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Glossary Index

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Glossary term

Content management system (CMS)

Quick definition

A content management system is a software application, or a set of tools and capabilities, that allows you to create, manage, and deliver content via digital channels.

Key takeaways

A CMS makes the process of creating, editing, and publishing content more efficient and allows marketers to have more control. 

The best CMS doesn’t just deliver content, but also has workflow management capabilities, the ability to easily store or retrieve assets, the ability to easily integrate with other systems, and the ability to deliver personalized experiences.

Traditionally, CMS platforms were created to deliver HTML-based web experiences, but they are evolving to adapt to the proliferation of channels.

Organizations can choose a free open-source CMS system like Wordpress, Joomla, or Drupal, or invest in paid software.


Karthik Muralidharan is on the product marketing team for Adobe Experience Manager Sites, Adobe’s content management system. He is a former management consultant with experience in customer relationship management, channel effectiveness, and customer insights and loyalty. On the Adobe Experience Manager Sites team, Karthik works with the sales team to help create product messaging.

Q: What is a content management system?

A: A content management system is a software application that allows you to create and deliver  digital content. A CMS lets you easily edit your digital experiences  and then publish that experience out to the web and other digital channels. It's essentially the layer that sits between you as an organization and the digital experience your customer interacts with, and it's the mechanism through which you arrange the digital content to deliver to a site visitor.

Q: How does a CMS work?

A: A CMS is an application. You don’t need a CMS to deliver content. You can write HTML code that translates into the experience that gets published. But you have to write the code to style it for all the pieces, from the structure of the website to the content to what users can click. It also becomes challenging to regularly update the experience. Ultimately, the way a CMS works is it's software that provides you that user interface, and streamlines the process of delivering content. 

A CMS puts a layer on top of all the work you need to do. It’s a set of tools and capabilities that allow you to deliver and update content much more easily without having to code everything by hand.  With a CMS, you can develop components for all common features of your website - such as titles, text, headers, and navigation bars. These components then become reusable and make it easy to create new pages or update existing ones without significant development.

If you didn't have a CMS, you'd have to hard-code this every single time. Within the CMS you’re creating components that become the building blocks of your website, then you're putting content into the experience. And if you want to add or edit a component that’s been published or delivered, you can do so directly with the CMS.

Q: What are the key features of a CMS?

A: A CMS should be easy to use. It should have tools that allow a marketer to drag and drop components and easily design or edit a page or experience. That's key criteria for a CMS, because technically you don't need a CMS to deliver content. You can do it all through code. But with a CMS, it should become easy for marketing teams to create, publish, and work with content in an intuitive way.

Other capabilities a CMS should have include workflow tools. You might have 100 people working to deliver content. You have some people who are just creating the content. You might have business managers who need to approve the content. Maybe some of the content needs to go through legal.

There are all these workflows that need to be set up, so you make sure you have the right people approving and reviewing content before it’s published. The CMS should provide different gate checks for making sure everything is organized and done in a timely manner, that the content is reviewed by the right people, and that stale content gets removed.

Another key feature of a CMS is its ability to integrate easily with other systems. If a CMS is delivering a website or a web experience, but you're a commerce company or you're a retailer, you also have commerce systems that are tied into that web experience, like a checkout button and available inventory. You need your CMS to be able to work with your commerce system, or your CRM, or your document management system, or whatever other system that needs to be integrated with the web experience.

Also, content management systems are about more than content now. They’ve evolved to include some level of analytics and personalization, either within the CMS itself or through integration with other systems. Delivering content is not enough — you want to understand how that content is performing and how you can target that content to specific audiences. A CMS should have these capabilities natively built in or at least easily work with systems that provide you with that information.

Some content management systems will actually have a content library or an asset library where you can store the content. If you don't have that library, you might be storing content on a thumb drive or in Dropbox. But now, one of the core functions of a CMS is some level of content storage in a digital asset management (DAM) system.

The last important feature a CMS should have is the ability to deliver content to multiple channels. Most content management systems were originally designed to serve only the web channel. But now we have mobile apps, voice assistants, IoT devices, and modern app experiences such as single-page applications. We have all these different experiences that still need content, but they're not what the CMS was originally built for. So a modern CMS will need to be able to deliver content across any channel, not just the web.

A lot of companies are still stuck in the mindset where if they need content for a mobile experience, they think their CMS won’t be able to handle it, so they’ll create content completely separately for that mobile experience. But companies should be creating everything in one central place, which is the CMS, then pushing that same experience to every channel.

Q: What are the benefits of using a CMS?

A: With the CMS, you’re not only building the structure of the experience, you’re also populating it with assets like images and text. And you have a workflow capability so you can communicate with other members of your team quickly and assign tasks to different team members. It streamlines the content-creation process, helps manage the different people and different teams involved, and pushes the content out to a web page or experience. It does the work of converting the structure and content of your experience into HTML code that can be read by the web and then fully displayed in its final format or into other formats that can be consumed by other channels

This work can be done manually by a developer, but it takes a long time and is resource intensive. Using a CMS not only improves efficiency, but because it's user-friendly, it allows the marketer to have more of a say over how an experience looks and to quickly make any necessary edits. Digital experiences are so important to a company’s marketing strategy, but the digital world is complex. Marketers need to be able to produce and share content, but they might not have the skill set required to create a website from scratch. A CMS empowers marketing teams to do what they do best — continually create and share content that meets consumers’ needs — quickly and easily, without needing to know how to code.

Q: Do companies usually build their own CMS or do they work with a third-party system?

A: Large enterprises, for the most part, will leverage a CMS. Small companies sometimes build a system because they want something specific to their needs that works exactly the way they want. But when you build your own system, you have to maintain and manage it, and as your needs grow you have to update it. The downside is that your business is investing all this time into keeping your system running, when you could be using a piece of software someone else maintains.

Companies do build their own CMS, especially in the early stages. They think they need something very uniquely suited to their needs and they don't want to spend a lot of money. Or they'll go with something like WordPress, which is very basic but less expensive and offers a variety of plugins that get the job done. Eventually, however, they’ll figure out that content management systems are not just about allowing you to create and publish content. They also allow for workflow management and other tools that enterprises need when delivering content at a large scale.

Q: What challenges do companies face when using a CMS?

A: A CMS traditionally exists for web content management, and every CMS was built to address how to deliver content to the web. But now we have this proliferation of channels, like mobile, voice, and IoT. Marketers have to figure out how to deliver content to a smartphone app or an Amazon Echo device as well as a website. As these new channels keep coming up, it's hard to keep reorienting and building a completely new system that serves that specific channel, and that makes it difficult to scale.

Companies can also run into problems when they try to over-customize. But the more custom components you build, the greater the likelihood something will go wrong, and the more time you will have to spend testing and maintaining them. There's always going to be some level of customization needed, but if you customize too much, you increase the chances of things breaking in the future. It becomes cumbersome and resource intensive to manage the CMS, partly because of the ongoing maintenance, testing, and security required, and because of the expensive upgrade processes needed if they want to update the software.

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