Content Management: Consider the Alternatives

While WordPress, Drupal, and other mainstay content management platforms have gained comfortable perches as market leaders, more recent platforms have a lot going for them, too. They’re worth a set of fresh eyes.

Content management systems are everywhere—and there are a lot of them. Many do their job well, and some are fairly innovative. (One word: Headless.)

If that’s the case then, why does it seem like the most obvious solutions always win out? In recent years, the CMS space seems to have coalesced around two different approaches to putting content on a website: A monolithic, legacy (and generally open-source) CMS like Joomla and Drupal; or a closed-source, hosted tool for building sites like Squarespace, Shopify, Wix, or Weebly. (Established associations may be more likely to lean on the former, though I’ve definitely seen examples of the latter.)

And, of course, there’s WordPress, which tends to hit both markets and is, as a result, a force to be reckoned with on the internet. According to statistics from the tracking firm W3Techs, WordPress has a market share of 59.5 percent among content management systems—and 32.1 percent among all websites, including ours. The only other provider that even gets within modest shouting distance of those stats is Joomla, with a 5.7 percent CMS market share; and platforms like Squarespace and Wix are not far behind Joomla.

WordPress: Too Popular?

The success of WordPress is comparable to Microsoft’s traditional dominance of operating systems; because everyone uses it, it has the biggest target on its back. Many competing CMS platforms—from the bare-bones, coder-friendly approaches of Jekyll or Hugo, to the designer-centric Webflow, to Ghost, which effectively resets the WordPress model with a more modern technology stack—represent responses to WordPress’ weaknesses. And when there’s a security problem that affects websites, as there was just last month, WordPress is usually the target. (And if it’s not WordPress, it’s usually Drupal or Joomla.) Like Windows, it’s just too popular.

And while there are lots of things that WordPress in particular does well, it’s by no means perfect: Newer platforms, like Medium and the aforementioned Ghost, have long bested its editing approach. Its plug-in repository is a real minefield due to its age. And while there are a lot of folks who know their way around WordPress, it was built around an older approach to the programming language PHP. As a result, diving into the code to make tweaks is harder than it could be. It’s understandable why smaller organizations may not want the trouble, instead choosing a friendlier but less integrated approach like Squarespace.

An example of WordPress’ ambitious new editor, Gutenberg.

WordPress, at least, seems to be aware that its approach needs an update: It recently released an ambitious new post editor, Gutenberg, that looks clean but will require updates for a whole slew of plug-ins in the coming months. Reviews thus far have been mixed, and though it’s probably not to the point of the overcorrection that was Windows 8, it will take some getting used to.

A good CMS should make you think about the larger possibilities, along with the day to day.

Kick the Tires on New Platforms

The continuing dominance of just a handful of monolithic CMS platforms, particularly WordPress, speaks to a couple of things to me: One, once you’re in a platform, it’s hard to switch to something different, because there’s simply too much legacy there; and two, the relative stagnation of these platforms, forced by all of those plug-ins and all of that custom code, may be holding back innovation for many organizations.

A good CMS is the engine behind a whole lot of content strategy, and an older engine might mean struggles to keep up with newer vehicles. Sure, a new CMS is full of unknown factors, and the knowledge base around an older one is likely to be larger. However, you might lose the latest bells and whistles if you stay too close to the tried and true.

I think that there’s a risk/reward ratio that comes with systems of this nature—how much would it hurt to move to another platform, and would the pain lead to some major benefits down the line? For a while, I think a lot of organizations couldn’t make the case to move to something else. But we’ve learned a lot about content management in the past decade, and while some of those lessons have made their way to these platforms, not all of them have.

Netlify CMS, a front-end interface frequently used with command-line-oriented static site generators like Hugo and Jekyll.

Let me give you an example: Ever have it happen where your site goes down because your server couldn’t keep up with the traffic? Many more modern content-production tools don’t have this problem, because they’re structured in a way where the heaviest stuff—the actual content—puts the least stress on the server. The static site generator Hugo, for one, has a reputation for generating updates to tens of thousands of pages in just a few seconds—pages that have no database behind them, so they load instantly. It’s fast in a way WordPress could never hope for.

(There’s always room to improve, though: Drupal, for one, has put a strong focus on being a “decoupled” CMS in recent years, as have Drupal developers such as the folks behind the plug-in Tome.)

Beyond the technical benefits of broadening horizons, there are also the strategic. A good CMS should make you think about the larger possibilities, along with the day to day. If you know you can potentially do more with a CMS, your ambition will grow.

I don’t say all of this to imply that WordPress, Joomla, or older monolithic CMS platforms are bad. They have larger communities and vendor support than newer players do. I do think, though, that the landscape has changed enough that if you’re looking at a redesign or a revamp of your digital outpost, it’s worth keeping your eye out for other platforms.

You never know what you might find on the other side.

(jazz42/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!