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9 Challenges of Scaling a Headless CMS

6 minute read
Boris Kraft avatar

You’ve fallen in love with the speed and agility of headless. You have a pure headless CMS without the delivery tier, which means the content you manage in the CMS is rendered on another system. 

Hurray! You’ve escaped being tied to the predefined structure of a traditional CMS and achieved a true separation of content and presentation.

You revel in the joy of more freedom. Headless has given your business — a fine food and dining site — a new lightness and power. 

You can serve structured content to existing end points quickly and support delivery formats from mobile or web-based apps to TV. You can deliver content to any format you want via a content API. Your front-end developers can use frameworks like Angular and React.

Scaling a Headless CMS: 9 Challenges

But the magic is starting to wear off. You can do everything you want, but you also have to write, debug and maintain it all on your own. Your business is growing.

Headless is great for your aesthetic and creative needs, but now you want to make the whole process more scalable and sustainable. Perhaps what you really want is the best of both worlds: let’s call it hybrid headless, where your CMS offers full functionality and lets you hack and replace every building block in the system with your preferred alternative if you want to. 

Here are nine challenges to address when moving your pure headless CMS to the next level.

1. Manage Your Assets

Your site lives on rich digital assets: images of foodstuffs, ingredients, inviting dishes and gourmet restaurants, videos of star cooks in action and recipe how-tos. It’s not just about storing images and videos and rendering them. 

You need to think about different versions of each to match your channels: “Now I have a high-res shot of red peppers, but where’s the low-res version?” or “Here’s that video of the restaurant tester undercover, wait a minute, that’s just the short teaser.” 

2. Map Out Navigation

You can embed the navigation in web-based apps, but if you want to churn out beautiful and content-rich sites, you need solid navigation and good page structure.

Oops, now you do need to think about creating the experience and assembling the content à la carte. And you’re starting a series of regional events and need vanity URLs around the words “cook-in” or “indulge.” Do you really want to be hand-coding and mapping?

3. Define Access Control and Security Levels

Content wants to be free, you thought, but now you’re introducing premium services and can’t give everyone the same access. How would you secure your content in a headless approach and how could you ensure that the main configuration is compliant and efficient?

4. Create a Logical Workflow

You deal with bloggers, vloggers and freelance writers, plus your users generate their own content. Is it a free-for-all, pie-in-the-face fight or do you need to keep an eye on the publication process to keep the tone in check? 

You wouldn’t want a blogger to simply publish a scathing review of that Gault Millau restaurant that’s sponsoring your next promotion, would you? Can you even build a simple “notify, approve, go live” chain into your setup?

5. Keep on Top of Versioning

As your content grows, you realize it’s more than just creating pieces of content, but increasingly about constant updates and cat-herding multiple authors and multiple channels. Track and trace, timing the publication of campaigns and teasers, versioning: all of this is very difficult to do with a pure headless CMS.

6. Handle Translations

Any business that has faced the challenge of operating globally yet locally knows what a mess translations can be. You need good tools to manage this well. And you need to be able to serve the translated content accordingly. Can you integrate tools and processes easily into your CMS?

7. Categorize and Tag

Content drives your site, so you want to be able to manage this efficiently, to categorize and tag. You’ll also need these tags for tracking, testing and measuring. Are you going to go mad simply tagging and categorizing content on your site?

Learning Opportunities

8. Write a Personalization Engine

Your users expect personalized content. Are you up for rewriting a full personalization content engine with traits, variants and all? Wait, don’t stop there. Because before long, you’ll want to connect your CRM, marketing automation and analytics tools as well.

9. Design the Author Experience

Writing content in a headless CMS is a bit like working with a black box. Authors feed in content, the system picks up the data sets and displays them in different formats. 

Say goodbye to WYSIWYG. There is no editor interface, no preview function, no way of seeing what your pages look like in different channels. Headless is a super fast way to get out structured content, but you won’t get the reassuring experience of seeing your content in context and assembling the building blocks.

Headless Has Its Time and Place

Though I’ve listed nine challenges to tackle when taking pure headless to hybrid, it sometimes seems like 99 in real life. 

If you go for a pure headless CMS, you’ll often find yourself rebuilding all those functionalities that you initially threw out in the rush for speed and agility. It’s not impossible to build extra capabilities and connect the best tools if you find the right partners. I’ve seen lots of projects done where these pain points were solved for customers in headless scenarios, long before the word became fashionable.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against headless. You just have to be aware of its drawbacks. Headless is a great solution for specific use cases, but it is not a platform for your entire business ecosystem. 

Use it for microservices involving cross-functional teams, app-based projects that are part of your digital transformation, or to link up to front-end legacy systems that you can’t live without.

Flexibility and Extensibility Win the Day

One way out of the tangle is to use the headless backend as another data store for your enterprise-grade web CMS. This of course means you would only be using the data storage part — using the headless APIs to access that back-end storage, but then using your web-based CMS as the delivery layer (and all its functionalities). 

An extra bonus: fewer of those costly API calls.

Another option: If the headless CMS has an API to write content, you could use your web CMS as the author interface and still store the data in headless (and in turn still use the headless APIs for public consumption).

There are many ways to skin a cat. Use what makes sense to you. Make the most of the tools you have. Just be sure you have enough flexibility and extensibility to replace whichever building blocks you wish to when you need to, and gradually scale to the best fit.

About the author

Boris Kraft

Boris Kraft has been creating and selling software since the age of 16. He is the co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Magnolia International, a Swiss-based open source CMS vendor.