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

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

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, 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?

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?

Traditionally, web content management through a CMS has been handled like so:

The CMS has intrinsic templates and front-end delivery layers, which you may or may not be able to modify via code. By logging into the CMS, marketers and non-technical users can input content (text, images, hyperlinks, etc.) into the CMS, format that content, and then publish it using the CMS’s templates. IT can come along later to tidy up code or customize the look and feel of the page, 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 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 often times incorrectly become a synonym for ‘headless’, especially when used by vendors stuck with what it a truly coupled CMS architecture.

While a headless CMS strips the front-end away, a decoupled CMS (also known as a hybrid CMS) brings that traditional layer back into the equation—but it does so strategically.

Instead of coupling the front and back-end together like a legacy CMS does, 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 headless CMS (i.e., when the content delivery system is truly headless), while also giving 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 maybe even form-building tools. A truly decoupled CMS architecture has its own set of 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. 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 in any number of CaaS use cases.

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

1. 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.

2. 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 touch points 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 Crafter CMS, 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.

3. 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.

Hybrid Headless is the Future

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 hybrid CMS solves all of them. Particularly if your choice of a hybrid headless, decoupled CMS features cutting-edge tools and interfaces for non-technical marketers, product managers, and content authors.

At Crafter CMS, this is the approach that we’ve prioritized. An API-driven, decoupled architecture that never leaves marketers locked out, or at the mercy of the IT department. So far, our approach has benefited global brands including Marriott and Harvard Business Publishing.

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Posted by Russ Danner

Russ Danner is VP Products at Crafter Software and is responsible for product management, product development and support, and client and partner success. Russ brings over 20 years of software architecture, design, and implementation experience. Prior to Crafter Software, Russ was Web Experience Management Practice Director at Rivet Logic and project lead for the open source Crafter CMS project. Russ has also been active in the Alfresco community since 2005 as a community leader, contributor, trainer, speaker and user group organizer.

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