What is a CMS, and how does it work?

It’s no secret that consumers prefer digital experiences to interact with their favorite brands and products. Consumers expect a deep level of personalization in these experiences that speaks directly to their wants and needs. From a business perspective, this requires extra resources to be directed toward providing customizable content and making updates across websites, apps, social, IoT, and emerging channels.

But inefficient content workflows, a lack of user-friendly content creation and publishing tools, and slow, costly development cycles have left marketing and IT teams without the resources necessary to quickly create quality content at scale.

The solution? A cloud-based experience where marketing and IT teams can collaborate and work together. The right content management system can help you create, manage, and deliver the digital experiences your audience cares about across all channels, devices, and apps.

Pairing marketing-friendly templates with developer-facing tools in the same platform allows teams to publish personalized, memorable content in record time. When you're equipped with the right tools, you’ll never miss an opportunity to connect with your customers.

In this guide to content management systems, you’ll learn about:

What is a content management system (CMS)?

A content management system (CMS) is a platform that allows users to build and manage digital properties, including websites and apps, and it enables multiple team members to create, edit, and publish content.

A critical aspect of any content management system is the ability for editors to make changes to digital content in real-time while viewing the experience in the format it’ll be published in. This allows creators to easily preview websites and apps as they are worked on. A CMS should also integrate directly with a company’s digital asset repository to centralize resources and streamline workflows.

If you’ve used a CMS before, you’ve probably noticed that each platform caters to specific audience needs. Some content management systems position themselves as website builders, while others deliver a full suite of creating, editing, and publishing features. Think marketing-friendly templates, drag-and-drop interfaces, and cloud-based architecture for secure “anywhere” management and scalability. What platform is best for your company depends on your team’s needs and content goals.

There are a lot of CMS options out there. Here’s a list of some of the more popular CMS offerings:

  1. Adobe Experience Manager Sites. Poised for businesses of any size, especially enterprise, Experience Manager Sites enables content scalability, automation, and personalization.

  2. WordPress. As the world’s largest open-source CMS, this option is most known for its article and blog publishing capabilities.

  3. Drupal. Considered a more complex open-source option than WordPress, Drupal provides pre-built themes and extensions.

  4. Joomla. Often cited as the middle ground between Drupal and WordPress, Joomla is better for large companies looking for complex functionality.

  5. Squarespace. Marketed as a website builder, Squarespace has clean, user-friendly design templates and drag-and-drop functionality but is not open-sourced.

  6. Wix. Similar to Squarespace, Wix works well for beginners without web development experience.

How a CMS works

Running a site without a CMS? You might be in for a major headache. From trying to edit highly technical, static web pages to waiting days for changes to go live, manually running a site takes up time that teams simply don’t have in today’s digital age. Teams need a system built to facilitate the ever-growing demand for a constant flow of personalized content.

To see how publishing content with a CMS works, let’s walk through an example using Experience Manager Sites.

Within Experience Manager Sites, you have the flexibility to choose between traditional, headless, or hybrid content delivery. You can structure, manage, and deliver content using template-driven authoring or GraphQL APIs. What does that mean, exactly? Content authors can easily find, add, edit, and manage new content within the same cloud-native structure that developers use to create personalization at scale.

For example, the quick site creation feature allows content authors to drag and drop editable components to their site pages, including text, images, and social media sharing blocks.

Once marketers have created the content, IT teams can leverage “headless” capabilities to deliver the content across multiple channels. When the content is decoupled from the presentation layer (the head), the content can be delivered in a channel-neutral format to power any channel — email, mobile app, webpage, social post, and more.

With Experience Manager Sites, the flow of content from the author to the audience simplifies the process into three simple steps:

1. Content authors make updates to the site content. The updates can be previewed, reviewed, and approved to be pushed live.

2. Content is published. The publication can be performed on-demand or scheduled for a future date.

3. Site visitors will see the changes reflected on the live site.

At its core, a content management system is made of two parts:

  1. The content management application (CMA) is the part of a CMS that allows your team to add in and manage content before going live on your site.
  1. The content delivery application (CDA) takes uploaded content found in the CMA and stores it on the backend, making it visible to site visitors.

How to find the best CMS: 4 key considerations

It’s important to remember that you shouldn’t feel pressured to change your business operations to fit a specific platform. You know your business needs best, and there’s a platform available to help you reach your content goals. Here are four things to consider as you begin your search:

  1. Your industry. Some content management systems offer features specific to business models and sectors, such as ecommerce and hospitality.
  1. Your company’s size. Have a large workforce? Look for a CMS built to handle a large volume of assets across large teams.
  1. Your team’s needs. It’s okay not to know every capability you need right away, but having a short list of critical features will help you narrow your CMS search. Are IT resources at capacity? Add marketing-friendly templates to your list. Need flexibility? Consider platforms that offer traditional, headless, and hybrid approaches. Looking for the most personalization possible? Make the ability to create customer profiles based on all available data a requirement in your search.
  1. Your desired level of support. No matter your level of expertise in all things content, consider the amount of support you may need as you get started with a CMS. Some platforms only provide a few FAQs, while others will provide lots of resources and customer support for you to leverage.

If you’re ready to start exploring CMS options, check out this blog on key criteria to evaluate.

Getting started with the right CMS

Delivering personalized content at scale can feel overwhelming for teams of any size. Plus, poor collaboration between marketing teams and developers due to technology constraints can come at the expense of company growth. That’s why it’s so essential to future-proof your content strategy with a flexible, agile CMS.

With a content management system like Adobe Experience Management Sites, providing personalized content in the moments that matter to your audiences can be a reality — no matter the size of your team.

With Experience Manager Sites, your team can:

Remember that short list of non-negotiable features we mentioned? That is the key to starting your CMS search with clarity. What will your company’s needs be as you continue to grow? How important is scalability powered by AI? Does your organization need an agile, cloud-native solution? What about delivering omnichannel content?

You know what your audience wants. Delivering it to them is another story. Finding the right CMS will ensure you can make experiences tailored to each customer.

See Adobe Experience Manager Sites in action.