Headless CMS: Expectations vs. reality
Make sure that you have a realistic expectation of headless CMS before adopting it for your organization.
A headless CMS separates the content from the presentation, whereas a traditional CMS keeps a close link between the two. With headless you have structured content in a database, which can be displayed at several presentation channels, like a traditional website, a mobile app, and a wearable app. At the same time, developers can work with their favorite front-end frameworks and tools, potentially making everyone in the equation happy.
But, as always, there is a flipside to the coin. Here are some common expectations about headless CMS, and what the actual reality is.
How to choose the right headless CMS:
Headless solves every content management challenge
Expectation: Managing content in an increasingly shattered world of different channels and platforms can give any seasoned marketer a headache. With the advent of headless CMS, many have taken an instant liking to the idea of running a content management system free from the chains of traditional CMS. The headless approach will surely solve most of our current woes, right?
Reality: The purest form of first generation headless CMS is basically an API + a database with structured content—like a list of persons, articles, help texts, FAQs, and so on. Some first generation headless CMSs will aid you in delivering the structured content to different channels, but will not help you with organization, hierarchy, or design. But a next generation headless CMS will! This kind of headless CMS includes the pure core plus added functionality sure to please content editors. So be sure to choose wisely.
Better editorial experience
Expectation: With headless you might expect a cleaner, more lucid, and better arranged editorial experience. The organization of content, and perhaps the user interface with it, is thought to be cleaner as the removal of features makes it feel simpler—giving you a better overview.
Reality: While it is true that a first-gen headless system offers fewer features, more features may have been removed than you expected. This can prove difficult for the following reasons:
- Limited content structure: In a typical first-gen headless CMS, there are no folders and all content is in one place, which can seem confusing and cluttered. There are content types, but no hierarchy out of the box.
- No user rights management: This feature is usually limited or not present, as headless is only a content database with a nice UI.
- No preview: As you don’t work on an actual website, you don’t really know where the content will go or what it will look like before publishing.
- No visual landing page editor: Again, headless is a database, and adjusting the looks and workings of your digital experiences WYSIWYG is simply not possible.
- Few SEO options out-of-the-box. Developers need to implement a majority of the SEO in their front-end framework.
- The developer has to do a lot of custom work, which leads to a longer feedback loop and more cost.
Don’t be put off by this “doom and gloom”, as the market for headless CMS has really changed and matured the last few years! For instance, there is the next generation headless CMS, or hybrid CMS, which incorporates all the benefits, smoothness and lightweight features of a “pure” headless CMS with added functionality, like a visual page editor, tree structure, and in-context preview.
Expectation: One of the strongest selling points of headless CMS is that it will work flawlessly for every marketing channel, including websites, smart phones, wearables, IoT, digital signage, and any other system compatible with an API.
Reality: In the real world, the first generation of headless CMSs are actually not that great for regular websites. If you have simple needs, and are happy with structured data and sending it to different channels in the forms of help texts or databases, you are all set. If you have more complex needs, next-gen headless might be the more fitting solution!
Cheaper than traditional CMS
Expectation: A headless CMS sounds lightweight, and should therefore be more price-efficient than the regular content management systems or marketing suites.
Reality: Cloud-native headless may be cheaper in the beginning, but starts getting expensive as soon as traffic picks up or you have more complex requirements. The price tag is often based on API requests, and developers can inadvertently double the number of requests by coding differently. In reality, popular headless solutions are on price parity with traditional CMSs. Also, don’t forget that you need solutions in addition to the pure database (you have to present your content, right?), and this must be included in the calculation. Therefore it can be more predictable to choose a next-gen headless CMS, as the added features are already included in the package—and some vendors even let you host it yourself instead of in the vendor’s cloud.
Expectation: In headless you get a system stripped down to the core, thus enabling smoother and faster operations. Headless is also highly scalable.
Reality: The performance of a headless solution depends strongly on what your developer has built. A headless solution can just as easily be slower than other CMS types, due to asynchronous downloading. For instance, if your site runs on a headless CMS, the browser must first load front-end code, or the presentation—before loading the content. This could prove a jarring experience. You should sort out if you want to build everything on a server with an instant connection to the headless system, if you want the systems separate, or if you want to opt in for the alternative that support all options—like a next generation headless CMS.
Much faster development
Expectation: A headless CMS is a simple database your developers can access from any channel. The developers can further build solutions using their own frameworks, with no need to relate to a CMS framework. Everything is up to the developer, depending on if you’re building a native app, a rich web application, etc.
Reality: In a lot of cases with first-gen headless, the developer has to do everything him/herself—including building and maintaining a larger code base. Such a headless CMS is only an API, with no method/framework of coding. To create a full website with this approach is difficult, as everyone will do it their own way and hard code functionality that is usually out of the box in a traditional CMS.
Also: A lot of practical stuff must be managed, like URL handling and deep linking. How do developers handle this when they must code everything themselves? What about error handling? First-gen headless actually leads to higher complexity, as you move from one system to two or even three systems, and the systems have to be integrated, synchronized, and managed. Also, changes and validations oscillate back and forth—so what happens to one system when the other system changes, and vice versa?
Again, don’t be scared out of the headless game due to the limitations of the first-gen players. Make sure to thoroughly investigate a broader range, within both “pure” and “hybrid” headless alternatives.
Headless CMS may seem cheap, fast, and easy—and like the obvious choice in a world of 1,000 marketing channels. However, the bottom line is that first generation headless is actually more complex to build and maintain for your developers. Furthermore, such headless is highly limited in functionality for web editors.
You must know what your business needs really are. A pure headless solution is best suited for simple offerings or apps. If websites are central to your business, you should choose a next generation headless CMS—also known as a hybrid CMS.
Next-gen headless is a headless CMS with added functionality. This allows you to “go headless” when need be, and simultaneously lets your web editors run digital experiences with visual and editing tools as usual. Best of both worlds!
First published 23 January 2019, updated 6 July 2022.