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Headless CMS vs traditional CMS: Can content work better with headless?

We asked our Creative Tech Director Kevin Mar-Molinero about the advantages of headless CMS and whether it’s the right option for your organisation. Here’s what we learned.

In the old days (well, only a few years ago) the world was simpler. You had a website. You had content. Your content management system (CMS) was only required to deliver that content to your website.

A proliferation of devices and technologies has now made that simple equation rather more difficult for marketers. Desktop, mobile, voice enabled channels, chatbots and messaging are all in the mix now.

So how do we serve the right content to the right person, at the right time, regardless of device?

To tackle this issue we’re now seeing an alternative to the traditional CMS known as ‘headless’.

The traditional approach

A traditional CMS has two halves: the back-end relates to how content is managed and is the place where users can create, store, manage and publish content. The front end is how it’s presented. The front end and back-end are tightly fastened together. Episerver, Sitecore and Wordpress are all good examples of a coupled CMS.

What is headless CMS?

Essentially a headless CMS removes the ‘head’ (the front end ‘website’) from the ‘body’ (the back-end). This means a headless CMS can deliver your content through an API directly to any device or channel with internet access. The obvious advantage: you’re not restricted to a website. It can be delivered to a wearable device, an app or voice enabled channel, to name just a few.

Contentful, Prismic and Contentstack are all good examples of a headless CMS. Although some may argue that ‘headless’ and ‘CMS’ are not quite the right terms to use:

We tend to shy away from that word. 'Headless' is a limiting way to describe cloud-native, API-first. CMS is also not the right word. We're not trying to build a better CMS -- we're building content infrastructure.

Paul Biggs - Director of Product Marketing at Contentful
How a headless CMS works

Headless CMS in action

So how does headless work in reality?

We recently used Contentful to deploy an application for SailGP. The flexibility of the platform allowed us to ensure the budget was spent almost entirely on application development and gave us freedom of choice around native Cloud infrastructure, containerisation and microservices entirely on our own terms.

This is possible with a coupled CMS, but you’ll have a price to pay in terms of licensing, configuration and vendor lead times.

Ultimately, headless allowed the team to achieve a lot in a short space of time. For SailGP at least it was the ideal solution.

Headless CMS devices

Best of both worlds?

In response to the proliferation of devices and channels, many traditional CMS providers have created a mid-way solution.

The front end is decoupled from the back-end (similar to headless) but still includes some front end delivery tools, such as page templates and themes.

The advantage is both flexibility and some publishing support. Episerver and Sitecore are examples of CMS providers that offer this kind of solution. They also offer a full headless solution if required.

The Episerver Headless API allows you to use Episerver's Enterprise CMS and Commerce platform as coupled, decoupled, and headless architecture so you can easily control and edit all your content for all your applications from one Episerver instance.


The benefits of headless

So, headless is a great solution if you want fast content delivery and ultimate control over where and how your content will be displayed.

It can act as a single repository of truth for your content across all devices and channels. That means a reduction in duplication of work by your content editors. Your team can focus on what really matters: creating brilliant content and crafting experiences that will make your customers’ lives better. 

Other benefits include easy and secure third party integrations and allowing your developers to use their favourite tools and frameworks.

The best thing about a headless CMS is that you can truly use your content anywhere. And you can do it easily and with just about any technology. You name the channel and it will be able to deliver. It’s a welcome departure from the prescribed ‘one size fits all’ solutions you find with many CMS/CXM vendors.

Martin Paton - Chief Technology Officer, Kin + Carta Connect

Classic makes its case

Whilst headless CMS may be the new fashion it doesn’t mean the traditional CMS is no longer worth considering.

The power of the classic CMS is actually its tight coupling. Content authors and approvers can view and edit their pages in situ, editing almost directly (and in the case of Adobe Experience Manager directly) into the output front end.

What you gain in flexibility with headless, you can lose in accessibility. It lacks content presentation functionality, out of the box templates and themes, which means you’ll need to use additional technologies to serve as the head. And for your non-technical marketers they will no longer be able to use What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) authoring or editing, adding greater reliance on your developers.

It’s your choice

So how do we serve the right content to the right person, at the right time, regardless of device?

Whilst there are exciting benefits to headless, and exciting possibilities to where it may take you as a brand, it's important to consider the control you lose by selecting it.
Currently, going headless often means a reduction in some core CMS functionality.

However, if your aim is to have your content as a microservice, re-usable in a large number of places, or as a basis to drive innovation such as AI, then headless is certainly one to consider.

As with all things, the decision should come with what fits your organisation, and the purpose of your product to the user.

Interested in learning more?

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