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PHOTO: Siobhan Fagan

The content management system (CMS) is at a historic crossroads. Caught in a bind between innovation in developer experiences on one end and an explosion in digital channels and user expectations on the other, content teams are increasingly contending with a CMS market in which they lose out and fall behind no matter what direction they go.

Today, headless CMSs are all the rage among developers due to their front-end agnosticism and rich developer ecosystems, unbridling builders who have chafed against the restrictions that outdated presentation layers in traditional web-based CMSs long imposed.

Walk a few dozen feet to the other side of the office (or hop on a Zoom call today), and a very different conversation is taking place. There, marketing teams noodle over essentials like search engine optimization (SEO) and digital asset management (DAM), regulatory compliance and above-the-fold placement, content strategy and information architecture. Despite the advantages of headless CMSs in areas like interactivity, performance and security, marketers worry about losing access to features that have been fundamental to CMSs for most of their history: contextual features like in-place editing, layout management and content templating. Here, the traditional CMS still reigns supreme.

Things have never been more polarized, and it’s leading to an environment where headless CMSs are “by developers, for developers,” as a CMS expert recently opined to me, and legacy CMSs are for everyone else.

The CMS Has Always Been About Uneasy Compromise

CMSs have always been a bit of an odd duck when it comes to their ecological niche in the larger world of software. Most software deals with only one or a few personas, but the CMS stands alone as a nexus of collaboration across a variety of personas, each with their own motivations and missions.

All of us should be worried about the divide now occurring in the CMS market. In the past, content editors, marketers, developers, compliance officers, designers and product managers alike all rallied around the traditional web-only CMS as the only place for cross-functional content collaboration. Today, we have two seemingly irreconcilable segments: headless CMSs that help developers but hurt marketers, and traditional CMSs that help marketers but hurt developers. This discord could lead to the permanent disintegration of the CMS market.

Though they may not have known it at the time, the earliest CMS vendors, those who made the leap from glorified blogging tools or discussion forum frameworks to structured content behemoths, forged a middle ground across personas. Uniting around an optimal feature set for everyone’s content processes and workflows, editorial teams surrendered WYSIWYG flexibility in favor of more developer extensibility and developer teams surrendered their full control over code to enable greater editorial flexibility. By the late 2000s, this uneasy compromise was cemented in all of the market-leading CMSs and represented a key driver for the success of the CMS industry.

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Neither CMS Segment Is the Answer

Concerns about the CMS market contend with multiple issues, including the ongoing channel explosion, where the vast majority of non-web experiences remain only maintainable by developers, but also the very nature of the CMS itself as more than just “content as data.” These anxieties have crystallized thanks to Gartner’s recent retirement of the Magic Quadrant for web content management (WCM) in favor of the still ill-defined digital experience platform (DXP), whose naming promotes all experiences beyond the web to the status of first-class citizen.

For content teams, the headless CMS promised, at long last, the utopian ideal of all digital experiences under a single roof, regardless of infrastructure or rendering mechanism. But the reality leaves much to be desired. Editorial and marketing teams by no means have the level of visual control over presentation that they did in the web-only era. Developers have had to reinvent the wheel and rebuild editorial workflows and content processes that formerly came off the shelf.

Anecdotes initially emerged in a slow and steady trickle, now there's a deluge of buyer's remorse stories in which content teams who purchased a headless CMS immediately came to regret their decisions over issues such as access to the editorial interface from within a headless front end, menu and URL management, and preview and approval workflows. A common thread straddles all of these stories: “We simply didn’t know what we were getting into.”

These data points portray a new reality about the headless CMS segment of the market and the key motivation for why headless CMS adoption curves have begun to flatline, especially upmarket. We see this most clearly in how some headless CMS vendors have abandoned the loaded “CMS” moniker in favor of the more opaque descriptor “content platform.”

For editorial teams who couldn’t care less about the distinctions between digital experiences on the web or beyond, their expectation continues to be that they can manipulate them just as they have for many years.

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We Need to Forge a Renewed Equilibrium

On the one hand, organizations know legacy CMSs are ill-suited to the litany of digital experiences now entering the picture. On the other, they also know using a headless CMS means surrendering visual building and presentation management features they continue to hold dear. As digital experiences continue to multiply, along with editorial demands, our key customers are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But CMS vendors and developers building CMS solutions are also finding themselves trapped in a dilemma of rising user expectations and challenges of historical precedent. Whereas in-place editing and drag-and-drop layout building is appropriate for a website or even a native desktop or mobile application, editability isn’t easy to implement in content presented on a smartwatch or to a voice assistant. In some cases, a high-fidelity preview and deep integration with editorial workflows is all that’s needed.

Our previous uneasy compromise was struck over time with mutual understandings of how a website ought to be built. For experiences beyond the web, where these compromises no longer neatly apply, we need first to understand the minimum viable threshold for editors and marketers working on each digital experience. Is a high-fidelity preview sufficient for digital signage? How does adherence to above-the-fold compliance regulations apply in extended reality overlays and other spatial content? Is an abstract textual approximation of a voice interface exchange adequate for editorial approvers?

What works for one digital experience may not work for another. Our editorial teams will have to interact with each experience in a patchwork of ways. It will be hard going for vendors to enable the novel workflows, approaches and architectures required. But what will result is a new grand compromise for a future-ready CMS.

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