A new grand compromise in content management

Content management systems are facing enormous challenges these days, such as an increasing number of channels. Users consume content not only via websites but also via mobile apps, voice assistants like Alexa or Siri, digital signage, IoT devices, virtual and augmented reality, and many more channels nowadays.

On the other hand, CMSs face the challenges of the separation of design and content and the new wave of CMSs – headless, decoupled, and distributed CMSs. As a consequence, we will face two worlds of content management systems in the future. Those that are on the content side, and others that are on the experience side. Actually, there will also be systems that can cover both. Industry analysts refer to those that mainly cover the experience side as digital experience platforms. Some providers even refer to themselves as digital experience platforms (such as the Adobe Experience Manager).

A reflection of browser wars?

What’s the core challenge of this shift towards experience platforms? The main challenge reflects the browser wars of the past decades.

The first browser war was basically all about product packaging. It was about the race of building new features, neglecting web standards. Just 10 years later, the first CMS war centered around a similar topic. Between 2005 and 2014, CMSs exploded in innovation after being developed with limited features for blogging or message boards.

Eventually, CMSs have to contend with many personas: developers, marketers, editors, but also with project managers, proofreaders, auditors, and other software or services. During this first “war”, some of the most widely used features emerged, such as the WordPress plugin ecosystem with advanced custom fields.

The battleground for the second browser war looked quite different. Every browser focused on mobile web, UX, and browser performance. It was a fight on the support of new devices and network conditions (with Google Chrome as the winner). The second CMS war, marked by the proliferation of headless CMS solutions, will be around quite the same topics: content delivery and editorial administration among emerging new channels. Although this second war seems similar for browsers and CMSs, there is a vast difference. Browsers focus on a primary persona, the end user. CMSs have to make multiple personas happy at the same time.

Development vs. marketing

Marketers and content editors want (and need) control over non-web experiences, but CMS solutions today are built for building websites. They don’t think of augmented reality, set-top boxes, mobiles, wearables, or other channels. Without developers, content editors and marketers are usually not able to go beyond responsive websites. Imagine a marketing team planning to publish an app for the Amazon Fire TV stick. Without a considerable development effort, this endeavor wouldn’t be feasible.

Preston So states,

We should no longer be characterizing the CMS as a contiguous system, but rather as a distributed content management stack.

He is referring to the fact that distributed CMSs are not tied to a single technology stack anymore. Developers can build what they want in the technology they choose and use a separate presentation layer to bring it all together and abstract away the different technology stacks underneath.

This separation of concerns is one of the essential principles of software architecture. With new architectures like with headless CMSs like Contentful, the separation of concerns merely migrates to a new place. What separation line follows the data–render divide now?

Companies are starting to regret buying headless CMSs like Contentful because they seemed attractive for development and a strict separation of design and content in the beginning, but in the end, they are not built for people managing actual content. That’s why editors and marketers get frustrated with such developer-oriented platforms. Although headless CMSs offer innovative ways to use the “source” of data, the presentation of content remains a black box.

A great experience for everyone

In the end, the question should be, “What is better for every user?” The overall goal should be to offer an excellent experience for users across personas using and “consuming” the CMS.

What does the journey from web content management to digital experience platforms look like? There are still many obstacles to overcome. The main challenge remains to satisfy both developers and marketers.

The holy grail, according to Preston So, is to offer a way to manage the presentation of content. You shouldn’t treat content as data, but rather also manage how you want to present your content. That’s what some might call digital experience management.

In the end, content recycling (or reuse) is a central challenge in content operations. End users expect to have access to content from anywhere at any time. Usually, the content itself is not the problem but making the content available anywhere at any time.

While “new” headless CMS understand content as simple data, the traditional CMS necessarily presents content. Developers working with headless CMS want to architect and implement apps without being held back while marketers want to have the full power of presentation and workflows. Neither one is a silver bullet – a new grand compromise is needed. A compromise with new workflows, new approaches, and new architectures.

Rebuilding what makes a (great) CMS

Industry experts like Gartner have raised the bar for CMSs for a reason. Every CMS has to match the demands of Enterprise CMS solutions. To stay competitive, CMSs have to offer a modern developer experience and an omnichannel-enabling editorial experience. This doesn’t mean that editors should be able to edit content on their Apple Watch, but they should be able to edit the content – and more specifically, the presentation of that content – for their Apple Watch.

It’s a fact that content must be recycled across a growing range of digital experiences, from smartphones to digital signage, wearables, cars, and virtual reality experiences. CMSs – or DXPs – need to figure out how editable such experiences should be. They need to think of the control mechanisms of marketers and editors. They also need to take care of powerful previews beyond the web (“How does my content look like on a smart watch?”). Preston So believes all CMSs need to undertake to craft an attractive experience for all personas that also retains as much of the CMS functionality as possible. He stands up for rebuilding the shared foundation of what makes a CMS.


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