It’s Time for Proprietary, Commercially Licensed CMSs to Die

By Pete Czech

It’s Time for Proprietary, Commercially Licensed CMSs to DieNew Possibilities Group

Happy New Year! The new year is always a great time to start fresh with a new (or renewed) outlook. With that spirit in mind, I’m going to start 2018 off with a controversial post, one sure to frustrate many, but we’ll be addressing an issue that is long past overdue for discussion.

Yes, the title says it all. It’s time for proprietary content management systems to die.


First, let me define what we mean by a proprietary, licensed CMS. For the most part, a licensed CMS is a product (not a platform) distributed by a private company, wherein the codebase is not open-sourced, but rather maintained by the organization. In particular, I am focusing on software that is installed and run locally on your own infrastructure.

This prediction in no way focuses on cloud-based CMS solutions, which are much more robust and scalable, and potentially the best indicator of the future of WCMS architecture. Rather, we are focusing on the players that are overpopulating a space that frankly may not need to exist anymore—or, at a minimum, can severely contract in size.

Before I dig into detail about why these solutions are long in the tooth, let’s review who typically uses these products in the first place.

Far and away, the largest consumers of proprietary CMSs are the enterprise, or larger corporations where cost is less of a factor than perceived stability. This is a good thing, as AEM implementations, for example, can cost millions of dollars, far exceeding the budgets required for the majority of other solutions available. Adobe recently stated that the average deal size for them is about $450,000 in license fees. Add to that the typical budget multiple for implementation and it is easy to see a CMS project costing millions.

While open-source platforms have made headway in the enterprise space—for example, WordPress bringing WordPress VIP into the fray and Acquia working to make Drupal enterprise-ready—the space is still overwhelmingly influenced by the licensed CMS model. Adobe is definitely a leader in the space, but don’t forget the other players such as Episerver, Sitecore, OpenText, and smaller players such as Kentico or DNN, which all develop and maintain their own platforms under these licensing models.

You don’t often see these products in place within smaller organizations. Mid-sized companies with revenues of less than $20M USD per year most likely will not be investing heavily enough in marketing to justify the expense of these packages, and if they do, it’ll be on the low end of the spectrum. For the most part, the conversion to open-source platforms is nearly complete in that particular sized company. The largest players know this already, and they in turn don’t even bother targeting accounts of that scale. They are focused entirely on the Fortune 1000, picking off clients where the opportunity arises and keeping the ones they have on the recurring license fee train.

So why does anyone choose these platforms?

Well, there are a variety of reasons:

The Support Argument

Many customers will argue that being backed by a corporation such as Adobe, IBM, or Microsoft means that there is more security in terms of the stability of the solution, in addition to better ongoing support.

In reality, support with an enterprise is typically a nightmare, a fact I think we all know too well. Unless you are their largest customer, you won’t have much of a say in terms of what is or isn’t integrated into the product. And most of these companies, like the rest of the world, are offloading investment in support or shipping those jobs overseas.

Indeed, it can be said that open-source or custom software offers a larger pool of support simply because the community is as, if not more, responsive than their licensed counterparts. In the end, the question really isn’t about where you get “better support,” but rather, are you simply looking for someone to blame when things go awry?

Published Pricing

While not always easy to understand, the productized approach to a commercial CMS product makes for a comfortable negotiation and comparison shopping experience for procurement officers everywhere. While there will still be massive implementation fees, which is a service-based arrangement, it’s easier for the corporate red-tape structure to understand a product than it is to understand a service—i.e. they are more likely to acquire a consultant to help them figure out what product to buy as opposed to hiring a team to build them a solution.

Again, that is shortsighted because implementation will most likely result in a third party being needed regardless of the product they acquire!

Furthermore, implementation of enterprise-level software is much costlier, as the software is targeted at large corporations with heavy budgets, leading the implementation experts to charge accordingly. Since commercial software isn’t always easy to get their hands on, agencies charge higher rates to implement, sometimes even paying finder fees back to the software provider. What a racket!

The Illusion of an All-In-One Solution

Services like AEM are what I call “Great Demos.” That means they look really great in the hands of the sales team demonstrating them. Adobe does particularly well with this because it has so much interconnectivity with other Adobe products, which are probably already in use in an enterprise.

In reality, much of it is smoke and mirrors, as the tools often have difficulty showing a benefit that outweighs the cost.

Why do commercial CMS products do well as demonstrations? One reason is that they have to. Remember, commercial products need license fees to survive. As such, they are focused on performing well during the sales cycle. If they don’t demo well, there isn’t even a chance to discuss pricing.

As such, commercial products are going to be much more focused on the end-user, not the technologist. In this case, the CMO is more likely to watch a demonstration and be impressed because they are the target for a commercial product, as opposed to the technologist, who will most likely be resistant to the closed-source methodology of the system.

