Come forth the headless horseman of CMS

Well known in folklore across Europe and the US, the headless horseman is set to be brought back by the CMS industry in the form of the headless CMS.

A recent rise in the need for higher scalability and agility has led people to start looking at deploying their CMS to the cloud.

Additionally, with the multitude of devices and platforms currently available and requiring content, the headless architecture – rather than a sign of impending doom, is being viewed as the modern answer to these problems.

The future is a multichannel world

Most marketers these days are using some form of traditional CMS. Displaying content on websites and utilizing analytics tools to gather information about visitors are very common scenarios and perfectly fine, for the most part.

But a traditional CMS might not be able to cope with what is to come in the near future.

A 2016 report by Deloitte shows that almost two-thirds of UK adults have access to a tablet, while smartphone penetration hit 81% of the population – with 31% of smartphone users saying they didn’t make voice calls in a given week.

Add to these items the advancements in bots, digital assistants, virtual reality, augmented reality, IoT, and more, and you begin to see that merely creating content for websites, whether through responsive design or not, is no longer enough.

If a marketer really wants to have an influence on a user’s customer journey, they need to start interacting with the user across all channels. Marketing requires a more flexible approach to its content delivery and needs to be structured in a way that allows for multiple delivery layouts.

Stop thinking of a “web page” and start thinking of the elements on the page, such as title, subtitle, description, images, right through to pricing, checkboxes, CTA buttons, and so on, which can be displayed on any device in any layout.

These are all important elements in the customer journey and with the headless approach you are assured that they can be displayed for your customers anywhere and everywhere.

Off with its head

As the digital market has been maturing, we have seen web pages get bigger, faster, and more elegant and user friendly. And throughout all of that, a traditional CMS was used in conjunction with a templating engine to render the pages. This is the “head” of the CMS and determines the presentation layout of the content.

It stands to reason that for more device types and more displays, all we need are more templates, right? Wrong.

Just as it would have been impossible to predict the widespread adoption of the mobile devices we are currently seeing, it is just as impossible to anticipate what might come in the next 20 years. Adding more engines and more layers will just create an uncontrollable beast.

The solution is simple: separate the head from the body. In other words, let the CMS do what it is designed to do—be the content repository and management tool for the content you write—and let your team of developers just concentrate on what they are good at—building the applications for the channels you need.

Then, instead of the CMS rendering the content, you simply call its API to retrieve the content and it then fits to whatever application layout has been determined for the display.

Think of all the elements mentioned earlier, such as title, description, and so on, as individual modules. Take each module and figure out how you want it displayed. So you no longer take an entire web page and try to manipulate it to the device, but rather take the individual modularized content elements and piece them together for the device you want.

And, on top of that, those pieces of modular content only need to be written once and they can then be used on any display and in any layout you want.

Traditional CMS tries to move to the cloud

Many people in the CMS industry can already see the advantages of cloud deployments. But there are a lot of different approaches being taken.

There has been an increase in the number of traditional CMS providers that have taken their platform and dropped it in the cloud. Sure, it removes the on-premise server infrastructure, but your development teams will still need to take care of the installation, maintenance, upgrades, and everything that normally goes along with an on-premise CMS.

A solution to that might be to use a managed hosting service. In this scenario, your CMS is hosted in the cloud and the vendor manages your installation. Sounds great!

But the key here is that the vendor needs to manage each installation on its own. If there are upgrades to be done, they need to do it for each installation. It is effectively just moving the inefficiencies away from your developers to the vendor. Doesn’t sound so great now, does it?

What you really need is a model that has automated CMS maintenance like the Platform as a Service (PaaS) model. In this model, a traditional CMS platform is reworked in the cloud so that all upgrades and maintenance are automatically applied to all installations at the same time.

However, because most traditional CMSs were designed with on-premise hosting environments in mind, doing it this way soon leads to problems as some functionality starts to fail. For example:

  • Some of the plugins that you use, for instance, for analytics, or email marketing, may not work in the cloud environment.
  • Certain customization options that your development team have implemented might only work in an on-premise model. When the vendor makes updates to the platform in the cloud, your customizations might get damaged, as the CMS was not designed with this in mind.
  • After every upgrade and hotfix, your team will still need to spend time ensuring everything is working correctly before being able to get back to their day-to-day work.

This all means that PaaS is still not the most elegant or efficient solution. And, for marketers and developers that need to be on top of their game, that will make a big difference.

The solution is a CMS designed from the ground up to work in the cloud—a cloud-first CMS. Combine that with headless architecture, and you will feel like you’re back in control of your CMS.

Time to lose your head in the cloud

In a fast-paced, multi-channel world that requires immediate results and increased ROI and revenue, as well as the desire to deliver the “perfect” customer journey, a cloud-first headless CMS is the guiding light for marketers.

With a modularized content approach in this architecture, you only need to create content once and it can be displayed on multiple devices—vastly increasing the speed and efficiency of your content production. Typically, larger projects can be cut from months to weeks.

This agility also means that marketers have ultimate control over the channels in which they want to advertise. No longer will you be restricted by trying to fit a certain page template to a new and different device.

And just imagine how much easier life will be when you don’t need to worry about all the upgrades, maintenance, and hotfixes of a traditional CMS. With a cloud-first headless CMS, the vendor takes care of all of the headaches, meaning your budget and resources can be spent on more important things.

Many major vendors are already working on developing cloud-first headless CMSs, while the pioneers are already out there in the marketplace available for purchase today. So while the industry might be taking a headless approach, early adopters have certainly got their heads screwed on.


Stephen Griffin is Product Marketing Manager at Kentico.

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