What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

Content is one of the main ways businesses interact with their customers. Regardless of the size of your company, a one-person venture or a large public enterprise, content is one of the most important drivers for acquiring and keeping customers.

Simply having content served up on a website is not enough anymore. Content has to demonstrate expertise, authority and trustworthiness. Content has to comply with EAT standards not just for the purpose of SEO, but for the benefit of your visitors, clients, and ultimately your business. Content has to exist with a purpose, it has to be useful!

Additionally, in a landscape of ever-expanding device variety and touchpoints, content needs to be optimized for personalization and omnichannel delivery. The tools we use to manage content need to meet these ever-growing demands.

Content doesn’t affect just marketing and authoring – it has become a core part of business and touches almost every department, including sales, customer support, merchandising, and IT/development.

And yet, 42% of companies indicated they don’t have the right technology to manage their content, and another 42% indicated they have acquired the technology but are not using it to its full potential (Content Marketing Institute).
Keep reading to dive into Content Management Systems options, key features, and advice on discovering which technology solution is best for your organization.


What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

A Content Management system (CMS) is software or an application that enables users to create, edit, collaborate, store, publish, and modify digital content with little to no coding knowledge required. It handles blog posts, eBooks, press releases, downloadable guides, and so on for websites, mobile applications, portals, and other online solutions to effectively help organizations control content and digital assets.

It is designed to make handling and modifying large amounts of content by multiple users easier through a friendly graphical user interface (GUI). Some of the core functions present in most CMSs are: indexing, search and retrieval, format management, revision control, and management.

Content in a CMS is typically stored in a database and displayed in a presentation layer based on a set of templates. If you further break down a Content Management System, there are two main parts that help create your website.
  • The content management application (CMA) allows marketers and content creators to work with content directly, without needing to involve the IT department.
  • The content delivery application (CDA) acts as the back-end portion of the website, taking the content that you enter into the templates and turning it into a working website or other deliverable that visitors from around the world can access.

5 Types of Content Management Systems

Historically, a Content Management System (CMS) was a software platform designed to simplify the tasks required to manage and publish content online — uploading content, formatting it for a webpage, and backstage tasks like improving SEO.

Over the last few decades, the variety and volume of digital content and assets has dramatically expanded along with new channels, interfaces, and devices. Content now requires omnichannel delivery and reuse: from smartphones to televisions, smartwatches, voice devices, traditional websites, mobile apps, and all for both external and internal use.

Due to this rapidly expanding digital ecosystem, the definition of a Content Management System has evolved. Thus, many businesses are now reassessing their CMS solution options.

Understanding the different types of CMS in the market is the first step to determining what will be best suited to meet the needs of your organization. 


Web Content Management System (WCMS)

This is the most commonly used application and as such CMS and WCMS are often used interchangeably. A Web Content Management System lets users specifically and exclusively manage web content:
  • Simplification: website content authoring, collaboration and administration through tools that help users with little knowledge of web programming or mark-up languages create and manage website content.
  • Personalization: A WCMS lets users customize a webpage with personalized design and content.
  • Automation: A WCMS saves time and improves workflow management by publishing content automatically.
  • Scalable: A scalable system like a WCMS allows companies to grow exponentially without worrying about website limitations.

Open-source Web Content Management System 

You can download open-source Content Management System (CMS) software at no initial cost for license or upgrade fees. Open-source CMS is a perfect choice when there is minimal integration needed with an enterprise system. The costs for deploying an open-source CMS are often limited to hosting and purchasing plugins for specific functionalities or premium features.

Examples of the top open-source CMS platforms include: 

Commercial Web Content Management System 

A single company builds and manages the commercial Content Management System software and all its modules or plugins, and you need to pay a license fee to use the CMS software. The commercial CMS software is usually ready-built for your business needs and is thus faster to implement than an open-source CMS. 

Examples of the top commercial CMS platforms include:

Custom Web Content Management System 

A custom Content Management System is an exclusive and branded solution. It can be developed in-house or by an outsourced development agency, but it is custom designed and built to your specific business needs. 

A custom solution can be developed from scratch or built on the framework of an open-source Content Management System, bridging the gap between an open-source CMS and a commercial CMS.

Pros: Being able to use a CMS that is tailor to specific needs.

