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When to win by “going Headless”

Organisations are pushing for more responsive and flexible ways to deliver content to the right customer at the right time. Choosing the right design of your content management system is more important than ever.

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“Going Headless” is a phrase that's likely to raise a few eyebrows outside the web development industry. But for those of us who ply our trade in that space, we've spent several years debating Headless Content Management System (CMS) as the next-gen approach to building the digital experiences of tomorrow. Proponents have promised “going Headless” as the best way of managing content for, well... whatever digital customer touchpoint your organisation desires.

We have previously looked at how SilverStripe works as a Headless CMS, and put down our thoughts on the Future of Content Delivery. This blog post focuses on business-level decision makers and the wider considerations on creating great digital experiences.

TL;DR

  • This is the age of the Content-API. The terms Hybrid Decoupled and Headless are expressions of possible ways to use a CMS in a Content-API driven approach to creating digital experiences.
  • Customer-centred experiences are the future of great digital experiences—Headless and Hybrid CMSs are great facilitating technologies but are only part of the answer.
  • It's important to distinguish the term Hybrid Decoupled from Headless. Decoupling your CMS may be what you really need—it unlocks a multi-channel approach for the future without causing the friction of tackling a potential organisational redesign that a Headless approach may entail.
  • You may need to evolve your current teams/roles or create new ones to reflect the shift in approach when choosing a Headless CMS.
  • There will be a shift in where the expense is when going Headless. You'll need to consider how to get bang for your buck—which channels can your actually afford to continuously improve? Consider starting with a decoupled-capable CMS (like the SilverStripe CMS) and grow your channel strategy from there. You may find going to a fully Headless environment isn’t necessary and success is found by mastering the digital stack based on evolving on what you are already great at.
  • Choosing a Hybrid Decoupled CMS may be a gentler learning curve to growing your organisation's ability to create world-class digital interactions with your customers.
  • When choosing channels, go for the ones you have expertise in delivering and use Headless or Hybrid CMS to unleash them. What you don’t understand, you can’t maximise.
  • Headless means you will need to resolve your approach upfront. It’s a plunge into the deep as opposed to a ladder to a greater vantage point. You need to determine what approach will be most likely to contribute to your organisation’s success.
  • Partner with someone who can design the what picture with you.

What are the differences between CMS solutions?

The Traditional CMS has dominated the web content management space since the early 2000s. A Traditional CMS tightly couples the backend tool used to manage and organise content with how that content is presented to users. With this approach, content presentation is most often managed through pre-defined templates that the Traditional CMS controls. This binds the user experience with the CMS. Websites are by far the most common type of digital output for a Traditional CMS, and typically one CMS instance serves one website.

A Headless CMS describes a content management architecture where the backend system used to author and manage content is completely separated from the frontend presentation. This approach promises maximum freedom in creating user experiences where the content for those experiences is provided as a service managed with structured data and APIs. This approach supports not only websites with unique and complex UX, but also web applications. The highest valued aspect of this architecture is that one Headless CMS can provide the content for any number of digital channels you’re providing to your customers.

The Hybrid Decoupled CMS is a midpoint between the two ends of the spectrum. With a Hybrid Decoupled CMS, you still get the advantages and power-tooling of Traditional CMS while allowing for both CMS managed frontend experiences as well as frontend experiences and content services (via structured data and APIs) that are free from influence by the CMS. You can use this content service to build out any number for digital channels.

As with every latest-and-greatest technology innovation, there’s a bit more to the story beyond first understanding what the term means. If going Headless is the right fit for your content management strategy, there are a few things you need to consider, namely what it will mean for how you run your organisation (and not just how it impacts your technology roadmap).

Is your organisation ready for a Headless CMS?

IT and Marketing leaders know that creating a well-considered technology stack is important. What’s equally as important is to plan for how you harmonise your business rules and organisational design with how you manage the evolution of any new technology you adopt.

The emphasis of a Headless CMS is in API design and management. Another way to think of Headless CMS is as content-API first. Consider APIs as the handshake agreement between technology services. That agreement is a commitment to always act and share information in a predictable way. A Headless CMS operates in an ecosystem with a dependence on a suite of APIs and shared services which can either be owned by your organisation or provided by a third-party.

With this ecosystem of APIs in mind, it's vital for the technology leaders in your organisation to understand the fundamental shift that adopting a Headless CMS involves. Most notably, going headless transfers the development burden of creating and managing effective digital customer experience from what most organisations are traditionally set up for. The majority of effort and expense moves from content design and management to UX design and channel specific solutions along with changing the skillsets required to successfully execute your channel strategies.

The strength of a Headless CMS is based on the strength of the API contracts and the commitment to support these from within the organisation and third-party vendors. Persistent communication and stewardship of those API contracts is paramount to successfully managing the total-cost-ownership burden of a Headless solution. That makes going from a Traditional CMS straight to a Headless architecture as much an organisational change management project as a technology implementation.

