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What Is a Content Management System (CMS)? [2023 Guide] | Semrush
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What Is a Content Management System (CMS)? [2023 Guide]

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Margarita LoktionovaMar 20, 202311 min read

If you’re just getting started with content marketing, it’s good to think about content management—and content management systems—right from the outset.

Content management itself is everything that goes into content planning, production, distribution, and tracking. Content management systems are the tools that help you make it all happen.

In this guide, we answer the key questions for people who are new to content management:

  • What is content management, and what is a content management system (CMS)?
  • Why do you need one for your business?
  • How does it work, and how do you choose and use one?
What Is Content Management?

What Is Content Management?

Content management is the whole process of creating, editing, organizing, and publishing digital content. Content management goes into creating websites, publishing articles and blog posts, and even just sharing information online.

Digital content is pretty much anything you can imagine online. It includes text, images, videos, and audio files. It’s the central element of any content marketing activities.

What Is a Content Management System (CMS)?

What Is a Content Management System (CMS)?

A content management system (CMS) is a software platform that is used to create, manage, and publish digital content. CMSs are mostly used for websites and other online services. They help businesses and organizations with their content creation and distribution.

The best thing about using a CMS is that you don’t need any special knowledge or technical skill.

If you log in to a CMS, you’ll usually find a visual drag-and-drop interface and pre-built modules. These let you create and customize their applications without writing any code.

In fact, modern CMSs are some of the most sophisticated “no code” applications around. This is a type of software product that can be built and managed without the need for traditional coding or programming skills.

For example, here’s what the WordPress interface looks like - you can add pages, blog posts, and other materials in just a few clicks:

Content Management System example: WordPress What Is the Purpose of Content Management?

What Is the Purpose of Content Management?

Content management makes it much easier for businesses of all sizes to create, organize, and publish digital content. Part of this is also keeping your content accurate, up-to-date, and in line with your company’s marketing goals.

The aim is to help you make sure your digital content is as valuable and useful as possible for your audience (and stays aligned with your business goals).

On top of all this, content management also involves tracking and analyzing the performance of content in terms of views, clicks, and shares.

The Content Management Life Cycle is part of content management. It outlines the steps you need to follow when managing digital content. These go from your first twinkle of an idea to publishing it and even taking it offline.

Here’s what the life cycle looks like:

Life Cycle Stage

How to implement

1. Planning and Strategy

First decide on the goals for your digital content. Then identify your target audience, the format, and the channels through which to distribute the content.

Check out our content marketing strategy guide for more on this.

2. Creation and Development

You write, design, and produce the content.

3. Review and Approval

Next you review and approve the content. This usually involves one or more individuals or teams to ensure that it is accurate, up-to-date, and relevant.

4. Publication and Distribution

You publish it on blogs, websites, social media, or other platforms. You may promote it or run ads to increase the visibility of your content.

5. Maintenance and Archiving

You’ll need to update or maintain your content to make sure it stays accurate and relevant. This involves checking for errors or outdated information and archiving content that’s no longer needed.

Who Needs a Content Management System?

Who Needs a Content Management System?

You do! That’s right—a CMS is useful for pretty much anyone who needs to create, manage, and publish digital content.

Individuals, businesses, organizations, and institutions of all sizes and types can benefit from using a CMS.

A CMS can also help you collaborate on creating and managing digital content.

That’s because most of them provide tools for managing user roles and permissions, version control, and workflow management.

How Does a Content Management System Work?

How Does a Content Management System Work?

Okay, it’s a lot to take in. So how does a CMS actually work?

A content management system has two parts. The first is a content management application (CMA) and the second is content delivery application (CDA).

The CMA is the part you’ll use the most—the interface. It allows virtually anyone to create, edit, and publish content without needing technical expertise.

The CDA is the engine and database that sits behind the interface. It stores, organizes, and arranges the content in a manner that suits the device that is accessing it. For example, users could be accessing your content on a mobile phone, tablet, or desktop computer.

Content management system example

Content management system example

A good example of a web-based CMS is Wix, which has a content editor that allows users to quickly design and publish web pages simply by dragging and dropping modules onto the page.

Content management system example: Wix

If you want to add logos, images, videos, or other types of content to the page, you can do so via one of the editing modules in the site’s menu.

Content management system example: Wix What Are the Features of a Content Management System?

What Are the Features of a Content Management System?

Here’s what you can expect in your CMS:

  1. User management: If your business is using a CMS, you'll probably have multiple people on board. Your CMS will let you create and manage user accounts, with varying levels of access and permissions.
  2. Content creation and editing: You’ll have a range of tools for creating, editing, and publishing digital content such as text, images, and video.
  3. Version control: This means you’ll have the chance to track and manage changes to your content. This is good news because you can easily revert to a previous version if necessary.
  4. Templates and themes: These are pre-designed templates and themes that can be used to quickly create a consistent look and feel for your website or product.
  5. Media management: You’ll also be able to manage and organize digital media assets such as images and videos.
  6. Search functionality: And when you’re lost, you’ll have tools for searching and filtering content within the CMS.

The most widely known content management system is, often referred to simply as “WordPress,” which supports around 43% of all websites on the internet.

WordPress has been developed over many years. That makes it rich in features and what are known as “plugins,” which are integrations with other software services that support content management.

It also comes with lots of different themes—both free and paid. You can adapt it yourself or with the help of a developer.

Templates and themes in WordPress What Are the Different Types of Content Management Systems?

