We've written many posts on Headless CMS platforms over the past couple of years. As the concept has gained traction, we get asked more and more about how these systems work and if they could be a good fit for customers. While headless architecture is viable and beneficial for many use cases, it does not apply, sadly, to every possible CMS scenario. This week, we want to look specifically from a marketer's eyes, someone charged with utilizing their web presence for growing the scale of a business, and whether headless systems are a good fit for their workflows.
First, I want to reiterate our position on headless systems. I feel they perform some functions particularly well. They are dependable content-first systems, and as such, the ability for content editors to define content types and control their content cleanly is one of the things headless does very well. Content administrators that rely on clean content management with distribution to multiple channels (web, mobile, set-top box, etc.) will benefit significantly from such a platform. However, for almost all cases that involve marketers, this is not the general use-case they are seeking a solution for.
Headless for Marketers: A No-Go
What are some of the negative factors that lead us almost never to recommend a marketer go headless? In no particular order, here are a few areas we'd point potential headless users to consider:
Reliance on Development or developers
Headless is what it sounds like. The "head" of the CMS with no other functionality, or for the layman, the administrative panel. Whereas WordPress or Drupal feature template-engines to render content which are tied closely to the admin area, headless systems have no such capability. As such, you will rely on developers not only to implement design into a platform but also to write the actual methodology to grab the content from the CMS and then unite it with a designed interface.
Let me expand on this for just a second. Headless CMS allows you to manage content, and then make it available via APIs, or programming interfaces. This means the clean content is published in XML, JSON, or whatever format, and then it is up to you what you do with it. Developers will have to grab that content and then figure out how to implement it with an already coded design. Some developers utilize static-site generators, an excellent solution (more on that later), but this is in no way an easy or quick task. It would help if you had full-stack development support, which is expensive, time-consuming and will require ongoing support as you add pages or other functionality.
Marketers shouldn't feel a need to have a full-time technical team ready to help them perform the tasks other CMS platforms make available. Because of this, reliance on developers is the number one negative to a headless solution.
Headless systems have what I'd call "fragmented" functionality, in that they do some things but leave out large sections of standard requirements, allowing technical personnel to fill those gaps in other ways. Sometimes, this is fine. However, for marketers, it's a non-starter. For the most part, marketers are concerned about a few common things: content management, martech integrations, analytics, and security/scalability. Headless systems provide just one of these off-the-shelf. I'd argue in the case of content management that marketers are less interested in strict content definitions but rather interested in how they can affect the look and feel of their content via modular tools or similar. In that case, headless falls short again.
With so little solved out of the box and the reliance on patching pieces of systems together, it isn't feasible that a marketer can rely on a headless CMS to carry their day-to-day operations with the flexibility required.
I don't think that most marketers are against licensing a CMS platform, provided it shows value. But, the leading headless providers have two problems going for them in this regard. First, they are expensive, with some in the thousands of dollars per month. And secondly, the customer still must handle so much themselves to make the solution into a final deliverable. That adds up to a non-starter for a marketer.
Some new headless systems are nearly equivalent in price to the monolithic systems that have every feature a marketer requires. Yet, when you do the math, you are looking at substantial ongoing development costs to keep a headless system up-to-date with content changes (pages, new site sections, etc.) that other CMS platforms are built to handle with ease. As such, the math doesn't add up for a marketer who can better allocate those funds to other parts of their marketing stack.
Longer Work Cycles
As mentioned above, you need ongoing development help. This means that spinning out new functionality, pages, features, or similar will take time as you will have a longer work cycle to produce those deliverables.
Let's say, as a marketer, you wanted to spin out a new landing page with a form to handle signups for a new event. With a CMS system (and they can mostly all do this), you can either clone an old landing page, or modularly create a new one and embed your form. However with headless, because nothing on your page is structured content but rather just some creative markup, you will need to have your developer involved to do all of that work for you. Unless you are the developer yourself, you have one on staff, or your product team or similar is available to do this on a moment's notice… You've just entered into a production work cycle for something that should take you less than an hour to do yourself.
This cycle will carry over to any quasi-structural change you want to make. Navigation changes, any new pages or site sections, reordering components on pages – all of the tweaks that marketers do daily in response to changes in business requirements or analytics – will take longer as a technical person will need to guide you through the process. This isn't agile or nimble enough for the modern marketing staffer.
When to Consider?
So, I know we've picked on headless quite a bit. Surely, there must be one or two instances where it makes sense, even for a marketing team, right?
Yes, there are three scenarios I can think of where I really like the headless concept. The first would be security. Because one standard implementation methodology is to utilize headless for content management and then publish a static site, these solutions are inherently quite secure. So if an enterprise has strict security standards and wants to be nearly as safe as possible hosting a website, headless is a very good option.
Another is high-scaling, intensely trafficked properties. If you have to scale a site or microsite massively, the above static scenario is perfect because, for the most part, you could host on a simple CDN, which would scale quickly and cost-effectively. So this is another possible use-case for headless.
Finally, if your website focuses heavily on structured content that needs to be shared across channels, headless makes sense. This usually applies better to publications and other types of properties, but we do see it in the marketing world as well. If that's you, then headless definitely can be considered.
Outside of these scenarios – marketers should take pause and question whether they are being influenced by hype.
Headless is a tool, and tools are meant to do specific tasks. The cliché about everything looking like a nail when you have a hammer applies to technology too. The issue I've had with headless over the years is the vendors trying to apply it to so many scenarios when it's a niche tool. The idea of a SaaS-based CMS is fine, but it can't do everything. Marketers are definitely on the outskirts of possible use-cases for these systems, and as such, they should carefully consider the pros and cons before deciding to rely on them for their ongoing efforts.