Off with their heads! 3 signs you might need a headless CMS (and 2 reasons to hold back the axe)

Traditional content management system (CMS) architecture has long been part of the industry standard for web development. However, the headless CMS has become increasingly common as business needs and customer expectations become more complex.

Headless person wearing a suit and sitting at a table

What makes a headless CMS different?

In longstanding traditional CMS platforms, like WordPress or Drupal, the content is entangled with the code: All content (images, text, graphics, infographics, etc.), HTML, and CSS are stored in one big bucket that has rules to present those content elements specifically on a website. 

This entanglement makes it difficult for the creative team (designers, writers, marketers, etc.) to go in and update pages without a developer’s help or knowing enough code themselves to make changes without whole-site repercussions. Tasks like reusing content, A/B testing marketing initiatives, or otherwise updating the digital experience present significant barriers without that programming know-how. 

Now, as devices and digital channels have evolved to include more conversational interfaces, mobile apps, and dynamic digital displays, the traditional CMS also hasn’t really kept up with the flexibility that these new channels demand: The same content doesn’t fit or can’t be accessed by the new digital platforms/software because the traditional CMS organizes it in strictly webpage-oriented frameworks.

So, how does going headless solve this problem?

A headless CMS separates where content is presented (the presentation layer or head) from where it’s managed (the backend repository or body: chop, chop 😉). Then, application programming interfaces (APIs) can deliver content housed in the headless CMS to display across any device, website, or mobile/web application. That additional layer - the language-agnostic API layer - provides much-needed flexibility to display or reuse content across all current and future channels.  

This means content can be managed in one place and deployed on any chosen digital channel, making it easier for your creative team to manage and distribute the content independently and for developers to manage the build more efficiently and without workflow interruptions to other team members. Here’s a simple breakdown of just a few of the practical, noticeable differences:

table showing the differences between a traditional and headless CMS

3 signs a headless CMS might be right for your business

There are probably a few more signs, but these three reasons often indicate that it’s time to think about going headless. 

1. You already use more than one CMS

Are you cutting and pasting content between multiple CMSes? Or are you trying to create multiple types of the same content so it fits in each different CMS? Not only is this inefficient, but it leaves your marketing team wide open to inconsistencies and errors in the messaging. A single headless CMS can consolidate your content creation across all of those CMSes, saving valuable time and resources while ensuring that the content is consistent, correct, and complete across channels. 

2. It’s getting progressively tougher to find the developers you need

When your CMS requires a specific programming language to maintain and has to be maintained by someone who can code, it limits your talent pool when hiring developers. Not every developer knows every language, and many may now view CMS maintenance as “grunt work” or at least very tedious. And if your creative team also has to wait for a developer to edit or create content, they might be waiting for a long time in this case! 

A headless CMS allows developers to work in their preferred programming languages, which broadens your hiring pool and improves their job satisfaction. It also empowers your creative team to make changes without always relying on a developer, which may improve their job satisfaction, too.  

3. Your CMS no longer serves your needs, or it even causes delays

If you feel like your most sparkly and innovative content ideas are limited by the rigid boxes characteristic of a traditional CMS, then it might be time to try headless. Suppose you find your creative team doing a lot of manual work to compensate for the CMS’s shortcomings, creating workarounds, and spending time and energy toward the practical execution of creative work. In that case, it’s worth considering a headless CMS.  

Similarly, if your content operations take more time or resources than expected to deliver a competitive product, it’s worth exploring how a headless CMS might streamline processes to get products on the market faster. 

Slow down on the guillotine there: 2 times to reconsider beheading your CMS

We aren’t in the business of selling products or features that businesses don’t need, so let’s also explore a couple of reasons you may not want or need to separate your content repository from its presentation layer. 

1. You don’t have the resources to maintain it

Our first example is for small businesses that don’t employ a whole digital team (yet). A headless CMS requires technical proficiency and the capacity to maintain the presentation layer, which not every small business has (again, yet). So, if you don’t feel like you can confidently maintain and connect all three layers, then a traditional CMS might still be a better choice for your business. 

2. Change is prohibitively hard in your organization

On the opposite end of the spectrum, for large enterprises operating on established legacy software, changing from a traditional to a headless CMS often presents similar migration and process challenges to those seen when migrating from on-premise to cloud-based servers. 

This type of change requires buy-in and changes for many people, processes, and technologies, which isn’t always the easiest or best thing to do in large organizations. Sometimes, it might be better for your digital team to pilot a headless CMS in parallel with your existing CMS as a proof-of-concept before making the jump, and other times, it might just be prudent to wait for better timing. 

Not sure whether headless is right for your company’s CMS?

That’s all right! Helping businesses of all sizes, types, and industries find the best solutions is one of our specialties. Feel free to check out our work with other clients and reach out for help with any of your CMS or other technology needs.