The Ultimate Guide to Building a Custom Content Management System

Rating — 5·19 min·June 8, 2023
The Ultimate Guide to Building a Custom Content Management System
The Ultimate Guide to Building a Custom Content Management System
Need a comprehensive guide on custom content management system development? Learn how to build a CMS from scratch that fits your specific needs.
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Key takeaways

  • By building a custom, industry-specific content management system, you can cover the unique requirements of businesses that can’t find the necessary functionality and customizability in a standard CMS.
  • Before you proceed to developing your custom CMS, it’s necessary to define what exactly you want to build, for whom you want to build it, and how you want to build it.
  • You can build a custom CMS in five steps: discovery, design elaboration, development and testing, MVP launch, and further improvements.

In 1997, two doctoral students at Cornell University noticed there was no software on the market that would allow educators to deliver course content and manage student engagement online. That’s why they decided to create an easy-to-use and scalable platform for educational institutions of all sizes.

These students were Michael Chasen and Matthew Pittinsky — the founders of Blackboard, a content management system (CMS) for the education industry. Twenty-six years later, Blackboard is a CMS platform with over 100 million users. And while there are numerous flexible and powerful content management systems on the market, Blackboard is still one of the leaders.

The success of Blackboard and other content management systems may be a good reason to consider developing a tailor-made CMS solution for a specific industry. You can build a content management system not only for the education sector but for any niche where you can address specific challenges or satisfy demands better than competitors.

In this article, we will follow the Start with Why concept, popularized by Simon Sinek, to guide you through the process of building a CMS. By breaking down the development process into four key parts — why you should build a custom CMS, what exactly you can build, how to do this in a time- and cost-efficient way, and who can help you with software development tasks — we aim to provide you with a clear and comprehensive guide on how to create a CMS for a specific industry or niche.

start with why

How to build a CMS: Start with why

Widely used content management systems such as Wix, Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress are versatile for various businesses, providing them with essential tools and functionality for effortlessly managing content. Users have a lot of options for customizing CMS platforms and can shape the system according to their needs using templates, themes, plugins, and other CMS features.

However, if you try existing content management systems, you may find that none of them precisely meet your unique needs. Leading CMSs often fail to meet the needs of particular businesses and industries. And that’s when a custom solution comes to mind. Building a content management system that some category of potential users truly craves is a go-to startup idea.

Still, even in the uncrowded market of industry-specific CMSs, you will have to compete with well-established players that already have a loyal user base. Let’s look at key reasons why you should build your own CMS, even though the competition may be intense.

Project discovery phase: The way to answer why

A project discovery phase is a perfect way to find an answer to why building a certain product is a good idea. It’s the first step to take for anyone who wants to create a profitable, successful product that brings true value to users.

A discovery phase starts before the actual development phase. It’s a problem-solving, research-based process that helps the development team get a shared understanding of the project’s goals, challenges, potential risks, and requirements.

As a result of starting a project with a discovery phase, you can get answers to critical questions:

  • Should you really build this product?
  • What resources do you need?
  • How can you validate your idea?
  • What is the best way to bring your idea to life?

Prior to launching the development process, it’s essential to have a clear vision of your future product and make sure that your idea is viable and technically feasible.

One way to get answers to these questions is to conduct market research within a discovery phase. You can delegate this task to a professional discovery team or to a business analyst (BA) from your development team. Market research will help you find out the current state of the industry you are about to enter, spot your competitors (and their weak and strong sides), and explore the needs of your target audience.

Thanks to market research, you can check the viability of your idea and shape it according to market standards and the needs of your potential users.

A discovery phase results in deliverables — things that you need before starting the development process. The number and type of deliverables depend on your goals and the specifics of your project. Here’s a list of some deliverables that will bring value for your custom CMS project:

  • Business model canvas
  • Time and cost estimates
  • Risk assessment and mitigation plan
  • Product architecture outline
  • Development plan

Your discovery team will help you choose and prioritize deliverables required for your project. With these deliverables, you can find the true purpose behind your project and send tested ideas into development.

What should you build? Focus on CMS users’ needs

The main goal of any software development project is to meet the demands of end users. For this, you need to define what exactly you want to build and which category of users your CMS will serve.

Who should you focus on? A portrait of your target user

To create a successful product, it’s essential to know exactly who you’re building it for.

