Headless CMS - What Should You Make of It?

  • 18-Aug-2016

"Headless CMS" is a relatively new addition to Web Content & Experience Management (WCM) vernacular. The term keeps popping up in discussions with customers as well as in industry forums.

What does headless mean?

Traditionally, a "headless" system refers to a system without a (graphical) user interface. A serial mouse for example. Many technology toolkits come natively in headless mode, where you build your own UI.  Java and Linux both have a headless modes where you can achieve a lot without using any graphical interface.

Headless CMS

Extending it to WCM

At a very simplistic level, any content management system, and especially a web content management (WCM) system provides capabilities across different stages of content lifecycle. These stages are usually:

  • Content Creation
  • Content Management
  • Content Presentation

Of course there can be other stages (like archival) but this will do for now.

A headless CMS does not provide capabilities for the third stage above. Meaning it does not provide a content presentation layer; so there’s no required theming and no presentation templates.  Similarly a headless CMS lacks site management or other "runtime" services like personalization. Since a headless CMS isn't responsible for presentation, some capabilities such as inline or in-context content creation also go missing because there is no pre-supposed context.

How are vendors addressing it?

There is a new subcategory of tools emerging — let's call them pure headless — that are API-first and focus only on the backend. In terms of a user interface, they usually provide a rather sparse management dashboard, with hooks for building a delivery application. One such vendor is Contentful — now included in RSG's most recent update to Web Content and Experience Management evaluations.

More commonly, we are seeing some vendors take a greater interest in what we call "head-optional" architectures, where you can use their WCM platform do deliver content and experiences, while a robust content and services API enables you to support headless mode as well.

What does it mean for you, the customer?

A pure headless CMS has many advantages. These tools are relatively new and don't have legacy issues. They are also light-weight and are targeted specifically for use cases where mobile and IoT type devices are prominent. But lack of presentation layer means that even for a really simple use case, you will need to develop the front end experience yourself; which could be a pain.

Note, however, that many of the traditional products that now offer headless capabilities were not really architected for these use cases. In fact, when some of those products were created, multi-channel only meant delivery to multiple websites. Building these capabilities is only adding to their complexity.

I think what is missing, and what many customers will like is a fresh new approach that is head-optional from the ground up: API-first but also offering some level of presentation services.  There's much more here than just creating an API layer; head-optional also requires new and more sophisticated approaches to authoring, preview, and channel management.

Of course, one size doesn't fit all, and some of our subscribers have deployed different tools for different types of use cases.

Find out more

For a detailed evaluation of Contentful or for any of the other WCM vendors, check out the newly released Version 23 of our report. If you're already an RSG subscriber, you can access the updated evaluations right away.

If you're not yet a subscriber, you can download a complimentary WCM vendor review chapter, and note the new "Content-Enriched Applications" evaluation criterion.

Our customers say...

"The Web CMS Research was the roadmap for our entire CMS selection process. It truly provided a basis for understanding what we should look for and expect in a CMS. Above all, since we used the report as our guide, we are more than confident in our CMS selection. If we had to go through the process all over again, we'd still rely as heavily on this report as we did the first time."

Michele McDonald, IT Project Manager, University of Oklahoma

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