Why Contentful is our content management system of choice

One year ago, I wrote about the open challenges in responsive web development and expressed high hopes that a startup called The Grid would soon bring to market an approach some good answers.

My speculations did not come true. The Grid’s release was delayed until Fall 2015, and the initial version has turned out to be best suited for blogs, making it so far a competitor to website templates like Weebly and SquareSpace but not yet a viable custom web development platform. So much for my crystal ball!

Meanwhile our search for the best solution continued, until we discovered Contentful, and really liked what we saw.

Contentful was designed around the modern best practice of COPE, which is short for “Create Once, Publish Everywhere”, a strategy originally conceived at NPR to successfully manage the steady stream of content the organization produces daily for delivery across multiple channels. COPE consists of 3 core principles, which, if followed, will allow content reuse across any platform that exists today, or might exist in the future. The principles are:

  1. Separate content from display
  2. Ensure content modularity
  3. Ensure content portability

What do these mean in practice, and why are they important? What does Contentful do differently than most web content management systems?

Principle 1. Separate content from display

This is important because design varies by screen size, by platform and over time. Meanwhile, well-structured content works across all platforms and lasts a long time.

Separating content from presentation allows content authors to focus on what they do best – creating great content – without getting distracted by layout and design. Meanwhile designers and developers get to focus on what they do best – ensuring the content looks fantastic on any device.

If the content structure is tied to a particular design or layout, the design can’t be changed without also updating all the content. Separating the content allows the design to evolve and new platforms to be added without reworking the content, saving time and money.

Contentful separates content from display completely – in fact Contentful leaves display entirely up to the developer and designer; display is not part of the product. Instead, Contentful delivers content through a standardized web API so that the developer can display the content however they like.

Most other web publishing platforms do not follow the principle of separating content from presentation at all. They include WYSIWIG editors that encourage content authors to tweak layout. They include support for raw HTML and JavaScript (for example to support embedding or custom styling). This content isn’t portable across devices. If your CMS provides these features you will face all sorts of challenges when you try to display the content on a mobile device.

Principle 2. Ensure content modularity

Modular content is flexible in how it can be presented. For example, if your content is news articles, how should the article’s author be structured? A simple text field might initially seem sufficient, but what if later you want to show a profile picture and bio? Giving the author its own content type gives the designer that option. Contentful’s admin tool is outstanding in how easy it is to set up well structured content. No programmer is needed, which saves time and money. Many legacy CMS platforms do not even support structured content. Those that do typically require a programmer to set up the structure.

Principle 3. Ensure content portability

Fully portable content can be presented on any platform – web browsers, mobile apps, search engines, smart watches. This principle relates to both content delivery and the content itself. Content delivery via API we covered. If you are already following Principle 1 to separate content and presentation, you’ve taken a big step to ensure content portability. But it’s worth considering in its own right. Consider the classic recipe ingredients list. Instead of using a text string (e.g. “6 cups of oats”), separate out the ingredient’s quantity and units so that it can be translated, converted and scaled easily (e.g. “540 grams of oats”)

Contentful built translation and units support into all of its content types. When it comes time to localize your content, you will be grateful. Most major CMS systems do support translation, but not at the structured data level that Contentful does.

Practical Considerations

Beyond the principles of COPE, Contentful has built a great product.

Content authors – our clients – love Contentful

Contentful has done a fantastic job of creating a great interface for content editing. Their authoring tool was designed to let the author to focus on writing instead of getting distracted by formatting and design. Content authors are pleased when their content looks fantastic because the designer retained control over the presentation.

Contentful saves time and money.

Contentful elimates server/API programming costs wherever we use it. Contentful takes care of all hosting needs with an enterprise class geographically distributed content delivery network (CDN), again saving time and money. Contentful includes platform SDKs for syncing content to web and mobile apps – you got it – saving time and money. Contentful has great documentation and responsive support.

What is Markdown? Will it limit me?

For those unfamilar with Markdown, it may initially seem confusing or limiting. We recommend reading this introduction to Markdown and its benefits to understand why it has become the leading content authoring format – it’s lightweight, powerful and, most critically, portable across many platforms unlike HTML.

Can I self host?

Contentful does not offer a self-hosting option. It’s hard to conceive how they could offer self-hosting without eliminating the CDN component. Since the CDN is critical for any production application, and Contentful’s pricing is competitve with self-hosting, we are happy to let Contentful provide hosting which we’ve found to be excellent quality (they use Amazon Web Services behind the scenes).

Will I be locked into Contentful?

Contentful’s API and many third party importer/exporter options put it among the top systems with respect to portability of content.

What do you think?

As you can gather, we’re big fans of Contentful. What’s been your experience with cross platform content management?