Choosing a modern enterprise CMS — the options and how to evaluate them

Looking for an enterprise CMS? Here’s your guide to the different options available, and how to choose the best one for your company.

In the 30 years that the commercial web has existed, enterprise companies have had to constantly change their approach to website building.

In the early days of the commercial web, developers would code websites page-by-page. As sites got more complex, engineers developed software that could support designing and building sites and help to manage the ever-increasing quantities of content running through them.

The software they developed was the groundwork for modern Content Management Systems (CMS). A CMS is now an essential piece of website development, especially for an enterprise company that has to be able to handle large volumes of content and many users. We are now taking part in the next major CMS shift — away from slower developer-dependent projects and towards a development approach that is led by agile marketing teams and powered by modern no-code visual tools.

To find the right type of enterprise CMS for your company’s website, it’s important to consider not just the content it needs to manage or the end-result user interface but also what kind of workflow the platform enables for the teams who contribute to your website.

The types of tools used to build an enterprise website

The tools a company can use to build an enterprise-level site fall into four main types. Each type of platform handles the front-end website development and the back-end content management slightly differently, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Open Source CMS: the most common option, built with a mix of code and plug-ins

An Open Source CMS is a piece of website building software whose source code is free and open for any developer to contribute to. This means you can install a large variety of add-ons, plug-ins, and templates when using this software, and your programmers can code any additional functions your site needs. The collaborative nature of an open-source program enables a wide range of creative processes, but this decentralized approach can also be inefficient and complicated to manage.

Open-source web development programs like WordPress were the first move towards the contemporary CMS and more accessible visual development tools. WordPress is still the most ubiquitous platform on the web, though the need for plug-ins and developer support for additional coding means it has its limitations. To create an effective enterprise-level site, plug-ins for features such as visual design, e-commerce, forms, security, SEO, analytics, and content management are essential.

Digital Experience Platforms: a suite of tools for managing high volumes of content and building multiple sites

A digital experience platform, or DXP, is an integrated software framework containing a suite of tools to handle each detail of managing content, creating, and publishing a large, enterprise-level website. Examples are programs like Adobe Experience Manager (the most prominent DXP), Sitecore, and Acquia.

DXPs can handle larger volumes of content and unify that content over a network of websites — think subdomains for company subsidiaries or sites for different countries — which is important for enterprises with a larger reach. Developers code the websites themselves within the program, creating templates and components that designers can then assemble.

In the ten years since these programs were created, front-end development has evolved dramatically, but the programming language used, specifically for Adobe Experience Manager, hasn’t changed. As a result, it is fairly out-of-date, so it can be challenging to find developers willing to work with the program’s outdated language.

Headless CMS: organizes content separately from your front-end site development

In reaction to the threat of front-end development techniques evolving past back-end infrastructure, some companies moved towards what’s called a headless CMS approach using solutions like Contentful’s platform or a Jamstack architecture.

A headless CMS separates the back-end (content) from the “head”—the front-end website that users interact with. This separation means that if a tool or technique, like the DXP language mentioned above, goes out of date, web designers can create a new front-end with updated technology and plug it into the existing back-end. This avoids a company having to go to the massive effort of moving their content from one database to another just to update the front-end. The drawback of this approach is that you need to hire developers to custom-build each customer-facing site.

This approach also gives the company using a headless CMS a multitude of options for where to put their content. This can mean a network of websites, mobile apps, kiosks, or a retail point-of-sale system, all linked by their shared content database.

No-Code Development Tools: enable sites to be built visually, without relying on programmers

A modern no-code program, like Webflow, is essentially a visual interface overlaying the actual code. It allows anyone to design a website without writing a single line of code. Using this visual tool, programmers and non-programmers alike can drag-and-drop layout elements like navigation bars, grids, columns, and buttons, seeing the results of their design changes instantly on the canvas. Scott Brinker, VP of Platform Ecosystem at HubSpot and editor of chiefmartech.com, explained:

“If you can draw an idea on a whiteboard, you’re not that many steps away from actually turning it into something real that you can share with the world. Anyone can take advantage of no-code.”

While previous tools could help organize content and somewhat streamline front-end creation, ultimately, programmers were always needed to make the actual site. A program like Webflow allows all the teams who have a stake in your website — marketing, engineering, sales, and more — to take part directly in the development of your website.

