My Rant About Content Management Systems

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

Hello, fellow marketers. Welcome to the third installment of my rant series. I promise, after this, I’ll stop whining and keep it positive. But I just gotta get this out of my system, first: Content Management Systems – can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.

I remember the old days. I was a magazine editor-turned-marketing manager who wrote a lot of copy. I frequently needed to make adjustments to stories hosted online. The process was arduous. I had to fill out a paper form, submit it to a project manager, wait for the task to be assigned to a designer and route printouts of the changes for approval. Our sites were built on .Net. I knew a tiny bit of HTML but wasn’t savvy enough to help myself. My hands were tied.

Our astute head of new media shared my opinion that the process for managing content was a colossal waste of time. He gave me a gift: Adobe Contribute. I think I actually hugged him! My very own web-publishing software. It felt like I got a brand new, exciting job. Now I could open a piece of software and edit or write directly into a tool that felt comfortable—much like Microsoft Word. I could get a change made in seconds instead of days.

However, the software was something we purchased off the shelf with very little support or training. And it was buggy. No doubt, user error was a factor. Content would disappear. Images would break. Heck, one time I accidentally broke an entire site. I found myself asking a lot of favors from our web designer. She liked smores; so yes, there was marshmallow bribery involved.

Even with this great technology, I wasn’t really any better off than before. That was more than a dozen years ago. Fast forward to present day. To say a lot has changed is an understatement. But in some ways, a lot is still the same.

Web publishing software has evolved into sophisticated content management systems (CMS). Just about every site now is built on one. There are open source, community-driven CMS options (more on this later), proprietary platforms designed to serve specific industries, and many content platforms built in-house, from scratch. The evolution of the CMS has advanced the capabilities of bloggers, content strategists, marketers and students alike.

There’s always a but. A wise man I once worked for summed it up best: “Congratulations! You have a content management system. I have terrible news for you; You have a content management system.”

Here’s where my rant comes in. People tend to mess up their websites once they get their hands on their CMS. I wish everyone involved in website decision-making understood the following:

  • A CMS should not and cannot replace your development team.
  • You need to do your homework before investing in a CMS.
  • You cannot set it up and forget about it.
  • No CMS is free.
  • Editors need to earn the right to edit and manipulate content and design.

Where Do You Start?

In about 10 minutes, I unscientifically tallied 150 CMS options. That’s the tip of the iceberg. In my small world, I work with between two and six CMSs in a year depending on which clients I’m serving. It’s safe to say a small group of CMSs is getting all the love and doing all the work of powering the internet.

The Kardashian of the lot is WordPress. Introduced in 2003 and initially considered a blogging tool, WordPress has grown to power more than 27.3 percent of the websites online today (Source: W3Techs Technology Surveys). WordPress made it easy for marketing and regular folks to write, post and edit content. WordPress is much more than a blogging tool now. Big sites with huge traffic like The New Yorker, BBC and Forbes are built on the WordPress system (Source: Forbes). Your company’s site might be on WordPress too.

Like the Kardashians, WordPress has its lovers and haters. WordPress is great. And it’s imperfect. In all honesty, so is every CMS. But the blame doesn’t always lie on the shoulders of technology. Different CMSs are better suited to different sites, teams and marketing objectives. If you don’t do your homework first, and later fail to support and maintain your CMS, it will fail you. If you’re just getting started with a build or rebuild and your web developer isn’t doing a thorough evaluation of a variety of systems, you need to make a correction.

If you want me to tell you my favorite CMS, I won’t. There are some I really enjoy working with and frequently recommend. But it’s not about personal preference. You need to align the needs of your marketing and digital strategy with the right platform on which you build your site.

Remember Strategy?

CMS selection often gets assigned solely to the IT department, which is a mistake. This is a collaborative effort that, at its heart, is all about managing and curating valuable content and creative assets. This is a tool that should be owned and tended to by your marketing and content teams. Your content strategist should be working closely with IT and/or your MarTech maven to make this decision. Your content strategy should serve as a roadmap as you build a wish list for your ideal CMS.

