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Headless CMS sounds like a character out of Washington Irving's epic tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but it isn't an old ghost story: It's a new way to nimbly serve up content in the mobile device era.
Driven by RESTful APIs, a headless content management system (CMS) can run in parallel with traditional web content management systems (WCMSes) to deliver content to users who are leaving the desktop behind in favor of mobile-devices.
Vendors including Built.io, Cloud CMS, Contentful and prismic.io are popular choices for new implementations, wrote Forrester Research analysts Mark Grannan and Ted Schadler in a report titled "The Rise of the Headless Content Management System."
Some enterprises with existing web CMS foundations are tapping into new API sets from web content management providers such as Hippo and SDL to liberate content. The microservices approach is the future of digital experience architectures, they concluded.
"Headless CMS is an evolution of the content management capabilities that came before," Grannan said in a SearchContentManagement interview. "It's going after a very specific problem by shrinking the features and functionality. It focuses on a development problem -- and a delivery problem -- of your content to various endpoints, not just web."
Not yet a replacement for traditional WCMS
At this point in time, digital content management is still very much a web proposition, and many organizations "going headless" are using such systems coupled with their traditional WCMS.
"It allows you to have a proper platform for content management and delivery [to] sit behind something like a mobile app, which normally would have to have developers push content updates," Grannan said. In the headless model, marketing staff can update their own content in the CMS via RESTful APIs, which frees up developers to work on other improvements.
It also is a more cloud-friendly content management model, which is becoming increasingly important as businesses outsource more of their IT infrastructure to cloud vendors.
But it's not for every organization -- yet -- because of implementation complexities. Headless CMSes particularly suit what Grannan called "do it yourself" organizations with developer resources that are willing to patch together outside authoring, workflow and bare-bones content analytics with headless CMSes -- the developers also write the APIs -- as opposed to buying fully featured, off-the-shelf WCMSes that provide all that functionality.
His report cited several companies moving to the model. Urban Outfitters, for example, rolled out its own headless CMS, complementing a Contentful rollout with those separate tools from other vendors.
Implementation harder, but ROI faster
While the headless approach may involve more moving parts for implementation than larger all-in-one CMS packages require, they can be cheaper and, in the end, allow developers and content authors to update information faster. In other words, the upfront implementation headaches might be more painful, but the end result is faster ROI and empowering marketing staff to get content out to customers quicker.
And for less do-it-yourself companies, help is on the way as large vendors add artificial intelligence tools that formerly were handled by third parties. One example is IBM's Watson Content Hub, which adds machine learning that will aid the efforts of progressive, customer-centric brands, Grannan recently wrote in "The Forrester Wave: Web Content Management Systems, Q1 2017."
He sees momentum behind this model of pure-content silos driven by APIs continuing to grow in the coming years. And why not? It eliminates bottlenecks from page-based workflows, and helps companies dynamically serve content to customers who aren't on desktops.
"When you were publishing static pages, it required someone to do a lot of layout work, and staging through testing and into production," Grannan said. "Now, when you're taking content and managing it independent of [that], you can democratize some of those roles and responsibilities and have them happen asynchronously instead of in serial."
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