CMS stands for content management system, so the most unhelpful definition would be as follows: “A content management system is a system that manages content.” While that definition is a bit circular (we’ll fix it later), it gets at the only real requirement for a CMS: it must do something useful with content. The question, then, is “what is something useful?”.
To explain what useful things a CMS does (and why they exist), it’s easiest to think about what happens when we don’t have a CMS. Let’s imagine that we work at a sales company selling cruises. We have a new client calling us, an eccentric millionaire. He wants to send a bunch of people on our cruises. (Why? We don’t know, he’s an eccentric millionaire.) However, he doesn’t like websites. He doesn’t like brochures, or long phone calls. He really likes binders. So we need to make a binder that explains everything our company sells, and keep it up to date with our latest options. (Every couple weeks, we’ll go to his office and make whatever changes we need to make to the binder.)
Well, let’s fast forward a while. We’ve made the binder. Each page is about a different type of cruise package. Our friendly client doesn’t like dividers either (you see, he’s really devoted to making illustrations about CMSs work really well), so instead there are designated spots on the outside edge of each page for things like the name of the boat, the route, the cost, the amenities offered in each cabin, etc.
We have 30 cruise ships we sell for, 5 different types of rooms, and 10 different routes. So we need at least 1500 different pages. We print them front and back, so it’s a 750 page binder. (Okay, it’s really two binders, but for convenience, all the sales staff just calls it “the binder”.)
We just delivered the binder last week. This week, on Monday, we renamed 5 of our ships. We spent all of Tuesday finding the 250 different places those ships were mentioned in our computer file for the binder and making note of which pages we’ll need to swap out. Then, on Wednesday, we changed the amenities in our “Ocean Overlook” rooms to include free Wi-Fi, so we make note of the 300 different places we’ll need to change that. On Friday, we add a location to the itinerary for our Eastern Caribbean cruise (causing 150 changes), and on Monday, when someone asks us if we can change our 3 cheapest rooms to include free-
Well, we didn’t exactly hear the rest of the sentence, unfortunately, because we ran right out of the office screaming and plowed into a consultant, who (after our profuse apologies) explains that she implements CMSs for a living. She overheard the conversation and (surprise surprise) thinks that a CMS might help.
She explains that duplicating content and needing to manually keep changes in sync was a recipe for inconsistency. CMSs are designed to keep each piece of content in one place, and will allow that content to be reused in multiple places. We only need to describe each boat once, each type of room once, etc, and the CMS will handle the rest.
We’re rather skeptical, but after this long week of looking for changes through a 750 page binder, we’re ready to give it a shot. Our friendly consultant sets up a CMS for our binder and customizes it for our design. We input the name and description of each ship, room, and route into the CMS, and it shows us what the binder would look like.
We just have one more question for our consultant. What if we have a specific cruise package that needs its own design and has to look different than all the rest? How will the CMS handle that?
She explains that the CMS is not magic, and does not know how we want the page to look. It does, however, offer a way to override things on a page-by-page basis. This means we may end up duplicating some of our content as we weave it into a new design, but we still will reap the benefits of a CMS for the rest of our binder.
We continue using the CMS for the next few years, and everyone lives happily ever after…
Back to Reality
So most of us don’t make 750 page binders for each customer that needs to order from us. In fact, you were probably expecting us to talk about websites, given it’s our specialty.
So let’s take a step back and see how a website could benefit from a CMS. First we need to understand something about the way web browsing works. At the most basic level, websites are organized as pages. Without special work, nothing is shared between two web pages. Each time you visit a page, your web browser asks for a complete description of what the new page looks like. As a result, each page has to contain the header, the navigation, your contact information, etc.
Many years ago, we would have simply made a bunch of files, each standing more-or-less alone. If you had asked us to rename a section of your site, we would have had to replace the name each time it was used. If your phone number had changed, we would have had to change it each time it appears.
With a CMS, the content is stored separately from the design of the page. We would change the section title once. (Well, maybe twice, we’re not in a utopian illustration anymore.) That would change it on every page automatically. CMSs exist that can do crazy stuff like we mentioned in our illustration, but most use cases will not need that level of rigidity (and it would likely cause problems).
For most websites we create here at Advantage IM, we use a popular CMS called WordPress. WordPress powers over ¼ of the Web. For each client, we create a “theme” that defines how headers look, the footer has copyright text, what colors to use, etc. We then input your page content into WordPress and it automatically fills in our navigation design with the new information. If we rename a page, it is updated seamlessly. And on it goes…
This benefits both us and our clients. If they request a change, it takes us less time and effort to make it, and we’re less likely to make a mistake.
Additionally, since your content is separate from our code, you can log in yourself and make minor edits.
As a result of these benefits, we customize a CMS for as many of our clients as we can. It’s part of our standard process.
Now that you’ve read this whole post (or maybe not!), you understand why simply saying “a CMS manages content” is actually a complete definition, although not very helpful. They can do whatever they’re needed to do. We use them to make edits to our clients’ websites easier for everyone. (And I suppose, in theory, you could use one to manage 750 page binders. I’d just use a website myself 😉