Next, assess your needs. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are the attributes of the site brand?
  2. How many pages does my site comprise? Do I have a blog?
  3. Am I selling anything? If so, how many SKUs? How complex is the transaction and fulfillment flow?
  4. How critical is security?
  5. How many publishers will manage content? What are my internal process and team structure for vetting and approving content?
  6. Does my site need to integrate with other platforms or software?
  7. Who will train my team and me? What ongoing support resources are available?
  8. What type of internal site search is required?
  9. Do I have a budget and resources to support upgrades, plugins and maintenance?
  10. Will additional software resources be needed?

I could probably write a blog post about each of the 10 assessment question examples above. But nobody has time for that. Remember my anecdote about my first web editor experience? Many of the pain points I experienced have nothing to do with advances in technology. We probably didn’t select the best solution for our sites. We had no training and little support. If I was goofing up websites, I probably had no business hitting the publish button until I knew what I was doing. In full disclosure, we chose a piece of software to solve a process issue, instead of a solution to deliver on a strategy.

Many years later, I continue to see marketers making the same mistakes I did. It can get costly and waste a lot of time. If anything, the severity of the problem is compounded by the crazy robust CMS options on the market today. With a CMS, the gates are open. You don’t need to know code to manage your site or muck up the works — or both.

Take design for example. You pay an agency or invest in your internal creative team to create a dazzling new site. You launch. Everyone loves it. But you wish it could do something different or look like your favorite retail site. So you tinker. Or you ask your sales or marketing team to tinker. Copy is added. Lots of it. Callouts are stacked up. Clip art is introduced (it happens). Whatever worked well on mobile devices before is now an awful mess on a phone. Strategy is forgotten. You might think you’re improving your website, but you’re not. Unless you’re an experienced designer or art director, this is not your wheelhouse. I have seen this happen many times. Recently. With big brands and small.

Don’t tinker. Tinkering isn’t strategic. Your content team is the boss and must include a creative voice that vets any major changes. Trust the people you hired to do the jobs they know best. If you work in sales and marketing and have an idea for a big change, and you are authorized as a publisher on your site, get clearance from your content and creative team before going live. Even if you think you know better than they do, you probably don’t.

Know What You’re Getting Into

I want to shout this from the rooftops: Before selecting a CMS, know what you’re getting into. CMSs and, by extension, design themes and templates are easy to implement, which makes them the best thing since sliced bread. But under the yummy butter, they are complicated pieces of software that require expertise, maintenance, tending and investment.

I admit, researching online can be daunting. Especially if you’re a marketer without much support in this department. You’ll run into heated debates about security vulnerabilities, outdated frameworks, headless CMSs, fatal implementations and other terrifying topics.

You don’t need to be a technologist to lead this effort. As long as your vetting process is content-centric and you fully understand the pros and cons of the CMSs you’re investigating, you’ll be in good shape.

At the top of your priority list should be identifying all costs, transparent and hidden. As mentioned at this start of this rant, there are two big categories of CMSs, open source and proprietary or commercial. Open source CMSs were built and are maintained by a tight community of professionals that are continually testing and refining the offering. Open source does not mean free. However the most widely known CMSs like WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal, are free to initiate. The source code for these and other open source options is literally “open” or available for other developers to access and build upon.

Proprietary CMSs keep the sauce secret. Examples include Sitecore, Kentico and IBM Enterprise Content Management. With these systems, code isn’t available to outsiders and the CMS is typically owned and licensed through a parent company. Proprietary CMSs are often built to serve specific industries. A good example of a proprietary CMS would be one that is designed for healthcare that satisfies HIPAA regulations. Proprietary CMSs can be quite costly—typically they require setup activation costs and/or a monthly fee. What do you get for your money? Proprietary CMSs are rich in offerings and service levels.

Open source CMSs power more of the internet than do proprietary options. They can be configured and customized fairly easily with plugins, which are auxiliary chunks of code that perform a function the CMS doesn’t do on its own, straight out of the box. For example, let’s say you’re a small community bank and you’re building a website on WordPress. You want to add a suite of embedded financial and lending calculators, which is functionality WordPress does not offer. Your developer can shop a variety of plugins to find the right calculator suite for your customers and tie that functionality to the open source code of your WordPress installation. Voila! Your site now allows visitors to calculate compound interest.

