Rebuilding your website and looking for a new content management system? Expanding your site beyond a single landing page? In this post, we’ll give you a crash course with everything you need to know about content management systems. Our goal? To help you choose the best platform for your startup.
- What is a CMS
- Whether you really need a CMS
- 7 criteria for choosing a CMS
- Traditional CMS vs. headless CMS
- Our selection of content management systems
Ready? Let’s dive in.
What Is a CMS?
You probably already know what a CMS is. But, just so we’re aligned, we’ll share a definition.
A Content Management System (CMS) is a platform that helps you to create, edit and organize content for a website or websites. In short, it's an essential tool that enables you to manage, publish, and update content with ease. The greatest advantage of a CMS is that it allows non-technical team members to take control of content, especially as your platform grows.
With our definition out of the way, let’s dive into an important question: Do you really need a CMS?
Do You Really Need a CMS?
Not all websites need a CMS. And installing a CMS when it’s not essential can add complexity and recurring costs to your website.
You’ll probably need a CMS if:
- Your website includes a blog or another large and ever-growing content collection
- You’ll need your marketing/editorial team to have control over your website’s content
You can do without a CMS if:
- Your website will be a simple one-pager
- You’re okay with relying on developers to implement content changes
But if you do need a CMS, what should you have in mind to pick the right one for you?
In the next section, we’ll dive into 7 criteria for choosing a good CMS.
7 Criteria for Choosing a CMS: What to Look for in a Content Management System
We recommend analyzing your CMS options through 7 criteria:
- Ease of use
- Learning curve
- Your content workflow
- Your in-house expertise
Let’s take a closer look.
Ease of Use
It’s essential for your CMS to be easy to use on a daily basis. At the end of the day, it will be the bridge between your content team’s work and your live website.
Additionally, an inaccessible CMS can result in:
- Easily-avoidable technical SEO errors
- Slower publishing times
- Clumsy publishing workflows
Aside from being easy to use on a day-to-day basis, your CMS should be easy to learn.
Ease of use and a beginner-friendly learning curve are often correlated. But an accessible UI is just one out of many factors that determine a CMS’ learning curve.
Other factors include:
- How much documentation is available
- How many tutorials are available (and their quality)
- Whether the CMS is similar to other tools your team has worked with in the past
Content management systems don’t tend to suffer from low internal adoption - those who have to use it just force themselves to use it. But a steep learning curve could elevate your CMS adoption costs.
In short, you could spend tons of time and money training your team to adopt your CMS, if it doesn’t have a beginner-friendly learning curve.
When choosing a CMS, it's essential to know how much versatility you need and what that versatility would entail. For instance, you may want your CMS to allow you to create custom content collections in a seamless and sustainable way. You could also prioritize the ability to deliver your content across multiple platforms. Or versatile design features.
Regardless, have a clear idea of which areas you want to have full freedom over, and what features would make it possible.
Security should be one of your top concerns when choosing a CMS. While your CMS won't be the only factor involved in keeping your website secure, it can make a huge difference.
For instance, it's well known that PHP-based Content Management Systems are more vulnerable to cyber attacks than their counterparts. Additionally, a website that uses its PHP CMS’ front end will be particularly vulnerable.
Your Content Management System’s pricing structure will depend on several factors. For instance, some content Management Systems are cloud-based, so you pay for using the CMS plus hosting, at once while others can be hosted anywhere.
In some cases, the same company that developed a “host it yourself” CMS begins providing a cloud-based solution. This is the case with both Ghost and WordPress.
Aside from hosting, other costs of adopting a new CMS may include:
- Access to the CMS itself
- Themes & plugins
- Hiring developers & designers
- Migrating your existing content
Your CMS can shape how your team works on content. And, in some cases, your team may be unable to optimize certain tasks due to your CMS’ limitations.
For example, let’s say your team wants to start using AI to automatically add alt text to your images. If you’re posting tons of visual content every month, this change could be a net positive for your SEO. But, if your CMS is very hard to integrate, the development costs of automating that task could make it not worthy.
Choose a CMS that empowers your team to work smarter, not harder.
Do you have the in-house expertise to maintain your CMS? Will you be able to adapt it to your team’s changing goals and needs?
Rule of thumb: If you’ll need to open a terminal and type in a couple of commands to update your CMS, and you won’t have regular access to someone who knows how to do it, that’s not the right option for you.
Traditional CMS vs. Headless CMS: Which Option’s Right for You?
As you probably already know, a traditional (or "coupled") CMS is a platform that provides you with a graphical interface to create, manage, and store content. It typically includes:
- A web-based content editor
- A web page template system
- Tools to manage and optimize content
Through a traditional CMS, you can work on your content and how it will look on your website, through the same platform.
On the other hand, a headless CMS provides users with an interface to store and structure content but does not include any front-end functionality for content presentation. Instead, the stored content is accessed and served through APIs. That way, it can be "served" through any type of web or mobile application.
If you choose a headless CMS, you'll have to manage your content and design your website separately. Let's illustrate this through an example. Some teams choose to use WordPress in a headless way. By doing so, they're able to capitalize on WordPress' ease of use and content optimization plugins, while delivering a user experience that's faster and safer than regular WordPress'.
You may want to go for a traditional, "coupled" CMS if:
- You don't have the budget, time, or team to develop a custom front-end
- You want to easily preview how your content will look on your website
However, a coupled CMS may not be the best option for you. This option usually comes with limited flexibility and scalability. Plus, customizing your website's design or integrating your content with other systems can be difficult.
The Best Content Management Systems for Growing Startups
🤟 Best for: Blogs and simple company sites
😬 Limitations: Performance and security require constant attention, inflexible content collections
❤️🔥 Best features: Large body of documentation, tutorials & plugins
WordPress is one of the most popular CMS because of it’s user-friendly platform and content workflow. It can be used either headless or coupled.
