What is a Content Management System?

Content management is changing.

Ever since Gutenberg started the print revolution, organizations have been finding ways to efficiently create content, make copies, translate it, and share access to it to get their message out to people across the world.

Fast forward 600 years or so, and early CMSs were helping people and businesses address the same underlying question (only this time, online):

Newspaper pages in vintage Free Vector

How do we create relevant content for our audiences, manage it, best publish it, update it, control it, and repurpose it?

But over the last few decades, the volume and variety of digital content have exploded in tandem with new channels, devices, and interfaces.

CMSs aren’t what they used to be—they’re becoming a whole lot more.


CMSs are often still referred to as WCMs, or web content management systems. But to many people in the CMS industry, this description is starting to feel a bit arcane—business CMSs aren’t just tasked with publishing just to the web anymore. Content is being delivered everywhere: from smartphones to televisions, from watches to voice devices. Content management needs to go beyond the web.

Of course, a website is still the center of most businesses’ digital ecosystems. But things are changing incredibly quickly. That’s one of the reasons why so many companies are now reassessing their CMS options

What do CMSs do?

(and why that used to be a more straightforward question)

Let’s start with the basics.

Historically, a CMS was a software platform that automated some of the tasks required to manage and publish content online—stuff like uploading content, formatting it for a webpage, positioning headlines and images, and backstage tasks like improving SEO.

But the world is in the middle of a digital seismic transformation. Our online and offline lives are colliding. Businesses are fostering personal relationships with every customer and prospect. Marketers are tracking every digital step we take and building rich content experiences around them.

By sheer necessity, CMSs are accommodating more ambitious digital experiences.

Enter the digital experience platform.

Digital experience platforms (DXPs) equip businesses with an integrated software foundation for engaging users across a range of digital channels and device.

A DXP encompasses content management, powerful analytics, search, personalization, testing and optimization, and campaign orchestration technologies. They help marketers understand where individual customers are on their digital decision journey and deliver personalized content experiences at scale, across any channel and any device.

Increasingly, CMS solutions are merging with these new experience platforms, to the point where it’s hard to definitively state where one ends and the other begins. That’s a big part of why choosing a CMS is more complicated than it used to be. And it’s why understanding what you need (and what you don’t) is so important.

A functional definition

There’s no single correct definition of what a CMS is. A far more productive way to frame the conversation is to start by defining what a CMS should mean for your business’s evolving content needs.

It helps to think about traditional CMS functions as separate from customer experience functions. For instance, you want the right workflow solutions for content publishing—but you also need automation, personalization, and analytics.

The crucially important point is that a CMS must be able to sit comfortably at the center of a marketing technology ecosystem that is capable of growing and meeting the evolving needs of your business.

Will a basic CMS still suffice?

Just because some CMSs are starting to merge with experience platforms doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the right choice for you.

If you haven’t started delivering granular customer experiences—across different audiences, different channels, different geographies, different products, etc.— then a traditional CMS might be more than sufficient for now.

However, natural-feeling personalized experiences are becoming normalized, and consumer expectations are rising. You might not need the more sophisticated functionality of an experience platform today, but you probably will soon. Make sure that any basic CMS has the capacity and functionality to grow into an integrated experience platform when you’re ready for that.

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