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What is a CMS and how does it work?

photo of wordpress cms
(Image credit: Photo by Striving Blogger on Unsplash)

What is a CMS?

A content management system (CMS) is a program or software platform that will to help you manage your website and its content. A is CMS almost always included with a website builder.

What does a CMS do? 

A CMS is designed to help you streamline content management and publication, enabling you to create a high-quality website with minimal technical knowledge. Some of the main things a CMS does are listed below.

  • A quality CMS, such as WordPress.org, enables you to create written and visual content, saving it as a draft until you’re ready to publish it to your website.
  • Using a CMS to manage a website enables those with minimal web development or tech knowledge to add new content and make other updates.
  • A modern CMS will include an intuitive and fully searchable content storage system to streamline management.
  • Usually, a CMS will contain workflow management tools, enabling you to assign roles and permissions to different team members. 
  • Many CMS contain analytics and reporting tools, enabling you to keep track of your visitor numbers, where visitors are coming from, and how they’re interacting with your site. 

Diagram of devices uploading content to the cloud

A CMS enables streamlined content management. (Image credit: Pixabay)

How departments can use a CMS

A CMS may be used by any department within a company, but it’s most relevant to the IT and Marketing departments. These are the two that are most likely to be making changes to some part of a website and its design. 

IT

Your IT department will usually be responsible for the technical management of your website. Because of this, the team will need access to your CMS so they can configure technical settings and optimize your site’s code. 

In addition, members of your IT department will usually be in charge of ensuring your website works properly. If errors arise, they will need to be dealt with in a timely manner, which will nearly always involve some sort of CMS access. 

In some cases, the IT department will be in charge of implementing changes requested by the marketing department. This is especially true when these changes are related to back-end site optimization, advanced coding, or technical performance and/or security changes. 

Marketing

In general, your marketing department will be tasked with content creation and management, which means that it will need full access to your CMS. In general, SEO and other marketing team members will need full access to your CMS to implement their strategies. 

Now, it’s important to understand that using a high-quality CMS such as WordPress.org will make things significantly easier for your marketing team. With a range of integrated tools at their fingertips, your team will be able to add high-quality content that will bring value to your audience. 

What’s more, these tools will be available in the front end of your CMS, which means that little technical knowledge is required on the part of your marketing team. 

In addition, a CMS can contain numerous data collection and monitoring tools that can be used to gauge the success of your marketing efforts. Things like audience acquisition, visitor location, bounce rate, and other important metrics can be monitored to drive informed marketing decisions.

Features and benefits of a CMS

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CMS come with content creation and editing tools
One of the key features of a CMS is its content creation and management tools. With these, you will generally be able to create your own custom content in a simple manner that requires no coding or code knowledge. 

Your content can be saved as a draft for use at a later date, published immediately, or scheduled for publication at a later date. Previously published content can be edited or removed if required, and you should have the ability to categorize content to make it easier for both you and your audience to find. 

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Many CMS include site creation options
A large percentage of modern CMS include full site creation tools, including an editor, templates, and various integrations. A great example of this is WordPress, which is backed by the power of an advanced editor, thousands of free and premium themes, and thousands of plugins. 

In strict terms, CMS differ from website builders due to their flexibility and focus on content management. Website builders can be thought of as a type of CMS, but they tend to confine you to using the built-in software and come with much fewer management tools. 

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Security tools are usually built in
Many CMS come with a suite of built-in security integrations and automatic updates. These tools will vary depending on the platform you use,  but they can include things like DDoS protection, two-factor authentication, and the ability to specify user permissions. 

Using a reputable platform will help you ensure that your content, data, and everything else associated with your site is safe at all times. In some cases, you will be able to add enhanced security in the form of a plugin or integration with your CMS. 

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A CMS will enable you to set user permissions
If you manage a large content creation team, you will love any CMS that enables you to set clear user and access permissions. With these, you can specify exactly who can perform what actions. 

For example, you might like to give your authors the ability to write and edit content without being able to publish it. Editors may be given full publication permissions, and IT staff can be given permissions that enable them to change the technical configuration of your site. 

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You will benefit from analytics and reporting tools
Most CMS come with some form of analytics and reporting tools. These are often built into the platform, but they can also be added in the form of plugins, extensions, and third-party integrations.

One of the leading benefits of these tools is the insights they provide. By understanding audience demographics, you will be able to make informed marketing and business decisions based on cold, hard data.  

