Mobile content management system (CMS) overview and solutions

So what a mobile CMS is, exactly

Google mobile content management system (CMS) and you'll get close to 20 million hits. However, people often have different ideas of what a mobile content management system CMS actually is.

This article covers the topic in its entirety, showing how a CMS for a mobile app is different from a content management app for the iPad. You will learn about different use cases, purposes, and what is appropriate for different requirements.

What people really mean by mobile CMS

To most people, mobile content management system usually means something like:

  • A mobile app content backend. A CMS for managing content in mobile app(s), possibly for several devices (iPhone + iPad) and/or several platforms (iOS + Android) – from a single tool
  • A responsive website CMS. A CMS for managing content on a website which is mobile-friendly – that is, responsive, displaying information properly no matter the size of a screen
  • A mobile admin app for an existing CMS. A CMS which runs as an app on a mobile device – a smartphone or a tablet – and can be used to create and organize content on the go

These meanings of mobile CMS are quite different. Let's go into more detail.

Manage content in mobile apps

Imagine an app for an online vinyl store; for every record there is a title, description, several photos and an audio sample.

Naturally, it makes little sense to store this content inside the app itself. Such an approach would lead to some unpleasant consequences:

  1. The app owner would need to resubmit the app to the app store after each content update, which would significantly delay releases, not to mention the increased size of the app itself.
  2. It would be necessary to update the content independently in different apps, which would be time- and effort-consuming even if there is only two apps, one for Android and one for iPhone.
  3. Somewhat corresponding to the previous point, it makes the content non-reusable: if the same vinyl covers are to be presented on the store website, they would come from yet another place – a web CMS – not related to the app at all.

Instead, the content for mobile apps should come from a single system. Such a mobile content management system should be able to push content to different platforms, so that there would be a single content source for every app. Ideally, this CMS would also be able to provide content to other content channels just as well, becoming a single place for all the content.

Here is what people are doing to resolve these problems.

Build your own custom backend

One possible intention is to build a custom backend for content management and delivery for this one specific project.

The advantage of this is that there will be no compromises, as the solution will be tailored to all the project requirements. However, there are obvious downsides: it's expensive. Custom solutions require resources, which aren't always available.

On top of that, you might be reinventing the wheel: at the start of the project everything could look simple, and the problems would start appearing only further down the road. There are companies which dedicate all of their time and effort to building one CMS and solving these problems, so it is possibly more optimal to use an existing product.

Use existing MBaaS

Among existing solutions there are MBaaS, short for Mobile Backend as a Service, like Parse or Kinvey, which focus specifically on delivering content to mobile apps. They work fine for apps which are not very content-rich and which do not involve significant content work.

However, they do not really provide a proper editorial experience and workflow. That means that they are mostly developers-focused, highly technical, which make such solutions unusable for content creators and editors.

Use API-based CMS

A fairly new alternative is using a CMS with a RESTful JSON API, also sometimes called Content as a Service, or CaaS. That way you get to leverage the content creation and management features for the content creators and still get the content in a mobile-friendly format.

When selecting an API-first CMS, you may want to look at a the following requirements to not be stuck on an island:

  • API querying capabilities: how flexible the API is, can it process complex queries, can you read and write content with the API, etc.
  • Separation of content and presentation. Making sure that content is separated from presentation ensures that content can be displayed on any screen.
  • Mobile-optimized delivery. The CMS should do all the little things which matter a lot for mobile users, such as coping with impaired network connectivity and data transfer rates, minimizing requests, and providing lightweight media assets that load much faster.
  • Scaling, speed and infrastructure. The CMS should scale according to the project requirements, the backend should deliver the content fast, and infrastructure should be taken care of.

There are several options of such CMSs on the market. You could use an existing web-based CMS such as WordPress or Drupal with a plugin which adds the API features. This approach has certain advantages and drawbacks, which are discussed at length in this article.

An alternative is a CMS which was built API-first from the start. An example of such CMS is Contentful, a mobile-ready, API-first CMS. Businesses and publishers such as Playboy, Nike and Axel Springer use Contentful to power their mobile presence. Contentful delivers content through a well-documented RESTful JSON-based API, which makes it fairly simple to get content from the backend and show it in the app.

If you're planning to build a native iOS, watchOS, tvOS or OS X app, take a look at Selecting an iOS CMS article.

Manage content in a mobile-optimized website

This is 2015, and sometimes a mobile audience is larger than the desktop one. Still, the websites are being viewed in a browser, and modern websites should perform equally well on any kind of screen. Websites are expected to be responsive, so that the content looks good regardless of the device. Managing the content of such a mobile-friendly website is what a mobile CMS can do.

The world of web CMS is very well-developed, and most CMSs are suited for this purpose. Here are the solutions which the market offers:

Responsive website on top of existing CMS

A very typical situation is that there is a website already in place, and there is a CMS powering it. What you could do is to make it responsive, mobile-friendly. Proprietary CMS most likely offer some kind of upgrade to achieve that, whereas with open source CMS there are typically some themes or extensions which provide responsiveness: see some examples for WordPress, Drupal and Joomla.

New CMS which knows how to be mobile-friendly

Another take on this problem is to use a CMS which was built originally with mobile in mind. Such CMS would very much simplify reaching mobile devices, as development would be simpler and editors would be able to preview how the content will look on mobile directly from the CMS.

Further benefits of such a CMS is that it enables better content modelling. It makes it possible to abstract from presentation a bit, stop thinking in terms of pages, and split the content in small chunks instead. Why one would do that? Because it simplifies content reusage, and enables presenting the content on every platform in the best possible manner instead of showing exactly the same website for every screen. For example, you could have two versions of product descriptions: a long one for desktops and a shorter one for mobiles.

Contentful, a CMS which was built to make mobile publishing simple, is a great choice for managing content of a responsive website, as long as you would like to reuse the same content across other channels, such as mobile apps. Its API-first approach helps developers put content from the CMS into the website and gives them fine control over what is to be displayed on each version of the website. Have a look at how Playboy built their responsive website with Contentful.

Manage content on a tablet or smartphone

There is little reason why content creation should be limited to computers, as was the case with CMSs recently. Can we consider Twitter a CMS of sorts? 80% of Twitter active users are on mobile, which suggests that people are willing to create content on the go.

Some CMSs come with apps for mobile devices – mostly tablets. Sometimes they are shipped by the vendor of a CMS, as is the case with Wordpress and Magnolia CMS, for instance; sometimes they are built by third parties: one of the examples is Drupal on the go.


The mobile content management system (CMS) expression has several meanings, which hopefully are clarified by now. If you need to manage content in mobile app(s), you would want a CMS preferably built for that purpose, and the best solution is an API-first CMS, such as Contentful. If your goal is rather to publish a responsive website and manage content inside it, you could either use an extension for an existing web CMS, or also go with a modern mobile-first CMS such as Contentful. Finally, if you want to manage content on the go and publish from a tablet, there are some solutions for that, which typically run on top of existing CMS.