headless person in a park
Headless is great and being decoupled is better. But neither option truly benefits the everyday marketer. PHOTO: mendhak

The hype surrounding the cloud-first headless CMS model is, for the most part, justified.

We live in a world where new devices and channels are constantly emerging, so the headless CMS model — which gives developers the freedom to deliver content at will — makes a lot of sense.

Advocates of the headless CMS movement argue the model will also liberate marketers. 

With a headless content management system, they say, marketers won’t be chained down to one CMS and its shortcomings. Instead, marketers can freely hop between front-end technologies whenever they please.

But that supposed freedom doesn’t feel deliberate. 

It feels like the unremarkable by-product of the headless CMS model — a model that never truly sought to help the modern marketer.

The Fragmented Life of a Modern Marketer

Oreo’s retweet-soaked glory during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout is a staunch reminder that speed is a marketer’s most effective weapon.

Among other things, here’s a summary of tasks that the average modern marketer needs to do at speed.

  • Engage with audiences in real-time, across channels
  • Publish blog posts in line with the latest social media trends
  • Design conversion-optimized landing pages
  • Configure website overlays
  • Send out marketing emails
  • Deploy microsites
  • Measure progress

But outside of certain circles within the ECM space, marketers have to rely almost exclusively on external apps and social media platforms to do all the above with any speed. The average CMS, on the other hand, has only ever served to slow marketers down.

To keep on top of those tasks, marketers typically stitch together a range of apps and platforms just to make digital ends meet. Roland Smart said it best in his book, “The Agile Marketer: Turning Customer Experience Into Your Competitive Advantage”:

“Marketers cobble together 'Franken-platforms' that can deliver amazing results, but that are neither elegant nor flexible, that are hard to upgrade, and that take a long time to deliver value. Worse still, all the technology often distracts from the fundamental tasks of connecting with customers in a simple, clear and concise fashion.”

Being Headless Is Not Enough

Sure, the headless CMS model gives freedom to developers, but it’s set to plunge marketers deeper into a state of fragmentation, adding to their “Franken-platform” nightmare.

A headless CMS after all, doesn't just separate content from design, it does away with the latter altogether.

The words of Boris Kraft, co-founder of Magnolia CMS, come to mind:

“A CMS typically provides things like asset management, navigation, security, workflow, access control, caching, categorization and link management to name a few. These and many more are not immediately available with a headless CMS approach.”

Enter the Decoupled CMS Model

To build upon what Boris Kraft’s position, a headless CMS by definition doesn’t come with the front-end trimmings that marketers have become so accustomed to.

Instead, marketers will have to hunt for yet more apps to find the functionality needed to get their content published. Ironically new channels complicate that hunt — the very issue that the headless CMS model was designed to help with.

Those who seek to refute this position typically refer to the decoupled CMS model — a model that bears a similarity to the headless model. The key difference between the two is that a decoupled CMS cares about how content gets published.

Thus, decoupled content management systems often come bundled with templating systems and front-end publishing tools.

Back Where We Started

Tony White, founder of Boston-based Ars Logica, a digital consultancy and advisory firm, recently encapsulated the case for decoupled CMS:

"Decoupled, but optionally headless, platforms offer the most flexibility," White added. "In the end, there will have to be some sort of 'head,' or content will not be visible."

But here’s the problem:

A decoupled CMS may give marketers back their front-end CMS toys, but — absent innovation — that’s all it promises to do. This is the equivalent of sending marketers back to square one, while developers get to thrive in the benefits of headless content delivery.

That sounds like a palatable solution until you realize that square one was actually pretty dire to begin with.

Where Are Marketers Going?

While some content management systems are still boasting about being able to schedule blog posts, other platforms are empowering marketers with speed, ease of use and the ability to do things like deploy optimized landing pages and microsites in minutes.

Standalone campaign management systems like Hubspot Marketing attract most of the limelight, but marketers also favor a range of other, more rarely mentioned apps, to help form those “Franken-platforms” I mentioned earlier.

Instapage

Instapage for example, powers over 1 million landing pages for 250,000 customers — including the likes of Autopilot and Oracle.

When I spoke to Tyson Quick, founder and CEO of Instapage, he was quick to point out why marketers flock to the product:

“Regardless of the company size, Instapage users generally see upwards of a 300% increase in conversion rates above their generic website homepage. These results are achievable thanks to Instapage’s customizability, scalability, and its ability to deliver a more personalized ad to page experience.”

Unbounce

Another name worthy of mention is Unbounce, the landing page and website overlay solution boasting over 14,000 premium users — including KISSmetrics and Hootsuite.

When I asked Jeremy Wallace, CMO at Unbounce, what made the platform so enticing for marketers, he highlighted features that require zero technical ability, like drag-and-drop editing:

"As marketers become savvier about how to create more conversions, they need tools that offer more functionality, support, and customization. While some enterprise-grade CMS and marketing automation tools have built-in landing page builders, Unbounce offers functionalities such as drag and drop editing, dynamic text replacement, integrations with other tools and mobile responsive templates, all of which are becoming critical to a marketer’s success."

Wix, Squarespace

Website builders like Wix and Squarespace also play their part. As website builders, speed and accessibility for non-technical users are part of their ethos — making them perfect solutions for marketers looking to deploy microsites.

Wix alone boasts over 100 million users, while Squarespace is trusted as a blogging solution for brands as large as Lyft.

Flat-File CMS

Finally, flat-file CMS are also heralded by marketers looking to deploy microsites, simply because they’re so darn quick to deploy and easy to manage.

With these numbers and alternative platforms in mind, it’s clear to see that the average CMS isn’t doing enough for the marketing community — forcing them to find comfort elsewhere.

It’s Time to Treat Marketers Right

What does this all mean for CMS vendors planning to travel down the headless route?

Well, it means being headless is great, and being decoupled is better. But neither option truly benefits the everyday marketer.

As marketers brace themselves for Internet of Things devices, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, now is not the time to leave them to build increasingly complicated marketing machines with hundreds of independently moving parts.

On the contrary, it’s time marketers had true freedom — the freedom to seek great marketing tools as a luxury, not as a necessity.

For that to be a reality, CMS vendors need to think about their front-end tools as seriously as they think about their headless futures. Those front-end tools need to survive any headless shifts, and they need to be upgraded in terms of speed, functionality and ease of use.

And of course, they’ll need to be flexible enough to work with the ever-increasing number of emerging channels.

The alternative is to allow this problem to intensify as each channel arrives, further splintering marketing teams, and further swelling those “Franken-platforms” to unsightly sizes.