Introducing the Winners of the 2021 CMS Critic's Choice Awards

CMS Critic Staff

By CMS Critic Staff

March 31, 2022
CMS Critic Staff

By CMS Critic Staff

March 31, 2022
Featured image of the 2021 CMS Critic Critic's Choice Awards badge with text that reads

Now that we have that Oscars business behind us (mostly), let's raise our glasses to 2021, shall we?

You'll live in our hearts as being "slightly less bad" than the year before. And that's saying a lot.

Refusing to be upstaged by your predecessor, you did everything you could to repeat the agony of 2020 – a year that only Satan could date.

To summarize: if the Delta wave wasn't enough, you gave us the Omicron variant. And while most of the world is finally emerging from the onslaught of subsequent surges, it's impossible to know if we've reached the end of the "Long Night" (a reference familiar to Game of Thrones fans). Throw in a massive global supply chain glut, Afghanistan, election turmoil in the U.S., and the end of Adobe Flash Player – and the rearview mirror looks pretty bleak.

But wait... it wasn't all bad, right?

Right! And one of the persistent bright spots of 2021 was the continued investment in digital transformation and the growing stack of technologies that support it.

Not only was it a banner year for CMS, DXP, e-Commerce, and the expanded digital ecosystem of technologies, but a recent study is predicting over a 12% CAGR through 2028. On top of that, we saw a slew of strategic acquisitions – from Optimizely purchasing Welcome to Sitecore buying Boxever and Four51 – and the cycle has yet to let up.

To that end, let's bid adieu to 2021 with some positive vibes and pop some bubbly: it's time to toast the winners of the 2021 CMS Critic's Choice Awards!


How were the winners chosen?

If you're not familiar with the CMS Critic Awards, let's give you a quick primer. While CMS and DXP platforms power millions of websites across the plant, they exist largely behind the scenes – and recognizing their contribution has been a persistent gap in the software market. Since 2012, the CMS Critic Awards have celebrated excellence across the CMS, DXP, and related ecosystem of technologies, honoring vendors for their innovation and service.

Each year, we recognize a single winner in a variety of industry-specific categories such as Best Cloud CMSBest DXPBest Headless CMS, and more. To provide a fair opportunity to all vendors, we offer two unique award platforms: our People's Choice Awards, where our community of readers nominates and votes for the winners, and our Critic's Choice Awards – which are hand-selected by our team of editors and CMS industry experts.

For each category in the Critic's Choice Awards, our panel picked a single platform based on a variety of criteria, including completeness of vision, new and noteworthy functionality, growth potential, and community awareness. There were no size or revenue requirements, and our editors practiced a neutral, unbiased mindset when making their selections.

OK, 'nuff said. Drum roll, please! And the winners are...



Best Enterprise CMS: Contentstack


Contentstack logo


This year's Best Enterprise CMS Award goes to Contentstack, an undisputed leader in headless and agile content management. Under the remarkable leadership of CEO Neha Sampat (who we interviewed), the company was on a roll throughout 2021, consistently drawing the attention of Gartner and Forrester. There's no question that the headless CMS market has exploded over the last few years, and Contentstack has continuously differentiated around its simplified infrastructure management, dynamic modular blocks, easy-to-use UI, and API-driven architecture. 

Since closing its $31.5 million Series A round in 2019, Contentstack's headless CMS has experienced over 150% growth across its customer base – and more than double the number of Fortune 1,000 companies that have adopted its platform. New customers include well-known international brands like Broadcom, Chico's FAS, HP, La Perla, Leesa Sleep, McDonald's, and NBC.

Because of its rapid growth, the amount of digital content powered by Contentstack has grown a staggering 60 times over the same time period. Last year, it raised $57.5 million in a Series B round, and the investments have certainly paid off as Contentstack closed its best year in company history with nearly 99% customer retention. Another reason for top honors is Contentstack's pivotal role as a founding member of the MACH Alliance, advocating for open and composable technology that is Microservices-based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS, and Headless (MACH). 