Cons: Creating a CMS from the bottom up could require a lot of investment in time and money.

Component Content Management System (CCMS)

A CCMS manages content at a granular/component level rather than at the document level. Instead of managing content page by page, it takes phrases, paragraphs, or graphics (also known as “components”) and stores them in a central repository. Metadata can be applied to components to assist with findability and the components ability to be automatically assembled for omnichannel delivery.

Some of the benefits are:
  • Reusability: Content reuse within a CCMS saves time during the writing, editing, and publishing phase, and significantly reduces translation costs.
  • Traceability: A CCMS enables you to track content versions in detail. You can see who did what, when, and where, resulting in greater consistency and accuracy.
  • Multichannel publishing: With a CCMS you can push content to multiple channels, including print, mobile, web, chatbots, embedded help, and more.
  • Enhanced Team Collaboration: Improve workflow for your content development team, especially those working remotely.
  • Operational benefits: a CCMS reduces content maintenance, translation and delivery costs

Open-source Component Content Management System 

Commercial Component Content Management System 

[A] is a Kentico, Sitecore, Heretto, and Contentful Partner and provides CCMS implementation and migration services for these and other enterprise level CMS.



Digital asset management system (DAM)

A DAM is a simple, centralized library system that facilitates the creation, management, organization, production and distribution of digital assets. While the term digital asset was traditionally used to refer to media files (audio recordings, photos and videos) it has expanded to encompass a variety of digital formats (fonts, logos, documents etc.). 

Working with a DAM includes: 
  • Centralized Repository: Content is safe and secure in one place.
  • Easily searchable: Digital assets are easily available to users by providing a searchable index that supports retrieval of assets by their content and/or metadata.
  • Effective Brand Management: A DAM allows you to manage a branded web portal for users to access important files.
  • Lifecycle management: Manages digital assets through their lifecycle, from various states such as creation, approval, publishing, archiving and deletion.
  • Digital Publishing: With a DAM, you can push digital content to third-party distribution services, social media channels, and more.

Enterprise Content Management System (ECM)

An ECM system extends the concept of Content Management by adding a timeline for each content item and enforcing processes for its creation, approval and distribution. This implies that files are archived or deleted after a certain retention period. 

An ECM encompasses:
  • Secure Centralized Repository: A secure repository for managed items, analogue or digital.
  • Flexible Content Management: Methods for importing and managing new items and several presentation methods to make items available for use.
  • Digital rights management (DRM): Capabilities to manage license rights as well as user role access/editing rights for digital content and assets.
  • Content supply chain management: Customizable content management workflows based on the processes and procedures of the enterprise for which it is created.

Electronic document management system (EDMS)

An electronic document management system (EDM) offers a paperless solution to manage, store, and track documents. Early systems were developed to deal with paper documents, which included not only printed and published documents, but also photographs, prints etc. Today, an EDM system provides an automated solution for uploading, processing, and sharing business documents without the hassle of printing, copying, or scanning.

The main advantages are:
  • Versatility: Manage any type of file format and encompass electronic documents, collaboration tools, security, workflow and auditing capabilities.
  • Flexibility: Store documents in their native file format
  • Security: A DMS offers many levels of security to ensure confidential content stays in the right hands.
  • Version Control: Document version control and content management prevents users from working on incorrect or outdated versions and ensures users have access to complete, up-to-date documentation.
  • The Mobile Advantage: With a document management system, you can access, approve, and edit documents remotely.

The differentiation between these systems is sometimes blurred and some systems can cover several functions of a CCMS, WCMS, or DAM. 

A CMS can be a stand-alone application, part of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution, be integrated with other systems such as a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) app, or even external tools such as Facebook through APIs.

It is important for your organization to fully analyze the goals you want to achieve and then determine a best fit based on those requirements.

Types of CMS architecture

Originally, the majority of CMS applications were monolithic in the sense that one application managed the content, the presentation layer, and the User Interface (UI) of the website. As such, the CMS was, and often still is, an efficient integrated application that allowed control of the content and website design in one place. This usually used a per-page Content Management System and a WYSIWYG interface that required little or no coding expertise.

As new customer channels and touchpoints emerged, content needed to be accessible and consistent on all channels and devices. Cross-departmental collaboration became even more important, and providing personalized contextual content became a focus.

