What is a Content Management System?
In the dial-up days of the early web, developers built website pages on their local computers. Once the design was complete, they would transfer their page files over to a web server, and the files became viewable to the public via the website's URL. If changes were needed, developers would edit locally, and then upload the changed files to their server. This was all well and good while websites were filled with basic, brochure-style, static pages. But, as technology improved and websites became more complex and collaborative, a need arose for a system to manage them.
A Content Management System or CMS, is a computer application that allows multiple users to manage the data, content, and information that makes up a website. It consists of three layers:
- Data: The raw information that makes up your website.
- Format: How the data is presented; how it looks (using Cascading Style Sheets a.k.a. CSS).
- Processing: The programming running behind the scenes that makes everything work.
A CMS is inherently a collaborative system, with tools for group use; such as the ability to create hierarchical permission levels, share calendars with the public, and create, edit, and publish blog posts. In a general sense, with a CMS you can log into your system, edit content within a friendly user interface, and have it publish immediately to the web. Having a CMS means it’s not necessary to be a developer to edit content, or change the look of your site design. In most cases, if you’re comfortable creating content in Microsoft Word, or Google Docs, you’ll have no issue doing the same in a CMS.
Do you need a Content Management System?
Content Management Systems come in a variety of platforms, ranging from simple to complex, and each offers its own unique mix of options and tools. For instance, platforms like Wix
allow users to build simple websites, host online stores and blogs, and even integrate with social media. They work great for startups and small organizations who are looking for an inexpensive all-in-one digital solution. However, while they are easy to use and do not require developer assistance, they are not flexible, particularly when it comes to design. On the other end of the spectrum, platforms like Drupal
offer flexibility, but if you’re not a developer or don't have one on your team, you may have difficulty getting started and maintaining your system. Be prepared to factor in the cost of development should you choose a more complex platform.
Whether or not you need a CMS is an organizational question that has no one size fits all answer. There is no exact benchmark, but as your organization matures, it moves from being a question of “if” to ”when”. Here are some questions to help you decide if the time is right:
Does your organization manage multiple websites?
If the answer is yes, it’s time for a CMS, particularly if your websites share a common database. Also, if you require different permission levels between users, you need a CMS.
Does the site you manage need customization, or will a template work?
If the site you manage needs design or functionality customization, it’s time for a CMS - one that’s on the flexible side of the spectrum.
Do you have a range of content, and need a system that will allow you to make your own content types?
If the answer is yes, it’s CMS time.
Does your organization use e-commerce, contact management software, and registration forms?
There are stand alone solutions for this, but a CMS will allow you to integrate them. Also, some CMS platforms do not give you these options natively. You would need to add them with plugins. Evaluate whether or not it’s more cost effective/use effective to find a CMS that does offer them natively.
Do you want to handle the hosting, code patches of system and plugins yourself?
This question speaks more to what type of CMS you will need. It’s important to balance functionality and flexibility with ease of use and maintenance. If your organization needs a lot of flexibility but does not have IT staff, you may want to look into a fully managed CMS with tons of base functionality.
Which Content Management System is right your organization?
You’ve decided that now is the time to integrate a CMS. As I mentioned above, there are a variety of options, and the right system depends on your organizational needs. The first step is to evaluate which needs are most important, and then make sure the CMS you’re looking into knocks them out of the park! Also, it’s important to project future needs. It’s not prudent to find a solution that works only for the present. Take into consideration the trajectory of your organization, and make sure the CMS you choose gives you room to grow.
Next, it’s important to test ease of use. Modern software design has focused on streamlining the user interface. If you’re on-boarding a team of users, it’s important to get their feedback on the platform’s usability, especially the components your team will use the most. If your marketing director doesn’t like the functionality of the blog or email blaster, maybe this isn’t the right fit. Also, it’s important to get a feel for what type of tech support you can expect, and find out the ways in which you’ll be allowed to communicate with them. Most often email support with a 24 hour turn time is OK, but not if your e-commerce is down and folks can’t purchase your products.
Finally, evaluate cost. Many platforms advertise a relatively low monthly fee, but that’s not the entire story. Base functionality may only include website hosting, so you’ll have to add on widgets, plugins, or other integrations to get the functionality your organization needs. This can balloon the monthly cost significantly. And don’t forget if you choose a platform that requires developer help, it will increase upfront outlay and ongoing maintenance costs.
The Brick River platform
is highly adaptive and works well for many types of organizations from agencies, companies, and non-profits, to churches and fraternal groups. It easily handles multiple website hosting, and merges the functionality of a flexible and powerful content management system, with a contact manager. Not only that, Brick River includes an email blaster and registration forms module accessed with an intuitive and clean user interface. All under one roof.
Since integrating a Content Management System takes resources, both time and capital, it’s crucial to choose the right fit for your organization. It is a pivotal step in the maturation of your group, one most lasting organizations will eventually take.