IT Governance

Unfortunately, many enterprises still are closed-minded when it comes to open source. This can be for any variety of reasons, such as security, code openness, or just plain personal preference. This is a hard thing for a CMO or marketing team to overcome, and will be a big reason why commercial CMS products stay in business for some time to come.

Connectivity To Other Applications

We recently lost a bid on a project to a company that sold an off-the-shelf CMS—completely proprietary and not their core product—based on the argument that their e-commerce capability was natively able to utilize the customers ERP solution. Meaning the customer chose the entire direction of their marketing website, their consumer-facing solution, based solely on a single integration.

They will suffer as a result because their ERP was easily accessible by anyone who could connect to an API, and now their sole marketing vehicle is being managed and controlled by a company with a CMS solution straight out of 2005.

Do I sound frustrated? Yeah, a bit. And this scenario happens all the time. Why?

I think my next point has a lot to do with it.

Competitors Use It

Sometimes the folks in charge of finding a CMS solution are lazy. After all, it’s confusing. If you aren’t utilizing a consultant to help you acquire the right solution, it can be overwhelming studying up on all of the whitepapers, case studies, and documentation to make the right decision.

It’s easier to just see what other companies are using and if you like how their website looks, then simply recommend the same solution.

This is the worst possible way to procure software. If you find yourself recommending something for this reason only, please, hire someone to help you research the pros and cons of each product first.

The Biggest Reason Why Companies Spend Big Bucks on CMS License Fees

No one gets fired for choosing Adobe.

Or SiteCore. Or Episerver. Or any of the other productized offerings.

The perceived risk is much lower for a licensed solution versus an open-source or custom-built one, even though the latter options could save a company millions of dollars over the course of a few years.

Think about that for a second. The folks who do the research into these solutions and need to recommend to management what path to take are the ones that are risking their careers and livelihoods by making decisions that may go awry.

Custom software is risky. The rewards are huge, but the process leaves room for uncertainty. Open-source solutions have their own risks in terms of security and future roadmaps. Yet, millions of companies around the world already embrace those approaches in a responsible and effective manner. So why should the enterprise be any different?

Again, because those making the recommendations have more to lose.

This chart highlights the perceived risk of available CMS solutions versus their budgetary requirements:

Cost vs. Risk in Choosing a CMS

As you can see, the riskier the solution, the lower the price. Which makes sense—if you pay millions of dollars for something, you shouldn’t bear any risk, right? But these proprietary solutions are hiding their lack of capabilities, extensibility, and how they handcuff your creativity with a grand act of smoke and mirrors that would make David Blaine be proud.

Why Pray for their Demise?

Now that we know the true reasons why people use these platforms, let’s dig into the flaws and reasoning behind why we should all, as creative and marketing professionals, wish to move away from this outdated business model.

Vendor Lock-In

I hear this concern about custom solutions a lot. “If you build us a CMS, we’ll be stuck with you.”

Well, not really.

You’ll have custom software built on popular technology stacks that tens of thousands of developers understand. So, it’s really not a lock-in by any means.

Commercial systems, on the other hand, truly do lock you in. You’re stuck with their product for as long as you need to keep your website alive. This means that if your business calls for some custom functionality or expansion, unless the system can already do it, you’re going to either be stuck or have to hack together the experience outside of the ecosystem. Not good.

This is why you see so many enterprises who have microsites, portals, and other web features on subdomains separate from their main web presence—simply because it’s the easiest way to do it. Or, alternatively, they rely on other SaaS applications to offload functionality that they can’t achieve themselves.

Perhaps “vendor lock-in” isn’t the best term. Perhaps it’s “vendor handcuffing” that we should use to describe this unique set of restrictions commercial products place on their customers.

Ongoing Expense

CMS vendors are in the business of selling software, so the best thing for them is recurring revenue. That’s why your CMS product typically will cost you the upfront license fee and a yearly renewal fee, which is usually around 20% of the initial cost.

This means that every 5 years, you’ve basically bought yourself a new CMS. It adds up.

Of course, this is not to say that building or utilizing open-source solutions has no expense. Surely, they do. The difference is that they aren’t flat license fees. They are implementation costs, something you’ll face with licensed software as well.

Again, some enterprises see value in this arrangement—someone to call, someone to blame when things go wrong. But is the value really worth what you are paying over time?

The only place license fees make sense is with hosted, headless solutions. That’s because they are also providing a massive amount of value with uptime support, scalable solutions, and consistently improving a simple product as opposed to focusing heavily on adding more and more bloat to their platforms. Knowing that you have 99.99% uptime guaranteed with no worries about infrastructure and associated costs (system administrators, I’m looking at you), justifies the value.

With locally hosted CMS products, where you bear the cost of infrastructure maintenance, the model simply doesn’t make sense.

