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When Should You Use a Headless CMS?

Posted by Dennis Egen on Nov 1, 2018 10:59:19 AM
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Content Management Systems provide a marketing or communications team an easy and governable way to quickly manage content on your web properties. However, increasingly, this content needs to be re-used across multiple platforms (websites, blogs, online stores). You need a dependable place to store your content and you need total control over what it looks like and where to put it.

If that’s what you need, then headless CMSs may be worth considering.

But What Is a Headless CMS?

The above experience highlights a major disadvantage of traditional CMS systems. You can create content, edit it, add graphics, and whatever else you may need to do. But traditional systems also tightly couple the presentation of the content with the writing and editing of it.

In the world of Drupal site design, you can go two ways. You can either choose a pre-packaged “theme” for your site, or you can do it yourself from scratch. Drupal themes provide a lot of structure out of the box and drive how a site is structured and displayed. That said, if you have strict brand guidelines or creative constraints, or you just want a pixel perfect, beautiful custom site, a theme is not the way to go. Whichever path you pick, there can still be a steep learning curve in working with the core Drupal theming process. Several questions about style and design will also still need to be answered. What does your landing page look like? Is it one large scrolling page or do you have a menu system? Where are testimonials displayed? What is your main call to action? How do we get the best return from a keyword/SEO perspective?

A headless CMS decouples the presentation logic from the writing and editing of the content. The content is stored in a database and made accessible via an API. The governance and content creation remains with the CMS. For example, you can use the Drupal admin interface to create content and store it in the Drupal database. Once you enable the Drupal JSON API module (which requires minimal configuration), you’ll get access to a REST API that will serve up the content you need when you need it.

The big advantage is that headless CMSs give you complete control of what the content will look like when it’s served up. It also gives you control of where it shows up. You can pull the content into a webpage that you design, a mobile app, an Internet of Things device, or a virtual reality display. Anywhere the content is needed, you can grab it and display it.

When is a headless CMS the right choice?

So everyone should start using headless CMSs immediately, right? Hold on a sec. Every new tech craze sets itself up to be the one and only answer to your problems. But that is not always the case. What technologies you use should depend on what you need.

So here’s a rundown of when a headless CMS makes sense and when it doesn’t.

A headless CMS makes sense when:

  • You need full control of how the content is displayed. You don’t want to be tied down by the UI limitations and front-end content structures of traditional CMSs
  • Your content needs to be displayed using multiple technologies and channels (web, mobile, IoT, smartwatch, etc)
  • You want less startup cost. Many headless CMS vendors offer SaaS solutions so you can get up to speed with minimal investment
  • You already have microservice or SOA architecture. Headless will work nicely in on these environments
  • You need performance. Headless CMSs reduce the overhead of the CMS, which can make pages display faster, leading to better click-through and improved user experience.

A traditional CMS may be better when:

  • You don’t have the development resources to build a different UI for each type of content. You’re 100% on the hook for presentation in a headless CMS.
  • You only plan to be on desktop and mobile. You can simply do things the old fashioned way and share a theme between desktop and mobile.
  • You want a single, simple solution with everything in one place. Introducing services for content will make your systems more complex. If you don’t want the complexity of multiple apps talking to one another, you should use a more traditional CMS.
  • You want built-in formatting. A headless CMS may present formatting challenges since you can’t always preview what content will look like on the page. Therefore, you have to take extra measures to anticipate how things will turn out on the frontend.

Headless CMSs are very useful and are a logical progression in today’s service-driven tech world. Take a look at headless CMSs and see if they’re a good fit for you. If they are, you’ll be able to tap into really powerful technology, taking your content to the next level.

If you’re curious about how headless CMSs work or some vendors to use, here are some more resources:

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