What is a content management system (CMS) and how does it work?

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In today’s digital age, consumers crave personalized experiences when engaging with their favorite brands and products. They anticipate a high level of customization that caters to their unique preferences and requirements. From a business standpoint, this requires additional resources to generate adaptable content and implement updates across various platforms such as websites, apps, social media, IoT, and emerging channels.

However, inefficient content workflows, the absence of user-friendly tools for content creation and publishing, and slow, expensive development cycles have left marketing and IT teams without the resources needed to swiftly produce high-quality content on a large scale.

The answer? A cloud-based environment where marketing and IT teams can collaborate effectively. The appropriate content management system (CMS) can assist you in creating, managing, and delivering the digital experiences your audience values across all channels, devices, and apps. Marketers can generate content for these experiences without overloading developers with requests — because even minor tweaks and updates can accumulate into hours of unnecessary work.

Combining marketer-friendly templates with developer-oriented tools on the same platform enables teams to publish personalized, impactful content in an unprecedented timeframe. When you’re armed with the right technology, you’ll never miss a chance 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, or CMS, is a digital platform that enables users to construct and oversee digital properties such as websites and apps. It acts as a central hub for content stores while also allowing multiple team members to create, modify, and publish content.

One of the key features of a CMS is its ability to allow editors to make real-time edits to digital content while viewing the final format in which it will be published. This feature enables creators to preview websites and apps during the development process. Furthermore, a CMS should seamlessly integrate with a company’s digital asset repository to centralize resources and streamline workflows. This ensures all assets stay current to prevent duplication or rework and keep operations efficient.

How a CMS works

Managing a website without a CMS can be a daunting task. The challenges range from editing complex, static web pages to enduring long waits for updates to be implemented. This manual process can take up valuable time that teams can’t afford to waste in the fast-paced digital landscape. A system designed to meet the increasing demand for a steady stream of personalized content is a necessity.

To understand how a CMS facilitates content publishing, let’s use Adobe Experience Manager Sites as an example.

Adobe Experience Manager Sites offers the flexibility to opt for traditional, headless, or hybrid content delivery. You can organize, manage, and distribute content using template-based authoring or GraphQL APIs. This enables content creators to easily locate, add, modify, and manage new content within the same cloud-native structure that developers use to scale personalization. For instance, the quick site creation feature empowers content creators to drag and drop editable components onto their site pages, including text, images, and social media sharing blocks. All this can be done concurrently while developers are working on the backend.

Once the content is created by marketers, IT teams can use the “headless” capabilities to distribute the content across multiple channels. When the content is separated from the presentation layer (the head), it can be delivered in a channel-agnostic format to power any platform — whether email, mobile app, web page, social post, or other channels.

With Experience Manager Sites, the content flow from the author to the audience is simplified into three easy steps:

  1. Content creators update the site content. These updates can be previewed, reviewed, and approved for live publishing — across channels, if required.
  2. Content is published. This can be done instantly or scheduled for a future date.
  3. Site visitors see the changes reflected on the live site.

Fundamentally, a CMS includes two components:

  1. The content management application (CMA) is the CMS component that enables your team to add and manage content before it goes live on your site.
  2. The content delivery application (CDA) takes the content uploaded in the CMA and stores it on the back end, making it visible to site visitors.

Together, they handle all the technical aspects — like coding and database queries — so marketers can focus on the front-facing content that the audience sees. The days of manually filling blank HTML pages with code are over. With a visual content editor, marketers can easily customize the website’s appearance, modify text fonts, add illustrations and links, and drag and drop content fragments. This user-friendly approach allows marketers to achieve the desired look and feel that perfectly aligns with their brand identity and messaging objectives.

When you’re ready to share your content with the world, there’s no need to upload an HTML file to your server. The CDA seamlessly integrates the content you’ve created in the CMA. It takes care of assembling the underlying code and presents your content on the forward-facing parts of your website for visitors to enjoy. With a simple click of the “publish” button, your content appears exactly as you’d envisioned, without the need for any manual coding or technical complexities.

CMS benefits

Six benefits of a CMS and corresponding icons

Content management systems offer many benefits that extend beyond content creators and marketers, reaching across various business units, including IT teams. Let’s delve into the multifaceted advantages of a CMS.

1. Simplified content creation and publishing

A CMS’s user-friendly interface is one of its most significant benefits, making content creation and publishing a breeze. You don’t need to be a tech guru or a coding whiz to manage your website content or cross-channel experiences. With a CMS, creating and editing web pages, blog posts, articles, and other content types becomes a straightforward process. This leaves you free to concentrate on crafting high-quality, creative content, without the stress of web development technicalities. It also liberates developers to focus on more complex tasks, as they’re no longer inundated with a backlog of content updates.

2. Streamlined workflow and collaboration

A CMS acts as a centralized platform for businesses and teams authoring content, streamlining the entire workflow. It enables multiple users to collaborate effectively from any location, work concurrently on different website sections, and manage content approval processes. While marketers are busy creating content, developers can simultaneously add custom code. A CMS also assigns designated roles and permissions to content creators, editors, and administrators, ensuring everyone can contribute effectively while preserving content integrity.

3. Integrated search engine optimization (SEO) tools

In the competitive digital landscape, optimizing your website for search engines is vital to enhance visibility and attract organic traffic. Many CMS platforms come equipped with built-in SEO features or plugins that simplify the process of optimizing your content for search engines. From customizable meta tags and URLs to XML sitemaps and canonicalization, a CMS can bolster your website’s SEO performance, making it more discoverable to potential visitors.

4. Effective content organization and management

As your content needs grow, managing a large volume of content can become a daunting task. A CMS provides robust tools for content organization and management. You can categorize content using tags, labels, or metadata, making it easier to search, filter, and retrieve information when needed. A well-structured CMS also offers features such as content scheduling, version control, and archiving, enabling you to manage and update your content effectively over time.

5. Consistent branding and design

Maintaining a consistent brand image and design across your website and other channels is crucial for building a recognizable and professional online presence. A CMS offers templates, themes, and design elements that can be easily customized to align with your brand guidelines. By using predefined layouts and styles, you can ensure a consistent look and feel throughout your website and on content pushed to associated channels, reinforcing your brand identity and enhancing user experience.

6. Scalability and flexibility

A CMS empowers you to add new pages, sections, and functionalities without significant technical overhead. You can expand your website’s capabilities by integrating plugins, extensions, or modules provided by the CMS ecosystem. This flexibility allows you to adapt and scale your online presence as your business expands.

While every CMS has its unique selling points, they all aim to simplify the process of creating, managing, and publishing digital content. Some CMS platforms are designed as website builders, while others offer a comprehensive suite of features, including customizable templates, drag-and-drop interfaces, and cloud-based infrastructure for secure, scalable management.

Choosing the right CMS for your business depends on your team’s specific needs and content objectives. When assessing a CMS, look for the following key factors:

There’s a wide array of CMS platforms available. Here are some of the most popular ones:

Getting started with the right CMS

In the digital landscape, delivering personalized content at scale can be a daunting task, especially when collaboration between marketing and IT teams is hindered by technological limitations. This could potentially stifle your company’s growth. Hence, it’s crucial to future-proof your content strategy with a CMS that’s both agile and adaptable.

Adobe Experience Management Sites is a content management system that makes delivering personalized content to your audience in their most significant moments a reality, regardless of your team’s size.

With Experience Manager Sites, your team can:

Three benefits of a CMS and corresponding icons

Discover Adobe Experience Manager Sites in action.