The Future of Content Management: How to Choose a CMS


“The rise of the headless CMS” might sound like a horror movie. And the thought of adopting a new type of CMS—short for content management system—can definitely be nerve wracking. But as consumers change the way they consume content and as organizations change the way they store and use data, it’s time to face this decision head-on.

The ABCs of the CMS

If you aren’t already familiar with the ins and outs of content management systems, a CMS is a simply a software platform that facilitates the creation, organization, and publication of digital content in a collaborative (and ideally intuitive) way. For the purpose of this discussion, we’re talking about CMS platforms that are designed primarily for management of web content.

Most CMS programs consist of a backend platform that supports the indexing and retrieval of content, as well as a front-end UI that typically takes the form of a WYSIWYG dashboard that provides easy assembly and visualization of web content: text, graphics, video, search functions, and so on. Popular CMS platforms include Kentico, Drupal, and WordPress.

New forms of CMS systems are making waves, but many organizations have invested significant resources in their existing systems.

Options Abound

Headless CMS, which decouples the traditional frontend/backend setup, is generating a big buzz for 2019. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for your organization. For now, the market is packed with players, from the ubiquitous and traditional WordPress to the headless Kentico Cloud. Some vendors, like Kentico and Ektron/Episerver, offer a range of platforms to ease transitions and meet a variety of needs.

How can you determine which one is right for your organization? 
We’ll get to that in a moment, but first: Here’s a quick rundown of available CMS categories, along with a few pros and cons of each.

Traditional CMS

Traditional CMS still holds the lion’s share of the market. This category marries a website’s front and back ends—the UI that you use to enter and visualize delivered content, and the delivery system as well as the storage of that content.

This type of CMS originated around a single concept: Make website creation easier. Dashboards simplify content entry and let users build websites from a range of parts and pieces, such as titles, images, buttons, and body text. As time and technology passed, traditional CMS platforms added features to address new delivery channels and content trends, such as embedded video and social media posts. Back-end organization has also evolved, of course, as cloud storage, mobile devices, and big data have begun to make the maintenance of a traditional CMS less cost-effective than other more modern options.

The available options in this category vary widely across factors including price, ease of use, security, GDPR compliance, and enterprise-ready feature sets. One thing they all have in common, though, is the connection between the front end and the back end.

Examples: Kentico, Ektron/EpiServer, Progress Software/Sitefinity, Drupal, and WordPress

Digital Experience Management

As consumers began to expect (and demand) content “experiences” rather than simply content delivery, a new type of CMS emerged: the digital experience management (DXM) systems. These platforms (sometimes also referred to as DXP) began to focus on personalization and long-term engagement rather than static content posts.

Particularly popular in enterprise settings, DXM/DXP solutions bundle technologies into a feature suite that is delivered to users via a CMS interface. By collecting and using generalized consumer data, these products enable analytics and segmentation to support email and advertising campaigns. They also focus on delivery across a range of channels and devices, thanks to back-end centralization and an API-first approach.

DXM/DXP solutions tend to be used by enterprise organizations that are adept at leveraging the big data that the systems churn out to help optimize and personalize the overall user experience. The total cost of ownership of this type of CMS also tends to be much higher, with expensive upfront investments in licensing and hosting technology. However, vendors like Kentico offer relatively affordable all-in-one digital experience management solutions that also play well with other marketing and tracking technology you might be using.

Examples: KenticoAdobe Expression Engine, Sitecore, Episerver

Headless CMS

The newest evolution of content delivery is the headless CMS. These solutions are typically cloud-based and focus fully on delivering a content-first, omnichannel management approach.

The idea behind headless CMS is to create a true “write once, use multiple times” environment. Currently, the most common example of omnichannel experiences are companies with mobile applications. These companies are typically leveraging headless CMS to allow the syndication of content inside their mobile apps as well as across their website to provide a cohesive, consistent message and experience across all channels that visitors touch.

In some ways, headless CMS is a blast from the past: These platforms eschew WYSIWYG UIs and rely on highly structured data when it comes to content management. But in every other way, the headless CMS is definitely a solution built for modern content consumption and for highly agile and often dispersed content-management teams. Headless takes the API-first approach of the DXM/DXP a step further, utilizing RESTful APIs to make content available on any device, through any channel, in any combination. Headless CMSs also provide flexibility because they allow you to create the front-end experience in any technology you want (from .NET to Javascript) to support mandated technology choices, reduce the learning curve for your current developers, or help you find new developers to work on your project in a tight labor market.

Headless CMS solutions support a modern microservice approach and take full advantage of today’s cloud infrastructure—meaning you have choices about how to set up, manage, and scale your website, independently of the CMS running it. Plus, this approach can streamline content collaboration and reduce the likelihood of outdated, redundant, or conflicting content existing across channels.

The opportunities are exciting and upfront investments can often be very low compared to our other two categories. But there is a learning curve for your teams as they adjust to a new way of developing for your website and managing your content.

Examples: Kentico Cloud, Contentful, Zesty, Graph CMS

So Which CMS Option Is Right for Your Organization?

Should you adopt headless CMS—or is another evolution on the horizon? To a large extent, the answers depend the mix of marketing technology you utilize, how integrated your website is with other business processes, and what your customers need to be able to do on your website.

In addition, you need to consider how your organization is planning on leveraging changing technological options, how you might take advantage of the flexible delivery trends they enable, and the way those trends influence consumer demands and preferences. They also depend on your organization: your workflow, technical capabilities, and so on.

Forbes notes that the first step in this decision-making process is to take a hard look at how you deliver content and engage with clients and end consumers—and whether that’s where you want to stay. Ask yourself:

  • Are you focusing on omnichannel delivery?

  • Are you ready to move to a cloud-native CMS?

  • Is a CMS upgrade already part of your plan?

  • Are you happy with your current CMS vendor? If so, do they offer solutions outside of traditional CMS?

  • Do you have the bandwidth to modify existing content as well as create new content to meet personalization demands?

  • How collaborative is your workflow?

  • Do you have in-house CMS back-end support?

The decision to deploy a headless CMS (or DXM/DXP) isn’t an obvious one. You might even determine that a hybrid approach is best. But don’t put off thinking about the options. Doing so puts you at risk for being caught playing catch-up or being caught short by further shifts in technology or consumer preference.

Over the next few months, we’ll help to provide guidance that will likely ease the evaluation process. Until then, take a look at some of these resources; we find them particularly informative.

Need help with a CMS evaluation?

The team at Refactored works with all of the CMS types mentioned in this article. We provide consulting to help your organization select the CMS that meets your needs best for today and that will set you up for long-term success. To find out more, please contact us.