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Know when to use a headless CMS and when it's not worth it

Headless CMSes aren't a silver bullet for every circumstance. Evaluate three solid use cases for a headless CMS and three scenarios when a headless CMS isn't worth the investment.

Many vendors are touting the headless CMS as the future of content management, but you shouldn't jump on the headless CMS bandwagon without reviewing the options.

A headless content management system organizes and stores content without making assumptions about how or where it is delivered. A headless CMS runs in the cloud and encompasses a back-end content repository with related services to quickly generate digital experiences.

It's no longer enough to produce a compelling website and ensure that the right content looks good on smartphones, tablets and PCs. Making digital experiences useful, engaging, personal and manageable requires a sophisticated content ecosystem.

However, a headless CMS is not a prerequisite for modern and engaging digital experiences.

When considering a headless CMS, you as a decision-maker shouldn't be persuaded by marketing hype alone; instead, focus on specific business scenarios to understand whether a headless CMS is the right fit.

Reasons why you might need a headless CMS

There are three major reasons to go headless. Let's illustrate each by considering different business situations.

1. You need to scale quickly

A headless CMS separates the design of front-end UX from the implementation of back-end content management capabilities. When it's time to publish and scale content quickly, front-end and back-end development teams can work independently while coordinating activities.

Healthcare organizations faced difficult circumstances as the COVID‑19 pandemic began in March and April 2020. Healthcare workers needed to quickly publicize the latest patient safety protocols and explain new processes for telemedicine. But medical advice was frequently changing, and healthcare organizations could not keep up with all the new information coming from multiple sources.

For example, Montefiore Medical Center, a medical center in Bronx, N.Y., decided to revamp its information dissemination capabilities by designing and developing a new website within a month. It adopted a headless CMS platform, Acquia Content Hub, and separated the development of the back-end content management capabilities from front-end experiences.

Information architects and back-end developers focused on the mechanics for content management, such as aggregating healthcare information from trusted sources, storing content in a shared repository and categorizing items in consistent ways. UX designers designed the presentation environments, ensuring that they worked well on mobile phones, tablets and full-screen web browsers alike. Front-end developers used Gatsby, a content presentation tool, to generate the interactive experiences.

Multiple teams relied on predefined templates that specified content types, metadata tags and the content elements themselves. A headless CMS enabled teams to scale quickly, while simultaneously managing dependencies.

Headless CMS
How a headless CMS differs from a traditional CMS

2. You need to create personalized, interactive digital experiences

A headless CMS provides the underlying repository to structure content flows for personalized, connected experiences, which can be particularly beneficial for e-commerce companies.

During the pandemic, many e-commerce companies were forced to come up with innovative ways to engage with customers as they closed physical locations. The pandemic accelerated many companies' digital transformation plans.

The pandemic hit the fitness industry particularly hard. Most fitness companies needed to create digital experiences to replace physical experiences. Homebound gym members could digitize their exercise activities with online classes. Mobile apps could capture data from fitness trackers and wearables.

Customers with digitally connected exercise machines at home wanted more tailored workouts that monitored performance and offered motivational videos. Once gyms reopened, customers would expect to engage across all kinds of connected equipment -- blending at-home, outdoor and in-gym experiences. This required fitness companies to expand their digital capabilities beyond web publishing and pushing alerts to mobile apps.

Many fitness companies developed interactive venues capable of engaging members across a range of experiences and including its own connected exercise equipment. E-commerce companies must do more than simply store content within an underlying repository and distribute it on demand across multiple devices. Headless CMSes can capture, organize and personalize content for workouts and wellness.

One fitness franchise is relying on the headless CMS platform it uses, Contentful, to channel end-to-end information flows. Initially designed for application developers, Contentful offers RESTful APIs to weave together content from disparate sources, where content creators can easily assemble targeted digital experiences.

With a headless CMS in place, the fitness franchise expects to directly engage with members, in-gym or elsewhere. It can maintain a large collection of videos, tagged by ambiance, workout goals and members' interests, and then deliver snippets on demand to connected devices. The franchise can use data from fitness trackers and wearables and information about customers' capabilities and objectives to personalize fitness plans and provide in-the-moment motivational alerts.

3. You need to streamline business processes

Better business processes provide a competitive edge; separate processes simply sequence tasks within an activity. Instead, businesses need to orchestrate these separate processes, like a conductor setting the tempo and intensity for the different sections of a symphony orchestra.

A headless CMS embedded within a sales enablement application can accelerate the sales process.

Take the example of sales enablement within an enterprise that offers complex products and services. Marketing groups can produce promotional materials and generate leads, but it is up to sales teams to connect with buyers, create conversations and add the essential insights that close deals. Yet, all too often, salespeople struggle to assemble the relevant information that sparks customers' interests and addresses their concerns.

A headless CMS embedded within a sales enablement application can accelerate the sales process. Sales teams can curate content from the company's marketing materials, individualize links for each customer engagement and present selections on personalized webpages. These teams rely on a headless CMS, such as Oracle Content and Experience, to automatically recommend relevant materials by orchestrating the various process flows, matching content-related metadata with the stages of a sales process.

Marketing groups, in turn, can seamlessly contribute to process orchestration and enhance the sales process. They can automatically or semi-automatically include content-related metadata as they produce promotional materials, store them within the underlying content repository and distribute them across multiple channels. From the marketing perspective, the sales enablement application is just another channel.

Of course, sales enablement teams need application developers to curate content and synchronize content-related metadata with the steps in a business process. They need an information architecture to manage the content-related metadata, as well as various enterprise applications to manage sales processes.

Reasons why you might not need a headless CMS

A headless CMS is not necessarily the only option or the best alternative. Here are three reasons why you might not need a headless CMS.

1. You only require simple publishing capabilities

Digital publishing companies create and distribute original content on their own websites and mobile apps. These companies add value by producing authoritative information through a single content stream.

In these cases, editorial workflows are important -- how the company creates, reviews and approves new content items; how it automatically or semi-automatically tags content with relevant metadata; how it publishes content to websites and mobile apps; and how it makes new content items findable within Google and other search engines.

Many web content management platforms support the essential capabilities to manage a single content stream without having to invest in the back-end complexities of a headless CMS.

2. Your current CMS' templates are already sufficient

Many digital experience platform (DXP) vendors and CMS vendors have invested considerable efforts to develop editing tools, such as page-oriented templates. These tools enable nontechnical workers to independently update content and modify rich media, including images and video clips. They can modify the look and feel of existing webpages, create new pages and even launch related microsites using collections of templates. And, thanks to responsive website designs, these templates can adapt to the screen sizes of different devices -- mobile or tethered.

Many traditional CMSes, such as WordPress, sacrifice greater flexibility for ease of use and are often easier to implement than a headless CMS. Headless CMSes, on the other hand, require developers to build the heads, or front-end components, of the CMS. If your current DXP or CMS offers templates that work in the way you intend them to, then there's likely no need to invest in a headless CMS.

3. You have limited IT support staff

If you do not have the resources for IT support and are in the market for an out-of-the-box environment, where you can tailor various options on their own, a headless CMS may not be a good fit. Cloud-based applications and DXPs are likely more than sufficient to meet your objectives, without needing to invest in a headless CMS and the related needs for IT support. It is essential to begin first with the business requirements.

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