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A Headless CMS Primer: Does Your Marketing Website Need to Go Headless?

Many high-growth organizations need multichannel distribution to target their audiences on all devices. Unfortunately, a typical Monolithic CMS cannot carry the load. See why organizations are turning to a Headless CMS for their content demands.

Eric Izazaga

February 11, 2022 | 11 minutes

A Headless CMS Primer: Does Your Marketing Website Need to Go Headless?

1. What is a Headless CMS?

Source: Thirst Creative

A headless content management system is a backend-only content management tool empowering content editing teams to create, publish, and manage content.

A headless solution is separated from the frontend layer of an application, meaning content management and publishing are done in a separate application. Headless platforms act as the content repository for every website, application, or other API-supported application.

The head is referred to as the frontend, or presentation layer, of an application. The body of the application is the content repository, where all the content is created, edited, and authored.

What is a content repository?

The content repository is a database of all digital content of an application. A content repository makes all digital content available to users with the correct permissions.

Activities in the content repository include storing, editing, publishing, managing, and duplicating. All these activities take place using a headless CMS solution.

Who can access the content repository?

With the right permissions, anyone can access the content repository. However, the content repository is always accessed by content teams.

Content teams edit, publish and manage all the content within the headless content repository.

2. How does a Headless CMS work?

A headless content management system works to do two things:

  1. Gives content teams a place to manage an application’s content.

  2. Makes the content available via API for development teams to present it however they wish.

A headless CMS is a decoupled structure powered by an Application Programming Interface (API). Because the presentation layer of the application is separated from the content repository, an API is required to fetch the content from the content repository.

Headless CMS users create an account with the platform they’ve chosen and log in to begin using the content management tool. Most headless solutions are a software as a service (SaaS), meaning editors are required to log into the web application each time they want to access the repository.

What is an application programming interface (API)?

An application programming interface (API) is a software intermediary that works to help two third-party applications communicate with each other. Two applications communicate with each other by sharing data through the API.

An example of an API is when users log in to Twitter using their Facebook account information. Twitter communicates with Facebook through the API to confirm that the user is logged in to the Facebook account. 

In a headless solution, APIs are in the cloud-based backend of the headless solution. They are stored there to communicate with the frontend of the application.

What is the frontend of an application?

The frontend, or presentation layer of an application, is the user interface that users can view and interact with. The page you’re looking at right now is an example of an output from the frontend.

The frontend of an application works to fetch the content from the body, which is the content repository. How the content is presented is up to the development team that is responsible for the presentation layer. 

With a headless CMS, teams have the freedom to choose any frontend system they want to function as the head. Developers work with the selected system to customize the presentation layer to meet brand requirements.

Having a headless CMS doesn’t limit what developers can do with the content. If the functionality of the frontend allows, then development teams have full control over how the content appears when the end-user opens the application.

Examples of common frontends that pair well with a headless CMS solution include React, Vue.js, and Angular. It’s worth noting that some front-end platforms are React-based, meaning that platforms such as Gatsby.js and Nuxt.js run on the React framework.

3. What’s the difference between Headless CMS and other CMS architectures?

Headless websites are paired with a separate application that handles the frontend. High-growth companies prefer other CMS architectures because of the flexibility, customization, and scalability features offered. 

However, some organizations might not care about having anything custom and are satisfied with the out-of-the-box tools that other content management structures provide. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between headless CMS architectures and other options available to organizations.

What is a traditional content management system?

A traditional content management system is a platform that pairs the frontend and backend of an application. Traditional CMS users can manage, edit, and publish content and deploy the content using built-in themes and templates. 

A traditional platform is easier to use, cheaper to invest in, and easy to maintain. Other features include content management tools, design components, UI functionality, and external plug-ins. Another advantage is that developers aren’t required to maintain the traditional system unless something custom needs to be done.

This alone is a huge selling point for organizations that need to get a website up and running fast. There are several traditional CMS software that businesses still use today.

The Difference Between a Headless CMS and a Traditional CMS

Source: Contentstack

The main difference between a headless CMS and a traditional CMS is that the head and body of a traditional platform aren’t separated.

A traditional CMS doesn’t require development resources as a headless solution does. Teams shouldn’t worry about investing in a separate presentation layer and seek additional resources to maintain the system. Everything is done in the traditional CMS!

What is a decoupled content management system?

A decoupled content architecture separates the frontend and backend of an application. Within this architecture, the content repository and the presentation layer are housed separately.

Unlike a headless CMS, a decoupled CMS has the backend content layer and the presentation layer in the same place. But like any headless solution, a decoupled CMS also deploys content via API. Teams can create content in the backend and utilize the frontend functionality to ship the content and deploy it to any device or channel using the API feature.

The Difference Between a Headless CMS and a Decoupled CMS

Source: Moosend

The main difference between a headless CMS and a decoupled CMS is that a decoupled architecture prepares content in the content repository and can instantly deploy it using its presentation layer. A headless CMS is a content-only database.