Since it runs on a web server and is written in PHP, it’s not a bad idea to have a Wordpress developer that knows PHP in your team to help you incorporate it.
This CMS has many possible integrations. Most of them require a minimum use of coding but they usually can be sorted out by non-developers easily. There’s a lot of documentation about it available online to help you do it without a developer’s help.
Even though this is not the most versatile alternative when it comes to types of content, it’s an easy affordable choice. We recommend it for building blogs and simple company sites.
🤟 Best for: Blogging & monetized newsletters
😬 Limitations: No visual theme editor
❤️🔥 Best features: It’s fast, performant and easy to integrate
Ghost is built on Node.js technology. Its platform is lightweight and easy to use and integrate with other services.
It can be used as a coupled or a headless CMS. If you go with the last, you’ll need a developer with Node & Docker expertise in your team.
As a downside, this CMS is not as versatile as other options since it’s hard to create other types of content collections besides blogs and newsletters. It’s useful for building online publications that focus on just one type of content at a time.
If it works for you still, and you’re willing to sacrifice the visual theme editor, this may be a good choice.
🤟 Best for: Technical teams developing multi-platform content experiences
😬 Limitations: It may be overkill for most use cases, and it requires ongoing developer involvement
❤️🔥 Best features: It’s incredibly easy to personalize, even with minimum custom code
Contentful is headless CMS. It can be integrated with any technology stack with the help of a developer.
However, its customization capacities do not excel due to its pre-configured, non-customizable interface. And, when it comes to versatility, in this CMS you’ll only be able to choose between fixed content type options.
If you just need a blog and a website, this platform may be overkill considering its pricing and the need for developer involvement. On the contrary, if you have the budget and a technical team, and want to build a multi-platform content experience, this is a great choice.
🤟 Best for: Technical teams looking for an easy-to-setup but extremely flexible content editing experience
😬 Limitations: Requires a technical team
❤️🔥 Best features: Built-in quality control & backup
Sanity is a headless CMS that’s easy to set up and integrate with other platforms and services.
It has a highly customizable interface and you can define content types through code. This provides developers with an extremely flexible content editing experience.
Users say it’s easy to learn how to use some Sanity features even without knowing how to code. But to really leverage this powerful platform, you should have a technical team.
If that’s your case, this is a great cost-effective choice.
🤟 Best for: Competitive content teams looking for a powerful content management, testing & analytics suite
😬 Limitations: Requires developer involvement and has a steeper learning curve than other CMS platforms.
❤️🔥 Best features:
Optimizely is an A/B testing and experimentation CMS that comes with an analytics suite. This makes it a powerful platform to not only manage content but to measure the impact of changes to a web page.
Setting up this CMS will require developer involvement, which can make it a little harder to learn than some of their counterparts. But, once it’s set and you can begin to use it autonomously, it’s quite simple to use.
This is a great option for competitive teams that are looking to optimize their content.
🤟 Best for: Company websites with various content collections
😬 Limitations: If your website doesn’t run on Webflow, you may not find it very valuable
❤️🔥 Best features: Incredibly versatile and easy to integrate via API
Webflow CMS is available on certain Webflow pricing plans, and it works on top of Webflow’s visual editor, so it doesn’t require coding.
It allows users to create custom content collections, connect them, and display them on their website as they see fit.
This CMS is also very easy to integrate via API.
If your website runs on Webflow and you’re willing to eventually work with a Webflow developer, it’s a great choice.
Considering switching to Webflow and worried about SEO? Check out our in-depth Webflow SEO guide.
🤟 Best for: Small teams producing simple landing pages
😬 Limitations: Poor SEO optimization and clumsy long-form content editing interface
❤️🔥 Best features: Visual drag-and-drop editor
Tina CMS is an affordable option for non-technical users. However, it does require some structures to function that only a developer can prepare.
Once Tina CMS is properly connected by the developer, you can use it autonomously. It has a visual drag-and-drop editor and customizable themes and layouts.
This platform is ideal for building simple landing pages, but not so much for blogging. We found the long-form content editing interface to be clumsy and the SEO optimization features are quite poor too.
🤟 Best for: Storing programmatic SEO data & populating directories.
😬 Limitations: It’s not a CMS
❤️🔥 Best features: Its API & integrations
Airtable it’s an affordable cloud-based spreadsheet-database hybrid platform. We find it especially useful for storing programmatic SEO data & populating directories.
Even though it’s not actually a CMS per se, it can be used as one if it’s properly connected to a functional front end. For this, you’ll need a development team. Once it’s set, you move on without coding. Besides, it has many integrations and API.
A Custom Solution
🤟 Best for: Enterprises with unique use cases
😬 Limitations: Expensive to maintain, no third-party documentation
❤️🔥 Best features: It could give you a competitive advantage
In some cases, you may want to build your own CMS from scratch, by using a library such as Laravel.
This isn’t a bad idea - if you’ve got a unique use case and a huge budget. Especially, for maintaining and optimizing your unique CMS.
A sui generis solution may be particularly fitting for your use case. But, in most cases, it’s overkill.
The biggest tradeoff of a custom CMS is that you don’t have any external documentation or tutorials. In short, you’re on your own.
But, what if you’re in a unique situation where no existing CMS really fits you and you have the budget to develop a new one? In that case, a custom solution could definitely give you a competitive advantage and elevate your content editors’ experience.
Turn Your Website into a Growth Engine
In this post, we explored the world of content management systems. We hoped this article provided some useful insights to help you choose your next CMS.
Looking to turn your company’s website into a key asset for long-term growth? We can make it happen. Book a free consultation today.