Authors: Rick Cabral, Liz Spranzani, & Doug Yoder
Verndale engages with clients that are interested in website transformation and are considering a switch to a new CMS or DXP platform. Occasionally when their current platform is WordPress, they're eager to explore features of the Digital Experience Platform (DXP) landscape, and how a CMS or DXP differs from WordPress. This consultative phase involves leading our client down a deep dive of various partner platforms such as Sitecore, Optimizely, Contentstack, and Contentful. The end goal is to provide enough information so they can decide if they should stay with WordPress or upgrade to another platform.
This article explores the foundation on which we recommend breaking the WordPress glass ceiling. You'll walk away with an understanding of what WordPress is compared to CMS, DXP, and SaaS platforms, its use cases (there are a couple), and why you should consider upgrading. Plus, we'll share the 4 core truths for having a digital presence that can advance your initiatives.
WordPress as We See it
WordPress is a free, open-source web page management software. If you visit wordpress.org, you'll see it touted as the "world's most popular website builder." They claim that 43% of the web uses WordPress. We think it's a popular and easy go-to platform to quickly stand up a web presence and is especially popular with bloggers. In fact, blogging was the primary use case in the beginning and still is to this day.
In 2003, a couple of developers who wanted a replacement for a discontinued blogging platform created WordPress. Its popularity is grounded in its ability to address beginner-level website design, building, and hosting. In many cases, you can create a WordPress website for no cost! (More on "free" in a bit). It appeals to this one target audience very well. And WordPress makes sense if you use the out-of-the-box components with less emphasis on the design - for example, blog and news sites where most content is entered page-by-page as rich text blocks. One downside for marketers using WordPress is the rigid content architecture. It can't easily feed content into channels other than its front-end website. It also doesn't natively have structured content that you could share or repurpose easily within a website or across websites.
WordPress' Online Community
Written in PHP, WordPress started as, and remains, open source and free to use. At its core, the software focuses on full-page, article-like experiences. Content is stored in a basic list-like structure, one entry per page - as with a blog. Advanced concepts like fragment-based page design, shared content, and content relationships are either limited in scope or missing entirely. Shortcomings are addressed via community plugins; from the beginning, developers have taken advantage of the WordPress plugin architecture to write their own enhancements and extensions to the platform. These plugins are then shared with the community.
Over the years, WordPress has been extended to make it easier to use for folks without programming skills or access to developers. Example features include site theming capabilities, media gallery features, and WYSIWYG editing. While there are over 60,000 available plugins in the WordPress community, there is no organization. It's a wild-west of new, old, incompatible, or competing offerings. The user is left to their own devices to evaluate each plugin for suitability. As a software entity, WordPress evolves constantly, requiring monthly maintenance to stay on top of security and plugin updates. Since it's not a SaaS platform, it's up to you to ensure your application stays current.
Comparing WordPress to a CMS platform
Depending on the situation and business needs, there are several platforms that we evaluate and compare with WordPress.
To call WordPress a CMS is a bit of a stretch if you compare the standard features within a licensed CMS. WordPress has been boot-strapped to enable CMS-like functionality, and this self-sustained practice has left a foundation that's old, bloated, and has years of technical debt.
Now, the CMS features that you'll commonly find subpar or lacking in WordPress include live previews, staging environment capabilities, granular workflow, and security options, content approvals, relational content, content architecture, ability to share content or reuse it on multiple pages/sites, page templates that will ensure visual consistency, SSO authentication, enterprise search, mobile-friendly editing experience, flexible platform navigation, findability of content, page orchestration and granular layout capabilities, collaboration and commenting, multisite support, multilingual and localization robustness, AI/ML for content tagging and content recommendations, ease of use, and editing capabilities.
The typical CMS features you'd want for your WordPress website are only available via additional third-party plugins. Sure, there are hundreds to choose from to customize your website for your desired outcome if you don't code, but there are a few downsides to this:
- Potential Costs: Since many of the features actually come via third-party plugins, there could be extra costs associated with them leading to multiple separate service agreements.
- It's Not Upgrade-Proof: WordPress doesn't own these plugins so upgrading and managing them is unreliable. They may or may not consistently be kept up to date.
- Choice Overload: The selection process is more cumbersome than utilizing the out-of-the-box feature from another CMS.
Beyond WordPress & CMS is DXP
The top two enterprise-grade DXPs we work with are Sitecore and Optimizely. They also bring value to mid-market and smaller businesses.
Both have offerings that exceed CMS capabilities and are what transform them from CMS to DXP including personalization, experimentation/testing, marketing operations, digital asset management (DAM), marketing automation, search, commerce, and customer data platform (CDP), and incorporate AI and machine learning in many of their products.
