All-in-one website content management systems (CMS) are facing a reckoning as the world moves towards cloud infrastructure as a standard. Industry leaders are pivoting toward "headless" CMSs.
Have you ever wondered about the term "headless"? How can a headless CMS benefit your marketing team? Are there any new challenges that come with it? Why is this architecture becoming more popular in the industry? To understand its origins, let's take a quick look at the evolution of content management on the web.
Content Management: A Quick Look Back
As websites grew in size after the early days of the web, it became clear there was a need to find a way to manage site content without relying on developers. Digital asset management (DAM) systems stepped in to fill the void. HTML pages were treated as a document created using desktop editors and uploaded to servers for public viewing.
As the web and broadband took off, increasingly complex online user experiences made page-by-page content management increasingly clunky. Thus, the server-side CMS was born. These second and third-generation systems were launched to manage web pages. They offered a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) editing experience and the ability to make content changes on the fly.
Over the last 15 years or so, digital marketing has become much more sophisticated. Smartphones and high-speed wireless data changed the way people browsed the web. CMS providers responded and now offer advanced features like analytics, marketing automation, list management, email distribution, search, and ecommerce. These features have all become bolted onto the core content management product.
With the increased CMS feature set came problems:
- Feature bloat added to the overall cost of the system.
- Analytics and search required significantly more horsepower in the server room.
- Third-party systems offered better and cheaper list management and marketing tools, creating overlap with CMS features
- There was no guarantee of interoperability with the increasing number of digital marketing tools available.
Changes to CMSs came slowly and at great expense. Marketing priorities conflicted with IT processes and budget constraints. There was a clear need for a smaller, more agile solution to website management.
This gap in the CMS market was quickly filled by new challengers, SaaS-based CMS solutions that were lightweight and inexpensive to experiment with. These systems were born in "the cloud" and had incredibly basic content maintenance features. They didn't handle page delivery to the public, so you were on your own to develop that solution. Despite this feature being left out, it actually proved beneficial and enabled developers to use the newest rapid development tools to create websites and target non-website platforms. As headless CMS has developed over the last decade, additional benefits have become clear.
Searching for a new CMS platform? Read our 7 Factors for Choosing the Right CMS to help you navigate the market.
What Exactly Does the Term Headless Mean?
The "head" in "headless CMS" refers to the software that actually sends your content to the visitor's device for them to consume. Traditionally, this pertains to creating an HTML document and determining the server where the document will either be hosted (for static websites) or generated (for dynamic websites).
With the introduction of native mobile applications, the Internet of Things (IoT), and out-of-band delivery (think advertising screens and video menu boards), headless now includes anything that can consume content managed by the CMS, even your Roomba, Alexa, or refrigerator.
Thus, a headless CMS is software that manages digital content (text, markup, images, digital documents) but doesn't deliver it directly to devices or visitors.
Essential Features of a Headless CMS
For the purposes of this article, we're going to define a headless CMS as having the following traits:
- The CMS is a SaaS-based platform (you can edit content without installing any software).
- The content stored within the CMS is accessed via public APIs.
- While the particular headless solution may have recommendations, the developer has complete freedom to develop the front end of your website solution.
One of the core strategies of headless CMS is that your digital experience platform (DXP) isn't one big piece of software. Content management becomes one small piece of a machine assembled using off-the-shelf best-of-breed solutions. You only subscribe to the software you need.
The Benefits of Using a Headless CMS
By separating content from the presentation layer, your CMS becomes more flexible, scalable, and easier to upgrade. Here are a few benefits of going headless for content management:
Performance & Scalability
Scalability is a key advantage of headless CMS, especially for companies that face seasonal high-traffic requirements. Headless systems are often paired with Static Site Generators (SSG) that render your entire site into individual HTML documents that are then distributed via a Content Delivery Network (CDN). Compared to classic CMSs, where site pages are rendered when visitors request them, static page delivery via a CDN provides:
- Incredibly fast page delivery times.
