Headless CMS

Putting Your Content First

The concept of the traditional Content Management System (CMS) system has been around for well over 20 years. The Internet has changed a lot in that time.
  • Headless CMS
11 minute read

Introduction

In the early 1990s when IBM developed FileNet, often regarded as the first real CMS, the Internet was a very different place. Websites were a novelty and not much more than simple brochures or information sharing platforms. Today, we are operating in a world where every company is a digital company, and our digital presence is often the primary touch-point with customers. That “digital presence” needs to be viewed as a much more significant ecosystem than just a website.

A digital presence now includes many potential channels:

  • Website
  • Voice Activated Technologies
  • Mobile Applications
  • Blog
  • Print media
  • Chat-bots
  • Wearables
  • Micro-sites
  • Email
  • Social

In today’s highly digital marketplace, your audience expects a cohesive and engaging brand experience in the setting (digital, print, or physical), and the time, of their choosing. Bottom line, the essence of omnichannel is that if you aren’t providing a user what they want, someone else will. This is an area where the traditional Web Content Management System (WCMS) creates roadblocks.

The real crux of the emerging Headless CMS trend is the delivery of exceptional value with multi-faceted distribution. Today’s digital world requires that content is viewed holistically, as a specific standalone asset that can be deployed through multiple channels. This distribution is where the promise of Headless CMS comes into reality and becomes exceptionally valuable. Content, well distributed, has more impact than the sum of its parts.

“Omni-channel experience is a multi-channel approach to marketing, selling and serving customers in a way that creates an integrated and cohesive customer experience no matter how or where a customer reaches out.” - Hubspot

The top 5 reasons that you should be using a Headless CMS

There are many reasons that we believe you should seriously consider a headless (also referred to as API-First) CMS solution. However, in this paper we are going to focus on the five most significant benefits of employing a headless solution:

  1. One Voice - Web infrastructures are getting more and more distributed; which is causing content to be created and stored in many locations. But by putting your content first in a separated system, you can ensure re-usability, consistent brand messaging, and improved overall efficiency.
  2. Content First - Your content is an asset that your organization needs to maximize to its full potential. Building on a platform dedicated to making content a primary focus instead of a slave to the presentation model (i.e., website) will reap huge rewards in the long term.
  3. Increased Flexibility - Stop accepting “we can’t do that”! Often the restrictions that lead to this answer originate from the CMS platform. By separating content storage and creation from its usage, you gain the tremendous flexibility to do what you need, fast.
  4. “Shorten time to market” - The typical web project puts content creation at the end. Leveraging a headless CMS means that your content team and technical team can work in parallel and reduce your overall project timeline.
  5. Content Repository Model - Part of acting as the central repository for your content means that the system can easily handle receiving data as well as distributing it. Acting as a repository makes it ideal for taking data from many enterprise systems and centralizing it as content in one place.

“The Web as we know it is transforming in front of out eyes - it’s no longer web content alone.” - Kentico

While we definitely believe that all of these points are things that should be seriously considered, if there is a single concept that defines Headless CMS it is most certainly the fifth point, the Content Repository Model. It truly defines the essence and value proposition of the Headless CMS system. If you get through nothing else, make sure to read that section thoroughly.

One Voice: Use a headless CMS to unify content and message distribution

The reality is that the traditional content management system isn’t focused on managing content. It focuses on merely managing websites. In the modern web, the conventional website is just one aspect of your digital presence, and in many scenarios, other delivery channels are gaining greater importance. We find that in the interest of creating better connections and positive user experiences, content delivery is increasingly shifting to the latest mediums. It’s crucial that customers receive the same message and brand identity whether they interact with your website, your social media network, a chat-bot answers question, or by talking to Amazon Alexa.

As we have progressed into a space where all companies must have a strong digital presence to compete, it’s no longer sufficient to have content be in the sole domain of a marketing team or copy-writer. Those teams need to maintain responsibility for coordinating and guiding content creation, but it is becoming increasingly necessary for content to be aggregated from multiple sources and distributed through various workflows.

All of this means that our platforms for collecting and distributing content must change. Tools need to be more straightforward to be usable without web expertise, and at the same time, they need to be more flexible to fulfill your digital vision. Once content is placed on your platform, the platform needs to be capable of distributing it seamlessly throughout a large number of potential channels, consistently and on demand.

The need for the industry to change is what has driven the “headless” progression of the latest content management systems. By leveraging such a system, you ultimately achieve a much higher degree of flexibility in both how you collect content, as well as how you distribute it.

Content First: Make sure your content, not your system, is the brightest star

Over the last several years, we have been re-evaluating the flow of traditional website implementations. What have formed is that in many cases the process needs to go back to the drawing board. The typical project flow starts with user experience engineering (wire-frames, click-able prototypes, etc.), proceeds to visual design, continues with a platform implementation, and concludes with content population and launch. It is what we are all used to, and it has worked for years, but as technology evolves, so should our workflows.

