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Is a headless CMS right for your marketing stack?

(Image credit: Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock)

In the early days of e-commerce, companies relied on monolithic content management systems to power their websites and conveniently manage the input and layout of content with built-in templates and display options. But in today’s multichannel environment, the monolithic CMS model isn’t cutting it for many marketers.

With new channels like digital assistants emerging faster than many brands and retailers can keep up, many marketers are finding that they need a better way to manage content meant to be distributed among multiple delivery channels. The reality is, the CMS platforms used now were never intended to adjust to disruptive channels like social or voice commerce -- and they aren’t advanced or agile enough to adapt to completely new models.

Enter, the headless CMS.

Headless CMS is a phrase being tossed around frequently as marketers look for new ways to better manage content across multiple channels. And it is more than just a trend. But before understanding the benefits of a headless CMS, it’s important to fully grasp the different approaches now available for content management. If you’re unfamiliar, there are a few broad categories that describe the various CMS that brands and retailers use currently:

●       Coupled: The simplest system, a coupled CMS platform stores and retrieves information and delivers content directly to designated channels (also referred to as monolithic). The standard Wordpress is an example of a popular “coupled” CMS: a platform that stores data, provides a generic interface to edit content and website design and then delivers that content to the frontend (the website).

This is ideal for brands and retailers only operating on websites and responsive mobile channels, but it can be restrictive when it comes to expanding to new channels like social or voice commerce since most aren’t advanced enough to handle new or emerging delivery environments. The same CMS that could support a basic e-commerce website, for example, could be useless when it comes to delivering content on a mobile app.

●       Decoupled: While a decoupled CMS still stores, manipulates and formats content, it is delivered through a separate mechanism created by developers. A decoupled CMS structurally consists of a database to store content, an interface to edit content and a backend connected to a chosen delivery system. This way, while the delivery system operates independently of the backend, it still provides a way to deliver content on the frontend. This gives marketers more freedom to use new channels, but they are still limited to whatever frontend solution they use in the end.

Headless: With a headless CMS, the head of the management stack is completely removed from the actual delivery model. Without a frontend, a headless CMS simply becomes a way to store content, with no limits to how it is ultimately delivered. This gives marketers the flexibility to adapt content to whatever channel comes along using a custom application program interface (API) routes and endpoints -- as long as they have the technical resources to do so.

Is a headless CMS for you? 

If you value flexibility and agility, a headless CMS might seem like the obvious choice. And there are certainly pros: a headless approach liberates marketers that were once limited to specific delivery environments, allowing them to manage content that can be released quickly on channels far beyond just the website. And as developments like shopping via digital assistant, voice commerce and the Internet of Things take root, this adaptability is more desirable and crucial than ever for competitive brands.

But caution is in order: an entirely headless approach comes with its fair share of challenges. Yes, the sky's the limit for marketers using the API strategy -- but only if they have the IT department that can develop and support new delivery environments. A purely headless approach will likely create extreme IT costs for most companies. That’s because, as new channels emerge, developers have to constantly create and adjust to new delivery environments, requiring vast amounts of technical talent and time. While behemoth corporations with huge IT departments or agile startups with vast technical knowledge might easily adapt to the headless approach, midmarket companies might lack the resources to give their CMS the guillotine.

If that sounds like your company, a nearly headless hybrid strategy might be what’s best.

A hybrid strategy combines flexibility and convenience

Using a hybrid strategy, marketers don’t have to abandon their coupled or decoupled CMS entirely. For channels that already integrate well with existing systems like websites or mobile channels, marketers can continue to use technology they’re comfortable with, eliminating the need to completely reinvent the wheel for every delivery environment. This ensures that traditional channels like your website are running smoothly. It also saves time and money for companies without huge IT departments.

However, opening up your strategy to include delivery environments not supported by existing CMS platforms allows you to more easily adapt to the emerging channels you need to be ahead of. And you don’t have to depend entirely on your IT department, since custom API routes and endpoints are only needed when you have to create separate delivery environments for additional channels -- like voice and social commerce, for example.

For most brands, a hybrid approach to CMS provides the agility necessary in today’s fast-paced environment, while limiting the amount of technical support devoted to marketing departments: a win-win. The brands that are able to quickly adapt to customer demands will come out on top. With that in mind, it’s critical to find the right cloud-based solutions that can support a flexible and strong approach to CMS.

Of course, the rise of the headless CMS has broader implications for the marketing industry. In short, it represents a move towards greater agility and performance for brands’ technology stacks. This is especially important as marketers incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) technology into their strategies. The brands that invest in a flexible approach now to CMS can remove the constraints that previously prevented them from committing to new technologies and channels.

James Norwood, CMO and Executive Vice President, Strategy, Episerver
Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock

James Norwood
James Norwood is CMO and Executive Vice President, Strategy at Episerver. He has over 25 years of experience with enterprise business software, including in senior leadership roles at KANA Software, Inc. and Epicor Software Corporation.