Some CMSs offer more inherent features than others; therefore some need more plugins. WordPress is known for requiring a bevy of plugins to get the functionality desired. After all, it was originated as a fairly simple blogging tool. Plugins/Add-ons are awesome and there’s pretty much one or many for just about anything you can think of.

The downside is that the plugin/add-ons world is the wild west. They do cost money, albeit most are fairly reasonable. Any developer can create a plugin solution. Depending on your platform, there is some censoring of garbage plugins, but across the board, policing is not rigorous. And, even if you buy and install a fantastic plugin, there is no guarantee that it will remain supported by the developer who created it for the life of your site.

I’m not trash-talking plugins. I quite love them, in fact. I share this as a cautionary note because they are not perfect. If you implement plugins, make sure your website budget includes money for maintenance and replacement of plugins as it’s common for problems to arise.

Another cost often overlooked or perhaps ignored is the cost for updates and upgrades. This would be a billable task for your agency if you use an open source system, or an expense due to your CMS vendor if you use a proprietary CMS. All CMSs, open source, proprietary or homegrown require updates. Not only do updates introduce new features, they are typically deployed to combat a security vulnerability. Updates are serious. Deferred maintenance isn’t an option. I say this because often, folks don’t want to pay for updates, especially for open source CMSs.

The update itself might not cost money, but employing your dev team to perform and test the update does. This is an ongoing expense you need to plan for. Yes, many CMS platforms have an easy button of sorts. The “Update me” button begs to be pressed by the naive marketer. It may look easy, but do not press that button until you contact your dev team. Remember all those plugins I was just blabbing about? DIY updates can result in a lot of broken plugins, issues with security, and can wreak havoc with all sorts of stuff like your permissions and even your hosting configuration. Bottom line: Budget time and money for routine updates and don’t do it yourself unless you’re a developer or trained technologist.


I’m not trying to scare you, but CMSs are targeted by hackers. At last count, more than 70 percent of WordPress installations are vulnerable to hacker attacks (Source: WP WhiteSecurity). Open source frameworks are also more vulnerable because, well, they are open. If proper security measures are not put in place your site and all of your plugins/add-ons are susceptible to a hack.

With that said, you have a responsibility to make sure your site is as secure as possible. Hackers are driven and dedicated to seeking out loopholes and gaps. Security updates are issued by CMSs to guard or block those gaps. But you stick your finger in one hole in the dam and another hole bursts open. Such is the constant state of digital security.

In addition to holding regular security status checks with your dev team, make sure your systems administrator is in the loop, too. They are equipped to make sure you follow best practices like eliminating front-end log-in functionality from your CMS configuration, using security keys for access and running routine scans to make sure everything is okay on a daily basis.

As mentioned above, ignoring your site maintenance isn’t an option. Regularly scheduled maintenance is a must for security reasons alone. If you spend $2,000 on updates and upgrades a year, you’re buying an inexpensive insurance policy that could save you in costs and security headaches tenfold.

But I’m Just a Marketer

No, you’re not just a marketer. And marketing is digital, period. In college, I studied public relations. I had a professor who insisted I take a design class so I understood the fundamentals of Illustrator and QuarkXpress (I’m old). I didn’t need to be a master of design software or even possess a single artistic bone in my body. My professor valued the importance of readiness and comprehensive industry knowledge and ensured his students graduated with the ability to contribute to all tasks and teams.

You may be a senior-level marketer who has digital managers reporting up to you. Ultimately, this is in your jurisdiction. Selecting a CMS that adds value to your content, provides flexibility for authoring and versioning and offers solutions to make your job easier and your organization more profitable is a no brainer. Readiness and comprehension will better position you as a leader. So do your research; make sure your effort is content-centric; include leadership from your content team, dev team and systems administrator (and trust them); plan budgets to afford proper care to support a healthy and secure site; demand exceptional training; and resist the urge to tinker. Selecting a CMS can be paramount to your digital success. And maybe even a bit fun if you do your homework first.