In this increasingly competitive digital landscape, content delivery speed has also become a determining factor for customer satisfaction and loyalty, which in recent years has led to a growing movement away from traditional, monolithic CMS architecture towards more flexible configurations.

Traditional / Coupled CMS

In a traditional/coupled CMS, the back-end functions (like managing content and page layout and design) are coupled with the front-end function of rendering the final format on a screen. Everything is managed by one application layer, which is almost always page-based.

With a traditional CMS, users create and edit their content using a WYSIWYG or HTML editor and then the CMS displays the content according to the CSS used for layout.

In the past, most websites were created using this architecture. If you are looking to make a relatively simple marketing site, a traditional CMS is still a good choice for its simplicity. Some of the best known coupled systems include WordPress, Drupal, and Wix.


  • Simple setup and usage: Most traditional CMSs can be set up by anybody without programming knowledge or with very little dependency on developers. Using these systems is easy through a user-friendly interface.
  • Centralization: All components for content creation and publishing, as well as web design are centralized in one place.
  • Design flexibility at page level: Your container isn’t fixed – in terms of a desktop experience, it allows for customizable and resizable zones, and the ability to create unique presentations from dynamic content blocks.
  • Fast deployment: Any traditional coupled CMS offers a wide range of free and paid web design templates or themes as well as the ability to customize the front-end design.
  • Pricing: Traditional CMS have generally a very low cost and very clear pricing structure.


  • Website-only content: you won’t be able to seamlessly use the same content for mobile or IoT devices without APIs.
  • Limited creativity/personalization: since there is the dependency on the display layer, there's a limit to what kind of presentation and user experience you can provide.

Decoupled or Headless CMS

In a headless CMS, the front-end and back-end functions are decoupled. The term “headless” comes from the concept of chopping the “head” (the front end, i.e. the website) off the “body” (the back end, i.e. the content repository). 

A headless CMS is a back-end only Content Management System (CMS) built as a content repository that makes content accessible via a RESTful API or GraphQL API for display on any type of front-end/device.

The headless CMS includes a Graphic User Interface (GUI) to manage content but does not have the functionality of a web-builder as is the case for traditional CMSs.


  • Content First: A headless CMS comes with its own well-defined API, so authors can focus on creating content rather than managing content.
  • Multi-channel content delivery: Content and presentation are separated. Content can be plugged into any device and across any platform from a single backend.
  • Programming Flexibility: Developers can choose their favorite tools and frameworks to build different frontends. It creates a unique user experience.
  • Scalability and easy redesign: Since the backend and frontend are detached, there’s no need to redesign the whole system to make changes and upgrades. You can make customized digital assets and upgrade them without affecting the performance of the entire system. Or you can redesign the front-end without affecting the content.
  • Future-proof: APIs make it easy to integrate headless CMSs with existing technologies,, like apps, kiosks, virtual reality, as well as technologies that will appear in the future.


  • No content previews: Since the backend and frontend are detached, there’s no opportunity to easily preview content and page design before it goes live. To overcome this, you should use third-party tools.
  • Dependency on developers: Marketers have no visual tools for creating page layout by themselves, so they should work closely with developers.
  • Diverse Knowledge: Since frontend rendering must be handled with separate software in a headless CMS, developers have to be familiar with multiple codebases.
  • High costs: Implementation and maintenance are expensive because of the fragmented technological stack, the need for developers, and additional infrastructure requirements. This also means that an accurate cost assessment might be more difficult.

Hybrid Headless CMS

By 2022, 80% of digital experience platforms will be deployable in a hybrid headless fashion, according to Gartner.

A hybrid CMS is a headless, decoupled CMS with a front-end. It is a traditional, monolithic CMS that also has a Content-as-a-Service (CaaS) API, through which content can be accessed and delivered to multiple devices or channels throughout the customer journey.

While decoupled from the backend, a hybrid CMS includes a presentation layer similar to a traditional or coupled CMS at the same time using a headless architecture for delivery. A hybrid CMS is a “halfway” solution.

A headless-only model comes with certain risks and a high level of digital maturity; thus it is limited primarily to businesses that focus on using in-depth API skills to deliver streamlined digital experiences.

