Contentful is a lot more than a CMS. It’s an API-first, cloud-native SaaS that can be scaled effectively to meet complex and diverse business needs. In short, the perfect choice for websites and applications built on the Jamstack architecture.
- CMS type: API
- Website: contentful.com
- Founded: 2010
- Total raised: $334.6M
- Company size: 501-1000 people
Last update: June 17, 2021
What is Contentful used for?
Firstly, it’s important to point out that Contentful is context-agnostic. This means it can be used with any platform that displays content since content is data. Think websites, web apps, mobile apps, billboards, etc.
Content is static in that it is not user-generated, but editors have the ability to constantly add, edit or delete the content as requirements scale and shift. Static content could be used dynamically on the frontend using techniques like personalization, but this requires a custom implementation or 3rd-party integration.
Developers will be responsible for building and maintaining the content model, the overall structure of your content, as it maps to the codebase. However, the most successful implementations occur when planning includes input from all stakeholders and the content model is tested by content editors and developers before final approval.
The web app is well designed and easy to use. The Contentful team constantly works on improving the UX which includes links to documentation in the sidebar of various sections and the overall usability. New features are added from time to time, most recently tags were introduced making it easier to group and search for content.
Let’s dive in and check what’s inside the main tabs.
When creating a new project you are presented with the welcome screen, the home tab for your new Contentful Space. A space contains everything you need to create and manage your content. There are some helpful links to learning more about Contentful including their documentation.
The next tab is for your content model. This is the blueprint for your entire content structure of content types. On the free Community plan, you will be able to create 48 content types, each allowing up to 50 content fields. Here is a screenshot of the various types of built-in fields you can use to create your content entries:
Certain fields contain many options for customizing the editor experience and changing the type of data received on the frontend for optimal implementation. For example:
- The text field can be presented in multiple ways in the editor and output plain text, markdown, or a list.
- The reference field accepts one or more entries from other selected content types allowing for dynamic content creation and extending the 50 field limit.
- The rich text field is fully customizable and can even contain links to other content entries, much like a reference field, making it perfect for blog posts among other things. There is a Contentful plugin that handles rendering rich text, but it’s worth noting that Gatsby provides an improved plugin for complete control over how rich text data is fetched and rendered.
- Every field type includes a tab for validation.
I strongly recommend that you create a free personal account and take a look at all the available options you have with these fields. It will soon become clear why so much planning needs to be done when creating your content model for the first time.
Next, we have the content tab. This is where you create and manage your content entries including linking to media you’ve uploaded. Contentful allows for pretty much every popular file format including image, video, audio, pdf, spreadsheet, etc. The media tab is where all your files are stored and is mostly used for bulk operations and searches.
Sneak Peek of the UI
Here is a basic example of how you might structure your content model for blog posts. As you will see, Contentful is very flexible allowing you to tailor to the needs of both content editors and developers.
Contentful Content APIs
There are four core REST APIs:
- The Content Delivery API (CDA) is read-only and delivers your published content via a globally distributed content delivery network (CDN).
- The Content Preview API works the same way as the CDA except it can also deliver draft content. When used in combination with a preview deployment, editors are able to view their changes before delivering them to your customers.
- The Content Management API is the only read-write API and allows for programmatic management of your content. One of the most critical features are migration scripts, used to change the content model as well as the content itself. These scripts give developers the ability to run tests in sandbox environments and then reuse the scripts to implement approved changes in the production environment. At some point, your content model will need to undergo a significant change. This is almost guaranteed as it is impossible to predict how your business needs will change in the future. Avoiding having to manually update your content is invaluable as it will save an enormous amount of time.
- The Images API enables you to deliver optimized high-quality assets with the added benefit of Contentful’s CDN. Image transformations include resizing, cropping, quality control, and even conversion to different formats at delivery time.
Many, if not most of you will be wanting to use GraphQL to query your content. Fear not as there is also the GraphQL Content API which supports and offers a fully functional equivalent to the REST implementation of both the Content Delivery and Content Preview APIs. Contentful plugins provided for SSG frameworks like Gatsby will use this.
