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Headless CMS: Expectations vs. reality

Vegard Ottervig on

Rather than being an aid, headless CMS can chop off the head of your digital experiences and leave your marketing in shambles. Be sure to have a realistic expectation of the technology before you decide to use it.

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.

Here are some common expectations about headless CMS, and what the actual reality is.

Everything you need to know about headless CMS:

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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: Without getting too technical, a headless CMS might not be the unconditional marketer’s paradise some think it is. In the purest form of headless, only simple uses cases are solved. A headless CMS is basically a database with structured content—like a list of persons, articles, help texts, FAQs, and so on. Headless will aid you in delivering the same chosen content to different channels, but it will not help you with organisation, hierarchy, or design.

Better editorial experience

Expectation: With headless you might expect a cleaner, more lucid, and better arranged editorial experience. The organisation 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 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 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. The addition of a folder structure from developers swiftly complicates matters in the headless world.

  • 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 landing page editor: Again, headless is a database, and adjusting the looks and workings of your digital experiences is simply not possible.

  • No visual editing/WYSIWYG: The same point applies here. You can however work in HTML, but don’t see the finished page.

  • Few SEO options

  • The developer has to do a lot of custom work, which leads to a longer feedback loop.

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Omnichannel-ready

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, a headless CMS is 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, headless might not be the most 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: Headless can be cheaper in the beginning, but start to get expensive as soon as traffic picks up. The price tag is often based on requests, and developers can inadvertently double the number of request 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.

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Better performance

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 easy 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 another alternative.

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, the developer has to do everything him/herself—including building and maintaining a larger code base. 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 for a complete 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? 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, synchronised, and managed. Also, changes and validations oscillate back and forth—so what happens to one system when the other system changes, and vice versa?

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Bottom line

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 headess is actually more complex to build and maintain for your developers. Furthermore, headless is 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 shouldn’t choose headless.

A viable alternative is a hybrid CMS. This is a platform that combines a traditional CMS with a headless CMS—allowing you to “go headless” when need be, and simultaneously letting your web editors run digital experiences with visual tools and editors as usual.

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Frequently asked questions

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS separates the content layer from the presentation layer, allowing editors to create content to be sent to multiple channels via APIs.

How does a headless CMS work?

An editor adds content in forms to a database, which then uses APIs to deliver the content to a limitless range of digital channels.

What is the difference between headless and traditional CMS?

A traditional CMS keeps a close link between content and presentation, while headless cuts this tie.

What are the use cases of a headless CMS?

Omnichannel presence in websites, apps, wearables, etc. require content to be free of locked presentation/design.

Topics: 
headless cms
hybrid cms
decoupled cms
cms
omnichannel