Content Management Systems: What and Why?

Michael Bell reviews why you might use a CMS; what the benefits are, how it can diversify responsibility across your organisation without increasing risk and how to choose the right CMS for your organisation.

Most businesses have an online presence, be it for the purposes of direct selling or reaching customers with their message. Either way, a website portrays the image of an organisation and can help secure new business. This means that it can also be a weakness; if your site is out of date or doesn’t match your branding it can damage your customers’ perception of your organisation. In the long run this may lead to lost business. Keeping both content fresh and the site design pristine at a low cost are challenges for any organisation. A specific set of tools called Content Management Systems (CMS) exist to help tackle this problem.

How does a CMS work?

When creating and maintaining a website, a CMS keeps the content separate from the styling. This means that with minimal training people can edit content knowing that it will be displayed as the designer intended. The control over styling and your brand is taken out of the equation and people can focus on content production.

Logically this separation makes sense; you want your staff to focus on their particular expertise.

Contrast this to a system where the content is intertwined with the design and website code. Either content editors need to understand the underlying code and ensure content changes do not impact the design or designers have to populate content. In reality, most sites structured in this way end up with pages with design transgressions or content that is outdated. This means that what starts out as a beautiful and relevant website can start to degrade over time.

Choosing your CMS

When choosing a system there are other features that need consideration. Most of the popular CMS are rich in features and support.

For example, most systems have a consistent user interface, customisable data editors and multi-lingual support. Further useful features can also include version control; the ability to see changes made by individuals over time and restore unwanted changes. Larger sites can benefit from a CMS with installable extensions and multi-user support and management.

As CMS have become more mature, the number of websites which are created and powered by CMS has continued to increase. A recent estimate has placed their usage on the web at approximately 45%. Although this is a tricky estimate to gauge with accuracy, it is not entirely unreasonable.

One CMS we have used recently is Umbraco. It is growing in popularity and is used by almost 40 local councils in the United Kingdom and many household names, such as Microsoft. Other popular CMS include WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. Selecting the right system will depend on your specific challenges and technology platform. Other factors to consider can include the existing technical experience of editors, software licence costs and the availability of key third party plugins and extensions.

Our experience

We’ve been creating solutions for our customers using CMS products for over 17 years, so we’re able to bring all the insights we’ve gained over this time to our clients’ projects, allowing them to take advantage of our knowledge and expertise.

I was recently working with a high profile client undertaking a website project. Applying our experience to their challenges, it became clear that a CMS would be beneficial. They had a large amount of similarly structured content. The content was subject to regular change, with different users responsible for different sections. These editors were also independent of the team responsible for the website designs. They wanted to make content editing simple, whilst rigorously maintaining their branding. We helped them select a CMS, and apply their designs. For the editors it was then simple; after only a few hours training they were comfortable to start populating website content.

Since that particular site was first published, the content has been continually updated without any technical assistance. The branding has stayed consistent too, delivering a high impact design for customers.

Ultimately, the choice of CMS to implement will vary from project to project, sometimes a CMS is not even the right choice; it is not a silver bullet. There are many other challenges which you may face with a website like deep integration with other business systems and processes, which a CMS doesn’t address. Yet, their popularity and success make it a viable option in many situations. If you are undertaking a new web project, it's likely selecting the right CMS will be helpful for keeping content fresh and your design pristine, and we can help you.

Jisc | Data Matters

26 January 2021

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