This approach to site management has been termed “agile CMS” — meaning it empowers many teams across a company to adapt the site and content to respond to customer needs. When you free these teams from having to go through a time-consuming back-and-forth with programmers for each change, the creation process becomes more agile.

Within this visual interface, you can use features like symbols and classes to make design choices repeatable, consistent, and able to be changed instantly across the whole site. You can also use features that support responsive design to adjust your site to be legible on multiple devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, rather than needing to code multiple versions of the website. Clean, semantic code is still automatically written in the program as your team makes visual changes, so programmers can step in and insert custom code for any added functionality you need.

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The most important considerations when choosing the right platform for your company

There are a few CMS features and characteristics you should consider before investing in a CMS. Primarily, you need the technical features that ensure your site is secure and performs well, and you need a platform that will support the type of workflow you want for your team. Here’s how to assess how each of the platforms above could perform for your company.

Security — will the platform keep your data and your website safe?

Make sure the platform you choose takes measures to protect both your information and that of your customers.

Compliance

The best way to assess whether a platform follows reliable security protocols is by looking to see what third-party certification standards they meet. SOC 2 certification is a comprehensive third-party audit. This audit considers how a platform secures customer data on five counts: security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy. This independent assessment makes it an excellent way for a company to quickly evaluate whether a platform has high standards for security. You should also be sure you can get a TLS/SSL certificate, so your website will have secure, end-to-end encryption. Encryption will keep any data communicated to or from your website private.

Visit the security page of the platform you are considering in order to get a comprehensive view of their approach to security updates and adherence to current protocols. Some platforms, like Webflow, offer integrated security practices, while others, like WordPress, use third-party plug-ins like Sucuri to enable security functions.

Evaluate what login and account security features the platform offers for both your account and the accounts of your users. Current best practices to look for include single sign-on and two-factor authentication.

Third-party additions

You need to consider more than just the security of the platform itself, particularly if your platform requires third-party plug-ins. Third-party applications and plug-ins each represent additional security risks. More established services like PayPal or Mailchimp have their own robust security practices, however, plug-ins created by independent developers with little oversight are much harder to evaluate.

For your website to remain consistently safe, you will need to trust that the third-party developer is keeping up with security patches for their plug-in, and you will need to make sure your development team is staying on top of installing every single plug-in update.

This is, unfortunately, the major security risk of WordPress. An Imperva Report identified 98% of WordPress’s security vulnerabilities were due to plug-ins. With a site potentially using dozens of plug-ins, each one represents an opening for hackers.

Performance — will the site function quickly and reliably?

Making sure your website loads quickly and stays online and available to customers is a non-negotiable for enterprise companies. Choose a platform that will support your site’s performance and grow with the demands of your user base.

Scalability and future-proofing

When you have invested time and money into building a website, you want to be sure that the platform you use will keep your website up-to-date for years into the future. Your site will also need to be able to grow in its capacity with the successful growth of your company.

If your company hosts, or expects to host, a large volume of visitors or content, a DXP may be the most robustly scalable option. Their systems can handle huge, far-reaching content and sites, but this infrastructure will be overkill for the average enterprise.

A headless CMS can feel more future-proof since you can change out the front-end as the web evolves, but it is reliant on developers to make changes or refreshes when the site needs them.

Webflow’s software, however, supports future-proofing with regular improvements and updates without the user having to intervene manually.

Loading speed

Google’s research shows that 53% of visitors will abandon a page that takes over three seconds to load. Watch out for bloat that can slow your site, and make sure your programmers or the software itself can optimize content for the user. Mobile sites should be able to load quickly, even on slower networks.

Sometimes quick load times can be a trade-off with other considerations. For example, Adobe Experience Manager’s (AEM) interface handles lots of content, but its data-heavy back-end can make pages slow to load for users. WordPress plug-ins can also significantly slow load times.

Webflow offers several automatic features, like lazy-load photos and scalable responsive images, that optimize page load times, especially for mobile users.

Traffic surges and growth

In order to benefit from a successful marketing campaign or viral social media initiative, it is vital to build a site that can handle sudden spikes in traffic. This is especially important for fast-growing start-ups, businesses in fields that are prone to viral popularity, or companies that regularly host a high volume of users.

Headless CMSs like Contentful ensure the content infrastructure behind the site can perform at scale, but for developer-lead platforms like theirs or AEM, your team will need to program your site architecture with organic traffic spikes and DDOS attacks in mind. This can be a big engineering challenge.

