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When to implement a headless CMS architecture

Do you want the shiny new CMS toy, the headless system? We break down who should jump at this new platform paradigm and take a look at vendors in the space.

The case for a headless content management system is compelling: Next-gen digital experiences are coming to the...

fore, and the omnichannel revolution is at hand, enabling people to consume content in many different contexts on their preferred mobile devices.

To support these experiences, organizations must be able to manage content across multiple channels and contexts. Even when they include responsive website designs to accommodate mobile devices, purpose-built websites -- with their capabilities for page-centric displays and single-channel experiences -- are no longer sufficient.

It is time to reconsider how content empowers digital experiences everywhere. Enter the headless CMS architecture, an innovative approach to omnichannel content delivery to web browsers, mobile devices, augmented reality displays, kiosks, as well as new and emerging application environments coming to market. Headless CMS architectures are primarily for web content management for now, but as more companies create digital experiences for employees, as well as external-facing websites, they could spread to enterprise content management, as well.

Separating production from delivery

Remember that there are two parts to content management -- content production and content delivery. A headless CMS architecture focuses on the content production capabilities -- providing the repository of record to source, edit, organize, secure and store snackable content.

Then, as the name implies, it supports well-defined APIs and microservices to distribute these snacks, sometimes termed content snippets, across disparate devices and applications, to produce contextual experiences. There is a single source of truth for all the endpoints.

Consider Contentstack, a natively headless CMS offering from The firm got its start integrating content into video games. Game developers must manage images, audio and textual assets and incorporate them into game-time experiences. This services perspective has influenced the firm's approach to headless CMS, separating content from code. Content owners manage snackable content, leaving developers to focus on the code that drives the experiences.

Contentstack provides the repository of record for external applications to fetch content snippets and then incorporate them into the resulting digital experiences. It is a lightweight environment, deployed in the cloud, and it emphasizes the capabilities of a shared repository.

Marketers and other contributors can easily upload and add content using online forms with predefined fields for content tags. Once they publish, the business rules and application logic for content distribution take over. External apps rely on APIs and microservices to incorporate content into digital experiences, often fetching snippets at runtime.

Feeding the fan frenzy

For example, the NBA's Miami Heat needs to drive new content to their game channels. Time is of the essence, and the team's marketers make frequent content updates. They are continually launching new events, promotions and campaigns, and they rely on a repository of record to centralize content production.

With Contentstack, marketers have the flexibility to rapidly add new photos, product descriptions, game statistics, and short articles that fans can access on their mobile apps or PCs. Of course, what fans view and experience depends on where they are and what they're doing -- digital experiences produced by the apps themselves.

Contentstack feeds the fan frenzy by making it easy for marketers to source, upload, organize and stage content for seamless distribution to apps and endpoints. But the experiences themselves are designed and developed independently from Contentstack.

Headless competitors

Contentstack isn't the only headless offering on the market. Three competitors include:

  • Drupal 8, a third-generation web content management (WCM) platform, includes a repository designed for API-first access together with extensive content sourcing and production capabilities. As an open source project, Drupal is a modular platform that lends itself to extensibility and flexibility for tailoring content production tasks.
  • With a .NET product already established in the WCM market, Kentico is rolling out a content hub that breaks down content silos to remove the friction of producing content for multiple endpoints. Redesigned around a modern, cloud-centric architecture, Kentico Cloud is a SaaS solution that offers end-to-end content services for omnichannel delivery.
  • E-Spirit, a Java-powered WCM provider, is launching its own SaaS-based content hub, FirstSpirit Intelligent Content Engine. This headless offering, designed to support content production activities through a repository of record, includes state-of-the-art personalization capabilities.

Other headless offerings are rapidly coming to market from both established players and startup companies.

The winning combination

When it comes to selecting a vendor, be sure to recognize key differences for managing snackable content. Dig in and compare how various content hubs manage metadata and incorporate content tags into the APIs that are called to deliver digital experiences at the desired endpoints.

Be sure to notice the winning combination when headless CMS architecture makes sense. The business expects to produce experiences, not publish content. There are multiple channels and multiple contexts. While some channels include web browsers -- with HTML formatted page displays -- many others include mobile apps, games, kiosks and various innovative displays that are task- and action-oriented.

Headless CMS is not for the faint of heart. Assembly and development resources are required.

Regardless of the display environments, both the in-app and web page experiences depend on a single source of truth -- a repository of record -- to manage all of the snackable content.

Headless CMS is not for the faint of heart. Assembly and development resources are required. It is essential to design experiences from the outside in. Begin with what is supposed to happen and identify the content requirements.

Be sure to work out the content production capabilities -- how to source, stage, protect and store snackable content. When there is a lot of content to manage and there's a need to ensure agile business operations with rapid and seamless updates, it's best to plan on going headless. You will need a repository of record with a flexible set of APIs to support omnichannel content delivery.

This was last published in March 2018

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Are you scoping headless CMS systems? Will you do it, or does it involve too much development?
There is an middle ground coined "de-coupled" CMS, giving the benefits of the full headless products (and option to use it that way) while not requiring the heavy investment in development, as with more traditional CMSs.