- Global coverage to ensure everyone gets your site delivered as fast as possible.
- Global redundancy at scale - CDNs are designed to serve millions of page requests without failure.
With a classic CMS, your company would be responsible for achieving these objectives at great expense.
Immersive & Accessibility UX
One advantage of headless is the ability to take advantage of rapidly evolving front-end technologies. Marketers are free to use the most immersive user experiences and improve website accessibility. Making different versions of the same content for various devices or accessibility requirements is simpler when the presentation layer is separated from content creation and storage.
Headless allows developers to use the language and frameworks they want when implementing their solution rather than being tied down to the CMS vendor's choice for programming. Developers can use different front-end technologies, including React, Angular, or Vue.js.
Frequent Feature Updates
SaaS-based CMSs eliminate the need for local infrastructure to manage content. Your website is essentially a code-free "black box" and platform suppliers can roll out new features without forcing an expensive upgrade project.
Flexible Digital Ecosystem
Incorporating applications into your website has numerous benefits. Integrations are typically simpler and more cost-effective because each application has its own infrastructure and data management, so your developers won't have to worry about the basic technical details of making everything work efficiently. By connecting systems, you can focus on improving the user experience and gaining a better understanding of your customers' needs.
This composable digital experience is possible by separating the concepts of data management (including content management) from web page delivery.
Headless CMS Tradeoffs
It's Only Content Management
Headless CMS isn't concerned with your website at all. After all, you might not be targeting a website. Features typically found in legacy CMSs like sitemaps, styles, meta tags, forms, and navigation, will all be missing from your headless CMS. Your developers will need to choose "head" frameworks that add these features back into your website ecosystem.
Lack of In-System Page Design/Assembly
If your website team likes to lovingly customize every page on your site, headless CMS will seem like a step backward in time. What you gain in scalability, performance, and ease of integration, you lose in design freedom. A few SaaS-based CMS players do have robust page design features, and many others are developing the capability, but the experience will be different from the developer-free freedom you may have had with a legacy CMS.
Lack of Robust Information Architecture Design
Most headless CMS platforms present content within the system as part of a single list. Similar to WordPress, Drupal, or your DAM, finding content in these systems requires tagging discipline and reliance on robust search queries. It can be difficult to define what your site structure is from within the CMS. If you're used to the folder-based structures of Optimizely, Sitecore, or even Sharepoint, this may require some mental paradigm shifts.
Extremely Simple Workflow & Approval Process
Headless CMS was initially marketed as a simple alternative to complex traditional CMS when it comes to workflow and publishing features. If you're accustomed to a robust content lifecycle with numerous checkpoints, emails, visuals, etc. then a headless CMS may require changes to your organization's content generation process. Or you may need to build custom interfaces to replace what was native in your old CMS.
Like all SaaS products, It's Pay-for-Use
Just because you don't have servers for your CMS doesn't mean there aren't computers somewhere. Headless CMS tends to be priced by data API access. To keep costs down, your development team needs to make sure that your website only calls the headless CMS APIs when absolutely necessary. This may require different approaches to the concept of "content freshness," "page publishing,", and content lifetime.
Is Headless CMS in Your Future?
The change toward composable and interoperable systems in the field of marketing technology brings both benefits and challenges for companies. While it provides greater flexibility and choice, it also puts more responsibility on clients to ensure that the systems they choose will function properly together and meet security requirements. Many businesses that don't have in-house expertise in this area may need to work with partners to help connect different components.
While many solution companies want clients to stay within their umbrella of products, headless CMS gives rise to companies diversifying their tech stacks. Headless enables composability. Companies can mix and match platforms and suppliers, which also helps them focus on core competencies, simplify their stack, and provide adaptive architecture. However, assembling which technologies to use requires thoughtful consideration and evaluation of components and platforms that can truly optimize your business and customers.
If you're looking to assess your ecosystem and explore opportunities to go headless and modernize your tech stack, get in touch to learn more about your options.