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Introduction to headless CMS: pros, cons and the future

headless cms

Welcome to the age of headless technology

In a digital era of a variety of devices and channels, an accessible and responsive website might no longer be sufficient. A seamless and interactive digital user experience across multiple channels is the key to success.

CMSs have evolved throughout the years. Contentful, for example, has introduced content infrastructure as the modernized way of putting content management in your stack while Bloomreach promises a hybrid CMS solution.

A headless CMS is an approach where the “head” is chopped off from the “body.” The head represents the presentation layer or the front end. The body refers to the back end where the content repository is the main component.

The big promise of headless CMS is to enable you to reuse the same content delivered through different channels. The content is not restricted to just one form of presentation. The headless CMS is a good solution for seamless digital experiences in this fast-paced omnichannel world. With smart TVs, mobiles, laptops, etc., customers are now more connected than ever, and they expect a consistent experience and high-quality content across all digital channels.

Imagine that you have a TV guide, and the content consists of the title and a description of the show. The description of the show is the same no matter what the channel is or when it will be aired, like in a show rerun 10 years from now.  With headless CMS, you can use and reuse the description for several interfaces like in a magazine, a digital TV, an app, or on a webpage. The traditional CMS is very page-focused. Nowadays, there’s a need for the websites to become more dynamic and interactive.

Traditional vs headless CMS

The biggest difference between traditional and headless CMS is that headless CMS doesn’t have a presentation layer. The presentation layer is completely separate from the CMS, and can be controlled with code. With headless CMS, content comes first, then the presentation layer. It starts with what you want to say before how you want to present it.

With a headless CMS, you need to start with a content model. A content model describes the content created, how it is structured and categorized. A good content model should reflect current needs, use cases, and customer journeys. The key thing in content modeling is to organize and structure the content in a way that allows for an easy reuse.

It’s important to note that managing the content model and the content are two separate things:

  • Content model is developed as a code. Manage it as you manage your code.
  • Content creation and approval is something you keep on producing.

In a traditional CMS, everything is packaged together and everything happens in one place. The front end is tightly linked to the back end. Users can upload, create or edit content and then save it in the back-end database. When the content is pulled from the database, the CMS then displays the content according to the front-end layer built into the CMS, which is usually a generic theme layout.

These traditional web-oriented systems were built to manage websites using interfaces that create content in a format that limits content reuse. Because it is back-end driven, all website design and customizations are stored in the back end. IT developers are needed to maintain the installation and core operation. There is less flexibility in integrating new delivery formats because of the predefined content model that is mostly based on a page structure.

What drives separation of front end and back end

There are 5 things that drive separation of front end and back end:

  • Consumer expectations for superior user experience are growing rapidly. The expectation-level for user experiences is no longer set by direct competitors. It’s the global giant vendors that dictate and set the bar for user experience. There’s an immediate need for the rest to exceed that expectation, be better, be more relevant and offer something more personal.
  • There is a surging need for flexibility at the presentation layer because digital channels are driving the customer experience more and more. Organizations want to utilize their content on mobile sites and consider the IoT capabilities in the future.
  • Software vendors in the digital experience markets want to offer a comprehensive suite of functionalities. This is well demonstrated in Adobe’s recent acquisitions of Magento (ecommerce) and Marketo (marketing automation). At the same time, organizations fear vendor lock-ins. With the explosion of screens and different places where users consume content, it’s hard to believe that one vendor can offer it all.
  • The popularity of modern JavaScript frameworks such as React and Angular is rapidly growing. It’s now important for ecommerce and digital marketing managers to understand JS frameworks because they have become the more popular way to develop the digital experience layer. Many organizations struggle because they want to deploy React applications to their site, but end up making a complex front-end mess because they bypass existing development methods.
  • Data gathering and deployment of artificial intelligence functionalities to your website requires a flexible front end. The front end and back end need to be separated to get the full benefits of AI. With these two detached, it is feasible to deploy artificial intelligence applications to your presentation layer.

When going headless makes sense

There are many ways to create value and content significantly. For all companies, even those that no longer have physical stores nor physical products, the content can be seen as the product. When content is an asset that needs to be delivered through multiple channels and to as many touch points as possible, then going headless makes sense.

Having all the content in one single place is more ideal rather than running separate platforms. It enables specialization and optimization which results in an optimal and breakthrough user experience.

Because front-end developers gain full control and flexibility using the tools they are most comfortable with, they are free to innovate without any restriction by legacy systems. The front-end developers tend to love headless CMS because they can choose from JavaScript frameworks that have a community support. The most popular ones are React and Angular. At the same time, whoever designs the website is not limited by the CMS, because of the freedom to design and create the front end.

