What is a Headless CMS (And Do You Need One?)

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Russ Danner

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The digital world has moved well beyond the desktop—and yes, even beyond mobile devices like smartphones and tablets to also include IoT, AR/VR, signage, wearables and more. Today, 90% of consumers report using more than one device to accomplish a single objective online, while Forrester reports that consumers are using an average of four different devices per day to reach the digital realm.

As exciting as this digital revolution is for consumers, brands have a problem:

How can we reach our consumers on all these new, attention-sapping devices and channels?

The consumers of today are expecting omnichannel marketing strategies from brands hoping to capture their attention. Unfortunately, coordinating an omnichannel strategy can be difficult without the right resources in place.

This problem becomes compounded when you consider that many brands are still making do with legacy content management systems. A modern headless CMS, on the other hand, might hold the answer.

What is a Headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a web content management system with a back-end repository that is separated from the front-end display. This backend handles the storage and management of content while connections to different front-ends (desktop, mobile, display signage, etc.) are done using APIs.

The headless CMS differs from its predecessor, the legacy CMS. Traditionally, web content management through a CMS has been handled like so:

The CMS has built-in templates and front-end delivery layers (e.g., a proprietary templating framework), which you may or may not be able to modify via code. By logging into the CMS, marketers and non-technical users edit content (text, images, hyperlinks, etc.) within the CMS, format that content, and then publish it using the CMS’s templates. IT may or may not be able to create custom templates, but for the most part, it’s a one-way street.

But the average digital experience today consists of far more than a traditional website visit from a desktop. The problem is that a legacy CMS was never built to handle this new wave of devices and channels.

In contrast, here’s how a headless CMS works:

A headless CMS strips away those templates and front-end delivery layers (the ‘head’) that legacy CMSs have built in. Headless allows developers to push and pull content to any device, screen, or external software—as well as from any device, screen, or external software through API calls (like RESTful APIs, or GraphQL). API calls are the go-between, linking the content within the headless CMS to pretty much anywhere else.

For instance, a headless CMS could feed content to a website, just as easily as it could feed content to a smart speaker or iOS app, a capability which a legacy CMS will struggle to provide. Similarly, using the same content API calls, the headless CMS can pull in data from analytics tools or beacon technology to give marketers the information they need. Naturally, this all makes integrating with third-party systems relatively easy in comparison to a legacy CMS, which were built to push content out in one, linear fashion and rely on bootstrapping and extra plugins to create other digital experiences.

Because a good headless content management system should provide a robust set of APIs, developers are free to build using their preferred frameworks like Angular, VueJS, or React. Plus, developers can use different frameworks for different projects, instead of choosing and sticking with one, in order to use the best tools for the job every single time.

A headless CMS is the perfect tool for delivering unique and innovative experiences to any device or touchpoint, enabling you to achieve a competitive advantage in terms of a customer’s experience.

Headless CMS vs Decoupled CMS: How is a Decoupled CMS Different?

In recent years, the term ‘decoupled’ has oftentimes incorrectly become a synonym for ‘headless’, especially when used by vendors stuck with what is a truly coupled CMS architecture.

While a headless CMS strips the front-end of the content delivery system away, a decoupled CMS separates content authoring and content delivery —and it does so strategically.

Instead of coupling the content authoring front-end with the content delivery tier, a decoupled CMS ‘decouples’ the system into two distinct subsystems: a content authoring system and a content delivery system.

This allows the users of a decoupled CMS to reap the benefits of a true headless CMS platform, especially when both systems are headless and API-first. A content authoring platform gives marketers and non-technical content authors the tools they know and love (using the content authoring system). For instance, a WYSIWYG editor, drag-and-drop page building, and in-context previews. A truly decoupled CMS architecture has several advantages.

What is Content-as-a-Service (CaaS)?

CaaS refers to a use case in which the content on the web is created and written separately from the place it will be used; in other words, CaaS supports a content-first approach, and is supported by headless CMS architectures. The objective is to streamline the content creation process in light of the need to feed a wide range of digital channels such as websites, social networks, virtual reality experiences, digital signage, IoT, and more.

This methodology requires a content management system with robust APIs in order to deliver that centrally located content to all of the different devices at play in today’s market.

Unlike the original concept of a CMS, where there is less concern about how the content will be delivered through a website’s pages, it has the single goal of providing content creators the tools to enhance their workflow to a point where content is ready to be consumed by any number of CaaS consumers, or end user applications.

