The other week was a busy travel week with three of us at Kentico Connections in Chicago and another one of us at the Umbraco US Festival – also in Chicago! Was it a coincidence that two of the biggest .Net based CMS companies held conferences on the same day in Chicago? I’ll let you decide.

There was a lot covered over two and a half days, so here’s a rundown of events and key takeaways from the Kentico conference. Ryan will be posting separately with his Umbraco conference notes.

Wednesday 10/10 – A Night at the Museum

Kentico kicked things off in style with a gala event at the Chicago History Museum. After a schmooze fest with passed hors d’oeuvres and access to the upper floor of the museum galleries, we headed downstairs to the theater for a series of keynotes. Eric Webb, VP of Sales in North America acted as MC and Dan Lyons, author of “Fake Steve Jobs” and a writer for the HBO series Silicon Valley gave an interesting and entertaining talk about telling stories as a content strategy. He pointed out that content is doubling every 9 months, the last decade’s mantra of “content is king” has resulted in a glut of low quality content, and content now needs to be more compelling than ever to reach an audience. A case study of Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, and the content he has fostered telling stories at Microsoft particularly stood out.

From there, Petr Palas (CEO) and the three product managers for Kentico Cloud and Kentico CMS/EMS talked overall product strategy, the horrors of content friction and gave previews of what they’d be diving into in a lot more detail on Thursday. That was followed by a great party in an expanded area upstairs with dinner and music that went on well past my bedtime.

Thursday 10/11 – Main Event

The day was split up into two tracks, Technical and Business. I spent most of my time in the technical track, but hopped into the business track when it seemed like a better fit for how Wakefly uses Kentico. Below are notes from across the presentations grouped by general topic.

Kentico’s Migration to MVC and .Net Core

Michal Kadak, product manager for Kentico EMS, gave a detailed background on Kentico’s Web Forms history and their transition to MVC-first development. After the release of Kentico 11, they have focused almost exclusively on improving and expanding MVC support due to the impending demise of Web Forms.

Michal talked about Microsoft not having put serious effort into Web Forms since 2013, and that Microsoft’s current and future web framework efforts are focused almost exclusively on MVC .Net Core, their cross-platform development framework.

For a more in-depth discussion of Kentico’s transition to MVC and how it impacts existing Kentico customers, see Kentico 12’s MVC Update: What Does It Mean?

Features that have been added or updated to improve support for managing sites built in MVC include Page Builder, Content Personalization, Form Builder and Form Components, Continuous Integration, Staging and a new MVC Installer. I’ll provide more details on each of these below.

Michal talked about transition options for existing customers, which include:

  • Staying with Web Forms – Kentico plans to support Web Forms for years to come. There’s no need to dump an existing Web Forms site if it’s working well. He did not, however, provide a very compelling reason to upgrade Web Forms sites to Kentico 12 beyond keeping current with updates.
  • Rebuild in MVC – When new sites are built or existing sites substantially updated, the move to MVC should be strongly considered.
  • Hybrid Development – Kentico will support sections of a site being built in MVC and these will gain the full benefit of the new MVC features. This allows customers to incrementally update their site to MVC without doing it all at once. Hybrid development is accomplished via a separate MVC project that serves portions of the Kentico site from a subdirectory or subdomain under your main domain.

Finally, we got a timeline for the longer effort of moving to full Kentico support of .Net Core. Here’s a rundown:

  • 2018: Kentico 12 improves MVC 5 support on .Net Standard with Page Builder, Forms Builder and more.
  • 2020: MVC .Net Core front end website projects will be supported. The back end Kentico application will still rely on .Net Standard. This means the front-end website can be cross platform and take advantage of the latest and greatest from Microsoft’s platform releases. The Kentico back-end will still need to be hosted on a Windows Server.
  • 2022: Kentico back-end will have been fully ported to .Net Core. Web Forms and Portal Engine support will almost certainly end with this release as Web Forms does not run on .Net Core.

Kentico 12 Demos

A few of the sessions demoed end user and development features included in Kentico 12. Here are some highlights.

Page Builder

Page Builder is the MVC replacement for the Portal Engine. They’ve done excellent work here and I can honestly say it’s one of the best user experiences for a content management system I’ve seen. If developed properly, a site using Page Builder will delight content editors. Content components are developed as “MVC Widgets” and enable editors to add them to the page with just a click or two. The UX is very simple and clean, and editing happens inline and fully WYSIWYG. No more clumsy widget dialogs required for updating content. Widgets are organized into sections, which provide a simple interface for splitting up a page into rows and columns as needed.