A headless CMS requires a frontend system to call for the content sitting in the repository. Without the frontend, the content will sit in the content repository until the proper frontend is set up to carry out what it’s intended to do - fetch the content via its API feature.

4. Is Headless CMS right for me?

It’s crucial to assess if your organization is ready to migrate to a headless CMS solution. But how do you tell if your organization is ready for headless?

Here’s a list of questions stakeholders should answer before considering a headless CMS solution.

How big is your website?

The perfect starting point is determining the size of your website. Assess the current state by conducting a website audit and determining how many pages currently exist. This will help you find out the number of pages that exist.

If your organization has determined that it wants to create new website pages, more content, and consistently update the functions of your website, then the out-of-the-box tools offered by a traditional CMS won’t be enough.

The power of having a custom frontend and a headless solution will allow teams to create as much content as they want and deploy it to several devices and channels simultaneously.

Who will use the content management system?

Identifying who will use the content management system is important in determining how many users will be involved in the content publishing process.

If your team has a content engine or wishes to build one, then making the content management system accessible to multiple content editors is a top priority. That way, content editors can create, publish, and update without any blockers.

Headless solutions allow multiple users to undergo the content editing process. Development teams aren’t required to grant edit access to existing content because the content repository is separated from the frontend. It’s all in the hands of the content editors!

If your organization’s content team has outgrown the features offered by a traditional system, then a headless solution is the perfect fit for your team.

Do you need a custom frontend?

A traditional CMS comes with default themes and templates for the presentation layer. The downside is traditional CMS software restricts the type of content teams can publish. Organizations will also experience limitations if they want a custom frontend.

There will come a time when you wish to shake things up but are blocked by the traditional system. The issue with deploying a custom frontend on a traditional CMS is that the technology is limited. It also requires development resources and more maintenance costs to maintain a custom traditional CMS.

Source: GitHub

On the contrary, opportunities are endless with a headless solution. Because frontend developers specialize in the presentation layer of websites, they can display the content however they want and use their favorite tools to execute. Frontend frameworks like Gatsby offer developers more flexibility when building the user interface of a website.

If you wish to be as custom as possible and invest in future-proof technology, then pairing a headless solution with a modern frontend framework is the solution for you.

5. Benefits of Going Headless

It’s no coincidence why high-growth companies choose headless solutions over traditional systems as the backend. 

Our favorite technologies continue to transform, outpacing common traditional systems that were once enough to get the job done. But because the traditional CMS industry has not made any advancements, organizations are not convinced that it can support more complex digital solutions.

Let’s dig into the main benefits of choosing a headless CMS.

Faster time to market

Time to market is the length of time it takes for a project to be deployed. With how quickly the market is moving in today’s digital age, waiting more than one day to publish assets can have a significant impact on value and ROI.

A headless CMS offers developers and content teams the flexibility to build, create, and deploy as quickly as possible. Developers working with a custom frontend and headless CMS can develop the way they’re used to without being constrained by a fixed structure.

This flexibility makes cross-collaboration between developers and content creators more manageable. Content teams can write content and publish using different presentation layers built by the development team. At this stage, content teams can deliver a faster time to market and achieve ROI quicker.

Increased control and faster scaling

Because the frontend and backend are separated, the website is not compromised if any performance or maintenance issues arise with the headless CMS. The presentation layer is not affected by these issues and gives teams time to resolve any CMS issues.

Teams have ultimate control over the website. Content teams focus on creating content using the backend system while developers focus on the frontend technology to display it however they want on any device. Having control over the website increases content availability, a huge selling point for organizations with a content engine.

Increased personalization and testing

Headless CMS solutions allow teams to use their preferred 3rd-party personalization and testing tools. Because headless solutions are API-driven, they can communicate with these tools to deliver more personalized digital experiences.

User-friendly personalization tools like AB Tasty, Mutiny, and Google Optimize can be configured to work with a headless CMS solution to create hyper-targeted user experiences. These tools are becoming increasingly powerful to compete in the modern era of the web.

Personalization use case using Gatsby, HubSpot, and Google Optimize

We recently found a solution to replace HubSpot’s out-of-the-box personalization tools after migrating from HubSpot’s CMS to Contentful’s headless CMS

Working with the Gatsby frontend framework, our team used Gatsby cloud functions to interface with HubSpot to pull the required data from the CRM to create personalized page experiences depending on user behavior. Read the full post!

Headless CMS software was valued at $328.5 million in 2019, with an upward trend showing that this rapid growth and adoption of the headless architecture is not slowing down. The global CMS market is projected to grow a whopping USD 116.2B by 2025.

The headless CMS market is more than just a trend - it’s an evolutionary shift towards providing omnichannel digital experiences that adjust to the evolving content consumption landscape. High-growth companies using headless publish content to multiple devices like phones, tablets, TVs, and more.