From a cultural perspective, Contentstack received numerous accolades in 2021, including five Comparably "Best Places to Work" Awards for Sampat's leadership, the company's ongoing commitment to competitive compensation, and its overall positive outlook for continued growth. Sampat was also named "CEO of the Year" by the Tech Ascension CEO and Leadership Awards and recognized for leading a "Business to Watch" by Woman's Way Business Awards 2021.

Finally, Contentstack took the gold for "Best Enterprise CMS" and "Best Headless CMS" in our People's Choice Awards. So clearly, a strong community of support backing it up. 



Best DXP: Optimizely 


Optimizely logo


Optimizely has been blazing a new trail ever since their acquisition by Episerver in 2020. One of its smartest moves? Embracing a brand that evokes the future, not the past. Recently, the DXP has been shooting at the moon and challenging both Acquia and Adobe for dominance in the digital experience platform (DXP) market, and they're well-positioned to continue the fight forward. 

Optimizely's strengths go well beyond CMS, defining what a modern DXP should look like in the enterprise market tier. This includes robust features like a complete e-Commerce suite, campaign and customer journey management, platform certifications, and more. As its name implies, Optimizely is purpose-built for testing, experimentation, and optimization – all of which enable organizations to personalize content across channels and devices.

Named a Leader on the 2021 Forrester Wave for Agile CMSes and the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms report, Optimizely has received some of the highest possible scores in the content hub, content services, and supporting products criteria – demonstrating its completeness of vision as a DXP. Optimizely also made two key acquisitions last year: Zaius, a Customer Data Platform (CDP), and Welcome, a content marketing (CMP), marketing resource management (MRM), and digital asset management (DAM) platform. This shored up the missing links in its ecosystem. 

It's worth noting that the latest Gartner MQ report for 2022 was completed before Optimizely acquired Welcome, so we can expect some additional shifts on next year's grid. Most recently, Optimizely announced a partnership with Google Cloud, combining experimentation-driven digital experience capabilities with Google's secure infrastructure and its AI, ML, and analytics. This includes Optimizely's Web Experimentation and Full Stack Experimentation resources, which allow marketers to take the guesswork out of delivering personalized, meaningful engagements.



Best Free CMS & Best Headless CMS: Contentful


Contentful logo


It's a double-header for headless – and a home run for Contentful. Man, this was a tough one to decide, especially with so many free and popular open source content management systems like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and others. But when we compared the performance and capabilities across the market, Contentful emerged not only as the best headless CMS – but also as the best overall free offering. Here's why:

Contentful has carved out a unique position as a powerful, API-first content infrastructure for building unique digital products. Unlike other CMSes that use a more traditional approach to delivering content, Contentful makes headless more scalable with a deep set of flexible UI/UX capabilities that make multi-channel publishing fast and easy. Its free version is also packed with value, providing access for up to 5 users, along with GraphQL, a decoupled microservices architecture, and an open platform for building apps via its App Framework.

From an investment perspective, Contentful had an explosive 2021, scoring a $175 million Series F funding round that's being focused on its growing ecosystem of customers and partners. Contentful is already trusted by over 30% of the Fortune 500, with leading brands such as Shopify, Staples, Atlassian, Electronic Arts, Chanel, Roche, and Vodafone relying on the platform to deliver headless content experiences.

Some of the best credentials for Contentful came from the Forrester Wave™: Agile Content Management Systems (CMSes) report for Q1 2021. The analyst firm zeroed in on Contentful's superior back-end extensibility, designed to help users integrate their platform into adjacent systems. The report went on to highlight its strong partner ecosystem and a well-articulated vision as key advantages – and we couldn't agree more.

Along with Contentstack (and others), Contentful is a member of the MACH Alliance, demonstrating its commitment to composable, MACH-oriented architectures. This is yet another reason why they rise to the top as a leading platform in the digital experience ecosystem.



Best Flat File CMS: Statamic


Statamic logo


There's nothing flat about this segment of the CMS market, and there are platforms a-plenty to choose from. But one that really stands out for us is Statamic: a slick yet simple CMS built on the Laravel PHP framework with a Vue.js-powered control panel. Statamic gives users one of the most popular back-end frameworks, along with access to a huge Laravel community.

