If the video-streaming battle has taught consumers anything, it’s that content is king. Ironically, that’s one of the same lessons enterprises have learned as they navigate an increasingly multi-channel world. With the amount of content required by modern businesses, managing it all has become a mission-critical activity.
Enterprise-grade content management has come full circle through the years. Early on, we encountered decoupled content-management systems (CMS). Businesses then embraced tightly coupled CMS, followed by a penchant for modern CMS that are coupled and in context, and eventually leading to the current decoupled and API-driven headless CMS. Amid these changes, many enterprises are still coming to terms with the headless CMS and identifying how best to use one.
What is a Headless CMS?
A headless CMS allows authors to create, manage, and maintain content. Once the content is ready, the author can expose it via APIs to any downstream system. This is a special kind of decoupled CMS because the content itself is not “moved” to the delivery system. In a traditional decoupled CMS, there are fixed number of known delivery systems to which content is pushed or pulled. In a headless CMS, there are no “contracts” with a delivery system, so pure content is made available via APIs to any system: Mobile, Apps, IoT, Kiosks, and others. A good example of such a platform is Contentful.
Any “allowed” system can consume the content and present however it wishes. This is because a headless CMS delivers pure content and has no presentation capability, leaving the downstream IT team to build a presentation layer from scratch. A headless setup is therefore flexible, scalable, customizable, and gives complete freedom of choice – the presentation is entirely up to the imagination and technical competency of the downstream entity. However, this freedom and flexibility can be a challenge for organizations with little IT maturity but high marketing ambitions, if presenting the content requires too much of an upfront investment in development.
Where and Why to Use a Headless CMS
Without a presentation layer, a headless CMS gives enterprises absolute freedom when choosing technology. It’s not limited by the capabilities of a coupled CMS, and new distribution channels can be created with the utmost flexibility.
Technology transformation is something that is more flexibly achievable. A headless CMS is ideal when an organization does not want be tied to proprietary frontends offered by a coupled CMS and wants to adopt the latest presentation frameworks. They also work well if an organization’s presentation requirements are so complicated that an off-the-shelf CMS frontend and MVC simply won’t work. A headless CMS permits highly customized presentation layers.
Using a headless CMS and API-first approach also enables creators to push content to any number and type of platforms. Headless content is pure, not built for a specific channel and then retrofitted for another, so content is available with complete fidelity across channels. This is not only efficient, but ensures that every channel is communicating the same message. In addition, organizations can pick and choose the best tools and platforms to drive personalization, giving them better granular control over the content and user experience.
When an organization’s IT landscape is comprised of a network of microservices and micro frontends, content also needs to be looked at as a set of services. In such cases, headless CMS are the best way to go. Similarly, an organization dealing purely with native apps would be best served by a headless CMS with API-first policy rather than a traditional CMS.
For many organizations, content is not the primary focus. In such cases, investing in a full-fledged CMS with robust features is overkill in terms of cost and performance, and it eliminates the flexibility IT teams often seek. A robust CMS is also overkill for enterprises exploring content for the first time, or for whom content is a more-casual initiative. In these cases, a thin and less-expensive headless CMS is the best choice.
There are instances where a headless CMS is not the best choice. For instance, if a platform is primarily content-driven and covers a vast number of websites across several locales and millions of pages, a full-scale CMS is the best choice for its functionality and time-to-market advantages.
One of the important things to consider while deploying a headless CMS is the initial investment. A headless CMS is, as the name says, headless. There is no frontend or MVC; those need to be built completely from scratch. If an organization doesn’t have the required up-front investment for this development, or a competent IT team, then a traditional or off-the-shelf CMS may be best.
The ease with which a content author can author pages and customize page layouts autonomously is a major feature/strength offered by a traditional CMS. Take, for example, Adobe Experience Manager, whose editable templates make it easy to change layouts at-will with minimal IT involvement. This sort of low-code / no-code commitment isn’t possible with a headless CMS, because there is no presentation layer. Since that layer must be built from scratch, the IT involvement is much higher. Furthermore, any created templates might not be changeable by authors and thus require future changes from IT, which makes Agile development, CI/CD and autonomous releases critical.
A headless CMS is a clear fit for some organizations, and it’s clearly not a good fit for others. In many cases, it boils down to an organization’s IT maturity and its overall content strategy. In this case, one size definitely does not fit all.