The Need for Hyper-focused (and Hyper-efficient) Content Creation

Irrespective of the technology they use, enterprises of all industries need to properly understand and address their audience. But more than that, brands must realize that their audience is not a single monolith. There will be different segments within their single audience, and different segments have different needs, worries, and priorities; which is understandably difficult to ascertain and measure. This is why understanding the consumer is one of the biggest challenges facing content creators today. The bad news is, the IoT era is already fragmenting consumers further, dividing their attention and journeys between an increasing number of touchpoints.

CaaS can enable the process of content creation for countless applications and devices, enabling content creators to act on the data they have by creating hyper-personalized content at scale.

With a decoupled or hybrid CMS supporting the Content-as-a-Service methodology—namely, by affording marketers and non-technical users the ability to create content with the tools they know and love—brands can finally keep up with the constant fluctuations in consumer behavior.

Three Key Advantages of Headless (and Decoupled) Architecture

Get More Out of Your Content

A headless, decoupled CMS reduces the quantity of managed content by eliminating duplicative content with slightly different presentations and reduces the time-to-market factor. Content editors are thus freed from needing to worry about the exact presentation on every single front-end that consumes content.

The headless CMS will push the updates across all the digital properties, so you don’t have to. By separating content from presentation, you easily save two valuable factors: time and money.

Brand Consistency

The most effective and powerful brands create interconnected, simplified experiences on all levels of customer interactions to keep the brand message and customer journey consistent. This means that both in-person and digital touchpoints are crucial to connecting with users and potential customers. Technical agility, as well as the ability to manage content, is key. This is best done by providing businesses with a platform, like CrafterCMS, that provides headless CMS capabilities that enable marketers to push their content beyond the company’s website. With a headless architecture, you can more easily manage the entire user experience from one central location and serve that content to any platform throughout the customer journey.

Build and Roll Out Content Enabled Apps FASTER with Content APIs

New content-enabled applications and their use cases show up every day. The faster apps can be rolled out, the greater the customer experience. Supporting CaaS allows organizations to build content-enabled applications. Well defined APIs are what developers need in order to create applications quickly.

A headless CMS, like Crafter, gives enterprises those APIs and allows developers to focus on creating application features, rather than re-inventing the CMS wheel or working around content deployment and presentation issues presented by legacy systems. Furthermore, APIs can be documented and made available to third parties or the public which opens the door for innovation outside your walls. Simply put, headless CMS technology speeds development and enables innovation.

Disadvantages of a Headless CMS

Even though the future is omnichannel and a headless CMS will be an almost necessity for most organizations, that doesn’t mean it comes without drawbacks. In some cases, certain types of headless CMSs may not be the best fit for your particular organization. Here are some cons of a headless CMS.

Marketers may need help from IT

Headless CMSs make it easy to connect to multiple frontends and display content on almost any type of device, but the marketing teams creating that content need to rely on IT departments to make some changes. This can create friction between the two departments and slow down both sides considerably.

Content authoring tools may be limited

Not only do marketers have to rely on developers to make changes to certain types of content, but they will also find other content tools they took for granted with the traditional CMS lacking. In-context previews and WYSIWYG editing capabilities are often non-existent or difficult to find in a headless CMS.

The tech stack may be fragmented

Organizations today rely on several different tools as part of their tech or marketing stacks. While a headless CMS makes it easy to connect with frontend displays for consumers, many lack the integration capabilities necessary to connect with analytics, e-commerce and other systems.

Despite some of these drawbacks, the headless CMS has continued to evolve to help fix some of these problems. For smaller organizations that don’t need to display content in several different ways, reverting back to a traditional CMS may be the answer. For everyone else, there is another alternative.

Headless "Plus" is the Future

For brands that wish to maintain relevance in an omnichannel world, going headless is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity in order to stay nimble to future technology changes.

A headless CMS solves most of the problems created by a legacy CMS, while a headless+ CMS solves all of them. Particularly if your choice of a headless, decoupled CMS features cutting-edge tools and interfaces for non-technical marketers, product managers, and content authors.

At CrafterCMS, this is the approach that we’ve prioritized. An API-driven, decoupled architecture that never leaves marketers locked out, and enables seamless collaboration between content authors and developers through DevContentOps processes. So far, our approach has benefited global brands including Marriott, MasterCard, and Penn Mutual.

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