What really stands out for us is the flexibility of Statamic's headless Content REST API, which can deliver content from Statamic to your frontend, external apps, and other endpoints. It's also a Git-integrated platform, meaning users can directly manage their version control workflow and automatically commit, schedule, and push content from a simple control panel. As a Git-powered solution, it uses a repo pattern to retrieve data while storing content in flat files - but its data layer gives you the ability to store content anywhere, including in a database with Laravel Eloquent.

What's also nifty about Statamic's content editor is that uses content blocks, which are highly customizable. The platform also allows you to view content history, restore prior versions, and see what your page looks like before publishing with Live Preview. You can also collaborate in real-time via the multi-user editing feature. 

Statamic is also known for its excellent support system, documentation, and community. It delivers a lot of control for building bespoke digital experiences. There are no plugins required, and it boasts excellent security to boot. We also love its website. All reasons why we think it's the top in the flat file category. 



Best Open Source CMS: Joomla!


Joomla logo


WordPress is an undeniable force in the CMS landscape. But Joomla has forced back, continuing to prove its own well-earned beachhead in the open source wars.  The storied platform turned 16 in August of last year, meaning it has a license to brag – and with 9% of all business-related sites running on Joomla, brag they should. 

Maybe Joomla doesn't have all the bells and whistles that come with WordPress, but it introduced several new and noteworthy features over the course of 2021, culminating in the release of a stable Joomla 4.0. The new version included enhanced accessibility, improved UX, customizable emails, built-in SEO, faster speeds, redefined workflow capabilities, and (more importantly) tighter security – great features that fans have been clamoring for. 

With over 40% of all websites running on WordPress, it might be a logical choice for the best open source platform. But heightened security risks, persistent plug-in issues, and the continuing saga with Gutenberg give us a moment to pause and reflect. As Joomla approaches a million active members in its forum – many fiercely loyal to the project – there are a lot of reasons to take a good look at this platform again with fresh eyes. 

Joomla's community is also one of the most passionate we've seen when it comes to supporting their platform. In fact, they swiftly delivered wins for Joomla in our People's Choice Awards in two categories: "Best Free CMS" and "Best Open Source CMS." That's what we call a rabid fan base. 



Best ECM: Hyland


Hyland logo


Hyland has become a high-powered engine in the enterprise content management (ECM) space. Best known for its Onbase and Perceptive products, Hyland securely centralizes enterprise content and delivers relevant information to users across a wide variety of industries – including healthcare, finance, insurance, higher education, and manufacturing.

Recognized as a leading content services provider by Gartner for 12 consecutive years, Hyland made some shrewd moves over the last two years to consolidate its position. While monolithic DXP platforms were shoring up a CDP or marketing automation gap, Hyland purchased Alfresco in 2020, eliminating their closest competitor and changing the makeup of the ECM leadership grid. 

Things didn't stop there. Hyland also acquired Nuxeo, a cloud-native, open-source, low-code platform with content services and DAM capabilities – a move that might translate into significant advantages against Microsoft and Sharepoint. Taking on the juggernaut is something we like, and we're looking forward to the battle royale. 

Interestingly, Alfresco received the most votes for "Best ECM" in our People's Choice Awards. This raises the question of where the Alfresco brand is headed as it becomes more deeply incorporated into the Hyland ecosystem. It can be a smart move to maintain a brand's visibility after an acquisition, and bringing a loyal customer base over to a new platform is more easily achieved by keeping an identity intact. Regardless, Hyland seems to be making a lot of the right moves as they continue to evolve the value of enterprise content management. 



Best e-Commerce: Shopify


Shopify logo


Not many companies can lay claim to beating Amazon at its own game. But Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke might be on the precipice of doing just that, as sources say Amazon is working on a rival to Shopify.

Lütke says he's fine with that, suggesting that if Amazon's product succeeds, "I actually accomplished my mission."

And that's what we like about Shopify: it understands its mission and works to deliver on it. That belief and attitude have elevated Shopify to the top of the e-Commerce game. It's blazing fast to set up, easy to learn, and has a fast load time. It also offers 1-click selling, provides themes, and has many partnerships. If you'd like to go headless, Shopify also offers a headless commerce experience with Shopify Plus, which has all the capabilities that come with the basic Shopify, but its headless features separate the back-end infrastructure from any front-end customer touchpoints – so you can build new selling opportunities anywhere and manage it all from a central location.

