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What's a Headless CMS and Who Needs One?

What's a Headless CMS?

In most traditional CMSs, content management, delivery, and display/presentation are controlled in a single, integrated environment, and these components are tied to a single website. With a headless CMS, how content is displayed on your website, smartphone app, and digital assistant is controlled at the channel or application level; the headless CMS itself contains no themes, layouts, templates, or other display code that dictates presentation.

When it's time to display data/content when users request it, an API call is triggered, bringing the content from the cloud-based CMS to the channel or application requesting it. How this content is rendered, from parsing and structure to visual design and functionality, is determined in the application, not the CMS.

This allows content to be housed and managed in a single place but distributed to multiple channels in multiple display patterns. It also allows content to be updated simultaneously across sales channels; you can update a product's description and price in one spot, and this data will be updated on your ecommerce website, app-based store, and your Amazon storefront.

From a content management perspective, particularly from a multi-channel one, a headless CMS could be hugely beneficial. It has the potential to streamline both project workflows and day-to-day content-management efficiency, but it also has its drawbacks in these early days of agency and organization adoption.

To get a clearer vision of what a headless CMS might be able to do for content in terms of management, creation, and maintenance, I took Kentico Cloud's free trial for a spin. Here are my big takeaways.

Pros of a Headless CMS

Presentation-Agnostic Content Design

How content is displayed—which includes everything from visual design, interactions and functions, and the content’s architecture, organization, and parsing—is determined at the application or channel level. You can provide every last bit of even the most superfluous data you’d like and choose where, when, and how it is displayed. Thus, because how and which content is displayed is programmed within each channel (website, app, social account, smartwatch app, etc.), your content becomes adaptive. You still have to design and write the content within a device- and presentation-agnostic mindset, but executing the concept of adaptive, agile content that can be parsed and distributed across channels is much easier.

So, when space is at a premium (say, on the face of smartwatch), you can provide only the most relevant or important data and save the feel-good marketing copy or lengthy technical documentation for platforms with more digital real estate. This allows marketers to focus on what types of content or data users need when they access it on a given device or in a given channel.

Your CMS and Your Workspace Are One in the Same

The cloud-based CMS in which you edit, manage, and eventually export content is not attached to a single channel, such as a website or an app. Content is “pulled” into various properties or channels through an API call, and how it looks and acts is determined individually for each channel, within that channel’s back-end.

This gives content managers more flexibility because they can do content entry, editing, and finalizing in the content’s natural habitat, where it will ultimately live, before a developer has set up any sort of staging environment or prototype app. Decoupling one’s mind from presentation and display when writing or managing copy can also help content managers keep a tight focus crafting words that retain their meanings and messages across channels, contexts, devices, and audiences.

Combining the workspace and the space in which the content will live also eliminates the need for temporary workspaces such as spreadsheets, word processors, or third-party programs. Kentico Cloud, specifically, lets you store and edit your sitemap, metadata, workflows within the same space the content lives.

Workflows Become Less Linear

Getting content managers into the actual environment in which content will be entered, edited, formatted, QA’d, housed, and eventually updated lessens the burden on the developers to get a working CMS environment up and running (not to mention set up with CSS and other elements) as soon as possible, making the workflow less linear and the team less siloed.

Further, Kentico Cloud and other headless CMSs allow non-technical users to create content models, taxonomies, and content guidelines. So, if a client is handling the copywriting and content entry, I can design content models that dictate the elements (title, subhead, brief description, price, weight, etc.) that make up a product type (a page, modal, rich snippet, etc.), set up the blog-tagging system and product-filtering taxonomy, and set character counts, optional assets, and instructions, all without a developer’s help.

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Many headless CMSs let any user, including non-technical ones, dictate what content types or elements are required for a given component. The interface has a simple drag-and-drop style that’s easy to use but is also somewhat limited in element options.

 

Because the workflow becomes nonlinear, it can create more agile timelines and teams, allowing team members to begin their work sooner. Thought of another way, instead of teams (or teammates) having “design first,” “content first,” or “development first” mindsets, it can be “design always,” “content always,” and “development always.”

Cons of a Headless CMS

No Preview Function

Even though, in theory, a headless CMS sets you free, working within one may feel like you’ve given up some freedoms. The biggest constraint or red flag I ran into was the inability to preview your content before publishing it.

Content managers and clients alike might cringe when they hear they can’t see how the content and copy will look beforehand, but, once again, the presentation is controlled within the channel or application. Kentico Cloud or other headless CMSs simply don’t have ways of knowing what the presentation or display is supposed to be. So, content managers will have to put a little extra faith in both their developers and their code when hitting the “Publish” button.

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Kentico Cloud’s headless CMS looks a lot like a traditional CMS interface—but there’s no way to preview how this product’s data will look before publishing to all your channels. The only way to ensure content/data is presented correctly is to go to the channel itself (the product page on your website or app).

 

Requires a New Conception of a CMS

Change, particularly technological change, can be scary and even discomfiting. After so many years of marriage to the Wordpresses, Square Spaces, and ad-hoc CMSs of the world, learning a new technology that strips away all the comforts of the traditional CMS—the familiar glow of one’s current CMS interface, the relative certainty of a WYSIWYG editor, the warm embrace of a preview function—could give any website manager the spins. Plus, for many content managers and strategists, divorcing oneself from content display concerns might seem uncomfortable or even irresponsible. The presentation and experience of the written content is as important as the words’ meaning and intent, and we put a good deal of work into helping determine how content looks, feels, and interacts.

Thus, your headless CMS may be your convenient, all-in-one workspace, but it has the potential to become your ball and chain. You gain control over your company’s digital ecosystem and multi-channel publishing practices, but you’re ceding day-to-day control over smaller presentational concerns.

A Headless CMS May Not Be Worthwhile…Yet

At this point, my guess is most small-to-large organizations probably don’t need a headless CMS yet and might not even be ready for it, even if the infrastructure of their digital properties might benefit from it. The headless technology remains most useful for multichannel companies that have at least 3+ channels and/or content-distribution outlets with parallel content or data.

(Think: a large retailer with a website, a smartphone app, and a smartwatch app or a private financial organization with a public-facing website, a smartphone app, and an internal employee portal, all of which have expansive back-ends with frequently updated content/data.)

Although headless may not be the solution for your business or organization yet, it still provides a number of opportunities for re-imagining what a CMS is, how content work is conceived of and performed, and evaluating your businesses’s content creation, management, and governance practices. In a few years, as multi- and omni-channel marketing and the internet of things continue to expand, the desire and need for a headless CMS for taming one’s content may become an imperative rather than a flashy, future-forward option.