Is A Headless CMS Right for You?

6 min read
Amba Wilkes

A traditional CMS architecture has been the industry standard for many years. But as online experiences continue to evolve, new solutions have been developed that make the design, build and management of websites even better.

Welcoming headless onto the CMS scene, this newer approach to content management brings increased flexibility with faster development and deployment speed. So, should you adopt headless or stick with a traditional CMS? To help you make an informed decision, let’s cover the main differences, the pros of headless and any drawbacks you might find.

How does a traditional CMS differ from a headless CMS?

To understand what a headless CMS is, we first need to consider a traditional CMS architecture. Many vendors originally chose to pack their CMS with ‘out-of-the-box’ features. The added complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does means that whilst most traditional CMS solutions can now do much more than content management, they tend not to do all things very well.

When using a traditional solution, you have to build the site within the CMS and are heavily constrained by the CMS itself and the way the vendor wants you to develop – this is often less than ideal. It also makes replatforming or moving agencies difficult due to the tight coupling which means a specialist agency is usually required to carry out future projects.

What is a headless CMS?

In a headless CMS, the content repository – also known as the ‘body’ – is decoupled from the front-end user interface – also known as the ‘head’. The body is where your content is stored, and the head is where your content is displayed. Today, businesses need their content to adapt across a range of digital platforms including websites, mobile sites, social channels, apps and more which headless makes possible.

Headless, as the name suggests, keeps the head and body loosely coupled. Your content is provided as data over an API rather than coupled to a particular output such as a web page. This means your body can now have as many ‘heads’ as required, which means your CMS can be used for any channel, whether that be a website, mobile app or campaign microsite. Even better, each head can be built by a different provider without the need for a CMS expert solution. It also enables you to redesign your site from scratch if required without having to rebuild the CMS too.

Is a headless CMS right for your business?  

Choosing the right CMS for your business plays a big part in your online success. As a trusted web development agency, we regularly advise clients on the best CMS option for their needs. When recommending a CMS, we always ask the question: “Why would we use this platform?”.

We’ve split down the core pros and cons of choosing to go down the headless route:

The pros

  • Encourages cross-team collaboration: Using a traditional CMS, content editors usually have to wait until the end of the development phase to begin populating the site. However, by having the front-end and the CMS separate, it means that marketing teams can work in parallel to developers allowing for a collaborative process. Content editors can write, upload and edit content directly into the CMS as soon as the content model is defined, potentially before the design phase has even begun.
  • Faster editing and deployment: A content-first approach is known for its positive effect on your entire project timeline, allowing you to launch your website faster. While this approach can and, where possible, should be used for any CMS solution, headless in particular favours this approach. The simplicity of headless CMS’s user interface also makes it quicker for content editors and developers to carry out work with no barriers.
  • Empowered editors: While some traditional CMS’s such as Umbraco or Kentico Xperience isn’t limited by rigid page templates, many are. Using a headless CMS, content editors can build new pages or add to existing pages easily using individual components. With greater flexibility to the layout and content used, editor frustrations are reduced and there’s less dependence on developer support.
  • Reusable content: Whether you have one or multiple channels, the central content repository of a headless CMS allows you easily reuse content across your channels (or even multiple websites). This not only has the added benefit of reducing the time it takes to add content to each page or channel, but it also means changes only need to be made once in one location.
  • More content for more channels: As businesses engage with their customers across more and more platforms, a headless CMS means you’re ready to adopt an omnichannel approach to your content creation too. Headless content isn’t tied to a specific channel making it easier to reach your audience across numerous platforms, making content highly accessible and reusable so you’re able to get the most out of what you’ve created.
  • Flexible development: A headless CMS delivers content via an API which provides full flexibility at every stage of the project. Designers and developers can be more creative with their solutions in comparison to working in a traditional CMS. Additionally, many headless CMS’ integrate with a range of development platforms so you’re not limited by choice. For example, Kentico Kontent acts as a multi-tenant SaaS delivering the back-end performance, security and upgrades you need all in one place.
  • Technology developers love: The separation of technologies also means that your developers (whether internal or agency) can work with their preferred technology stack, making it more likely that you’ll benefit from the latest frameworks and tools.
  • Future flexibility: As the ‘head’ is loosely coupled to the ‘body’, in the future when you’re ready to make larger changes to your website, you can do so without replacing everything. You have the flexibility to replace the front end and change the user interface yet still preserve and use your existing content – or vice versa if you wish.

Are there any cons?

The benefits of headless outweigh the drawbacks but, as with all technology, taking this approach will suit certain businesses and projects more than others.

  • Just one piece of the puzzle: A headless CMS is just one piece of the puzzle and requires additional technologies to serve as the ‘head’. For example, you may require technology to cater for form building and submissions, site search, shopping cart functionality and personalisation as these can no longer form part of the CMS feature set. While there are many undeniable benefits to headless, it does mean your site’s infrastructure can be more complex.
  • Experienced developers: As a result of this more complex infrastructure, you will need the support of developers who understand the concept of a headless CMS. Consider the capabilities within your development team - you may find they’re unable to fulfil a headless project. We see many developers and businesses trying to use a headless CMS like a traditional one which will inevitably lead to disappointment. Working with a specialist agency is a cost-effective and time-efficient way to overcome this; lean on their expertise to ensure the end result is a headless web solution that works for your business.
  • Lack of page preview functionality: Due to how headless is built where the content repository is separate from the front-end, getting an accurate representation of how your content will look is a challenge. You won’t find the same preview experience as you do when using a traditional CMS for example. Fortunately, this capability is improving all the time. Kentico Kontent have recently launched a new feature called Web Spotlight which brings preview functionality to their headless offering, so users can have confidence in the content they publish.
  • Increased cost: For businesses that require a complex website with a large number of features and functionalities, a traditional CMS may be a more cost-effective solution. Thanks to their many ‘out-of-the-box’ features, it will likely have most of the functionalities you require without having to pay for further technologies.

So, is headless really the future?

Branded the new industry standard, a headless CMS gives content editors the ability to take back control and manage their website’s better while providing developers with a flexible way to work.  

Tackling content and development in conjunction, a headless approach improves delivery timescales, allows you to make website changes in line with your business needs and streamlines processes. Combining these benefits, you’re well equipped to launch a website with impressive performance, higher security and distributed content delivery.

As an agency with over 20 years’ experience, we have become experts in both Kentico and Umbraco solutions. Working with leading technologies, we can draw on our experience of both traditional and headless CMS solutions to help you make the right decision when it comes to selecting a platform. If you want to know more about our approach to headless, get in touch with the team or take a read of a first-hand account from our Head of Marketing who recently worked with the Kentico Kontent CMS for the first time.

Thoughts. Opinions. Views. Advice.

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