Simultaneously, organizations are cutting down on costs, scaling up than scaling down. Because little technical involvement is required to use a headless solution, content teams can create without having to wait for developers to build CMS-based templates. That way, organizations can start with smaller solutions and scale up as needed, diminishing up-front costs.

The shift to headless architecture is driven by companies who wish to target more audiences, reduce costs, and use modern technology to build an efficient omnichannel marketing experience.

7. The Marriage Between Headless and Omnichannel Marketing

A headless solution has the power to maintain multiple digital channels at once without getting developers involved. 

Developers own the frontend completely and make custom modifications when organizations are ready to augment their brand online. Defining these roles allows teams to provide a convenient omnichannel customer experience with omnichannel marketing.

What is omnichannel marketing?

Omnichannel marketing is an approach brands take to establish their brand presence across multiple online channels while resolving common pain points throughout the customer journey.

Online channels include website, application, social media, email, SMS, and more! The main goal is to create a positive experience at every stage of the customer journey for prospects in the sales funnel or existing customers.

Let’s say Starbucks wishes to improve its website experience. Their team identified a segment of customers that want to learn more about making the perfect cold brew. As a result, Starbucks strategized a marketing campaign on the topic of the best milk options for a cold brew that includes an email campaign and listicle-style blog posts.

The Starbucks team needs a content management solution that supports publishing reusable content on every channel that this segment of customers is using. A headless CMS can fulfill these needs with no problem.

How does headless fit into omnichannel marketing?

A headless content management system can deliver content across multiple devices, channels, and frontends via APIs. If teams wish to display their content on any device, they can do so with a headless CMS without being restricted the way a traditional CMS might.

Headless solutions facilitate omnichannel experiences and allow teams to provide their customers with the same website experience on every device, meeting customer expectations and needs on all digital channels.

A traditional content management system only publishes content to a website. This is a huge problem for teams that need to reach multiple users on different devices but are limited to only one device at a time. Organizations like the Starbucks example want to ensure their content’s messaging is consistent across all platforms.

For teams to feel confident and secure about deploying consistent messaging, they need a headless CMS to handle it with a push of a button.

8. Headless CMS Examples

Leading software industries have invested heavily in headless solutions to provide their customers and website visitors with an omnichannel experience.

We’ve helped several industry disruptors migrate and set up their supercharged headless CMS to develop an enterprise website capable of supporting high-growth strategies and powerful 3rd-party tools to augment their website operations. Check out the latest customer success stories.

ServiceTitan grows demos 18% with Contentful and Gatsby

ServiceTitan is the leading enterprise software platform for the multi-billion dollar home and commercial services industry.

ServiceTitan’s website goals were the following:

  1. Increase page speed with a modern frontend capable of scaling with increased demand

  2. Build a seamless integration between all their sales and marketing tools

One of the toughest decisions for large marketing organizations is choosing the right content management system to edit, publish, and manage website pages. ServiceTitan chose Contentful as their headless solution to give their content editors the autonomy to quickly launch website and marketing campaigns at scale.

Read ServiceTitan’s case study

Shopmonkey increases website speed by 43% migrating to Gatsby

Whether you run a small detail shop, perform motorcycle repairs, or refurbish boats and bicycles, Shopmonkey's cloud-based tools give shop managers a single solution for all their needs.

Shopmonkey is an auto repair shop management software startup that empowers mechanics and shop owners to simplify their business operations with a full suite of cloud-based tools.

To remain ahead of their competitors, Shopmonkey needed a high-performance frontend solution and a robust content management system to empower their marketing team. The Shopmonkey team chose Gatsby as the frontend framework and DatoCMS as the headless backend.

Now, Shopmonkey's marketing team can create, publish, and update any type of content they want (e.g. landing pages, events, blogs, website pages, registration forms, etc.), without ever needing to bother their internal software engineers.

Read Shopmonkey’s case study

Unifying UpKeep’s user experience with DatoCMS and Gatsby

UpKeep is the nation's leading provider of Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) software used by some of the largest manufacturers, equipment technicians, government organizations, schools, and facility management companies.

The challenge was to consolidate seven WordPress websites into one single truth of source. Managing seven websites is expensive, requiring multiple teams to maintain each system. The idea was to simplify UpKeep’s backend operations and frontend experience to provide a fluid user experience to each of its website visitors.

As a solution, we deployed DatoCMS and Gatsby to provide a truly scalable and efficient website for today's high-growth SaaS companies like UpKeep.

Read UpKeep’s case study

Summary

The digital age is transforming today’s modern web era. As technology advances, end-users are finding new ways to consume content across all digital platforms. The last thing organizations want is to be held back by a traditional content management system that limits them to out-of-the-box functionality.

If companies wish to stay ahead of the curve and provide an omnichannel experience, then they must invest in future-proof technology. If your organization is not quite there, then that’s okay. Only you will know when the right time is to invest in a headless CMS.

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