What if we were to challenge the status quo? After all, we find that most organizations invest much more time, money, and resources into their content creation than any other aspect of their digital presence. We often look at this content creation effort as part of the expense of the project at hand. However, what if we turned that around and viewed content as an asset? Although the following thought process is certainly not viable accounting advice, we do find the concept intriguing. The IFRS (the International Financial Reporting Standards) defines an asset as:

 Asset: A resource controlled by the enterprise as a result of past events and from which future economic benefits are expected to flow to the enterprise.

Based on this definition, we can conclude that:

  • Content is certainly a resource controlled by the enterprise.
  • It is entirely the result of past events.
  • If utilized correctly it will result in future economic benefits.

Thus stated, content is most certainly an asset. Again, please keep in mind that we aren’t advocating changing your balance sheet to reflect this, although some organizations have begun doing exactly that. We are strategists, design enthusiasts, and technologists. This determination is best left for the accountants. However, we do think that perhaps it gives some food for thought on how the content creation process should be approached.

How would it change our behaviors if we genuinely viewed content as a concrete asset? Most importantly we’d think harder about how to maximize the value of our content. With that objective in mind, the best way to maximize the value of our content is to ensure that we can use our assets in as many ways as possible.

 51% of smartphones users have discovered a new product of service when conducting a search on their smartphone - Google

Enter the concept of DRY content. No, we don’t mean mind-numbingly dull content. We are referring to: “Don’t Repeat Yourself.” To accomplish this, you create the content precisely one time for use everywhere. Even more specifically, you enable the subject matter experts within your organization to create content just one time. Over time, this will save a lot of labor hours within your organization, and perhaps more importantly, it can ensure that you deliver a consistent message no matter how you engage your audience.

If properly engineered, that piece of content can then be displayed as a web page, a blog post, targeted landing pages, email campaigns, social media posts, and media; any possible embodiment of the message.

Of course, accomplishing this requires a well-planned content structure, which is precisely what many of the emerging headless CMS options support exceptionally well. These content first systems allow us to firmly define the desired content structure and then provide that well-defined piece of content to any number of distribution channels.

By thinking about our content first and our distribution methods second (including the primary website property itself), we will be able to extract the maximum value out of our content assets. The key is to ensure that our content is always “in motion,” always flowing between our organization and the targeted audience. This maximizes our “impressions per content item” and ensures that we reduce redundancy and friction in the system while increasing consistency and connections. All of this ends up translating to a much higher ROI on our precious content assets.

Increased Flexibility: Don’t let the tools limit your imagination

We’ve all been there. Your creative team has come up with an impressive new idea to get your organization’s message out to the world. Everyone is excited, and you just know that it’s going to be a game changer. But then the bad news strikes - “We can’t do that because....”, and almost inevitably that reason has something to do with the platform and tools that are being used. What if your answer could be just to pick a different set of tools that can enable your great new idea? In the traditional model, this can be so cumbersome that it becomes infeasible, or potentially downright impossible. But that is where the headless CMS concept can shine.

 Companies that transform operations to deliver high-value, personalized experiences will drive a wedge between themselves and laggards just executing CX tactics - Forrester

A true Headless CMS must be based on an API first model. Meaning that all content is made available to all authorized systems by a platform agnostic set of API methods. This means that it doesn’t matter if your consuming application is an iPhone App built with Swift, a .NET application hosted in Azure, a Node.JS Module running in AWS, or any other combination of technology. It only matters that the tools can leverage a set of standardized web-based communication protocols to retrieve the data.

This flexibility indeed frees your organization to maximize your content deployment and ensure that you can achieve all your objectives, without your technology getting in the way. We believe that technology should always be an enabling tool, not a stumbling block, which is a big part of the reason why we have become huge proponents of the headless CMS concept.

As an additional benefit, using a cloud-based headless CMS system can allow you to ditch the traditional server infrastructure. By leveraging a 100% cloud-based model, you can free up hundreds of hours per year that has typically been spent maintaining the CMS system and instead use that time to deliver high value and ensure that your projects are successful. We can abandon the inefficiencies of installations, configuration, security patches, hotfixes, and the like. Nearly all of your effort is spent doing the things that matter.

Shortened time to market: Don’t waste time on the platform, get there faster

The bottom line is that a significant factor in the impact your digital marketing project can have is centered around how quickly you can get it out to the world. The sooner you can get your investment generating ROI, the better. Frequently we all find digital projects lagging in time because of limitations and overhead in the platform and execution process. The premise of the headless CMS concept enables projects to be delivered more quickly.

The first and most notable impact on the project execution timeline is that you can streamline your project by running the design/build and content population phases of the project in parallel. Since often the content population rivals, or even exceeds, the actual build time requirements, representing the most substantial overall commitment of time and resources, this dramatically reduces projects timelines by as much as 50%. This usually isn’t possible in the traditional WCMS (web content management system) scenario, because the system must be built before it can be used by the content creators. However, in the Headless CMS Model, all that we require getting started on content population is an agreement between the content creators and the implementation team on what the structure of the content is.

