

Take a guess: What do US marketers consider their top martech investments?

Websites rank first, and content management ranks second. The pressure is on to make sure your CMS investment is a smart one — one that meets your company’s needs, satisfies your customers and scales with your business over time.

So, don’t make your CMS an impulse buy. Bring your marketing team in on the decision, along with anyone else you would expect to use your CMS in the foreseeable future.

Check out this CMS Buyer’s Guide from SoftwareAdvice for a price comparison of over 70 popular CMSs.

How can we expect CMSs to change over the next 3-5 years?

In lieu of a martech crystal ball, we turn to current trends for insights into the future of our field. And that's exactly what we asked these CMS experts to do.

So, what CMS changes are on the horizon? Allow them to explain.

Even more integration possibilities

“With the explosion of digital experiences across devices, operating systems, and channels, CMS technology will evolve to become more open and API driven. Content Management systems trying to keep pace with an infinite number of content sources, content destinations, and integrations will need to adopt open API-driven frameworks like WordPress in order to allow organizations to set the direction and pace of innovation for their digital experiences. Marketers using closed or proprietary CMS systems will struggle to keep pace with the speed of digital transformation as they must rely on the velocity and capacity of the CMS provider’s engineering group to deploy new features and integrations.” – David Vogelpohl, Vice President of Web Strategy at WP Engine

“CMS will allow for greater integration with experience management tools such as Adobe Target, Optimizely, NetResults, others. Experiences will be dynamically driven by behavior and not based on "baked" personas. To the extent possible, the user or the household will receive an experience tailored to their wants, interests, and needs and we will move away from browser-based experiences.” – Dionisios Favatas, Digital Managing Director at Truth Initiative

"I expect to see more cross-platform collaboration and more and more options and facilities integrated directly into the CMS. While CMSs are still far away from being a one-stop-shop for marketers, they have already begun to offer advanced analytics options and reporting tools. These are part of the support marketers need in order to ensure a seamless experience to their customers, irrespective of the channel they use." – Adriana Tica, CEO at Idunn

Automation will take content creation and testing off marketers’ plates

“The advances in enterprise cloud software development make such a disruption possible at an unprecedented level. Instead of requiring software development knowledge, you could just log in to your website, and change it. As the enterprise world continues to adopt these technologies, it may even be possible to integrate your CMS with your Enterprise Resource Planning systems with the click of a button, giving business analysts, marketers and designers direct access to a wide range of company data.” – Robby Emmert, Software Developer at CQL Corp

“CMSs will become A LOT more intelligent in the coming years. They will be able to perform complex analytics, predict user behavior and adapt the user experience with bespoke, personalized content. For example, they will be able to suggest optimal SEO metadata, relevant search keywords, check licensing of images or other media files used, provide highly customized help and recommendations. Etc.” – Gal Oppenheimer, Senior Product Manager at Built.io

Marketers will embrace new creative opportunities

“Solutions will make it fast and easy for anyone to add interactivity with zero coding skills. Quiz responses, polls, add to cart buttons, and “choose your own adventure” or branching features and other viewer controls will proliferate – and deliver far more data about user interest than simple click-through rates. Web managers will pivot their view of video from a lean-back viewing option to something that drives engagement, saves customer time, and show teams how to better users and expedite their path to a conversion outcome.” – Kyle Morton, Chief Product Officer at HapYak

“Today’s CMS platforms may claim to be modular, allowing designers to build with unlimited control – but all too often, the CMS calls the shots, and not the other way around. The “cookie cutter” template continues to be the status quo, and that limits forward-thinking brands from realizing their most interactive and immersive ideas online. In the web experience toolset of tomorrow, designers and marketers will become true “experience explorers,” accessing unlimited freedom and control around design.” – Matt Garrepy, Chief Digital Officer at Solodev

Final thoughts

Choosing a CMS isn’t as simple as your vendor or marketing blogs may say

It’s a huge investment that requires careful consideration for not just your team, not just your business, and not just your audience. There’s a lot at stake, and the choice shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Focus on your business’s needs first and foremost. Take your time, consider all the variables and remember your guiding principles. While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, there are bound to be numerous options that fit your needs.