On the other hand, the hybrid headless CMS architecture allows a website to operate in two modes: in a pure headless mode or a traditional, coupled content delivery mode. 
Learn more Content-as-a-Service (CaaS):
Read the ‘What is Content-as-a-Service?’ article or,
Download the FREE ‘Guide to Creating Content-as-a-Service’

The future of CMS: Composable architectures

While we have monolithic coupled CMSs on one end of the CMS spectrum, on the other end we find Composable (or modular) architectures.

Composable (or modular) architecture means that every component is pluggable, scalable, and replaceable at any moment without affecting the other parts composing the application. It achieves this composability by integrating with 3rd party apps to fulfill specialized functions using API and/or Micro-services.

Composable Commerce focuses on packaging microservices together to solve business problems through Packaged Business Capabilities (PBCs), which can be categorized into feature verticals. 

Below you will find a small fraction of the thousands of composable commerce components that you can choose from and implement into your own business’ eCommerce and customer experience architecture.

In this ecosystem of composables, a CMS becomes just one of the many components designed for building fast, personalized multi-channel digital customer experiences. Enterprises now have the ability to select and deploy the best services to create customer experiences and orchestrate business processes that fit their exact requirements. 

Composable commerce is a term that was first introduced by Gartner in a report from June 2020. It was used to define a new digital approach to modular commerce. 

Composable commerce is a broad category that encompasses MACH and Jamstack architectures. Both API-first and cloud-native allow them to be highly extensible and flexible to easily integrate with external applications. This allows both architectures to integrate with the latest technologies and customer demands.

While both concepts help organizations deliver robust solutions, they are also different: 
  • MACH stands for Microservice-based, API-first, Cloud-native Headless architecture. MACH is a set of technology principles behind new, best-of-breed technology platforms. It focuses on identifying the right apps to buy and integrate into your technology stack. Having products that align with MACH gives you a highly scalable, modular and future-proof architecture. 

In contrast, Jamstack is a headless architecture that focuses on building fast and optimized websites by rendering static pages. 

  • Jamstack is short for JavaScript, APIs, and Markup, and allows for delivery of web applications with higher scalability, performance, and speed. It achieves this by creating dynamic pages and converting them into static pages using a Static Site Generator (SSG).

Although the differentiating feature of a JAMstack is the Static Site Generator (SSG), it also uses APIs to support a high degree of composability and extensibility.

5 steps in choosing a CMS

1. Determine Your Budget: 

For many businesses, the available budget is a major limitation that defines CMS options. Many small businesses with limited budgets will choose a traditional CMS because they cannot afford a headless solution and the additional cost for developers and ongoing support, or they may not need it. 

With budgets of $500-2,000 it is feasible to set up and maintain a WordPress or Wix website. Medium sized companies dependent on ecommerce might assign a budget of $5-20,000 for a Jamstack solution that allows flexible management of content and products, while taking advantage of the higher performance, and API integration with 3rd party functionalities such as authentication, payment gateways and more.

Larger companies and multinational enterprises, for which budget is not a limiting factor, will likely make a detailed needs analysis first, investigate CMS options and even broader Customer Experience solutions. 

Budget proposals will be made based on those needs and negotiated between stakeholders and their interests. In some cases, budgets might expand from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

2. Decide on Your CMS needs: 

The most important question to ask yourself at the start of a CMS project is “What am I trying to achieve?" 

With a critical look at where you currently are, and where you want to be, you can start mapping out which content, data, tools, and integrations you already have - and which you need to build your vision.

This can be anything from a small presentational website for an interior designer, an ecommerce website for a local store or B&B, to enterprise level content solutions such as: multilingual localized websites and intranet,distribute recruiting, onboarding and training content, as well as commercial content for clients or an ecommerce platform.

Define clearly what you want to achieve and which channels are necessary to reach your audience.

3. Analyze CMS Features:

Once you have defined your budget and made a list of your needs, it’s time to compare them with solutions on the market.

One possible methodology is a spreadsheet approach that lists the needs in rows while listing the CMS options within your budget in columns. 

Below is an example of a comparison table to evaluate which CMS offers the features that meet your needs.