2021 was Shopify's biggest ever, and the innovation never slowed down. Some of its most notable improvements include cross-border commerce for merchants via Shopify Markets, making it easier and more accessible to sell globally, and the launch of its Online Store 2.0: the most significant investment that Shopify made to its platform last year. This feature, in particular, allows merchants to customize their stores, showcase their brands, create unique online experiences, and integrate apps – all without touching code. Shopify also continued its international expansion, which featured Shopify POS hardware launches in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.

As the rest of the e-Commerce wrestles with how to compete with Amazon, Shopify is emerging as the strongest rival, supplying its merchants with the tools to compete at the right scale. Shopify also took home the "Best Headless Commerce" mantle in our People's Choice Awards, demonstrating how it's continuing to earn points with users across the spectrum.



Best Headless Commerce: commercetools


commercetools logo


When "commerce" is in your name, you better bring the rain. And that's exactly what commercetools has done over the last year as one of the pioneers of the headless commerce space.

As one of the earliest platform players, the company helped shape the modern standards for headless digital commerce, providing an API-first solution with robust, efficient, and reliable features. commercetools is also augmented by GraphQL – a layer that sits on top of its existing APIs and complements them seamlessly. Its decoupled environment also enables a multitude of commerce capabilities across an ever-growing network of channels and endpoints, making it incredibly extensible. 

commercetools earned its Leader position in Gartner's 2021 Magic Quadrant for Digital Commerce – and we expect to see solid performance in this year's report, buoyed by its strategic acquisition of Frontastic, a composable frontend platform for API-first e-Commerce and headless CMSes. This addition provides a more complete toolset (as its name suggests) for meeting and exceeding the requirements of a digital commerce practice in companies that are selling online and across channels. 

Like other platforms in the still-nascent composable field, commercetools has embraced the MACH principles, providing a truly open and modular environment that enables businesses to quickly embrace innovation and respond to change. In fact, commercetools is one of the founders of the MACH Alliance – which is growly rapidly as brands and organizations look to grow without the constraints of a monolithic enterprise platform. 

Another reason why we're fans of commercetools is its growing ecosystem of international partners, including Algolia, Contentful, CrafterCMS, Crownpeak, Kentico Kontent, Magnolia, Umbraco, Contentstack, Vue Storefront – as well as a budding network of best-of-breed technology solutions. 



Best Website Builder: Webflow

Webflow logo blue


There's something zen-like in the name "Webflow." Say it out loud – you'll see what we mean.

Fortunately, the name delivers. Webflow is, without a doubt, the most powerful and versatile website building platform on the planet. Designers on our team have often likened it to a Photoshop-like experience, conjuring the richness of the image editor's tools for customizing at a granular level. With Webflow, customization is nearly limitless. 

Despite its richness and sometimes intimidating complexity, Webflow manages to provide an intuitive experience that's well-organized at every level and includes access to a deep learning annex of tutorials and documentation (another Adobe-like similarity that works to its advantage). At its core, Webflow seems intent on offering the best of all worlds to its users: a sleek, drag-and-drop website builder that's perfect for no-code designers but a platform that still gives developers access to code, so they can build in any direction. In this sense, Webflow bridges the design/code chasm more effectively than any other platform. 

While Webflow would be strong enough as a cloud-based, no-code website development tool, it also wraps hosting into its ecosystem, giving users a true one-stop experience for launching new digital experiences. And that's not just limited to the ambitions of an independent designer; in fact, Webflow is trusted by leading brands like Allianz, Zendesk, and Dell. That speaks volumes about its extensibility from downstream gig workers to larger enterprise teams. 

Webflow also offers a native content management system (CMS). Users can create all the content structures they need, whether by hand or via API and still retain control over the visual design. There are also e-Commerce capabilities and other features that really round it out as the top website builder. If you're interested in learning more, we did an in-depth review of Webflow, so make sure you check that out.



Best Static Site Generator: Gatsby


"The Great Gatsby." The title writes itself. And like the literary figure, this static site generator is reaching iconic status. 

