Man looking at different CMS road signs

If you are reading these lines, there’s a fair chance that you’ve worked with content management systems for some time and perhaps have even used multiple different systems.

Now, if you close your eyes for a moment: Try to pretend that you don’t know much about CMS and the confusing marketplace. And then put yourself in the shoes of a buyer - a customer who needs a new CMS to power their digital experience. How would you navigate and make sense of it all?

Would you look at analyst reports? Vendor websites talking about DXP with CMS appearing below the fold? Would you rely on your digital agency of choice? There are many options, many considerations, and it’s quite confusing, to be blunt. Perhaps even more so now than twenty years ago, and to add some more pressure: Today your website is much more important than back then.

In this post, I’ll try to help you make sense of it all. Based on input from the CMS Expert community, I hope you’ll leave with some helpful and useful guidance to make sense of it all. Let’s start with going back in time to understand why it’s not easy.

Understand the CMS problem before solving it

Twenty years ago, I worked at a CMS vendor based outside Frankfurt, Germany and I thought I knew all there was to know about the crowded, confusing, and immature marketplace for content management systems.

Or perhaps rather, I was pretty sure I had a firm grip on what buyers needed, how to address the challenges, and how to navigate the still young marketplace.

Little did I know that outside my echo chamber, there was so much more to learn and understand.

Having worked for four years in various pre-sales, consulting, and product management roles, I had the privilege of visiting customers, prospects, and partners and seeing many different organizations behind the scenes. We also frequently ran into competitors and our partners also worked with multiple vendors.

You might think that back then, CMS was basically publishing webpages. It was much more. Much of the feature set you’ll find today was also there back in 2001. There was personalization, static or dynamic content, caching, workflows, mobile content, and much more.

My training was that CMS covered the digital content lifecycle from the cradle to the grave:

  • Content acquisition, like from existing sources, databases, external repositories
  • Content creation
  • Composition
  • Delivery
  • Archiving

Few CMS vendors cared much about archiving. Some vendors only covered the first 2 or 3 bullets and would later be known as headless. Some focused mostly on the last bullets and others tried to do it all.

And that’s the problem in a nutshell: An almost endless amount of use cases. If you then add plenty of room for innovation, the power of digital transformation and increasing spend, then you know why this space hasn’t exactly consolidated as some analysts predicted back then. Instead, it’s become more crowded and more confusing.

Before we move on, there’s also an important piece of good news: Thankfully, many more projects are succeeding. Let’s look at how you can find your way through the CMS maze.

Focus on your projects, but do your CMS homework

My preference is to look at how customers are doing it to identify patterns, but as the saying goes: All roads lead to Rome.

There are indeed many ways to smarten up and make sense of the CMS market. Irrespective of your path, I would encourage you to focus on your projects, your initiatives, and time-to-market. It requires many full-time jobs to stay on top of the CMS market – and it is a fast-moving market. Your job is probably to make a tool selection or to inform one and then move onto actually creating value. Keep that in mind so that you don’t fall into CMS analysis paralysis.

In my previous post, I shared what we can learn from the W3C CMS selection process. In brief, this was a story about a public tender with requirements, a strong emphasis on accessibility, and a selection process led by a customer in close collaboration with a digital agency.

Recognizing that you and your organization don’t know everything about the problem at hand at the beginning is a good place to start.

Leave some time and budget for learning. In particular, as you’ll run into confusing and contradicting messaging along the way.

Actually, when it comes to learning, and before picking one or multiple CMS vendors, now would be a good time to read a book like Real World Content Modeling by Deane Barker. It’s absolutely worthwhile to know what you want to do with your content before you put it in a new CMS. I've written more about the book in this piece: Happy editors make better content.

You might also want to make key decisions about:

  • Who will own the experience?
  • What about headless?
  • How will you allow for interoperability?

So far, so good? Let’s move on to how to get more clarity and make sense of it all.

Getting ready to set sail in the sea of content management systems

Moving on from your own requirements and key initiatives, some customers turn to industry analysts. Several of them cover this space, although some today prefer DXP (Digital Experience Platforms).

Recently, Gartner released their 2021 Magic Quadrant for DXP, which covers key trends and vendors. A good place to start is this post with Key Takeaways from Gartner’s 2021 Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms. To name just a few vendors included: In the leaders’ quadrant, you’ll find quite different vendors like Sitecore and Liferay, while Salesforce is rated as a challenger and Magnolia introduced as a niche player.

Forrester also came up with an Agile CMS report. In the evaluation, Adobe was listed as an agile CMS, Contentful is a strong performer and Acquia is also in there. These are quite different vendors with quite different systems. If you read the report, you can find both an overview of Agile CMS market trends and evaluations of 15 vendors’ offerings, strategy, and market presence. I haven’t yet heard customers ask for an agile CMS, but sometimes analysts do start a trend.

Traditionally, open-source options are missing from the major analyst reports. Some analysts have revenue requirements for inclusion, which makes it hard, while others look at global adoption or other criteria.

Besides the industry analysts, I would rather recommend turning to your digital agency or agencies of choice. How about asking them for their recommendations? They probably know you well and also have a decent understanding of the CMS marketplace. There’s good guidance to be found among trusted advisors whose jobs and businesses depend on getting your project across the finishing line.

Finally, as you are out in the open waters and swimming in the sea. You’ll likely discover vendors that you hadn’t heard about in advance. Some will try to change the game by turning your attention to their approach, their unique feature, and why you should choose them. That’s all normal and a part of it. Keep an open mind, but do try to keep the focus on your projects. Time spent talking to references is well spent.

Think you need a life jacket? In the final chapter, I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t drown.

Inconvenient truths about the CMS marketplace

You might think that after all these years, a helpful vendor or digital agency should be able to easily size up your project and tell you what it will take in terms of budget and team size to swim safely. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

You’ll need to speak to multiple vendors, and ideally, multiple digital agencies to get the best proposal on the table. You’ll probably find quite different pricing and sizing in their suggestions, and you might also need to change course along the way, but that’s a part of it.

Do try to seek inspiration from peers. That’s a key part of going to conferences or attending something like our CMS Expert community. By speaking to peers, you’ll get the insider story on the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’ll probably hear something on governance, working with the agency, and helpful insights on their CMS. As always: The devil is in the details.

Finally, a word on risk: Surely, there’s a difference between picking a regional vendor like Norwegian Enonic or a global powerhouse like Adobe. Yes, but just because Adobe is big doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more committed and more willing to invest and stay in the CMS space compared to smaller and lesser-known vendors. Just a few examples:

  • IBM sold their CMS offering to HCL
  • Microsoft discontinued their CMS
  • Interwoven was big back then but acquired by Autonomy

To be fair, there are still customers using IBM, Microsoft, and Interwoven to power their website. Just please don’t discount smaller vendors as riskier than larger ones.

Good luck!P.S. – Deane Barker also wrote a recommended book on the topic that is packed with valuable lessons: Things You Should Know: 25 Lessons I've Learned About Selecting Content Technology and Services