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Why Headless CMS is the Future of Content Management

An important trend is occurring in web content management that provides insight into the future of all content management systems (CMS), whether used for enterprise content management (ECMS), digital asset management (DAM) or document management (DMS). Specifically, “headless” content management systems have steadily gained adoption, replacing more full-featured applications like Drupal and WordPress. The trend shows that organizations are moving away from monolithic enterprise applications in favor of suites of loosely coupled services so that they can align their technology to their exact content management needs and respond quickly to new requirements.

What is Headless CMS?

A traditional Web Content Management System (WCMS) offers a full range of functionality to create a website, including a WYSIWYG editor to author content, templates to design web pages, a web server to display those pages, and a search engine so that site visitors can find content. Headless robot to represent headless CMSThis approach is generally referred to as creating a monolithic application because all of the functions are packaged together and distributed as a single solution.

Headless CMSs take a more decoupled approach. The name “headless” comes from the fact that the “head”–in other words, the website itself–has been lopped off from the rest of the system, leaving just the “back end.” A headless CMS focuses only on creating content and providing a way to retrieve it. Displaying the content is left to other, more specialized applications. 

The headless approach has gained popularity because organizations need to deliver content to many channels and not just a traditional website. Delivery channels now include javascript applications that run in the browser without a web server, mobile apps, email blasts, social media campaigns, syndicated feeds–even machine learning platforms in order to automatically categorize and recommend content to third parties. Headless systems can deliver to all these channels, giving companies the flexibility to create solutions that meet their specific use cases instead of being constrained by any assumptions built into the monolithic CMS itself.

Should You Go Big or Small?

Of course, a headless CMS is not the only way to handle the proliferation of delivery channels. Rather than going “small” and focusing on content creation, some CMS vendors have gone “big” and expanded the capabilities of their monolithic applications to deliver content to a wider range of channels. 

Adobe Experience Manager (AEM), a WCMS and DAM application, delivers content to social media, print, mobile, and specialized branding portals while also offering functionality to create community websites, blog posts, and workspaces where teams can collaborate on content creation. It’s a large, complex system that serves a wide range of needs to attract customers and differentiate the product from competitors.

Although going “big” has advantages, my personal belief is that going “small” is the most sustainable strategy. The problem with monolithic applications like AEM is that the range of delivery channels will keep increasing, as will the ways that companies want to use content. Companies that invest in a monolithic application today will quickly find it no longer supports all the functions they need further down the line. The vendor may offer new features in the next version, but the rollout will always lag behind the demand, and the upgrade will introduce unwanted disruptions to the business.

Warning! Assembly Required

The key to achieving headless content management is to have a range of components or services to choose from. After all, a headless CMS only gives you the ability to create and retrieve content–you will still need services to enrich, package, and deliver content in a way that meets your business requirements. Fortunately, almost every component you need is now available as cloud-based, pay-as-you-go services. Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, for example, provides a robust way to save images, videos, and other content in the cloud at very low cost. Other providers offer workflow services, search engines, user authentication, analytics, image editing and video transcoding, and machine learning.

The challenge is to assemble all of these services to support the functionality that you need. This is obviously a major stumbling block for organizations that lack technical resources, and the main reason that companies still turn to monolithic applications to manage content. This is unfortunate because it is not at all clear that the cost of hiring developers to assemble and maintain the precise solution you need is more expensive than licensing a monolithic CMS and then having to reconfigure and customize it.

As a case in point, I worked with one publishing company that used Drupal for its WCMS. Over the span of three years, the publisher realized that the monolithic application was a bottleneck. Drupal’s content creation and workflow features never aligned well with the publisher’s editorial process, so they had to replace those features with an external service. The Drupal backend database could not support the volume of content the publisher needed to maintain, so they had to find a new way to manage that. Bit by bit, the publisher ended up replacing every aspect from authentication, to search, to caching, to analytics. And on top of all of that, the publisher needed to deliver content in ways that Drupal could not support, such as creating syndicated feeds, mobile apps, and partner-facing APIs. The publisher eventually concluded it had no compelling reason to continue using Drupal (and to continue paying its hosting company) because the application was simply routing web requests to external services that did the bulk of the work.

How Do You Choose?

How do you go about deciding what you should do? Should you assemble your own CMS and, if so, what components do you truly need? Should you go with out-of-the-box applications and then work on extending and integrating them to suit your needs? 

If you are in the business of creating content, such as a publisher or media company, then the CMS is part of your core mission and it is likely that you should assemble your own solution.  Enterprises that do not create content–a retailer, for example, or a restaurant–should probably concentrate on their core activities and look for pre-built systems. 

But of course, the line between who is a content publisher and who is not is increasingly blurry. Most companies now want to create and publish content in order to engage their customers. There are also many companies like insurance agencies, financial services firms, and other highly regulated industries like pharmaceuticals, which must create and manage large amounts of information.

The best approach is to develop an overall strategy for managing all the content you produce across different business functions and delivery channels. With a strategy in place, you can develop a plan that defines the services you actually need and then evaluate the out-of-the-box applications and stand-alone components that are available to you. While evaluating your options, you need to consider not only the return on investment of build versus buy, but also the opportunity cost of being locked into a monolithic application versus having the flexibility to add new services as the need arises.

EK is an expert in the field of managing content throughout its lifecycle. Our content experts would be happy to lead a one-day content management workshop or even prepare a full blown content management assessment and roadmap. Whatever your industry, EK can help you find content management solutions that fit your organization and can be implemented quickly, with low risk, and at a reasonable cost. Contact us

Demian Hess Demian Hess Demian Hess is a Content Management Solutions Architect at Enterprise Knowledge. For more than 15 years, Demian has worked with publishers and Fortune 500 companies to get value from their content and digital assets. More from Demian Hess »