A marketer's guide to content management systems

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The evolution of content management systems
When I was in college (in the '90s), one of my operations classes talked about the magical potential of mass customization. The underlying principle of the class was the operational efficiency that customization brings to the production system. In the same way that customization streamlines the production process, a tailor-made content management system (CMS) can dramatically reduce the design and development costs incurred by even small changes to a company's site.

In an ideal world, organizations would have maximum customization capabilities without the risk of degrading the integrity of their site. However, typically as efficiency is maximized, its customization capability is inversely impacted. In reality, such a perfect system does not exist, and either integrity or customization must, to some extent, be sacrificed. Instead of arbitrarily compromising either trait, companies should consider the appropriate CMS philosophy that best suits their content management needs.

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) CMS

One of the biggest strengths of a SaaS CMS is the strength of infrastructure building blocks that are provided to the end user. Instead of requiring employees who aren't technologically savvy to alter the fundamental basis of the CMS, installing, configuring, and hosting the SaaS are managed through a SaaS firm or their hosting provider partner.

These systems also usually have a ton of tools and features for users to build and configure their site -- without requiring an in-depth understanding of the CMS. This makes it easy for non-technical users to get a site up and running quickly. It also makes it much easier for non-technical users to administer and manage the site.


  • Design constraints: Frequently, there are creative and/or usability constraints within the system. Obviously this has significant implications for ultimate control of the CMS, but some firms will sacrifice design and ease of use for efficiency. However, if conversion and usability are negatively impacted, efficiency accrued on the front end of the project is lost by ineffective marketing efforts post-launch.
  • Cost: It is often expensive and might include recurring fees.
  • SEO friendliness: Many don't have SEO-friendly features and output random nonsensical URLs.
  • Lack of control: With SaaS platforms, the source code isn't available. Hence, customizing the application is either very difficult or impossible. Lack of access to the source code can also prevent integration among online efforts, particularly when using multiple CMSs for different purposes.
  • Bad code output: Many of these systems output non-W3C-compliant code. This impacts cross-browser compatibility as well as search engine crawlability.
  • Lack of ownership: Often, you don't own your code or even your content. Migration is affected: It can be painful and/or virtually impossible.

Popular SaaS content management systems: A movement away from SaaS CMS platforms has emerged as a recent trend, however some have continued to enjoy success. Microsoft's SharePoint defied critics by remaining popular -- a particularly noteworthy feat given that many would argue it's not really a content management system. However, the fact is that its user management is powered by active directory appeals to many corporations. The line between hosting platforms and content management systems is likely to continue to blur, given SharePoint's success.

Another emerging (or reemerging) SaaS CMS is CM4all. The most recent version is vastly improved and has attempted to increase its market share by partnering with hosting companies. Unlike SharePoint, the CM4all target audience is truly the small office/home office communities, allowing them to quickly and affordably launch a web presence.

Free/open source CMS

Over the past few years, free, open source CMS platforms generated the most buzz and adoption by a wide margin. Given that they are free, offered with extremely easy installation options, and are open source, it is easy to see why they have become increasingly popular with many people.
As an added bonus, once the sites are built, both tech-savvy and tech-less users can handle the administration and management.

Another advantage some of the most popular open source CMS platforms have is the ability to install themes. Assuming you can find a customizable theme appropriate for your organization, design costs and your project timeline can be dramatically reduced

Offering developers access to the source code enables code customization to meet their needs, and has seeded the theme/plug-in community, making adapting open source CMS far easier than its comparable SaaS counterpart. Moreover, "open source" means more than simply exposing the code. It is also a philosophy, and the open source connotation draws developers and users for reasons beyond functions or features.


  • Technical know-how requirements: Free/open source CMS platforms typically require a high level of technical acumen to customize, build, and modify plug-ins.
  • Limited customization: Despite the fact that the source code is exposed, the systems were built with a typical audience and/or functionality in mind. Even though customization is possible (with plug-ins and/or editing the code), sometimes it's easier to build exactly what you need, particularly for complex sites. El Caminos are cool and all, but most people either need a truck or a car.
  • Plug-in quality: There are thousands of plug-ins available for popular open source CMS systems, but they are not always of high quality; and since they are usually developed by individuals, there might not be any support available. You often have to download several similar plug-ins to find one that works well, or does close to what you want it to do. Even then, it might not be an exact match for your needs.
  • Blog-origin: This applies mostly to WordPress, but many organizations try to morph WordPress (which is a blog platform, technically) into a website CMS. This can done, and works well for simple sites. But as sites get more complex, WordPress can be an awkward solution.
  • Lack of support: Most open source CMSs rely on online forums and knowledge bases to provide support. Since the software is free, there is rarely someone knowledgeable you can contact to get useful support and assistance for your site. You're left to the mercy of forum posters and their willingness to help from the goodness of their hearts.

Popular, free/open source content management systems

WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal are the big stars of open source CMS platforms. Typically a user will purchase a hosting plan that supports the platform they want to use, but these are the three most frequently offered. Specialists have emerged to host particular platforms: Companies such as ANHosting (Drupal hosting) and Media Temple have earned their reputation by providing the best hosting available for their chosen platforms.



Troy Newport
Troy Newport August 25, 2011 at 11:27 AM

I found myself nodding in affirmation while reading your article. I was a little surprised there was no mention of DotNetNuke; we have found it to be a powerful solution and the core installation seems to be much more secure than a vast majority of open source CMS's out there. If your website is hacked and you can't restore your website to a checkpoint before it was hacked and then close the vulnerability, you may find yourself having a whole new website built.... Now if we could just find a CMS that prevents our clients from harming the design/marketing integrity of their website we would be in business!! :-)