Intro: This post is a guest post by my friend Jason Amunwa. Jason worked in UX and developed SaaS products like Hello Bar (yes, the one acquired by CrazyEgg) or Filament (acquired by ShareThis). I'm pumped to have him share his thoughts on WordPress vs AI designed websites on WP Mastery. Take it away, Jason!
Reality check time: did you know that 70% of the internet is powered by the top 3 content management systems (CMSes), with our old friend WordPress making up close to 60% all by its self? Safe to say that CMSes are solidly entrenched in the mainstream, making publishing web content far more accessible to the general public.
It still takes hours, days,and weeks to create a well-designed website - and even then, they require far more maintenance than one might expect. In the age of machine learning, space microphones that can hear gravity, and cars that can drive themselves, the process of building a website still seems so unnecessarily clunky, even some 27 years since their invention.
This is why I’ve been so intrigued by a new website platform called The Grid, which launched this week with promises to take whatever content you send it and automatically design & build the website for you, using artificial intelligence magic pixie dust. Check out their explainer video below.
It’s a compelling notion, for sure - why spend tons of time and effort agonizing over the color palette, layout, fonts, etc. of your website, when you can simply hand the content you to publish over to the machine, and let it find the most appropriate representation of your message for web consumption?
But this vision of automated web publishing raises many questions. What does this mean for the traditional DIY CMSes? Should WordPress, SquareSpace, and the others be lying awake at night, awaiting the inexorable rise of the robots?
In my mind, the answer is yes. Also no. And uh, maybe... See, this is a complex question that I think can be convincingly argued a number of different ways, so I decided to argue all three, and let you decide where you stand. Helpful? Perhaps… let’s find out, shall we?
Pick a side and dive right in:
Major caveat - the following is merely my speculation. I’ve not gotten access to The Grid yet, but the following is my take on the implications of procedurally generated/AI-driven websites on the market share of traditional CMSes.
The Grid’s incorporation of artificial intelligence into the publishing process is a valiant attempt to solve one of the biggest friction points of content marketing: producing and formatting content for for publishing via the CMS - it’s an almost $1 billion-dollar problem in the industry:
“Poorly managed and cumbersome content management processes bloat bottom line costs, leading to an estimated $958M each year in inefficient and ineffective content marketing spend for mid-to-large B2B organizations.” ~Gleanster Research
Aside from actually creating the content, getting it ready for primetime is one of the biggest timesucks & costs related to content marketing. This means that if The Grid delivers on its promise to eliminate the need for manual formatting of content, marketers who adopt it will be able to significantly out-produce those who continue to do it manually.
Said no-one, ever. C’mon, if you’re really honest with yourself, when was the last time your heart skipped a beat at the thought of getting to format some content? Too many people regard their CMS as a means to an end, rather than an enjoyable tool to work with.
“Forty-one percent of respondents describe learning to use a CMS and training others as a challenge: 35 percent say the challenge is “moderate,” while 6 percent call it a “major challenge.” ~UserView CMS Survey
As a 2015 survey on CMSes by UserView found, people don’t really care about their CMSes, they tolerate them. The Grid could be a massive painkiller that accelerates the speed of content publication while raising the average aesthetic quality of content sites operating on the platform. In addition, traction with The Grid’s usage will also signal to other CMSes to focus on streamlining and enhancing the reliability of their publishing workflows, so it’s easier to publish and always just looks good.
A/B testing is a hands-on sport, with many marketers spending tons of time implementing tests and interpreting their results - so just imagine the time saving for marketing teams when this kind of testing is automated for them, with a focus on maximizing their important goals, e.g. maximizing subscribers/followers, etc.
Although I believe it still requires human intuition to find the right things to test, automation at the level of The Grid expands the coverage a marketing team has, thus increasing the likelihood of finding growth opportunities that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed.
CMSes of all types benefit greatly from a high degree of lock-in. After all, even today, most migrations of established websites between platforms is hardly a 1-click effort, and is the reason why there’s so much advice out there for choosing the right CMS for your purposes - it’s not a choice you want to have to make more than once.
In addition, the majority of the population doesn’t build a new website very often, so the amount of headache involved in migrating to The Grid will likely prove prohibitive to its adoption for the time being.
In a 2011 study, a team of researchers from Harvard Business School, Yale and Duke University found that consumers irrationally value a product by up to 5X more if they had invested time and effort into producing it - they dubbed this cognitive bias “The IKEA Effect”.
There’s also the famous story about Betty Crocker’s instant cake mix in the 1950’s that illustrates the reverse: housewives at the time felt guilty for using cake mix, because they didn’t feel they’d contributed any actual work to produce the cake.
What does this psychological phenomenon mean for personal websites that spring out of thin air after you simply supply the content? There’s a good psychological precedent indicating people will want to retain more participation in, and ownership over the presentation of their content.
The level of customization and innate tinker-ability of established CMSes like WordPress will most likely offer a ton more flexibility than something like The Grid - at least to start. WordPress in particular has a massive head-start in terms of install base and vibrancy of the community, as well as the customizability of the platform. It’ll take a lot to persuade even a portion of that audience to jump ship to a new platform.
The Grid is just part of the first wave of AI-powered assistance tools that are making their mark on content:
These tools herald the dawn of a time when you can almost fully automate the production, publishing and promotion of quality content. They ain’t perfect just yet - but they’re good enough to use, and will only get better, so it’d behoove WordPress and other CMSes to look at how they can make life easier for content creators and assist them in taking the grunt work out of creating and publishing content via the traditional, all-manual workflow.
Everyone hates having to maintain their WP sites/themes/plugins. If The Grid is able to minimize that pain, but still offer the functional flexibility that WordPress and other CMSes currently offer, the pressure will be on the incumbents to up their game.
Things self-hosted CMS users take for granted, like theme and plugin conflicts will largely be eliminated with a platform like The Grid, meaning website owners will have to make a judgement call as to whether it’s worth sacrificing the time to retain 100% control over the presentation of their content.
If the concept behind The Grid sounds familiar, it’s basically because this is how social media sites run - you supply the content, and they format it in a pleasing way for your friends, coworkers and distant relatives. But where social networks are able to offer built-in exposure for your content, The Grid is starting out at a bit of a disadvantage, given that you have to pay for The Grid, while all the other social networks are free.
However, if The Grid does indeed gain traction among content creators, expect a bidding war over them between the social media giants - a reliable AI that formats and represents content in the most pleasing way would be a jewel in any network’s crown, whose valuation depends on attracting and retaining as many human eyeballs as possible.
Traditional CMSes have been the backbone behind publishing online content for years - but technology is starting to offer new avenues to non-technical folks that eliminate much of the work behind getting content in front of an audience.
WordPress and all the others will soon face a choice: rethink content production, or be left behind. The Grid may not singlehandedly kill them, but it may just open people’s eyes to what’s possible when we hand over the web design reins to the computer, and focus on just crafting the best content we’re capable of.
More about Jason Amunwa:
I advise startups on product management and have worked on 8 SaaS products in the past, including Hello Bar (acquired by Crazy Egg), Flare & Filament, which was acquired by ShareThis. I also write all about startups, product management, artificial intelligence, and designing human-readable analytics. Oh, and my favorite guilty pleasure movie is Stealth (shh, don’t tell anyone).