Content management systems (CMS) have been around for nearly as long as the Internet itself. As conceived, they gave users the ability to create and publish web content without becoming entangled with HTML or CSS.
Their relatively friction-free content publishing workflows endeared themselves to the more business-savvy early adopters of the web, at the price of a restricted set of look-and-feel options. These presentation choices were usually derived from a set of templates that could be customized by developers, but not content-creators. Most early CMSs were coupled – the front-end presentation layer of the application was deeply integrated with the underlying content management functionality.
The thousand-pound gorilla of the CMS world is WordPress, which has, since its first release in 2003 (when, arguably, it couldn’t justify being called a CMS), built up nearly 10 times the market penetration of its nearest competitor – which is either Joomla or Drupal, depending on what you’re counting and how it’s being counted.
Because of the way the ecosystem has evolved, the most popular CMSs are open-source. But this doesn’t mean that full-blown implementations are cost-free, because of the amount of CMS development and customization that is often required. Architecturally, most of them feature a back-end RDBMS (for the easiest path towards being multi-user) but there are a growing number of flat-file CMSs appearing.
Platforms for Personalized Experiences
In a progression as inevitable as when night follows day, CMSs began to be pushed from relatively simple systems into systems that could deliver personalized experiences. In short, they became platforms. Visitor experience took center stage and CMSs were being asked to deliver coordinated and personalized experiences across many channels.
But there was a problem. The traditional strong coupling between content management and content presentation made it difficult to deliver new content to emerging types of channels such as mobile apps. If you added to that the general lack of support for modern languages and frameworks, then there was a pretty compelling case for considering new CMS patterns.
Losing your head
Many thought leaders now think that all-in-one CMSs are too complex and disorganized because they try to do too much and be all things to all people. In truth, this is because their users began to demand that they did more. It became increasingly obvious that the tasks of controlling templates, logic, supporting e-commerce and everything else, led to content itself being viewed as an afterthought. Brittle, monolithic applications that weren’t bad for building cookie-cutter websites and blogs fell apart at scale or when you needed something more custom.
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Content management systems should manage content—that’s it. They should do that job perfectly and then get out of the way, says the new wave of experts. So a new breed of so-called headless CMSs was born, where a modular back-end manages and serves content via an API often implemented as REST over HTTP/S.
Of course, using a headless CMS brings its own challenges. Presentation logic has to come from somewhere, so instead of customizing a set of pre-built templates, you now need to build (or procure) your own. But at least it gives organizations the ability to match their frontends very specifically to their business needs and employ any one of the many available modern frameworks, depending on the deployment. Adding an as-yet-unthought-of new channel becomes a matter of creating a new frontend, rather than one of conducting open-heart surgery on a huge and monolithic legacy application. That word legacy is important—it’s a tough call indeed to even consider switching out a fully-populated deployed CMS for a newer, shinier model, which is why some of the well-established CMSs are beginning to offer APIs into their repositories.
AI and Machine Learning
If software is eating the world, artificial intelligence and machine learning have two of the largest appetites and they are finding innovative applications in the CMS world, especially as the CMS expands its footprint into content marketing and marketing automation.
A good summary of the obvious and not-so-obvious applications for AI and ML within a CMS context mentions several use-cases:
- Making content more relevant with predictive personalization
- Automating repetitive tasks with assisted content creation
- Anticipating user needs with real-time optimization
As a further concrete example, look at the current vogue for chatbots, where an AI can reasonably simulate how a live human agent might interact with an existing or potential customer. You might think – and time will tell – whether chatbots are a gimmick or they have any lasting value, but a recent Salesforce blog (the result of a collaboration between MyClever, Drift, Salesforce, and SurveyMonkey) notes that as many as 69% of consumers preferred chatbots for quick communications with brands. It makes you think, doesn’t it?
The bottom line is that AI- and ML- powered algorithms can enhance (mainly headless) CMS technology to help organizations create and present the most optimal all-channel content at every point of every interaction – and that’s a very powerful story.
Humans will never be completely out of the equation though – we are valuable in providing context and authority (not to mention a vast proportion of the actual content itself!) People are wary of placing too much trust in the proclamations of an AI, and as the stakes get higher, they tend to require validation from intelligent, living, sentient beings.
Roots and Branches
CMSs have come a long way since their early days when they were little more than static blogging engines. Like landscapes, they have been shaped over the years by the particular climates that affect them, and it continues today.
Looking further out and viewing a CMS as a (new buzzword alert) digital experience platform, we may well see the arrival of CMS-served virtual- and augmented-reality experiences (check out this interesting experiment). If it happens, it will validate the pundits who first identified the need for CMSs to break the bonds of their web-only origins into a myriad of different but connected digital media channels. And in a world where there is no practical constraint on the number of possible channels, there are no practical limits. But content will still be king.