My one concern with the page builder was development effort. Each widget is likely to approach, if not exceed, the effort that each template required in Web Forms. There are a lot of files with a fair amount of code behind each one, Kentico is providing very little out of the box in terms of management capability for custom widgets and there are very few widgets provided out-of-box. I feel they’re leaving too much in the hands of developers for providing the widget editing and customization UX. I hope to see what is provided in this area substantially increased in the next release. Until then, project planning and scoping will need to focus on how many widgets are being built and what the editing and configuration options are for each.

Thankfully, structured pages that share the same layout and do not require full layout control for content editors can use straight-up MVC templates edited on the Form tab in Kentico, making these about the same effort as Web Forms templates.

Content Personalization

The UX for content personalization has dramatically improved. Editors will be able to swap any widget on the page out with alternate versions based on Condition Types defined by the developer. The demo shown included two Condition Types provided out-of-box, and probably the only ones marketers will need in most cases: Contact Groups and Personas. When you select a Persona or Contact Group to personalize, a variant of the widget is created and shown with the same inline editing capability. It’s very seamless and slick. No more needing to fuss with complex macros just to personalize content.

Form Builder and Form Components

The MVC Form Builder looks just like the Page Builder, so content editors will only need to learn this once. The only difference is that in the Form Builder, Kentico provides a complete set of form components out of the box: Checkbox, Dropdown, GDPR Consent, Numeric Input, reCaptcha, Text, Email, Radio Buttons, Text Area and Phone Number. These should meet the needs of standard lead and contact forms with zero custom development. And like all things in Kentico, it can be extended by your developer if more is needed.

Continuous Integration, Staging and a new MVC Installer

These are more technical features, but they help developers and content editors do things they did with Web Forms that were previously difficult or impossible in an MVC site. Continuous Integration was not demoed in much detail.

Staging will work as it does now, but won’t impact the MVC site project. In other words, Staging in an MVC project is for content and data managed in Kentico only and won’t include things like templates or MVC widgets.

The MVC Installer provides simple and advanced modes, and the MVC starter site dubbed Dancing Goat has been updated to use the new Kentico 12 features.

Business Track Summary

The Business track was heavily focussed on Kentico Cloud and the future of content. We discussed topics like Content Friction, which is essentially anything that gets in the way of producing great content on time. The speakers spent a lot of time showing how Kentico Cloud and some of the new features will assist with this. A few of the key features I liked:

  • You can now truly collaborate on a single content items. It’s not as good as Google Docs where multiple people can update at the same time, but if someone updates the content you have open it warns and updates for you so you don’t overwrite each other.
  • Suggest feature – they are adding the ability to add comments and proposed changes to content under development. Then others can review and “Accept” or “Reject”.
  • Compare Versions feature – you can now compare multiple versions together and visually see what has changed.
  • Content Snippets feature – you can now create pieces of content that can be reused in multiple places.

Friday 10/12 – Partner Summit

The Kentico Partners attending the event (a bunch of companies like Wakefly) attended a meeting after the conference to share feedback on the event with Kentico VP of Product Karol Jarkovsky. This was a much larger group than I anticipated – maybe 30-40 people. It was great to put faces to the other Kentico partners we hear about all the time and to hear their perspectives on the product, marketplace and how they are impacting agencies providing Kentico services. The transition to MVC will be a big step for Kentico customers, but it’s a huge step for agencies in terms of staffing, training, process changes and how to explain this very technical transition to customers who just want to manage their website. All in all this was highly constructive and almost everyone there said they’d come again when asked.

One partner shared a Kentico extension she built that provides in-line video training within the Kentico admin interface. She figured out a way to leverage a 3rd party video platform to insert contextual videos on key areas of the Kentico admin dashboards.

Thundertech shared their methodology on content writing. They gather trending topics bi-annually into an industry trends ebook and podcast series which they gate for leads. This was a good example of the long form content strategy and storytelling ideas that had kicked things off in the keynote.

After this event, I’m super excited for Kentico 12 and the many substantial product improvements that it brings for developers and content editors.