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How to select a headless CMS

(Image credit: Image Credit: B-lay)

If you’re working in IT or web development at a large enterprise, you’ve probably come across the term ‘headless’ and wondered whether it’s something you need to consider for your business’ website or CMS.

This guide will give you a bit of an explanation of what exactly a ‘headless’ CMS is, whether you need one, and what to look for when selecting the perfect headless partner.

What is a headless CMS?

In the past, web pages were built by developers who hard-coded content onto a page. The earliest content management systems (CMSs) took this code and placed it behind a more user-friendly interface, allowing those of us without coding skills to add to or update our corporate websites. As an IT professional, you’ve probably got quite used to using this backend interface, or even working on its installation to help marketers and content teams edit and publish their own content across your company’s site.

This system has worked well for many years, but as the technology landscape changes, the limitations are starting to show through. While today’s CMSs have a lot of innovative features, many are still fundamentally web-centric. This means that it’s harder than ever to edit, modify or adapt them for new digital channels. As more and more site content is accessed via a mobile device, tablet, smartwatch or even IoT device, today’s webpages need to work across multiple channels, platforms and devices. This is where headless CMSs come in.

Headless CMSs take a whole new approach to content management, separating the content (the body) from the visible presentation layer (the head). This means that content can be created that works across any end platform or destination, being pulled via APIs to any digital endpoint.

Do you really need to go headless?

The first question to ask yourself when selecting a headless CMS is whether or not your business will really feel the benefits? It can be easy to chase after the latest shiny tech, but in reality, not every organization needs to swap to a headless architecture for their website.

For smaller businesses that do not have a strong technical proficiency, a headless CMS may be overkill. Similarly, if your company only operates a single website populated with static content that changes infrequently, there’s probably no need to switch to a headless CMS.

Where headless will be most useful, is in enterprises that hope to publish on multiple channels, or deliver highly customized user experiences. For many of these enterprises, the traditional CMS has become more of a barrier to change rather than an enabler. Legacy systems have become bloated with multiple CMSs running across each channel or platform.

If that sounds like your business, you may well be ready to switch to a headless CMS. But with numerous providers on the market, which one do you pick? Here are a few of the features you should consider when making your selection.

Flexible integrations

The whole idea of a headless CMS is to provide content that can be pulled via APIs to any digital endpoint. As such, having numerous APIs, plugins and external integrators is vital to keep your business flexible and allow for as many different use cases and endpoints as possible.

For IT teams, being able to integrate with other tools is essential, as it allows the CMS to slot neatly into your entire technology stack. As for end-users – such as marketers or content teams – it allows them to connect their preferred CRM, DAM, PIM, and marketing automation systems together, with the headless CMS at their heart.

Single page applications editing

A criticism that used to be levelled at headless CMSs was that they were always difficult for non-technical users (such as marketers and content teams) to adopt and use. Going headless typically meant giving up your visual user interface along with other marketer-friendly features. The result was a web presence that was ideal for developers and IT teams, but didn’t actually help the people producing your on-site content.

Today, this is all changing, with the most modern headless CMS platforms now offering ‘visual single page application (SPA)’ editing. This means that — even though the content is still truly headless — users can get a feel for how individual pages and experiences would look once live. As such, a non-technical content author, such as a marketer, can create content and get a feel for how it would be displayed, without losing the cross-channel benefits offered by a headless CMS.

Headless personalization

Personalization is vital for today’s website designs and digital experiences, with research from Magnolia showing that ‘better personalized experiences’ are a top priority for IT teams in 2020.

Personalized content via a website is easy, however, what about across other digital channels such as visual displays, apps or IoT devices? A lot of headless CMSs can push content to these channels, but cannot truly personalize it.

If your business is one of those striving to offer more personalized content across a broad variety of channels, then finding a headless CMS that offers strong personalization features is vital.

This means that your CMS needs to have native, component-based personalization that occurs on the server-side. That way, relevant content is determined by the CMS before it’s sent to the front-end via APIs. This means you can provide a consistent — but personally relevant experience — across every channel and business interaction.

As the technology evolves, headless CMSs are rapidly moving from a niche use case to a fundamental part of modern IT infrastructures. However, the move to headless still requires a fairly substantial digital transformation, as opposed to the less risky, phased approach. As such, many large organizations are opting for a joint ‘hybrid’ approach, while the best CMS providers will also provide both a hosted and on-premise model to help make the switch.

Whichever of these options is best suited to your business it’s vital that IT teams look at all possible approaches and don’t just stick to what they know. A headless — or hybrid — CMS could offer major benefits to your organization, both now and in the future.

Darren Hitchcock, General Manager UK & Nordics, Magnolia