Both also emphasize the ability to feed various channels with their content APIs and are at varying stages of supporting and promoting headless practices and SaaS offerings. Optimizely has a very mature PaaS hosting offering for the CMS, and Sitecore not only has PaaS but also has SaaS CMS options coming soon.
Want to gain a deeper understanding of DXP? You can learn more about it in our article on demystifying Digital Experience Platforms.
Considering Headless SaaS Platforms
Are you wondering if a DXP offering is too advanced or overwhelming for your organization? That doesn't mean you're back to WordPress. Instead, you should consider headless SaaS CMS players such as Contentstack and Contentful.
Contentstack will even make a strong case for why they should be considered over Optimizely and Sitecore, although admittedly, they'll only be servicing one spoke of that DXP wheel and you'd still need to fill other DXP needs elsewhere. One benefit of these CMS platforms is that they're full SaaS offerings so your team won't need to worry about updates, upgrades, infrastructure, server patches, security, and many other services they take care of for you. They're designed to scale, including CDNs, and come with excellent support packages.
One of the hottest topics in digital experience architecture today is the idea of a composable DXP and MACH architecture. The basic premise is that platforms should focus on the functionality they're best at, avoid being monolithic and trying to do too much, and connect to each other via APIs and services. These APIs should surface data and logic within the platform to allow other platforms to leverage it. All CMS/DXP platforms mentioned above are built to have specific content and data types. This makes it easy to reference and search via API. But with WordPress, the development community is still focused narrowly on the idea of a 'website' composed of full pages and the content only being used within a WordPress website. WordPress has very limited ability to be a headless content source since it isn't built natively to allow for a structured content type architecture, meaning the content is not easily found, identifiable, or segmented into consumable pieces. That makes the API use a limited option. Therefore, it would be difficult to snap into an existing composable DXP stack as a content source.
4 Core Truths for Having a Digital Presence
Organizations that choose to transform their business digitally and evolve alongside technology are more competitive today and successful in the long run. There are four core truths that have developed over the last few years that we must accept to stay up to speed and that WordPress doesn't easily address. They include:
- Your content needs to be made available to important channels besides just your website (e.g., omnichannel, headless, open API).
- People interacting with you expect you to know who they are; this requires personalization, analytics, and AI-driven content capabilities.
- An organization's marketers and IT staff need to be as efficient as possible with platforms that are easy to use and have content reuse functionality.
- The platform your organization depends on must enable agility and flexibility. It must quickly bring on and advertise new service lines, spin up new landing pages, and address a new need (e.g., pre-defined templates, auto-deployments, flexible page orchestration).
Freemium is Finite and So is Your Team's Time
Price tends to be a critical sticking point, so let's take a moment to discuss that. WordPress is free to download, but that comes with limitations. You'll need to find a way to host, support, and perform upgrades. Hopefully, the organization that provides that will be able to scale the infrastructure and provide a CDN for caching. (Visitors these days expect blazing-fast websites). And depending on your managed services and support needs, an SLA could cost upwards of six figures.
There is also the cost of development and design. WordPress functionality predetermines how you use it based on the provided components, as is with light styling and theming variations (some of which you also have to pay for). If you want anything extra, you need to leverage developers, and forcing WordPress into a custom design can be a significant effort. You'll end up paying just as much or more for the development effort of a custom design as you would for the implementation of the same design on one of the other platforms, but with an end result on WordPress that is considerably less capable, more difficult to use, and inhibits digital maturity.
Beyond those tangible costs, the hidden cost of WordPress is your marketing/content teams' time for extra content cycles for updates and launches and maintenance. Also, there is a missed opportunity for an ROI from the additional CMS features you could get. Agility, one of the core truths of today's digital experiences, is lacking with WordPress and will hinder your initiative's timeline and slow down your go-to-market strategies. Also, consider that although the composability of these DXP platforms and their open API support make them easy to plug additional systems into, you'll likely find more efficiency and pricing incentives to stay within the suite of products of a single vendor.
If you're reading this article right now, then you're probably with an organization that takes digital investments seriously. You're willing to consider Verndale's consultation, strategy, design, and development services and you're interested in an ROI. We'll share our secret: extending that investment to include a CMS or DXP software license will likely save you costs and generate higher revenue in the long run.
By choosing WordPress, you'll quickly hit your digital experience ceiling, making it difficult to further your journey towards digital maturity. And make no mistake, everyone has a journey, even if it's a simpler one. There are use cases for WordPress and we have implemented it for several clients.
With that said, if you have a specific design in mind, have in-house developers, or are interested in leveraging ours, a CMS or DXP will optimize your vision and resources. A CMS or DXP can give you the opportunity to better understand who your customers are and tailor their experience, it will optimize your web and marketing team's efficiency, and more. We're here to help and can lead you through an exploration to help determine which move you want to make next, and how to select a platform that's right for you.