Yeah, it’s really technology driven, but it’s a real opportunity for everyone in an organization to rethink how they’re creating and using content. – Carrie Hane
The ecosystem for content management and publishing has swiftly become one of the most diverse digital environments in the modern age. Twenty years ago, the overwhelming majority of web traffic was through web pages. This meant that publishing content was something of a monolithic task.
But as physical devices and digital applications have evolved, so too have web pages transitioned from being the world’s standard for digital content into being just one small part of a grand whole. For content publishers, so used to developing work solely for web pages, this evolution birthed a substantial need to diversify their content.
But with traditional content management systems (CMS) designed to publish content on a single, largely universal platform, how can content teams handle the need to improve and adapt? By chopping off the head.
A headless CMS isn’t actually headless. In fact, it has more heads than a traditional CMS.
A traditional CMS has three key layers:
This system was perfectly acceptable when people were publishing content to a single platform (web pages). However, a traditional CMS doesn’t lend itself well to today’s diverse array of publishing platforms—mobile, social, text, voice, chatbots, etc.
A traditional CMS requires authors and developers to work somewhat redundantly. Both groups have to redo each piece of content and tailor it for each platform. Additionally, content authors need to know some degree of web development, and developers need to know some degree of content creation. Both groups involved in publishing content constantly have to dip into each other’s fields to produce a final product.
Now, imagine how many platforms organizations currently publish content to. There is, of course, the classic triumvirate of TV, computer, and phone. But now there are also virtual assistants, smart watches, refrigerators, cars, and an uncountable number of apps.
This is the underlying issue for most traditional CMS offerings: they can’t scale. All that redundant work we previously mentioned? Teams would have to do that work for essentially every form of digital content publishing.
This is why the headless CMS came about. Headless CMSs have an additional application programming interface, or API, layer between the data and rendering layer, which separates the content that the authors produce from the final products that developers publish. This is where the term “headless” comes from: an API “severing” the connections between the repository of content and the rendering layer.
Through an API, a headless CMS actually has multiple heads, each one dedicated to a specific format like web pages, smart watches, Alexa voice ads, etc. By choosing which head you want, authors and developers can select their favorite tools independently of each other to create, format, and publish content how they see fit.
Some companies have opted to graft API into pre-existing CMSs. Typically, this results in a traditional CMS with added functionality that tries to suppress the problems developers and content creators face. However, like all early stages of innovation, these “hybrid” CMSs only touch on the problem rather than solve it entirely.
A truly Headless CMS is designed from the ground up to solve the problems facing modern authors and developers. And the effect these systems have on content quality can be significant.
A headless CMS can play an important role in scaling content operations and improving the consistency of content quality.
The monolithic, traditional CMS is time-consuming to stand up initially, costly to launch and maintain, and difficult to scale. Headless CMSs are typically SaaS or cloud based, which makes them faster and cheaper to launch, more flexible and scalable, and less expensive to maintain.
With a headless CMS, authors and developers can work entirely independently from each other. Authors don’t need to know web development and web developers don’t need to know content creation. By allowing each group to stay within their specialization, they can devote all of their effort and knowledge towards doing what they do best.
An important way that a headless CMS improves content management is by allowing the reuse and retooling of existing content. The additional API layer lets authors reuse content like pictures, taglines, etc. and easily adapt such assets into other formats. So not only can specialists stay specialized, but they also don’t have to redo their work nearly as often.
The reuse, retooling, and remixing of previously used content also promotes consistency in messaging. A Headless CMS helps authors and developers keep brand formats such as tone, imagery, and font uniform to ensure that content accomplishes the desired goals of an organization. And should an organization decide to change a brand format, Headless CMSs make it easy to maintain content to conform to any changes in brand consistency.
A headless CMS can also greatly increase the speed with which teams can publish content. The minimization of redundant work, mentioned previously, not only lets specialists stay specialized, but also lets them work faster. By helping authors and developers work faster, the entire cycle of content production is sped up.
Many headless CMSs also promote continuous integration to prevent merge issues when content is changed from platform to platform. Continuous integration is a highly-effective way to minimize the time developers spend on handling bugs. Continuous integration is an increasingly vital part of content repositories and the feature is quickly becoming a cornerstone of effective headless CMSs.
It’s important to keep in mind that a Headless CMS differs from a hybrid CMS. Hybrid CMSs were one of the first responses to the issues of multi-platform publishing. Typically, a Hybrid CMS has an API layer grafted onto an existing CMS, whereas a truly Headless CMS is purpose-built with an API for handling multi-platform publishing.
Some examples of Headless CMS include:
Headless CMS is an intriguing step in the evolution of content management. Content publishers can enjoy all the benefits of publishing on diverse platforms without the repetition of tailoring each piece to fit each platform. But, as with any content technology, enjoying the benefits still depends on implementing the technology in the right way.
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