Who will consider your CMS platform useful and will be willing to pay for it?

Whose needs will your CMS meet?

To answer these questions, you need to define a user persona — a fictional representation of your perfect user.

Imagine you want to develop a CMS for the e-commerce industry. Your user persona could be an online retailer who is struggling to manage content on their website with the current CMS solution. This user may be experiencing issues such as a steep learning curve, slow load times, difficulty integrating third-party apps, or insufficient options for customization. In this scenario, your CMS could offer a more efficient, easy-to-use, and streamlined content management solution. Potential users of your CMS would be willing to pay for a tool that can save them time and money and help them grow their business.

You should also consider whether your user persona is technically inclined. For example, non-technical users include:

  • Editors that add, edit, and update content
  • Content strategists who work with different types of content and need to structure and design it without coding
  • Marketers that populate content, optimize it for search engines, and monitor how content performs with the help of analytical and tracking tools
  • Managers of online stores and marketplaces that manage product listings and handle customer orders
  • Business owners who manage their websites to update content, publish blog posts, and showcase products or services

Technical users are those who have technical expertise and need to have wider customizability options. Technical users include:

  • Developers that write custom code, create app features, add third-party services in a CMS, and integrate the CMS into a website
  • Designers who work on the user interface and user experience

tech n non-tech cms users

You can target technical or non-technical users, or you can target both groups.

The discovery phase and market research will help you tap into your user persona.

 

Traditional vs headless CMS

Once you have decided for whom you want to build a CMS, you can define the type of CMS to go for. There are two types of CMS: traditional and headless.

A traditional CMS provides frontend and backend functionality for managing websites and applications. It allows for controlling both content management and content presentation. The majority of popular CMSs including WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla are traditional.

Traditional content management systems are targeted at non-technical users. They have a straightforward interface and are easy to use regardless of a user’s level of technical expertise.

A headless CMS is a backend-only content management system. Headless CMSs appeared in response to the need for better flexibility in managing and delivering digital content across multiple devices and channels. A headless CMS separates content creation and management from content presentation. In other words, it allows for managing content in one place and deploying it across multiple channels.

A headless CMS delivers its content through APIs, allowing for smooth presentation on various digital touchpoints such as websites, devices, and third-party platforms. Examples of headless CMSs are:

  • Sanity — A highly customizable and flexible CMS for managing content for websites and applications
  • Storyblok — A CMS that emphasizes a visual approach to content creation and supports multiple languages and integrations with popular frontend frameworks
  • Payload — a developer-friendly CMS with extensive customization

Think of a traditional CMS as a fixed puzzle, where each piece is interconnected and difficult to modify without affecting the entire picture. On the other hand, a headless CMS is like a set of building blocks that you can rearrange to create different structures, allowing for more flexibility and adaptability.

Headless CMS startups founded in the latter half of the 2010s have raised tens of millions of dollars. For example, Contentstack (founded in 2018) raised a total of $89 million in 2021. Storyblok was founded in 2017 and raised $47 million in 2022.

Content management systems for different industries

Content management systems are used in various industries. Some companies use their own custom CMS, others use standard CMS software like WordPress, and some use a CMS designed for their specific industry. Before diving into the development process, you need to study the niche you want to create a CMS for. In this part, we guide you through content management systems used in different industries and provide examples.

 

Education

Blackboard is a great example of a content management system for the education industry (also called an LMS, or learning management system). Such CMSs are used by educational institutions including universities, colleges, schools, and anyone who wants to create and sell their own courses. A CMS for the educational industry provides course management tools that allow educators to create and manage course content and add assignments, quizzes, and other activities. They also have assessment and grading tools, communication tools, and other specific features.

Moodle is another example of a CMS for the education sector. Moodle is designed for blended learning, distance learning, and online learning projects. It is used by a variety of institutions all over the world, including the University of London, the California State University, and the Australian National University.

Another interesting example of a CMS for the education industry is Schoology Learning, a cloud-based CMS designed specifically for K-12 education. Schoology has over 20 million users globally.

 

Retail

In the retail industry, a CMS is mostly used by e-commerce teams to manage product information and promotional campaigns. Thus, such a system should have product information management functionality, multi-channel publishing tools, personalization and SEO optimization tools, integrations with e-commerce platforms and payment providers, and analytical tools.