How much does a CMS cost? 

The cost of a CMS can vary significantly. Open-source options such as WordPress.org are 100% free forever. This makes them very popular options, which further drives development and has led to WordPress becoming the world’s leading CMS.

That said, if you do go down the WordPress route, then you will likely need to buy web hosting from a specialist provider. You can host a website yourself, and there are free options out there, but we strongly recommend using a paid provider. We go into more detail on why this is important in our article: What is web hosting?

Other platforms, such as HubSpot’s proprietary CMS Hub, are available with monthly or annual subscription fees. These can range from tens to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month. The main advantages of using paid CMS like this is that they usually come with benefits, such as some sort of technical management, built-in hosting, and more advanced security managed by the CMS provider rather than business users. 

The third option is creating a custom CMS specifically for your business. This involves full design, development, technical implementation, and deployment, and the end result is a platform that’s tailored exactly to your needs. In advanced cases, costs here can stretch to tens of thousands of dollars. 

analytics displayed on a laptop

CMS usually come with tools for data collection and analytics. (Image credit: Photo by Carlos Muza on Unsplash)

CMS FAQ

What is the purpose of using a CMS?

In short, a CMS is designed to streamline website creation, content creation, and ongoing management processes. Most website owners use some sort of CMS in the modern world, as it’s simply counterproductive not to. 

Different CMS come with somewhat different purposes. Some are built purely for content management, enabling you to push articles and other content to your website or other platforms via an API link between your site and your CMS. Others boast the full package, sometimes going so far as to include built-in web hosting, technical management, and more. 

What are the key features of a CMS?

The most important thing to look at in a CMS is its content management tools. This may include looking at how easy it is to create, edit, and post content, along with the level of flexibility on offer. 

Ensure that your CMS has some sort of automatic responsiveness built in, or else your content won’t automatically render in the most appropriate way on different devices. Consider analytics, commerce, scalability, and, if required, multilingual support. Integrations with third-party platforms such as Facebook are also worth keeping in mind. 

Do I need a CMS?

In the strict sense of the word, no, your website doesn’t need a CMS. However, it’s almost always a good idea to use one, or else you will spend countless hours performing coding tasks just to be able to create and publish your work. 

Without a CMS, you will have to do everything manually, uploading every piece of content separately and modifying your code to fine-tune your design. Many CMS also come with extra tools, such as a website editor, user engagement tools, and various analytics and reporting integrations. 

So no, you don’t need a CMS, but we’d highly recommend using one. 

How do I create a CMS? 

Creating a custom CMS is something that’s best left to large companies and those with huge development budgets. There’s a significant amount of coding and development work involved, and you will almost always have to pay for assistance from a professional developer or team of developers. 

If you do decide to go ahead with creating your own CMS, you will need to understand the steps involved. First, you will need to sit down and figure out exactly what your CMS needs to look like. Create the appropriate back-end code, work on your front-end design, and ensure everything is organized in a logical manner. And then there are things like databases and PHP scripts to worry about.

Is WordPress a CMS?

WordPress dashboard

WordPress is a popular CMS. (Image credit: Pixabay)

Yes, WordPress.org is a CMS. It’s an open-source program that’s 100% free forever. WordPress.org is used by a huge percentage of the websites online today, and it remains one of the most powerful CMS available.  

It’s not to be confused with WordPress.com, though, a service which takes the WordPress CMS and couples it with a proprietary website builder, making it a much less flexible platform.

Main takeaways

  • A CMS can be a very useful tool that makes it easier to publish, monitor, and edit your website and its content. 
  • The price of a CMS can vary immensely, from free open-source programs such as WordPress.com to custom-built platforms, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. 
  • The IT and marketing departments of a company are the most likely to have direct contact with a CMS so they can optimize the site and take care of marketing and content creation. 
  • Different CMS come with different features, but all are designed to help you organize your content in a streamlined manner. 
  • Most CMS come with various website templates and a built-in site editor, enabling you to create a website with little or no coding experience. 

More on content management systems

If you would like to find out more about CMS and how one could benefit your business, you may want to read about the evolution of CMS in the modern world. Alternatively, find out what a headless CMS is and how to choose the right option. You might also like to discover how to build a website with WordPress

Daniel Blechynden

Daniel is a freelance copywriter with over six years experience writing for publications such as TechRadar, Tom’s Guide, and Hosting Review. He specializes in tech and finance, with a particular focus on website building, web hosting, and related fields.