walking in the mist
WCM is going through a kind of existential transition right now PHOTO: Dương Trần Quốc

No one has written a definitive history of web content and experience management (WCM), but they should, as it would offer some interesting lessons still relevant today.

Ian Truscott's excellent "Happy 21st Birthday Web CMS" got me thinking about my own time in the field. This brief tour is far from definitive, but hopefully you'll find some useful nuggets.

The Late 1990s

In 1996 I was working for a hybrid integrator/agency — we called ourselves a "web development shop." Our clients wanted to update their own sites, which were increasingly dynamic in nature. We soon started casting about for packaged CMS tools, and over the next five years learned some early-adopter lessons.

Most of the systems we deployed ticked us off. In those early days, the tools seemed to be written by and for techies, which we didn't mind, but our clients did. Some WCM systems still feel unnecessarily technical today.

In the late '90s we landed on three different solutions that we started to roll out for clients:

  1. Midgard: A nicely conceived, if editorially awkward, open source platform out of Finland. We picked it because it was highly performant — still an important consideration today. Lesson: Scandinavia would produce a bevy of WCM tools over the next two decades.
  2. Zope: A highly elaborated Python framework masquerading as a CMS, we spent many person-months wrestling with it. Lesson: whenever someone says "framework" when you want business software, walk away.
  3. Ektron: A family-run, high-octane company with at times unpredictable technology built off the Microsoft stack. Lesson: The .NET vendors were going to play it a bit faster and looser (and they still do today).

Major analyst firms weren't paying much attention to the WCM market back then, but when they did, the advice they offered seemed consistently opposite of what we were experiencing as actual implementers. So I figured there had to be a better way to critique these tools, and founded CMS Watch in 2001. (Actually, we were originally CMSWatch, but Swatch sued us and I wasn't going to fight it.)

The 2000s

We completed our first CMS Report in September 2001, which evaluated 16 vendors across a scant 18 criteria. The two early darlings were Interwoven and Vignette, both having gone public during the dot-com boom. The most striking thing about both vendors was how consistently unhappy their customers were. Some are still suffering today.

The other intriguing early player was Documentum. Its primary claim to fame was a big, object-oriented repository (Alfresco would mimic this talking point a decade later). But it was more of a workflow engine than publishing platform, and Documentum/EMC never seemed to really understand the needs of digital teams. Lesson: Big ECM and infrastructure vendors would consistently fail in the WCM segment.

Around that time Microsoft bought nCompass, and I recall a Gartner analyst intoning that the WCM market was finished, "commoditized." Hah! Over the decade our research expanded to cover over 35 WCM vendors. And Microsoft? It swapped nCompass out for SharePoint, but never really committed to WCM as a technology.

To be sure, some Web CMS tools died. Atomz, eGrail, Merant, HotBanana and Marquis come to mind. Yet many more have risen to prominence: Adobe, Sitecore, SDL Web, Episerver, Sitefinity, BrightSpot, Coremedia, Magnolia, Drupal, Joomla!, WordPress — the list goes on .... Lesson: remain skeptical when someone says a marketplace has gotten locked up or commoditized. There is always room for disruptive, small players, and some of them will grow quite large.

That was also the decade we started to talk a lot about "experience management" though it wasn't really a new phenomenon. WCM tools have always been portal-like and wanting to own the experience layer, even if they didn't always do it very well.

Rather, the most important trend in the 2000s was the rise of a second wave of major European vendors who ended up conquering the world of WCM. They had to incorporate multi-language support from the start, and that forced them to think differently about repositories, interfaces, segmentation services and diverse delivery environments. Their systems anticipated the multisite architectures that came to characterize digital operations, especially at larger enterprises. Lesson: first movers in business software don't always win in the end.

Beyond WCM?

We changed our name from CMS Watch to Real Story Group in 2009. I wouldn't recommend changing the name of your business. But we did it for a reason: digital leaders were increasingly looking to weave together stacks of technologies, like portals, collaboration and enterprise content management on the workplace side, and digital asset management, social and marketing automation on the customer side. 

We learned a lot reviewing these other toolsets.

Yet circa 2017, WCM remains an important enterprise capability, and I still feel very connected to the sector. It's an interesting marketplace, going through a kind of existential transition right now. 

Enterprises will redefine what content and experience management really means as they grasp that most of their customers aren't interacting with them via marketing sites. Injecting content and experiences into transactional environments is the new frontier, and our research suggests no single WCM vendor has truly figured this out (yet).

Lesson: WCM is always changing. I'll keep watching ....