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Is headless CMS the future of content management?

As headless CMS rises in popularity, IT leaders may wonder if it's a fad or if it will permanently affect the content management industry. Learn more in this expert tip.

The digital world moves faster every day. Organizations need to be agile and efficient to keep pace with rapid change. As organizations publish content to support omnichannel content experiences -- with images, videos or text -- they may struggle to manage content across multiple platforms.

This challenge has led to an increase in headless content management systems (CMSes). A headless CMS decouples a CMS's back end from its front-end presentation. Headless CMS vendors offer a single location where authors can create, manage and distribute content to all consumer channels. But is headless CMS the future or simply a passing trend?

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content repository that supports a structured content model with a set of RESTful APIs. Content creators add content to the headless CMS and applications that need the content can use the RESTful APIs to pull it dynamically. Those APIs can pull content like the website About Us page or product information from an online catalog, the documentation website or an email campaign.

When authors write content, they typically don't worry about how it looks on the webpage. They write to provide information, not the design. The headless CMS process serves the design, though, as authors can create content before any system design is complete. Also, if the organization wants to redesign the website, a headless CMS enables it to use existing content for design decisions.

Additionally, when authors update content, all channels can immediately synchronize to show the update. This enables omnichannel experience management without the need to invest in a digital experience platform.

Evolution of CMSes

When web content management (WCM) began, the standard WCM architecture was decoupled in nature. People created, designed and stored content on the back-end server. Everything was published to separate web servers, which hosted the websites, for security reasons and because the early web servers were not that powerful.

A headless CMS is a content repository that supports a structured content model with a set of RESTful APIs.

With Web 2.0, a shift occurred that combined management and presentation components into a single web server. Content teams required a more functional web server design to manage comments and create interactive environments. These new WCM architectures marked the move from web content to digital experiences. Decoupled architectures still exist, but they struggle to meet new content demands.

Headless CMSes enable organizations to keep as much interactivity on their websites and social media profiles as they need. These systems take the decoupled architecture a step further. The headless CMS is unaware of which services and applications use the content, so any system within the organization can use content items.

Benefits of headless CMS

Headless CMSes have several benefits, which all derive from the desire to readily manage omnichannel digital experiences. The benefits of headless CMSes include the following:

  • Offer front-end flexibility. Websites, mobile devices and other applications are independent of content. Organizations can create new designs, use new technology and innovate without waiting for users to create or migrate content.
  • Provide a centralized location to manage content. If an organization needs to update a product description, for example, a headless CMS provides a single place to update that content and ensures every system receives the update.
  • Add new channels faster. When an organization creates a new publishing channel, that channel can pull from the existing headless CMS without a large effort.
  • Create content without developers. In most WCM systems, authors cannot create content until developers implement the initial design. Traditional systems tightly link the content model to the website design. A headless CMS makes it so once the content architects finish the content model, content creation can begin.

The transition to a headless CMS is like migrating to any other CMS. However, a headless CMS deployment requires steps that many organizations may gloss over during traditional CMS deployments. The separate content repository forces organizations to design and build content models independent of how they will deliver the content.

Is headless CMS the future?

For mid-sized to large organizations with teams that manage content for multiple channels, a headless CMS can improve efficiency. Over time, those benefits increase, as will omnichannel publishing. Analysts have also noted the trend, including Forrester, and demonstrated how established CMS vendors are investing in the technology.

The parallels with the drive to content services in the enterprise content management (ECM) space also indicate that headless CMS is the future. A significant number of organizations successfully store content independently in a structured manner, while different applications or channels use the content. Some headless CMS vendors may look at the content services market and decide to address ECM challenges.

Key takeaways

The move to a headless CMS is not like the flip of a light switch. The first step for organizations is to create structured content models that reflect connections between content. This is critical for any CMS deployment, but more so when an organization moves to a headless architecture, as a headless CMS's structured content model reflects an organization's content -- not its website or mobile design.

Organizations that move to a headless CMS can save themselves work in the future. As companies typically redesign their websites every few years, isolating content from future redesigns makes an organization more agile online.

Any organization that wants to change its web and content infrastructure must consider a headless CMS. It is part of the future for CMSes.

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