Contentful Apps and UI Extensions
UI Extensions were created to allow developers to extend the basic functionality of the web app. They can be used to create a completely new field type or update an existing field interface, for example, JSON object fields could be edited as a form instead of JSON syntax. Functionality can be applied to a single field or the extension can be added to the sidebar and applied to an entire entry.
Recently, the Contentful team has introduced a new App Framework that can do everything extensions can do and more. For this reason, they recommend creating apps instead of extensions. Some of the key benefits include configuration and state management as well as easily sharing apps across all spaces and environments of your organization. Contentful uses React to render views for the web app and handle logic so it’s recommended that you use React to build your custom apps, but they say it’s not mandatory.
Apart from the huge benefit that comes with being able to add your own custom functionality to the CMS, there is also a marketplace with numerous apps for improving both the developer and content editor experience via 3rd-party integrations. Use cases include digital asset management, search, translation, personalization, deployment, and more.
Users on the free Community plan do not have access to support services meaning you won’t be able to get additional assistance with any issues you may be facing. However, between Contentful’s developer documentation, FAQs, user guides, GitHub repos, and community you should have no trouble finding the answer you need on how features and functionality works.
Team and Enterprise customers are able to use the support form and log detailed issues including selecting between multiple levels of severity. Support will then reach out over email until the issue is resolved. Furthermore, Enterprise users enjoy full customer support with guaranteed response time via SLAs.
In my opinion, the biggest problem with this CMS is the cost to scale. At US$489 per month for the medium version of the Team plan, the most significant benefits over the Community plan are increased users and locales along with access to technical support. Upgrading to the large version at US$879 per month gets you additional increases for environments, roles, locales, and records. Neither offers an increase on the 48 content types you have on the free plan which are critical to reducing complexity for the editor experience and your application frontend.
I can see the possible benefit of the large Team plan for publication websites. The extra users with the author and translator roles along with an increased capacity for content will be sufficient in meeting the growing needs of the business, but I fail to see any other case where the same is true. Even so, jumping from free to US$879 per month is huge and not at all worth the minor increased benefits.
The cost of the Enterprise plan depends on how you choose to customize it. Safe to say it’s pretty steep, but there are numerous benefits and added features and functionality that come with it, far too many to list in fact. I encourage you to check out the pricing page and be sure to select “Show full comparison” at the bottom of the overview table.
What Do Clients Say?
We used Contentful for multiple projects, one of the most successful is SEOmonitor.
Non-technical members needed to be able to update the website without the hassle of setting up git or writing markdown files. Luckily, we found out about Netlify and Contentful and it seemed like a perfect fit for our existing publishing flows.
Check the full SEOmonitor case study here.
Pros and Cons
What it comes down to is this. Contentful is a powerful quality CMS that can handle complex workflows and processes. I would highly recommend this to any company of any size whose needs are either small, small to medium with the potential for significant growth, or enterprise level.
Firms who typically remain in the healthy middle may get themselves into a little trouble if they do not apply certain limits on their creative teams to ensure they won’t need more content types. This is why your initial content model planning must include all relevant stakeholders and go through multiple iterations.
- Well written documentation, guides, and use-cases. 8 official SDKs for different programming languages.
- Images API for modifying / optimizing images.
- Great official gatsby-source-plugin with native gatsby-image and Contentful Images API support.
- Easy to set up and configure multi-language.
- If you are not using Gatsby but still want to take advantage of GraphQL, Contentful offers both REST and GraphQL APIs.
- Advanced webhooks configuration.
- Contentful gives you a lot of freedom in terms of structure and component organization. It can be harmful for bigger projects if you don't do it properly and thoughtfully from the very start.
- Not easy editing of multi-language content in case of more locales than 3, UI starts to look a little bit messy.
- No easy way to import large chunks of data - you need to write your custom script that will do that through the API.
- No easy way to merge Space Environments - you need to write a custom script in Contentful Migration DSL, test in the sandbox and apply to production. In some cases it's easier to create a new environment and copy changes manually.