Headless is often pitched in the context of the perfect scenario: the clean slate. This approach makes sense as the concept is easier to understand when you don’t have to worry about any commitments to legacy technology or technical debt. Your organisation may not be starting from a clean slate. Most of us don't have the luxury of starting from scratch and we can’t just abandon what we already have in order to pick up the latest thing. You’re likely to already have customers to serve and investments in other initiatives which need to play out.

Traditional CMS

Headless CMS

When a Headless CMS makes sense

When running an organisation, we need an approach that evolves with the constraints of operating in the real world—especially if the new technology requires significant remodelling of how we organise/hire our people in order to realise its benefits.

There are five general scenarios where a pure Headless CMS approach jumps out as a natural candidate.

Scenario One: The new venture

A new venture, most likely something driven by a start-up organisation or skunkworks team. This is the clean slate where there's no legacy to deal with. A core part of the success criteria is world-class true multi-channel digital design and experience. Going Headless here will give you a set of nimble content orchestration tools to build the content services you need. This will allow your designers and frontend developers to shine and focus on creating breathtaking interactions. Content here is just an ingredient in the recipe, delivered, and managed as a consumable service. With Headless, content is not king—contextual experience for your different channels is king!

Scenario Two: The large organisation

A large organisation with numerous, ageing Traditional CMS tools in production. It's common for organisations like this to have half-a-dozen or more different CMS implementations coupled with different content strategies. Organisations in this camp want multi-channel contextual digital experiences to be a core part of their digital strategy. In fact, it will be imperative to those organisations staying competitive in the 21st century, like a telecommunications or media publishing company. These organisations not only have the budget and team sizes; they have the wherewithal to transform their digital strategy and business operation in one great effort.

Scenario Three: The organisation with a strategic agency partner

This full-stack design and development agency can deliver all the necessary services and has the requisite knowledge to design, implement, and run all the required channels. In this situation, while a good organisational fit is important, trust is paramount. The strategic partner has earned the client’s permission to utilise whatever cutting edge approaches that will deliver the specified ROI and customer outcomes.

Scenario Four: The organisation with existing development capability

This organisation has technical capabilityfor example, building and maintaining a bespoke applicationand wants to keep the creation of new (or refreshed) digital channels in-house. A high-calibre development team with experience developing modern software (i.e. UX expertise, accustomed to creating/managing APIs, and developing in JavaScript) could apply those skills to a Headless CMS project.

Scenario Five: The organisation that doesn't need a full-featured CMS

This organisation wants to create its own web app—there will be no website in sight. It’s a case of the organisation needing just enough tooling to create structured content and present that to the application(s) to consume as a service via an API. Using a Headless CMS in this situation will save the development team from having to hand roll a custom approach to content management.

When a Headless CMS isn't the answer

Many of us, however, are somewhere in the middle with our organisations—neither too small, or big enough to fit into any of these situations. So, it begs the question—what's the option the rest of us? How can we get the benefits of the Headless approach, without having to turn our organisation on its head to achieve them?

There is, of course, another option. It lies in the centre of the spectrum between a Headless approach and the Traditional CMS—the Hybrid Decoupled CMS. A Hybrid Decoupled CMS has all the strengths of a Traditional CMS. It combines strong user management, well-structured content management features, and thought-out content management UIs with a progressive approach to using API services to enhance the user interactions you create.

The biggest upside of moving to a Hybrid Decoupled CMS is that it allows you to evolve your technology as your organisation's digital capability matures. With a hybrid approach, you give yourself the time to bring on board different channels at a pace your organisation can successfully coordinate and drive them. An incremental approach with agility at the forefront for both your CMS solution and your teams delivering the digital outcomes you want for your customers.

Hybrid Decoupled CMS

How to make the choice

As with every technology decision, before you jump to choosing a solution, you need to think about the experience you want to create for your customers. What end-to-end business processes do you need to achieve those outcomes? Defining this makes it clearer how different technology options fit (or don’t fit) to the desired outcome. The adage is that the need must drive the technology; not the technology driving the need.

It's no longer enough to just have a nice looking website to grab the attention of our customers. It hasn’t been for some time—we need to create valued customer experiences. Producing great digital experiences is getting more complex, as is providing your customers easy to understand and frictionless experiences where and when they want them.

Here are three questions to help you gauge when going Headless might be right for your organisation.

  1. Is a multi-channel digital experience strategy already at the heart of your organisation?
  2. Does your organisation have the right people to deliver a Headless approach today (or can it afford to hire them)?
  3. Are your organisation's leaders committed to transforming how your organisation works in order to embrace going Headless?

If you answered “yes” to all three questions, Headless is likely the right choice. If not, a hybrid decoupled approach may be the way to go.

SilverStripe is here to help you take the next step

Get in touch with us to talk about what approach to content management is going to help you create the best outcomes for your customers.

About the author
Benn Crawford

Benn has over thirteen years experience in creating engaging products in both the consumer and government spaces. As a Head of Product, his role is to saddle up alongside the world-class talent at SilverStripe and harness their sharp minds, ensuring product vision becomes reality and customers are left wearing a smile.

Benn has a Bachelor of Business Studies from Massey University, is an avid D'Angelo fan, and is on a tireless hunt for the world's best fried chicken. 

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