Comparing Adobe Experience Manager and WordPress

By: Nate Steiner / September 22nd 2023 / Strategy
Comparing Adobe Experience Manager and WordPress

There are already several articles with the theme “WordPress vs Adobe Experience Manager (AEM),” but these products are complex and carry long histories (for the web); so, there are several perspectives on which this kind of comparison can be based. In this article, the intent is to consider a business/marketing team’s best interest at a high level. There are many forks in the road with these two products. Let’s start with the biggest: free vs not free.

WordPress is very widely used, and one of the biggest reasons for this is that there are no licensing fees to get started with it. So, right off the bat, a product distinction pops up when small businesses, non-profits, and any other organization with limited marketing funds pick WordPress, or something similar, simply because software licensing isn’t in the budget. If these organizations stay small, or their marketing needs remain very limited, it’s possible that WordPress will remain their solution of choice for the long term. A common scenario, however, is that a group starting with WordPress will find themselves facing some tough decisions down the road. Questions that could come up include:

Based on my many years of real-word experience building websites, driving experiences, developing applications, and fulfilling a variety of marketing needs using both platforms, it’s clear that Adobe Experience Manager is a far more robust and extensible platform for any business that can afford it. The biggest reason for this is that it’s not a single product; rather, it’s a suite of several powerful products. For example, Adobe Experience Manager includes a very robust system for managing images/pdfs/video (storage/metadata/processing/caching/and more) from the biggest name in the image management space: Adobe.

It’s not just the strength of one of their products, it’s how they work together seamlessly. Your team can start off with Sites and Assets, and later add Target and Dynamic Media (amongst other very substantial Adobe products). All of these products are very actively being improved and upgraded. The software feature enhancement lifecycle is not an afterthought, it’s inherent in enabling a user-friendly yet powerful and flexible system that is leading-edge. Not just in enterprise-scale products, but overall.

There are also structural/architectural aspects of WordPress to be aware of, such as the WordPress “loop.” This is baseline convention going all the way back to its origins as primarily a blogging tool that provides a convenient way to grab information from the database based on looping through a pre-set context (date-based listing page, for example). AEM on the other hand, has an abstracted tree that is both easy to manage for users (pages are also folders when they have child pages) and immanently suitable for all kinds of enhancements. In other words, AEM’s underpinnings are built for large-scale websites and WordPress is still mostly a tool structured for blogs.

Other structural differences involve how enhancements/features are managed, and how parts of pages and administered. Enhancements in WordPress are mostly in the form of plugins. There are thousands of plugins available from third-party developers and many agencies are simply providing the service of leveraging existing plugins that they have learned to install and customize on top of WordPress. In some cases, plugins are being leaned-on for an entire overlay of the page/content management experience. These “site builder” plugins are essentially trying to elevate the authoring experience from the simple page/post convention of baseline WordPress to something that feels more drag-n-drop.

The issue with this is two-fold: first, the number of points of liability for something going wrong gets multiplied when using 3rd party developers (e.g. a site can become unmaintainable if a 3rd party developer stops supporting a critical plugin), and second, the impact of even just a handful of plugins that can modify the WordPress user interface (UI) is painfully apparent when even modifying the smallest thing can be a mystery because content is shifted around based on which plugin is in use. One of the reasons huge “site builder” plugins exist in the first place is to try to provide something akin to what’s inherent in AEM - namely “components” for different types of content. This significant drawback to baseline WordPress is something that’s trying to be fixed with the newer “Gutenburg” editor mode. However, what you’ll find (especially after using AEM) is that its UI is very clunky and annoying for site maintainers. Ultimately, these structural limitations steer many businesses toward using tried-and-true WordPress template themes, which ensure the features will work in a reliable way. Unfortunately, this also ends up making so many WordPress sites look like each other - lacking the distinctive branding and content structuring of a truly custom site.

For every high-level comparison like this, you’ll find an outlier somewhere. In this case, one can imagine there’s an enterprise-sized business or two that has figured out how to leverage WordPress effectively over the long term. From the perspective of marketing agency veterans, however, the usage patterns and product distinctions are clear. Unless your team has very modest marketing needs, you’ll be glad to invest in Adobe Experience Manager as a solution that can grow with you as your business evolves.