In just a few short years, Gatsby has become the toast of the town, amassing thousands of users worldwide who are using it to build websites powered by the Jamstack – a modern architecture that uses JavaScript, APIs, and markup (the "JAM") without requiring the use of a database or server-side programming language. You can learn more about the general "jamminess" of Gatsby (and others) in our overview of the top JAMstack static site generators for 2021.

In 2020, the company closed $28 million in Series B funding, helping to fuel its continued growth through last year. At GatsbyConf 2021, the company unveiled the fruits of its labor: a dynamite version 3.0, new cloud hosting options, incremental builds, and more. All in all, not a bad run.  

There are several reasons why Gatsby has become the belle of the ball. First and foremost, it powers secure, blazing-fast websites with React, one of the most prevalent Javascript frameworks. It also simplifies the developer experience via Gatsby Cloud, a turnkey SaaS solution for building, previewing, deploying, and managing Gatsby-based websites. Gatsby also uses GraphQL for APIs, which helps with headless content delivery and streamlines the data fetching process.

Gatsby brings some great plugins, themes, and starters to their ecosystem, giving users more than one way to build a site. Its browsable library offers a rich landscape of CSS, UI, analytics, eCommerce, search, and media capabilities – all under one roof. They also have a rabid community behind their rise, many of whom are leveraging their streamlined connections to CMS platforms like Contentful and WordPress. While this space continues to evolve, we think Gatsby is helping to lead the way with its continued innovation.



Best Composable System: Uniform



When it comes to dressing for success, Uniform is looking sharp.

After the announcement of an inspired $28 million Series A Funding Round last year, the first vendor-agnostic composable DXP has been on a mission to build and connect underlying headless infrastructures, assemble compelling digital experiences, and optimize experiences to consistently improve performance and CX. In a nutshell: they're saving the digital world. 

In less than two years, Uniform has gone from an idea of "never having to re-platform" to being the new "backbone" for managing the production of digital experiences throughout the entire delivery lifecycle. The company's composable DXP complements existing headless CMS and headless commerce technologies – adding orchestration, no-code tools, built-in personalization, and other features that allow marketers and merchandisers to build unique, omnichannel digital experiences that blend content from multiple legacy and headless sources. 

One of the coolest features of Uniform is its no-code interface, designed for non-technical users like marketers and merchants. This allows users to easily assemble digital experiences without a developer on hand at every step. When it comes to speed, Uniform's high-throttle personalization delivers the fastest possible experiences to visitors codified by Google Lighthouse scores for search engine optimization. This has become a critical benchmark for websites and applications as users continue to demand faster load times. 

Like many other platforms in this year's CMS Critic Awards, Uniform is fully embracing the MACH phenomenon, empowering organizations to optimize the entire digital delivery workflow. This allows architects to choose best-of-breed MACH tools to deliver the right experiences while developers build frontends using their preferred libraries and frameworks. Meanwhile, marketers have more control over creating, launching, and iterating digital experiences with a bevy of resources at their fingertips. 

Uniform already has a blossoming community of fans, many of whom helped it achieve "Best Composable System" in our People's Choice Awards. 


And that's a wrap for the 2021 Critic's Choice Awards!

We'll end this year's award results with a simple observation: "Everyone's a critic."
It's true: we all have preferences and judgments that can, at times, be critical. But being a trusted critic means assuming the responsibility of being fair and objective – something that's often aspired to but seldom practiced. 
While our mission is to bring our community of CMS vendors and users together, it's also an opportunity to share our observations – fairly and objectively. Over the course of each year, we're able to study the market with a high degree of intimacy and connect directly with industry leaders as they discuss their roadmaps and innovation. We live and breathe CMS and DXP, and our goal is to help our readers make sense of a complex and ever-changing market as they evaluate new solutions to meet their digital experience goals. 
Although our CMS Critic's Choice winners were compiled through input from multiple "critics" on our editorial team, there are many other great platforms to evaluate. While there may not be a perfect fit out there, we hope our articles and reviews provide helpful guidance for finding the best product for your project. And if you do stumble across that unicorn of a platform, let us know – we would love to hear from you. 
At the end of the day, we let our passion for this industry shape our reporting and storytelling, and we can't wait to do more of it with you next year. 
Here's to a prosperous and content-filled 2022!

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