Choosing a Content Management System for Online Publishing

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

Choosing the right CMS (Content Management System) is a necessary step when first starting a site, however small or large. Whatever the system chosen, your primary goal should be to minimize operation cost and increase productivity.  Here is a list of frequently requested core features to satisfy either or both of your goals.

Ability to Manage Pages

For: Small site or marketing microsite

This is a fundamental feature for any CMS. In a nutshell, the CMS you choose should allow you and your team to create/update and delete webpages on the site it manages. This feature should be included regardless of the nature of your product: recruiting tool, forum, social network, blog, etc. Without it, you are left at the mercy of the CMS’ predefined structure.

Although most Open Source solutions include the ability to manage pages, some proprietary solutions do not. Be aware of this as you choose a development company that uses a proprietary CMS.

Here are some additional features that are often sought by online publications:

  • Ability to style pages. Your CMS should include a way to style pages without having to pay or consult developers. Look for a CMS that allows control over the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Your in-house or contract designers can use this technology to update the style of your site.
  • Ability to style content based on category/channel/keyword. Some sections of your site may require a unique look to reflect their content. Examples include: using a different color theme to appeal to a particular demographic, opting for a darker background style for video content (versus a lighter style for text) or establishing a branded style for sponsored articles or segments (eg. Gillette Shaving Tips).
  • Ability to manipulate the HTML of the site. This feature is often overlooked, but can significantly reduce your costs and will allow you to make crucial last0minute changes without developer intervention.

If your intention is to create a small site, a magazine or a microsite, WordPress is a good place to start. It does not include some of the features mentioned bellow, but given the limited scope of such projects, a custom CMS or larger system may be cumbersome and costly.

Ability to Manage Assets

For: Small to medium sites with many editors

Assets are the files which aid in creating and publishing online content. Examples include: images, draft MS Word documents, contracts, video, audio, etc. As your site grows, you may find it necessary to have your assets available through the CMS, instead of your desktop computer. This will make them available to multiple parties (eg. other site administrators, authors, etc) and allow you to access them remotely.

Your CMS should include a way to store these assets and group them into categories or folders.

You may notice, as your publishing cycle matures overtime, that it may be necessary to upgrade the asset section with tools to crop images, email documents, compress video, etc. At this point, your operations will shift to an online environment and offer you and your team the possibility to work with your assets from remote locations (instead of only sharing them).

Ability to Manage Users

For: Medium Site, Forum/Social Network, Multiple Offices

Whether your publication allows for external contributions (forums, comments) or your team is large enough to warrant collaboration control over CMS access, you will want a way to manage users, both internal and external.

Consider a moderator with the ability to control which article comments appear on the site, which items are SPAM and which are inappropriate. If that is their only responsibility, the moderator should not have the permission to create new articles and pages, or to modify assets. Similarly, external contributors or freelance writers should only have access to edit the articles they themselves have written.

At minimum, a CMS should have the ability to manage user accounts and assign them to grouped responsibilities: one account has the responsibilities (and permissions) of an administrator, whereas another, that of an editor. This basic model may become too simple as new people are hired and their roles do not fit into the provided groupings. For instance, you may give photo editors access to the assets and give them the ability to publish galleries, without the ability to edit article text.

Public users (ie. your audience) are also included in user management. They are the same as your internal users but are assigned a different set of permissions. They may comment, for instance, but they may not have access to your edit your site. Public user registration is done through a sing-up form on the site.

For further information about managing users, you should consult with your developer or development firm. They may better determine what your requirements are and how you should go about managing your users through the CMS.

Ability to Communicate and Collaborate

For: Large organizations spanning multiple physical locations.

The ability to communicate with your audience and collaborate with your internal team are the rarest features in CMS solutions. However, as the size of your organization grows, it may be necessary to centralize communications around the CMS.

Here are some communication and collaboration features that are commonly requested:

  • Ability to send a newsletter. This is a common request and one that requires great customization on the development side. Your newsletters should integrate well with your content and brand, inform you of email addresses that are invalid, how many of the emails are opened and the click-through rates for links included in the mailing.
  • Ability to notify other users of changes. If publishing an article is a multi-step process, users may benefit from the ability to send notifications of change and completion, or to pass on responsibility through messaging.
  • Ability to flag an article’s publishing status. In large companies, an article often goes through several iterations of writing and editing before being published. Having the ability to flag the current state of an article helps all contributors focus on the writing and editing instead of managing workflow.

HTC’s IgnitionWeb is a good example of a CMS with strengths in communication and collaboration. It allows¬† users to send notifications directly from various news and events forms as well as place content into a ‘pending’ status for further administrative review. Finally, it integrates a newsletter solution. All these features come at a price and should be considered for the largest organizations where decentralization will threatens productivity.

Cost and Productivity

The four feature groups in this article primarily reduce cost by putting administrators (not developers) and integrating parts of expensive tools (eg. Photoshop for image cropping, external document servers) into an asset management system. In addition, productivity is increased through a standardization of user management, workflow and communication.


WordPress: CMS for blogging and ‘light’ content management
Drupal: Popular Open Source CMS that requires customization to unleash full potential
CMS Matrix
: Compare the feature sets of many content management systems one to another
10 Criteria For Selecting a CMS: An article that covers similar features with some interesting additions

Article edited by Liesl Barrell.

Leave a Reply