Universal CMS - An Overview

The phrase ‘Universal CMS’ first emerged in 2024, in an article entitled Universal CMS: The death of "pure" headless CMS by Preston So. This short guide outlines what it is and why it represents a credible narrative for the emergence of another category of CMS.

Alan Gleeson - CMO Contento

Alan Gleeson

Co-Founder / CEO

May 2, 2024

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5 mins read

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The origins of the concept of a Universal CMS as a new category are pretty recent. In a 2024 article by Preston So, Vice President, Product at dotCMS, entitled Universal CMS: The death of "pure" headless CMS,  he argues that: 

The universal CMS represents a new balance between editorial and developer manipulability as feature sets re-converge. Headless CMSs now have visual editing features long considered anathema to architectural purists, and some hybrid-headless CMSs are winning fans again among the developer audience.

In short, he is arguing that the competing architectures may be beginning to converge.

​​ Will the name Universal CMS catch on?

Only time will tell. 

I guess the key point here is that the current crop of pure headless CMS’ are becoming less pure, and as such probably shouldn’t be just called a headless CMS as it no longer describes what they are.

In part, the new category reflects the tension in the CMS world between traditional monolithic CMS like WordPress and the newer emergent category of headless CMS like Contento, Contentful and Sanity.

The direction of travel is one way. 

Move from an old legacy architecture to a modern API-first one.

However, for many, the current gap is simply too great, and many early adopters have suffered on the back of failed migrations, when headless has failed to deliver on its original promise.

The approaches are simply too far apart, and the lines have been blurred further by the attempts of both camps to borrow elements from the competing side of the fence, in a vain attempt to reduce the motivation to switch. 

Headless WordPress anyone?

In some ways, the gap reflects the dominant personas who are affected by CMS selection - the developers who often select the CMS, and the marketing/editing team who act as the primary users. 

The traditional monolithic CMS-based approach is one many marketers feel comfortable with. Such is the dominance of WordPress, the UI / UX is familiar and most markers can navigate around it despite its complexity. They enjoy lots of control, beyond just content creation and publishing, and can extend the basic feature set by selecting from an array of plugins, as well as enjoying the ability to make design changes and to add new pages. 

Developers on the other hand often find monolithic CMS’ frustrating, as they have to troubleshoot a vast array of issues and have to deal with a legacy architecture that feels a million miles away from the flexibility on offer on the other side of the fence.

When it comes to a headless CMS it is a very developer-centric approach. With most headless CMS’ the marketing function struggles to operate in the new paradigm. New page builds have to be routed to developers, often with existing product commitments, delaying deployment timelines. The developer dependency is high, and many of the admin interfaces leave a lot to be desired. In a competitive category, a feature race has led to feature bloat, and as a result, many features get left unused. The interfaces are simply overwhelming. 

Most developers on the other-hand enjoy the freedom. The best-of-breed approach enables them to build using their preferred choices, relying on API’s to deliver the end result.

And for those who have migrated from a traditional world the marketing function is invariably disappointed with their new CMS. As Jan Schulte, Head of Group Consulting at Magnolia argues:

For instance, a pure headless CMS typically won't natively provide features like asset management, navigation, security, workflow, access control, caching, categorization and link management. Because these features have been stripped away, brands often spend lots of time and money on writing, integrating, and maintaining the features they need just to regain the features their teams have become used to.

So what gives?

Many mature sites running on a traditional CMS like WordPress have concerns regarding security and performance. A site migration is a major move, and while you may solve security and performance issues, you may be entering a world where the pain shifts elsewhere: dashboards that are challenging to use, the creation of a developer dependency and hidden price ratchets that lead to 10X increases on the back of seemingly obscure limits being hit. 

What if you could enjoy the best of both worlds (without the worst of both)?

In some ways, this explains the ‘Race to the Middle’ as coined by Deane Barker.

If you look on the two ends of the spectrum, traditional web content management systems on one end of the spectrum that just generate HTML, then you have headless CMSs on the other end of the spectrum that just generated JSON, and we’re both racing to the middle…And then on the other side, you have headless vendors that just manage content and are now backing in web content management systems on top of their headless systems. And this is what I call the race to the middle.

He goes on to add that “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)

Or as Preston So predicts;

The market for content management systems (CMS) is, at long last, reconverging on a solution set that matches the shifting expectations of all back-office teams: a compelling developer experience using modern JavaScript techniques, and a usable editorial experience that honors the diverse needs of content editors, marketing teams, and compliance auditors. The era of the “pure” headless CMS is over. The “pure” headless CMS is dead. Headless and composable products are facing deep challenges as investors demand more revenue from new buyer personas and as content editors revolt against what they see as the extirpation of key features that they long held dear in their content workflows: preview, approvals, and, perhaps the most pined-for feature: visual building that enables editorial teams to exert much-needed control over the presentation of web properties.

He goes onto argue that:

In the universal CMS, content teams can use a single universal visual editor that straddles both existing monolithic implementations and headless architectures, allowing editors to leverage the same tools and mind maps to manage the visual presentation of their digital experiences as they did in the early days of the CMS. By the same token, developers and architects are increasingly equipped with a universal developer experience that empowers them to bring any technology, use any stack, and leverage any hosting platform to build more flexibly than ever before.

Contento and Universal CMS

In some ways the development of Contento is very much in keeping with the arguments being made by thought-leaders like So and Barker.

As a marketer, I remain deeply frustrated with the usability of traditional CMS’, the site bloat, and the chronic feature overload. At the same time I struggle to reconcile with pure headless — how come in 2024 most content production still takes place outside of the CMS? 

As for headless, I’ve argued for some time that it completely neglects the marketing side of the fence. In one of my opening blogs in 2022, entitled Hello World - Welcome to Contento, I argued that:

“What if we built a CMS just for marketing websites, tech companies and B2B SaaS websites to support lead generation?

We could keep the 'tech camp' happy if we ensured 

  • A blazingly fast end-result website

  • We supported the latest cutting-edge front-end tech

  • We offered developers the flexibility in how the model their content

  • The SEO was baked in from the start

We could keep 'marketing camp' happy if we ensured

  • Beautiful UI/UX

  • A genuinely easy-to-use application the marketing team enjoyed using

  • Native integrations with all the key platforms they needed to run their B2B SaaS sites”

And this is the very point about Universal CMS, if I am interpreting both So and Barker correctly:

  • Why not strive to make both sides of the fence happy?

  • Why does it need to be a trade off?

  • Why not offer a CMS that both developers and marketers will love?

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Universal CMS Vendors

As to what vendors could offer a Universal CMS, it is not easy to see an obvious pathway to this space from existing Headless CMS vendors (or leaders).

  • Why would you come down stream to serve a part of the market that sits below the enterprise tier that you are striving to gain share in?

  • Why would you reduce the complexity of your application if that weakens vendor lock-in and puts downward pressure on price?

In some ways, those best placed to capture market share in this emergent category will be those who’ve only recently started on their journey and who are not already locked in to a mature feature set, and an upstream trajectory to appease investors.


I’ll leave you with a summary from Preston So:

As headless and composable vendors begin to adopt table-stakes features that long made the CMS a nexus of cross-persona collaboration, it’s time to proclaim the official demise of the “pure” headless CMS. Today, headless and composable CMSs are increasingly “impure” in that they are exerting more control over and becoming more opinionated about the presentation layers they long considered independent concerns. Just as the term “monolithic” now reflects a fossilized stratum in the archaeology of the CMS market, we’ll soon see “headless” join it as these upstarts become “not so headless” after all.

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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