  Plugin 1 Plugin 2 Plugin 3 Plugin 4 Wix
Multilingual Limited Limited Limited Limited Yes
Seasonal pricing Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Daily prices (week vs weekend) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Additional prices for extra persons Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Prices per age category No No ? Yes Yes
Automate discounts for weekly or monthly stay Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Extra services per day booked or per entire booking. Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Discount coupons No Yes Yes No Yes
Customize booking forms Yes Yes No No Yes
Search availability No Yes Yes Yes Yes
channel manager (iCal Sync) Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Google Maps API No Yes No No Yes
Partial payments Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Paypal Standard account API Yes Yes No No Yes
2checkout integration Extra charge Extra charge No Yes Yes
Stripe integration Extra charge Extra charge Extra charge Yes Yes
Woocommerce integration Extra charge Extra charge Yes Extra charge Yes
Offline payment Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

But it is equally important to analyze the features of each CMS to make sure you’re not comparing apples to oranges. 

To illustrate the above, we recall a case where a client had to choose a CMS for a web development project that required a booking engine. 5 booking engine plugins for WordPress were analyzed and compared with Wix’s booking engine.

First of all there were major differences between the WordPress plugins and some did not even meet the client's needs. After a full comparison we found that Wix had a better offer for this specific client. 

Wix’s business account was about $17/month which included hosting and all the features available such as multilingual support and a booking engine. In contrast, WordPress hosting was cheaper, costing $2/month, but required a plugin for multilingual support, another one for the booking engine and another one for email automation, and so on. Eventually, we had to deal with numerous plugins from numerous vendors and the total cost of WordPress far outweighed the Wix solution.

Takeaway: Determine hidden costs up front! Research the features offered and request demos.

Read our “13 Must-Have Features in a CMS Solution” article to gain a deeper insight into CMS Features.

4. Choose the right CMS architecture: 

For smaller budgets, the choice is often limited to the traditional CMS options. But for enterprises with a larger budget, any of the mentioned architectures could be deployed within budget. So the choice depends on the pros and cons of each architecture.

The choice of the CMS architecture depends on several factors:
  • How content heavy is your enterprise? Do you produce a lot of content in multiple formats? 
  • How familiar and comfortable are your IT, content publishing, and marketing departments with more complex headless systems?
  • Does your IT department have the knowledge for implementation, or do you need external support for migration, implementation, training and so on?
  • What is your priority? High website performance for ecommerce purposes? Or is your priority a solution for complex content publishing supply chains?

5. Calculate Your ROI: 

A CMS is an investment and therefore should guarantee returns. A sensible approach is to work out how much budget could be justified for this project, by calculating the return on investment.

For some companies, the investment in a CMS is part of a web development project. Other companies are migrating from one CMS to another as part of a digital transformation project to improve personalization capabilities and provide better customer experiences.

Whichever the case, it’s important to identify all potential additional costs besides the direct cost of the CMS, such as plugins that might be required, the hours of development, additional apps and tools as part of a customer-centric technology platform.

Many large content-rich enterprises only calculate ROI based on tangibles but neglect to incorporate the value of their content assets in their finances.
For more information on Content Value and Calculating ROI, read our article ‘What is Content value and Content Marketing ROI?’
For more detailed information on Choosing the right CMS for your organization 
Download our Free CMS Selection Guide 



Get help from [A]’s CMS Implementation Experts

[A]’s CMS engineers are experts with years of experience in implementing Content Management Systems in large organizations. [A]’s expertise lies mainly but not exclusively in implementing headless component Content Management Systems and Jamstack architectures. 

Simple [A] distinguishes itself by its holistic approach to CMS solutions, applying our content modeling and Content Engineering expertise, to assure companies have highly streamlined efficient content supply chains from authoring to multi-channel publishing, while at the same time fostering personalized next-level Customer Experiences using a Content-as-a-Service (CaaS) model.

Simple [A] is a Kentico, Sitecore and Contentful partner, but we can assist with the implementation of any headless CMS on the market or even assist in developing a custom CMS.

Simple [A] assists organizations along this entire process assuring the journey is frustration-free and frictionless, and has a successful outcome for your organization. 

Contact Us for a Free Consultation.


Manuel Calvelo is a digital marketing strategist that applies a creative mindset to discover new or improved ways to achieve business objectives. 

Read our Comprehensive CMS Review and Comparison Article for more stats and information about the leading platforms.
[A] Publication
[A] Guide to CMS Platform Selection