Vendors and industry analysts have been breathlessly discussing headless content management systems (CMS) for some time now. But beyond the buzzword and excitement for the shiny new offering, what exactly does a headless CMS offer marketers?
What’s the headless hype all about?
In short, a headless CMS decouples the content from the presentation layer (i.e., the front-end layer visible to the person consuming the content). It makes content accessible via an API for display on any device without a built-in front end or presentation layer. The benefit for content editors and marketers is that it allows you to manage your content in one central location and to distribute that content across a variety of digital channels – maximizing reuse and minimizing governance. For IT, it means they can integrate it more easily and grants developers with greater freedom to serve content in a variety of ways to a wider range of business applications.
So, if you are just after content as a service within a composed suite of business applications, and you have a development team on standby to help you manage, maintain, create, and integrate what you need within your ecosystem, then a headless CMS is an ideal solution.
Pure headless minority
In 2023, the number of organizations that really need this type of headless content service still accounts for a minority of the market.
Most marketers and editors place a significantly greater emphasis on working with that content to compose, manage, and optimize campaigns and targeted assets across a range of digital marketing channels. And in this context, NOT being able to work with a presentation layer is a real challenge (colloquial translation: a pain in the butt)!
Additionally, marketers also need to work with a range of capabilities to perform their daily job – creating content, managing, tracking and analyzing customer behavior, personalizing content for specific customer segments, journey mapping, designing and automating email and social media campaigns, testing new marketing channels, reporting, selling products and services, and much, much more. The average enterprise uses a MarTech stack comprising roughly 90 tools (which sounds like an absolute nightmare to me!). Juggling that many applications has some distinct disadvantages – such as the increased time and effort spent in configuring, using, and navigating between a range of applications. It can also result in a loss in productivity due to UX inconsistencies and disparate, often duplicated, sets of content AND functionalities.
As a result, the more progressive headless CMSs have been rapidly developing ways to introduce a decoupled presentation layer to help marketers to overcome this technical burden. They are also steadily realizing that only the larger enterprises have the budget and development capacity to integrate, maintain, and manage the demand involved in having a best-of-breed composed suite of marketing capabilities.
This scenario actually often works against the marketer because they have to rely more heavily on developers and are not able to be as responsive to changing market needs. With today’s skill shortages, reliance on internal developers can lead to long delays for the marketers and higher workloads for the internal development teams. And as a result, marketers are opting more for technologies that enable them to do more for themselves.
A hybrid headless DXP could be the answer
What marketers really need is a digital experience capability that meets all of these needs within one platform – it has the majority of what they need now, the ability to extend and incorporate anything in the future, AND the option to deliver content headlessly to their desired marketing channels. In short, they need a digital experience platform (DXP).
From this perspective, headless should just be a feature of a modern DXP. It’s not a silver bullet that can be used to solve all of your content and digital marketing problems, it’s simply a capability that enables organizations to serve content to a range of different digital channels. On its own, it doesn’t solve any problems other than this, so the decision whether to use the headless capability or something else should be based on your needs and future growth plans.
Reaping the benefits of headless also shouldn’t be relegated to the domain of the larger, better funded enterprises. Marketing teams of all sizes can leverage it and shouldn’t be excluded from the headless content club due to its cost.
The benefits of a hybrid headless DXP are that you have many options and all the flexibility available for you to achieve any given marketing strategy or growth path. What makes sense for your business needs and your IT strategy?
A hybrid headless DXP gives you the flexibility to:
Develop websites both headlessly and with the head on
Use a WYSIWYG or modular approach to building web pages
Develop a diverse portfolio of websites that are optimized and managed securely in one place
Reuse and distribute content faster to wherever you engage with your customers (like email, social media accounts, chatbots, mobile apps, etc.)
It really does enable you to innovate and test out emerging channels more readily, to optimize for productivity, and keep your management costs and effort under control.
How does a hybrid headless DXP compare with a pure headless or traditional CMS?
Below is a quick overview to help you compare your options within the market.
|Traditional CMS ||Headless CMS ||Multi-product DXP (with headless) ||Hybrid Headless SaaS DXP |
|Content model |
Web-centric – pages.
Content can be accessed via API in some cases but requires heavy customization.
Content-as a service –
Reusable content elements for composition and headless distribution.
|Web-first – focused on pages, assets and integrated data sources with limited reusable content for headless distribution. |
Reusable content as assets, pages and elements for multi-channel composition and headless distribution.
|Marketing capabilities ||Limited to web ||None. Requires integrations ||Selected add-on suite of services or integrations ||Included or easily extensible |
|Ease of daily use ||Easy ||Complex (fewer in-built options) ||Complex – headless is tacked onto a monolithic DXP as an afterthought ||Easy |
|Web experience authoring ||WYSIWYG page building features ||Limited to no visualization, modularized authoring||WYSIWYG or modular authoring ||WYSIWYG and modularized authoring |
|Supported devices ||Limited to web-consuming devices ||Limitless ||Limitless ||Limitless |
|Reach ||One to one ||One to many ||One to many ||One to many |
|Development Cost |
Short term: Low
Long term: Very high
Short term: Very high
Long term: Very high
Short term: High
Long term: Very high
Short term: Medium
Long term: Low
|Backend||Monolithic, all-in-one ||A mix of self-managed services or applications and products or APIs from multiple vendors ||Vendor dependent: Microservices or Modular – can be deployed in many ways ||Vendor dependent: Microservices or Modular with independently scalable components |
|Code Customization ||Very high ||Low||Medium-to-High ||Low|
|Updates||Scheduled releases, resource-intensive, often technology-driven ||Automated on schedule or continuously applied (depending on provider) ||Scheduled releases, resource-intensive, often technology-driven ||Automated on schedule or continuously applied (depending on provider) – focused on increasing customer value |
|Investment||Low upfront investment, fast time to value/market |
Quick, inexpensive proofs of concept – but slow time to real value and large long-term development and maintenance costs
|Large upfront investment, slow time to value/market ||Large upfront investment, fast time to value/market, and low maintenance costs |
|Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) ||High ||Very high ||Medium-to-High ||Low|
|Hosting and delivery ||Self-managed on-premises or partner managed hosting service (PaaS) ||Mostly vendor-managed SaaS. A few vendors offer self/partner-managed PaaS options ||Self-managed on-premises, or partner/vendor managed hosting service (PaaS) ||Vendor-managed SaaS. |
Summarizing this table, the hybrid headless SaaS DXP comes out a clear winner. It offers you all the benefits of a headless CMS but is significantly easier for marketers to work with and provides a load more built-in marketing capabilities and other benefits. It offers you a lot more value over the long run – no matter which way you look at it.
So, our advice? Avoid the traps and constraints of pure headless solutions and go hybrid to set yourself up for whatever the future brings.