Switching the components one at a time results in a faster time-to-market as it does not require building the whole system from scratch. As headless CMSs are technology-agnostic, there are no limits in the choice of technology stack. This speeds up production and allows the building and delivering of more responsive user experiences.

It does not only future-proof the website, but also saves the business owners a lot of money by giving the ability to redesign, upgrade and customize the site without re-implementing the whole CMS and compromising performance. They might have bad experiences with vendor lock-ins because of contract lengths or black boxes. With technologies evolving so fast, investing in a new CMS is a long-term investment, and it’s wise to make sure that content is usable even as the technologies evolve. Because all the content is in one place, it should be properly utilized and catered to different needs in terms of digital experience.

Challenges of going headless

With all these benefits, no wonder headless CMS is gaining traction. Going headless is much more flexible, but as many things in life, with flexibility and freedom come bigger responsibilities.

Going headless isn’t for everyone. There is no “one-size-fits-all”, as organizations have different needs. Before reaching a decision, first consider how you want your content to be used, and how the content is currently used. Do you need it to be available in different formats for different occasions? You need to have either in-house resources or a good service provider that makes sure that you manage the content model appropriately.

Front-end development has to be considered. Because there’s no out-of-the-box option available, some companies underestimate the development resources in the front end. The investment both in terms of time and money is a significant consideration. Getting the system up and running takes more time. Developing everything from scratch requires a lot of resources and proper budget and time allocation.

Consider how often content is changing, what is required for SEO and make decisions on your website needs. Because content previews are not always available, measures should also be taken into consideration as to how the front end will turn out.

Typically, growth organizations have a goal of optimizing organic traffic through SEO. For this, they’d need to tailor content specifically for the audience they are targeting as well as which channel those audiences will use to consume the content. Now this means they need to work with design, front end, and deployment model and make sure they deliver against the SEO strategy.

To optimize the website for SEO, there needs to be flexibility in different content configurations or design to allow rapid testing on target audiences. This means it will need involvement from both marketing and developers. The easier you can generate content and rapidly test it, the better and more agile you can tailor your user experiences.

With all the technology trends, there should be a deeper thought on the roles and processes in the organizations. A headless CMS changes the roles of developers, content creators and digital marketing/ ecommerce managers. Developers need to manage the content model and the architecture of the presentation layer. Content creators need to change their thinking and way of working from page-centric to content-centric and omnichannel. When the digital marketing or ecommerce manager is making decisions about behavioral targeting and continuous optimization, they need to give up out-of-box features of previous CMS and choose new technologies for the continous experience optimization.

The future of headless CMS

Headless CMS is not just rising in popularity. It is here to stay. In the the Gartner report of 2017 Magic Quadrant for WCM, headless was mentioned as a feature for a couple of vendors. In the 2018 Magic Quadrant for Web Content Management (fee required), it was included as part of market drivers.

The future will revolve around new vendors offering headless only CMS models, and traditional ones coming up with their own headless CMS versions.

The separation of back end and front end will continue.  It also allows more flexibility, continuous development like AI applications, and support for future devices and customer interaction channels.

AI-powered technologies will be used for personalization and analytics. As more and more vendors adopt newer technologies and trends, more features powered by machine learning will emerge. A headless architecture allows deploying these AI-powered functionalities to the site.

Developers will have much more power in deciding what technologies to use for the presentation layer, and they all have their own architectural preferences. Most will have the flexibility to use their prefered tools when the headless approach (or best-of-breed)  has been chosen. This increases the popularity of open source JavaScript frameworks like React, Angular, and Vue. The value of the modern JS frameworks is created in the community. The online samples and support available, and sharing your own code with others are valuable.

We see that headless architecture will be dominant in other IT systems as well, e.g. ecommerce. Content does not limit the design or development or total replacement of front-end. This means that integrations don’t limit the evolution of the front-end either.

Nowadays, no CFO allows an investment to be underutilized. Creating content is also an investment. Content will not be allowed to sit inside a CMS without being usable in many channels and in the future.

In the future, organizations will require that their website front end is a replaceable layer that will automatically offer relevant content to visitors. At the same time, content is seen as a valuable asset that must be usable across all channels.

Interested in experience optimization and front-end development? Frosmo allows the usage of JavaScript to do the heavy lifting for your presentation layer in any CMS, single page application or ecommerce platform.

Watch the webinar to learn more or request a demo.


About the writer:

Maija Erkheikki has over 15 years of experience in the international software industry and is driven by a passion to use technology to improve the quality of life. This passion was best exemplified in her role as a consultant for healthcare companies, working on business processes and performance management. This led to a career in the partner-driven software business, where it is critical to build win-win-win models. Currently she is fascinated by the digitalization of commerce and how artificial intelligence reshapes all industries.