Three Little Words: Content Management Systems

This article was first published on April 4, 2011 at The Online Marketing Mix

Three Littles WordsBecause different people might mean different things when using those three little words ‘Content Management System’, I’m going to begin this article by stating my understanding of what a Content Management System (or ‘CMS’) is.

In essence, and in the context of websites specifically, a CMS is for moving the ideas rattling around in your brain onto your website with as little intervention from the design gurus or technical boffins as possible.

A Content Management System will usually enforce certain design standards upon users so they can’t go all-out-crazy and have a different design on each page, or do something that breaks the entire website. At their core, Content Management Systems control the parameters by which you can update your website, keeping you within the technical and design limitations agreed during the design of the website, leaving you free to concentrate upon the most important thing. Not the ‘management’ or the ‘system’, but yes, the ‘content’.

In the past a CMS was a ‘black box’ of tricks that took months to design and build, and then days or weeks to train staff to use, then another few weeks for the dust to settle and staff to become comfortable with the system quirks.

Given the huge time and cost barriers to deploying a CMS it is small wonder that few companies actually saw the need for one, preferring instead to pay designers and developers to update the website as and when required.

But what happens when you can install a world class Content Management System for nothing? Doesn’t that change the game?

Of course it does.

You see, there is absolutely no need for small or medium companies to pay to developers to build a new CMS when systems like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are out there. All of these Content Management Systems are Open Source (in this case, that means free to use), customisable and extendable, and can easily host small-to-medium sized websites without breaking a sweat.

Unless you are a huge conglomerate, there is no need to build a CMS from scratch, and even then you have the option to use an already established and proven Enterprise Content Management System. Anybody who is trying to sell you a custom-built CMS should, above all else, be asked what their system will offer that an existing Open Source system will not.

It’s a difficult question to answer, but pay close attention, because the reply is most likely to be coded-marketing-speak for “using our system locks you into paying us for what you could get for free elsewhere”.

Even if your website is quite small, use a CMS. That way, you can update it when you need to and not have to pay someone else to do it. There have been huge leaps forward in the ease of use of modern Content Management Systems. If you can navigate a website, you can use a CMS.

A CMS like WordPress, Joomla or Drupal is capable of handling a small site but can also evolve along with your needs. If you want to change designs then get a new ‘theme‘ but keep the same CMS. If you want to add new features then add a new ‘module‘ or ‘plugin‘ with the extra functionality that you need, but don’t throw away the time investment you already made in staff learning to use your Content Management System.

With the advent of Open Source Content Management Systems designers and developers alike are confronted with the problem of not being able to charge for updating websites, and must instead differentiate themselves on quality, creativity, the range of services they offer and the cost-effectiveness of what they produce.

There is an old proverb that come to mind here. Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

By all means ask a designer to design your website. And ask that developer to supply and install a CMS and apply the design in that CMS. Maybe you’ll get lucky and it’ll be the same person or company making both ends of that equation add up.

Maybe you don’t have the time or inclination to maintain your own website, and that’s fine, but for goodness sake, make sure that you are not forced to rely on other people to feed you fish for the lifespan of your website.

Image: Creative Commons

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