BigCommerce is a good example of CMS software designed for managing online businesses. It provides features for easy order processing and inventory, integration with PayPal, built-in SEO tools for blogging, email integrations, etc. Another example is Strapi, a headless CMS that provides extended opportunities for e-commerce websites. Strapi offers integrations with various services such as PayPal, Shopify, and Stripe, allows for creating and managing content in multiple languages, has enterprise support, and more.

 

Real estate

CMSs in the real estate industry are used by brokers, agents, and property managers as an effective means of content management and advertising. Such CMS software should include media integration to show photos and videos of properties; data analytics tools to identify geographical areas that bring visitors; chatbot integration to manage common questions; multilingual functionality; integrations with real estate portals; support for IDX (Internet Data Exchange), MLS (Multiple Listing Service), and CRM systems; and other features.

The market offers some CMSs designed specifically for the real estate industry. For instance, Real Estate Webmasters is a CMS that provides customizable templates and a blogging platform and allows for lead generation through SEO and PPC, IDX and MLS integrations, and other features. Another example is Placester — a CMS platform for creating custom real estate websites, managing listings, and generating leads.

 

Hospitality

In the hospitality industry, CMS software is used by accommodation providers to manage their website content, booking systems, and marketing efforts.

A CMS made specifically for the hospitality industry should have features such as the opportunity to add media content, map integration, booking system integration, social media integration to promote the service across different platforms, and multilingual support.

Industry leaders such as Booking.com and Airbnb use their own custom-built CMSs and don’t rely on any standard off-the-shelf CMS solutions. In our research, we haven’t found any open-source CMS designed exclusively for the hospitality industry.

However, there are some platforms for hospitality that include CMS features. For example, iHotelier is a platform that provides hotels with tools for managing reservations and distribution across multiple channels, third-party travel agencies, and online travel agencies, while Sabre Hospitality is a platform that offers a range of digital marketing and technology solutions for the hospitality industry, including website design and development, digital marketing services, revenue management tools, and distribution and booking solutions.

 

Entertainment

In the entertainment industry, CMS software is used for streamlining workflows and managing various types of content (videos, music, images, and other multimedia assets), keeping it organized, accessible, and updated. A CMS for the entertainment industry should have the ability to manage multiple websites and provide developer-friendly tools.

For example, LADbible, a large British digital publisher with five different websites, was able to cut editorial time in half by choosing Contentstack as their CMS solution.

 

Gaming

Companies from the gaming industry use content management systems to manage content on their websites; to manage digital assets such as textures, models, maps, and animations; and to streamline their workflows.

Nodecraft, a game server hosting company, uses Storyblok (a headless CMS) as the main CMS for their website instead of their in-house CMS that isn’t friendly for non-technical users. Thanks to that, they were able to speed up the content turnaround process by making it possible for non-tech workers to edit and manage content independently of the development team.

 

Marketing

In the marketing industry, a CMS is used by marketers to streamline content creation and approval and promote content across various channels. Apart from standard CMS features, a CMS for the marketing industry should have robust SEO features, content personalization, and tracking and analytics tools.

There are no CMSs built exclusively for the marketing industry. However, there are CMSs that have extended features for marketers, such as HubSpot CMS (which has SEO optimization tools, lead capture forms, and analytics features) and Agility (which includes content personalization, multi-channel publishing, and analytics features).

 

Digital media

Many online publishing platforms use their own custom CMSs to manage and publish their content. These systems perfectly meet their needs and requirements and help reduce content generation and publishing times, making these processes more cost-effective and attracting more readers.

A CMS for bloggers, editors, and writers should allow them to focus on writing and formatting without having to worry about the technical details of publishing.

Forbes is a great example of how a website can benefit from a custom CMS. In 2018, Forbes decided to switch from a third-party CMS to its own custom CMS called Bertie, developed by the Forbes technology team. This happened because their previous CMS lacked flexibility and wasn’t able to meet the company’s evolving needs, such as for SEO optimization and content customization. Thanks to Bertie, an AI-driven custom CMS, Forbes was able to take content creation to a new level and double its monthly visitors. By using AI and machine learning algorithms, Bertie CMS can assist writers with content creation.