Lack of Flexibility

For me, this is the biggest issue. Remember, commercial CMSs are products, not platforms. This means they are focused on specific use cases. As such, they are highly limiting in what they can do from a functionality perspective. Many offer no programming interfaces, and those that do may not have them well documented or easily accessible. And many still don’t have APIs for multichannel distribution!

If your future plans call for expansion of functionality, you may be too limited by these solutions to get much value out of them. If, however, you are sure that your site will stay within the parameters of what these products are designed for, maybe the solution is a good fit for you.

Unpredictable Evolution

I honestly don’t know why this doesn’t bother more folks. The evolution of licensed software is slower than open source and most definitely slower than custom-developed solutions.

Commercial software is the slowest to react to trends and innovation simply because their business model isn’t rewarded by taking risks on new technologies. That’s why the largest players’ solutions don’t come to market quickly—they wait to see what will happen in the marketplace first.

Since the core functionality of a CMS hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years (other than multichannel distribution, which actually simplified CMS architecture, in my opinion), commercial platforms have been developing value-added features to appeal to their end user—typically a CMO, as mentioned above.

This means that today, they are adding marketing toolsets such as automation, data analytics, and A/B testing. But these providers didn’t innovate in that space. They waited to see what the market was developing first, with players such as HubSpot leading the way.

So, what is the next trend? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m willing to bet it won’t happen quickly enough to move the needle for most of their customers.

When Commercial Makes Sense

As I’ve said, while we may wish for the industry to completely fade away, it’s unlikely. There is going to be a place for these solutions for quite some time to come.

In my mind, there are only a few scenarios where these platforms should be considered:

  • When It’s a 100% Perfect Fit — To reiterate: commercial CMSs are products, not platforms. This means if you can’t accomplish exactly what you are aiming to achieve with them, then don’t bother. But if you can, and the license fees are something you can stomach, they may be a good fit.
  • When IT Governance Requires It — Even though IT professionals typically love the idea of open-source platforms or building out custom solutions, even they don’t always control the policies of an enterprise. If IT governance requires licensing a solution, then a commercial CMS may not only make sense, it could be your only route forward.

So, What’s the Alternative?

Obviously, I can’t conclude this post without talking about the alternative to the commercial CMS. I believe it falls into three buckets: open-source platforms, headless CMS solutions, and custom CMSs. These options are, in many ways, the present and future of content management.

Open-Source Platforms

There simply is no ignoring that more and more of these solutions are invading a space previously occupied by large, commercial products. The platforms have matured and as such, the soft costs of implementation are often less than what an enterprise would spend implementing a licensed product (and without all those pesky fees).

I’m not a large proponent of these platforms solving every problem. In fact, they are second on my list of least-preferred platforms. But they do have an advantage over commercial models in that they do the same thing at a much lower cost, and do iterate faster. The economics of this can’t be ignored.

Headless CMS Solutions

So many of the use cases highlighted by commercial platforms can easily be built utilizing the latest headless, API-driven CMS solutions. If you look at what is being built using commercial software, you see many informational sites that don’t have large amounts of interactivity or advanced functionality.

The case for headless is thus two-fold: it can match these products in terms of content management efficacy, and it can allow IT to utilize newer, better technologies. In the latter case, that can be further broken out into two areas.

Front-end technologies are advancing in functionality, and those libraries are particularly adept at working with API-driven content and data. On the backend, infrastructure for headless solutions can be streamlined much more effectively, saving on hard costs. You can host an entire site on a CDN if you wanted to, making it globally delivered, redundant, scalable, and lightning fast.

With all of that considered, plus the fact that license fees with headless technology are in line with what enterprises are already paying, it isn’t far-fetched to say that these solutions can have a huge impact in the coming years.

Custom CMS

Yes, this is our bread and butter. The argument for custom CMS as an alternative is mostly economics. A properly constructed decoupled CMS can power your website and applications for many, many years.

As stated before, license fees for commercial CMS products can be upwards of $80,000. Add 20% per year afterwards—over 5 years, this is a $144,000 investment. And that’s not counting other value adds such as multilingual capabilities, multi-domain, etc. Nor does it account for implementation, which can be a multiple of 3 or 4x!

A custom CMS platform can be built on top of a coding framework (think Laravel, Symfony, etc.) for much less, and be free of license fees for perpetuity. It allows you to determine the roadmap of features, including what new technologies to embrace.

For use cases that involve heavy customization, a reliance on autonomy, and an interest in building an asset, custom CMS solutions make a ton of sense.


Conceptually, the industry knows that the justification for commercial, proprietary CMSs is singing a slow swan song. What can help speed up the process is more people understanding why these systems are still being sold, and what alternatives exist.

As the core technology of commercial CMSs is lagging and slow to embrace changes coming to the CMS industry, the slow decline of these platforms will pick up speed, and the embracing of other technologies will continue. 

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2018 Web Agency Buying Guide

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