 Atomic content and personalization is only possible if we, marketers, shift our mindsets, build some new skills; and use the tools available to us to attend to the care and feeding of our content library. - Gartner

In addition to the advantages in regard to the project life-cycle, there are plenty of benefits to be gained in the infrastructure timing as well. We can significantly reduce the burden of tasks to initiate, configure and operate a platform-based approach. Because of the cloud-friendly nature of the Headless model, the project team can provision cloud services quickly and inexpensively to serve the project, spending valuable time and budget on providing high-value output.

Lastly, you are no longer strictly bound by the technical constraints of a platform. Because we are operating in a services-based manner, we can be technology agnostic and choose a toolset and development methodology that best suits our business model. We can engage our audience with a toolset that directly fits the purpose and direction of the business objectives. This freedom can net considerable gains in development effectiveness by genuinely allowing for the “right tool for the job” approach.

 Only 30% of B2B marketers say their organizations are effective at content marketing" - Content Marketing Institute

All of this leads to a compression of your project timeline. Even with an accelerated schedule, there is more time allotted for ensuring that the content creation is done right. All of this contributes significantly to the goal of putting your content, and ultimately your connection to your audience, in the appropriate place as the number one priority of the project.

Content Repository Model: Control your flow of content

'Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department' - David Packard

This last section is probably the most powerful reason to consider leveraging the Headless CMS concept within your organization. It comes down to the definition of the tools being used. Sure we’ve given it fancy names like “Headless CMS,” or “API First CMS,” but perhaps a more apt term would be “Content Repository.” Throughout this paper, we’ve discussed the various advantages of using the system to collect and distribute content, but we’ve primarily considered this in the light of content being created by users. There is real power to be unlocked when we take this concept to the next logical conclusion and leverage the tool to receive content from different sources throughout your organization.

We believe that this is where the concept gets truly exciting. It opens up possibilities like aggregating changes to product descriptions from your ERP and having the changes consistently display across your entire web presence; be it a website, media post or mobile app. We can use a knowledge-base article from your customer support system and have it cohesively present on your site FAQ, an Alexa skill, or a chat-bot.

 Every company is a technology company, no matter what product or service it provides. - Forbes

This potential for multiple sources of content and distribution endpoints also works in reverse. It allows you to meet your content authors where they are.

  • A customer service team that does all their work in Zendesk (or a similar support management system)? No problem, just integrate the tools to receive their content into the central content repository.
  • A product development team that maintains detailed product specs in the ERP? Again, no problem.
  • A member community creating collaborative content in Higher Logic? Easily handled.
  • A division/department maintaining content documents in SharePoint? Let’s integrate it.
  • Are five partners publishing content through their own CMS? Let’s grab that too.
  • Is your Marketing Team publishing landing pages on HubSpot? Check.
  • Is excellent content hidden away in the CRM? Let’s pull that over.

The chances are that no matter what the purpose and focus of your organization, you have a vast number of subject matter experts. In fact, every member of your organization is a subject matter expert in something. That is a robust workforce that is going mostly untapped in the mission to create the most compelling and engaging content. By implementing a tool that allows you to meet them where they are and leverage the natural work products of their existing job functions, you unlock a substantial wealth of potential content.

The logical question is why? Why would you centralize this when you could just create seemingly similar integrations to send the content directly from the source system to the destination channel? We believe there are four very compelling answers to this question:

Build one destination integration

No matter how many sources of content you have, you will only need to build a single connector to your destination. This limits your time investment as well as your potential for bugs, and maintenance overhead.

Control work-flow

These systems can be configured to trigger workflows that allow for imported content to be reviewed by appropriate gatekeepers, before being released to content distribution channels. This can be well advised for brand identity reasons, but can also be crucial for organizations with compliance, security, and liability concerns.

Firewall

The term is not being used in the traditional network security sense here, but the concept is similar. We want to distribute our content far and wide, but we don’t want to allow all these systems access to our internal business systems. A central repository model provides for access to only processed, publicly distributable content items. This is a huge security advantage for these scenarios.

Stability/Performance

If you’ve published a chat-bot to assist your customers 24/7, you don’t want to break that promise because the ERP system is undergoing maintenance. The FAQ on your website shouldn’t break because your customer service tool is experiencing service disruption. The scenarios are endless, and the punchline is always the same. We must insulate our distribution channels from service disruptions from all other systems that have different maintenance and uptime standards. The central repository accomplishes this by acting as persistent content storage between the various systems.

Conclusion: Integrate a Headless CMS system into your digital strategy

We’ve outlined what makes the emerging Headless CMS concept a very compelling option for consideration. But, the logical question is “what’s next?” The great news is that these systems don’t need to replace anything within your existing infrastructure. The Headless concept lends itself well to being integrated into an in place digital ecosystem. With the very low barrier to entry and high ROI potential, why wouldn’t you consider adding one to your next digital engagement?

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