What Are the Different Types of Content Management Systems?

There are many types of CMSs. They have different features, capabilities, and target users.

Some common categories of CMS include:

  • Web CMS: A web CMS helps you create and manage websites. It usually includes tools for managing website navigation, design, and other aspects of the user experience.

    Examples include WordPress, Webflow, and Wix.

  • Enterprise CMS: An enterprise CMS is for larger organizations and institutions. Enterprise CMSs often have more advanced features and capabilities, and they are typically able to support a large number of users and volume of content.

    Examples include Adobe Commerce and Shopify for ecommerce companies.

  • Open-source CMS: An open-source CMS is developed and maintained by a community of volunteers. The source code is freely available for anyone to use and modify. Open-source CMSs are often highly customizable and flexible, and they can be a good choice for organizations that have specific needs or requirements.

    Examples include WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.

  • Cloud-based CMS: A cloud-based CMS is hosted and managed by a third-party provider. Users access the CMS and manage their content via the internet. Cloud-based CMSs can be a convenient option for organizations that do not want to manage their own CMS infrastructure, and they often offer scalability and flexibility.

    One example is Box.

  • Headless CMS: A headless CMS is a type of content management system that allows users to manage and publish content without the need for a front-end user interface (UI).

    Headless CMSs have become increasingly popular over the past few years. You can use them to manage and deliver content to a wide range of different platforms and devices, including web, mobile, and IoT products.

    One example is Ghost.

Which Content Management System Is Right for Me?

Which Content Management System Is Right for Me?

There are so many different content management systems available, it can be hard to know which is the right one to pick.

Consider the features and capabilities that are most important to you. Also think about the type of website or product you want to build and the level of technical expertise you have.

Ultimately, the best CMS for you will be the one that meets your specific needs and is within your budget.

Some of the most popular CMS products include:

CMS name

Best for




Anyone looking to get started with a website quickly and cheaply

Very easy to install and set up alongside a massive community of developers to support you

Updates to plugins, especially for security reasons, creates ongoing administrative effort


New coders getting started with web development

Large libraries of existing extensions and plugins for you to choose from

Joomla is not cheap, and some of the extensions can be expensive


Enterprises that need secure, custom websites

A large selection of extensions makes it possible to implement company portals with complex, multi-domain structures

Configuration can be complex as a lot of extensions are often required


Marketers looking to operate omnichannel communication strategies

Very flexible and customizable

Administrator interface can be clunky and slow


Small ecommerce businesses that want to sell online and scale

Extremely fast performance and support for 100s of payment methods

Hard to customize themes without knowing the Liquid programming language


Magento is an ecommerce website for small and mid-size businesses

Owned by Adobe, it has a big and trustworthy brand behind it; it is flexible, mobile-friendly, and has a large community of users

High cost of development, and it’s fairly complex to develop within the platform


Creative professionals, solopreneurs, freelance specialists

You can create some visually stunning websites, plus you get a free domain name with an annual license

No free option, and pricing is high


Professional web designers, mid-size and small businesses

Powerful visual designer, which means you see exactly how your website looks across different devices (TV, desktop, tablet, & mobile) in real time

Not (yet) ready for ecommerce websites


Small business owners who want to build and manage a website without coding knowledge

Very easy-to-use drag-and-drop visual editor with a massive library of templates

Too much design flexibility can cause your site layouts to break, especially when formatting between desktop and mobile


Ideal for bloggers and YouTube content creators who want to monetize their business

Great user experience and a streamlined platform ideal for the target audience

It can be relatively expensive and doesn’t always integrate well with ecommerce platforms

How Do I Measure the Success of a Content Management System?

How Do I Measure the Success of a Content Management System?

Once you’ve decided which CMS to purchase, you’ll want to measure it to ensure you’re getting value for the money you’ve invested.

Like any software tool, there’s a variety of ways to evaluate its success, and it’s advisable to track multiple metrics to get the true picture.

Ideally you’ll use a combination of “hard” and “soft” metrics—i.e., some that can be measured purely in numbers (like conversions) and some that are more qualitative (like satisfaction rates).

Common metrics include:

  1. User satisfaction: The most important feedback comes from the users of the CMS itself (i.e., your company’s employees). Try surveying everyone who uses it and ask them how satisfied they are with both its user experience and its effectiveness.
  2. Efficiency: A key metric is how long it takes your colleagues to create and publish new content from start to finish.
  3. Search engine rankings: Your CMS should help you optimize your content for search engines, so you should see an improvement in the ranking of your content or your website over time.
  4. Conversion rates and on-site engagement: Your CMS should help you improve the user experience and help you move your website visitors down the marketing funnel.


Content management systems have evolved a lot in recent years. Not so long ago, they were very limited in terms of design, time-consuming to work with, and required a lot of technical expertise to implement and maintain.

Now, thanks to modern site builders such as Webflow and Wix, anyone can publish a professional-looking website in next to no time at all.

Deciding which CMS is right for you depends on the stage of your business, the type of business you are in, and, of course, your budget.

Here are some general guidelines:

  • If you are just starting out, choose a CMS with an intuitive visual designer such as Wix or Webflow and a large community of resources such as WordPress
  • If you are selling online, choose a CMS designed for ecommerce like Shopify
  • If you need to administer multiple websites, choose a CMS designed for omnichannel management such as Drupal or Magnolia
  • If visual design is paramount, choose a CMS such as Squarespace

Now, it’s time to get started with optimizing your own content management process!

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