At Clockwise Software, we use a custom CMS developed by our JavaScript engineers to manage content on our website. Recently, we implemented the ChatGPT API into our blog to empower blog visitors to swiftly and effortlessly find answers to product development-related questions.

Take a look at the CMSs we’ve mentioned and think about what exact solution you want to build. We will talk about possibilities in the next section.

Defining what to build

During the discovery phase, you and your team will create a development plan and shortlist features for your minimum viable product (MVP) — the first version of a product that has just enough features to attract the first users and get real feedback from them.

There are four groups of basic features that every CMS should have.

  1. An admin board allows authorized users to manage the website’s content and configure settings.
  2. Content storage and organization features allow users to easily find the necessary content in the CMS database (by categories, tags, or search).
  3. Features for content creation and publishing are the core of every CMS. Users need to have the necessary tools such as a text editor and media library to create, format, edit, and update content, as well as to publish content immediately or at a scheduled time.
  4. Security features are necessary for protection against unauthorized access, hacking, and malware.

basic features for every cms

The other features included in your MVP will be based on the specifics of your custom CMS (the industry you’re building it for, its purpose, etc.).

After the MVP launch, you will be able to improve your product based on users’ feedback through repeated cycles of testing, feedback, and adjustment.

Once you’ve formed the product vision and have the feature list for your MVP, it’s essential to make sure that it’s technically feasible to bring your product to life. But how can you do so if you don’t have the necessary expertise in your team or technical partner? Consider looking for chief technology officer (CTO) services to support you with tech-related decisions. In this case, the development company that provides CTO as a service will be responsible for all technology-related tasks, such as developing the product and defining the technology strategy and team composition.

There are three ways to hire a CTO for your project: pay for software development consulting services, hire an in-house expert, or go for the CTO as a service model. Choosing CTO as a service, you will get on-demand service from a professional that meets your requirements. Just contact a company that provides CTOaaS and boost your team with technical expertise in a couple of days.

Want to find out more about CTO as a service?
 

How to build a custom CMS

In this section, we dive into the actual CMS building process. Once you define what exactly you want to build and have a clear development plan, you can proceed to design, development and testing, and MVP launch.

1. Design

There is no universal design for a CMS — each case is unique. The design solution for your software product will depend on its goal, the industry and business it will serve, and the CMS functionality.

The design process starts during a discovery phase. During this phase, a UI/UX designer conducts competitor research and suggests the best design solution before the development process starts. The main goal of the design process during the discovery phase is to create an interactive CMS prototype that shows how the future product will look and function.

When designing a user interface for your content management system, prioritize content as a primary driver of the design process.

When building a vision of how your CMS should look, follow this advice:

  • The homepage of your CMS is a gateway to all of its functionality. It should highlight the most important feature without going into too much detail. Focus on logic and structure rather than visual appearance. Use design elements to enhance the content and make it accessible and engaging to users.
  • When working on the interface, keep in mind that a CMS is a tool that should be intuitive and predictable for users.
  • Your product should stand out from the crowd, but it’s better to focus on minimalism: the design should enhance the content, not vice versa. Otherwise, users will be distracted.

The design process goes this way:

  1. The UI/UX designer creates design guidelines and starts working on a wireframe that outlines the basic layout, structure, key features, and functionality of the future product.
  2. Then, wireframes are handed to stakeholders to get feedback.
  3. Based on this feedback, the designer iterates on the design to make corrections and improvements.

After you complete the design, you can proceed to development.

2. Development and testing

If you want to create a quality product, you need to choose the proper tech stack for a CMS. This choice depends on a variety of factors: the scope of your project, the resources at your disposal, and others. Let’s take a look at technologies you may consider using for frontend development, backend development, the database, and hosting.

  • Frontend development

You will need to build a user-friendly interface for managing content. Frontend frameworks such as React, Angular, and Vue.js allow for building a dynamic and responsive user interface.

  • Backend development

Python, Ruby on Rails, and PHP are some of the most popular programming languages for building server-side software products. They are widely used and have large communities.

As you will likely use JavaScript libraries and frameworks for frontend development, consider basing the server side of your CMS on Node.js. It’s a robust and efficient environment for building scalable and high-performance web applications. For example, such headless CMSs as Strapi, Ghost, and Storyblok are built with Node.js.