Webflow supports scalability from the hosting side by using Amazon Web Services, so sites are backed by a reliable network of 100+ data centers and servers worldwide. For an open-source program like WordPress, make sure the hosting you choose for your site has similar support.

Agility — how quick and flexible is the development process?

For a business or industry that moves quickly or needs to enable responsiveness to customer needs, choosing a platform that is agile will enable quick site changes and market responsiveness.

Templates and repeatability

Included or developer-created templates and repeatable elements can support faster development processes while supporting the brand consistency your design team has created.

A headless CRM like Contentful will need developers to code all the front-end elements of your site, but there are Jamstack themes that are compatible. Slightly more repeatable is a system like AEM, which uses pre-programmed elements that designers can assemble into pages and websites.

Webflow has an extensive library of templates and community-created sites you can copy wholesale or element-by-element and then customize. It also uses a system of Symbols — reusable components that your team can design without coding and then insert anywhere in your site.

Speed of changes

The speed at which your team can execute changes depends on the techniques for creating and using repeatable structures and how much you will need developer labor to execute the overall workflow.

Designers can use AEM’s repeatable elements to assemble pages quickly, but they first need to be created by developers. If additional elements or changes to existing elements need to be made, you will need engineers to execute that. SmugMug struggled with the slow process of making changes in this manner:

“One time we had to change the copy on a button, and that alone took 3–4 days. We couldn’t experiment or test things out with the design in an agile way with those timeframes.”

- Michal Pechardo, Senior Designer, SmugMug

WordPress themes offer several settings that designers can change to shift the full layout of the site. They can execute these changes themselves for the most part, but more complex updates do need developer support. Virta-Health’s director explained their experience:

“[When we used WordPress] updates were tedious. Frequent and simple changes, like those to our press page, required engineering involvement, which wasn’t the best use of their time."

- Paul Sytsma, Senior Director, Corporate Marketing, Virta Health

A major benefit of Webflow’s Symbols is that you can change the settings of any Symbol, and those changes will cascade across the entire website, making design changes consistent and quick to implement without having to send change requests to your development team. MURAL’s design team benefitted from this workflow, explaining:

“Ultimately, we wanted to control our own destiny when it came to the website, and Webflow gives us the freedom to make the changes we need without relying on other teams.”

- David Chin, Design Strategist, MURAL

Ownership — which teams does the platform empower to design your site?

Ultimately, your website is a marketing asset. Empowering marketing to execute changes directly on your website enables them to respond effectively to the needs of your customers and take full ownership of your site as an important element of their work.

For full transparency, this is the area where Webflow truly shines, and with the rise of no-code solutions and citizen-creators, this type of workflow is what the future of web design is rapidly moving towards.

When trickier website details need attention, engineers can step in to write custom code, but they aren’t needed for the day-to-day design and updating of the site. Reducing how many things need to go through engineering has the added benefit of freeing their team up for more business-critical functions. Attentive found freedom with this workflow for their website update.

“Our new designs didn’t need to go through anyone else besides brand and marketing — no engineers needed. The freedom and flexibility we gained through Webflow was invaluable.”

- Elyssa Albert, VP of Design, Attentive

Even when an enterprise has needs for a heavier-duty CMS, teams at your company can use no-code tools in a hybrid approach by using them as a DXP for the main site and taking a no-code approach to build functioning design prototypes and smaller satellite sites with more direct input and agility. With a fully functional prototype, engineers know exactly what design intends to build, and they can make adjustments before your company spends hours and dollars coding the final site.

Pacific Funds built a fully functional website on its own by turning to Webflow. While their parent company used a DXP for their extensive primary site, they could use visual development to gain control of their subsidiary website as a vital marketing asset.

“We were able to get a published, working version of the entire website live in less than two weeks. And we didn’t have to compromise on our original designs.”

- Karen Yue, Director of Digital Marketing Technology, Pacific Funds

To choose the right enterprise CMS, rethink what it means to create a modern website

A traditionalist team might stick with WordPress. An especially large enterprise with a far-reaching web presence might benefit most from Adobe Experience Manager or a blended approach with Webflow. A company that places a high value on future-proofing and has extensive engineering support might choose Contentful. For a business that values a nimble workflow and wants to empower its teams to take the lead on their website development, Webflow will enable that forward-thinking structure.

Ultimately, if all other technical requirements are met and practical questions answered, you can guide your choice by asking: Do I want to settle and wait many months before I can get our new website live, or do I want to find a faster, better, and more manageable way to do this?

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