The Race to the Middle

We are very much in a race to the middle when it comes to the maturing CMS market, with traditional monolithic CMS claiming to offer headless options, and headless CMS solutions leaning on traditional CMS features like a visual preview. In this short article, we outline why newer players like Contento can sit right in the middle.

Alan Gleeson - CMO Contento

Alan Gleeson

Co-Founder / CEO

April 18, 2024

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5 mins read

Two boxing gloves, one pink, on black, colliding in the middle.


There are two dominant camps in the content management system (CMS) market. The traditional monolithic camp is best exemplified by WordPress and the newer modern CMS category often called headless or composable is led by Contentful.

While CMS selection is very much a ‘horses for courses’ decision, we are seeing increasing convergence where each side is borrowing concepts from the other. Perhaps we will finally see the emergence of a new category that straddles both while sitting squarely in the middle.

Traditional CMS

When it comes to CMS’ the most widely known application is WordPress. It powers the majority of websites and has a rich ecosystem supporting it, and many people whose livelihoods depend on its ongoing success. However 20 years after it first emerged it is beginning to show its age. 

While it sits primarily at the entry-level end of the market, many company websites stay on it despite the challenges that emerge a few years in. At that point the switching costs may be too high, inertia has kicked in and thus many companies prolong their stay on a WordPress-backed site that is largely held together with sticky tape. 

What are some of the issues with this CMS category?

Before we outline some issues it is important to repeat that for many use cases WordPress is a perfectly suitable and appropriate option. However, the lens through which the following issues are viewed is for growing business websites (often marketing sites). 

  1. Firstly, security vulnerabilities are a major concern for growing websites. WordPress relies on plugins to extend its core functionality, and in many instances, junior marketing people are entrusted with managing and maintaining the site. Free plugins abound and adding them is quick and easy, despite the fact they can introduce security vulnerabilities (particularly when they are not kept up to date). Three or four years down the line, and after several marketers have been involved in managing the site, the plugin count can be significant. Unfortunately assessing the provenance of free plugins or removing ones no longer in use tends to be a task that is overlooked by time-pressed marketers. 

  2. Performance issues can also crop up as the website begins to slow, often due to the use of excessively large images, poor hosting or excessive code (be that because of plugins or otherwise). Site speed is not only correlated with performance (conversions or equivalent) but it is also a significant ranking factor impacting SEO.

  3. Finally, usability remains a challenge. Because the design (front-end), plugins and content all sit under one roof it can be overwhelming. The knock-on effect is that those entrusted with maintaining the site (who are often non-technical) often ignore the numerous errors, warnings and notifications that crop up. It is better to ‘do nothing’ rather than run the risk of bringing the site down by ‘pressing something’.

In short, while traditional CMSs’ are synonymous with entry-level sites, they are not a great fit for those looking to scale up.

Headless CMS

The emergence of headless CMSs in recent years has sought to overcome some of the limitations of a traditional CMS. Where a traditional CMS can be considered an all-in-one solution, a headless CMS is a more nuanced offering. The headless CMS is the back-end or content repository, and APIs are used to render content to unlimited ‘heads’ be they websites, apps or screens. 

The benefits of headless are compelling and include enhanced security, blazingly quick speeds, developer flexibility, absence of vendor lock-in and the fact that bespoke site builds give designers creative freedom to produce beautiful sites without the constraints of templates.

However, it is a more technical architecture and best suited to sites where there is ready access to front-end developers, and where these benefits are of value. 

One of the big challenges with a headless CMS is that many of the market leaders have bloated their products as a means to charge more, despite the fact many of the extra features are of little value. They have made life difficult for developers, given their complexity, and many of the VC-backed solutions have price ratchets that emerge as surprises a few months later.

It’s also rather difficult to build an editing experience that feels intuitive for non-technical editors on a truly headless CMS. The very fact that these platforms are designed to be head-agnostic means that often they have no understanding of where your content is actually going to end up. In a lot of cases, that content is only going to one head - a marketing website - and as such editors can feel confused about how to preview changes, or where the SEO settings are etc.

To get the editing experience up to a level that is understandable and usable for non-technical users developers have to do a lot of leg work re-building common tooling that is just there by default in a traditional CMS.

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The Middle

As a result, an increasing number of vendors are boxed in. The traditional CMS solutions lack the flexibility and scalability of headless solutions but are at a much more accessible price point and are geared towards websites. The headless CMS leaders are overtly complex, and the fact that the buyers and the users are rarely one and the same means that frustrated marketers are left to pick up the pieces downstream.

Instead, a middle tier has emerged, which serves to overcome the deficiencies of the two main approaches. This has been described as the ‘race to the middle’, a term coined by CMS expert Deane Barker to describe how both headless and web-first CMS platforms are moving towards the same target of hybrid CMS functionality. 

— Source: Technology Choices are Hard Enough. Making Sense of Composable & Headless by Mark Everard

As Barker goes on to argue:

If you look on the two ends of the spectrum, traditional web content management systems on one end of the spectrum that just generates HTML, then you have headless CMSs on the other end of the spectrum that just generates JSON, and we’re both racing to the middle. 

And then on the other side, you have headless vendors that just manage content are now baking in web content management systems on top of their headless systems. And this is what I call the race to the middle. And in five years, the concept between a traditional CMS and headless CMS will disappear. I mean, any CMS that wants to stay in the market will do both.

— Source: Deane Barker in conversation with Larry Swanson (2022)


In summary, as both traditional and headless CMS increasingly converge, in a race to the middle, we believe that a new category will emerge. One that starts in the middle, and one that does not carry the baggage (or the features) of the core CMS they’ve already built. As Josh Angell, the CTO of Contento argues:

Fundamentally there is a shift happening in the overall CMS ecosystem. First, there were traditional monolithic CMS’s (WordPress et al), then we had site builders (e.g. Wix, Webflow) and finally along came composability and headless (e.g. Sanity, Contentful).

Today we see an increasing recognition that the gap between the three models is just too big. So now we have a middle ground that every vendor is trying to get into. You can also see this in the way the more mature vendors have added some kind of in-app page preview tech in the last year or so - they’re aware of it and are trying to meet in the middle. WordPress added an option to make it headless, Contentful added a live preview feature, and Webflow added more composability options.

What fits into that gap? Angell goes on to add that Contento has positioned itself in this very gap:

Most of that gap can be covered by a CMS that offers the benefits of the composable/headless architecture without the complexity and price overhead. Users need and want a CMS that won’t take forever to build a bespoke site with, won’t cost them the earth and provides the specific tooling needed to run a marketing website off it. Contento does just that.

Alan Gleeson - CMO Contento
Alan Gleeson

Co-Founder / CEO

Alan Gleeson has 15+ years extensive B2B SaaS experience working with several VC backed Startups & Scaleups in the UK, US & Ireland.

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