  • Database

The website’s content in the content management system is stored in a database. Popular database management systems are MySQL, PostgreSQL, and MongoDB.

  • Hosting

If you’re planning to build on-premises software, you can host your CMS on your own server. A cloud-based solution requires a cloud hosting provider. The most popular and reliable ones are Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud.

The choice of technology stack should be delegated to your discovery team, a technical co-founder, or a specialist you cooperate with according to the CTO as a service model.

As the development process is launched, you should remember the importance of testing that is conducted along with development. Responsibility for testing lies on the shoulders of developers and QA engineers. They need to make sure the functionality and performance are flawless before the product goes to users.

There are dozens of types of QA testing that developers and QA specialists can use during the development process. At Clockwise Software, we pay the most attention to four types of testing:

  1. Unit testing is used by developers at the coding stage and focuses on testing individual components of the codebase to ensure that each of them works correctly.
  2. Integration testing involves testing interactions among different components of the codebase to ensure they work together correctly.
  3. Performance testing involves testing the response time of the CMS under various load conditions to ensure that it’s capable of handling the expected traffic (for example, when a large number of users try to access it simultaneously).
  4. Security testing involves testing the CMS solution’s security to make sure that it can protect sensitive data from unauthorized access. For example, we might test the CMS login authentication process and vulnerability to different types of attacks.

You shouldn’t stick to the listed types of testing; the technical experts within your team should decide what should be tested and how. This will depend on the specifics of your CMS and the issues that may arise during development.

3. MVP launch and further improvements

When CMS building is finished and the software can be put to use, what’s next? If you want to keep your CMS up and running and scale it along with your needs, you need to maintain and upgrade it. By performing these post-launch activities, you will make sure that your custom content management system meets the needs of your business and brings true value for it:

  1. Ensure proper maintenance of your CMS. Make sure it works fast enough, fix bugs and errors as soon as they are detected, and update the security system.
  2. Update your CMS to meet users’ future needs.
  3. Follow trends. This will allow you to make sure you’re not missing anything that could make your CMS more convenient to use and increase content management efficiency.
  4. Monitor CMS performance. A content management system needs to be optimized as new users come on board and the volume of content increases. Otherwise, it will start slowing down or even break.
  5. Collect and analyze information about how the CMS is used. This will help you identify areas for improvement and decide on future enhancements to the system.

Custom content management system development: the team

To handle the development process and all related challenges, you need to hire a development team consisting of a project manager, business analyst, UI/UX designers, backend and frontend developers, and QA engineers.

There are two options to consider: hiring an internal team or outsourcing the whole project to a software development team. In the first case, you will form a dedicated team, hiring each specialist individually that will be working solely on your project on a full-time basis.

Choosing the outsourcing option, you can avoid HR-related hassles and expenses, optimize the development costs by outsourcing your project on a remote basis to a country with more affordable software development rates, and get the necessary technical expertise right away.

If you opt for outsourcing, the main concern is to choose a suitable software development company that has the right expertise to handle your project. By choosing Clockwise Software, a JavaScript development company, for product discovery and development, you will get an opportunity to focus on your business while we handle all the hiring and development-related challenges.

Cost to build a custom content management system

The custom CMS cost depends on a variety of factors, such as the specifics and scale of the project, features required, technologies used, and the expertise and location of the development team. If you opt for web development outsourcing to Eastern Europe, you can save a lot of money without compromising the quality of your custom CMS. By outsourcing to Ukraine, for example, you can hire Ukrainian developers to work on your project and end up with a cost-effective and high-quality solution.

In general, the cost of custom CMS application development can range from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars.

Based on our experience, the discovery phase may cost you from $15,000 to $25,000.
The cost to release an MVP of a content management system may start at $90,000 and up.

You can get a more precise estimate of the web app development cost after we thoroughly analyze your requirements.

In conclusion

You can build your own CMS to meet the specific needs of your business and then monetize it, or you can take it as a promising startup idea.

So, how can you create a CMS?

By meticulously studying the target market, discovering existing opportunities, and testing your ideas during the discovery phase, you have the chance to build a successful custom CMS. A skilled development team will help you launch a truly valuable product that will become a magnet for investors.

Don’t settle for a one-size-fits-all CMS solution.
We are ready to help you create a custom-built CMS that has the functionality and flexibility you need.
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