a series of statues without heads
There's more than one way to approach the headless CMS debate PHOTO: lgbsneak

It’s easy to get tumbled in a hype wave. It’s a little harder to develop immunity to hype, and separate grains from husk. 

So let’s set the hype surrounding headless versus head optional content management systems (CMS) aside and look at reasonable use cases and applications for both.

When the Headless Hype Goes Away, Which Wave Will You Ride?

The reason so many companies are falling victims to the headless debate is simple: what brands really want is flexibility. 

Monolithic architectures no longer serve the purpose of experience management. Cumbersome and expensive to deploy experience management solutions force IT to look at the headless approach that, in theory, should allow them to minimize cost of development, infrastructure, maintenance, scalability and training.

But headless isn't the only way to achieve those objectives. Next time you decide to go headless only, put your heads (pun fully intended) together and consider all possible scenarios.

As Mick MacComascaigh, Gartner research vice president and co-author of its WCM Magic Quadrant, comments on the latest industry trends in the 2017 Web Content Management Magic Quadrant, a CMS that focuses solely on the back-end work and delivers content via an API (a.k.a. “headless”) is "hype," and "head optional" works better.

I agree. While some CMSs can do both decoupled and headless, I think head-optional capabilities — or as we call it Experience as a Service (EaaS) — in the end, wins.

Defining Content as a Service (a.k.a. Headless)

There are multiple (and often conflicting) definitions of Content as a Service (CaaS). In the context of the headless CMS conversation, let’s define it as an API-only, programmatic way of accessing content from a content repository with an intention of distributing it to various channels in an automated fashion. 

Marketing and business users can create and store the content in the management interface of a CMS, but do not have the design interface that allows them to control the presentation of the content. The raw content they create is being accessed as a service, with the APIs pulling it into a variety of custom developed displays. 

This approach is great for reusing content across touchpoints such as mobile apps, self-service applications, kiosk and IoT devices. But removing the design interface completely — going fully headless — takes away the flexibility that marketing needs to control the overall experience.

Even those caught up in the headless hype wave realize many of the tradeoffs and challenges with headless-only approach. Marketers are not entirely happy that they lose content composition, preview and delivery management capabilities that were “theirs” for many years. IT is challenged with scaling their headless environments and making sure they set themselves up for long-term success, beyond the next wave of hype that comes and goes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Defining Experience as a Service (a.k.a. Head-Optional)

As brands continue to compete on the basis of customer experience, it is imperative to look beyond just content delivery in a headless way and rise above the hype clouds to consider a more holistic approach to how you create, manage and deliver experiences to your customers.

This is when a head-optional Experience as a Service is a far more flexible approach, not API-only, but API-first. Not static, but a highly dynamic experience for your audiences. Customers are consuming content across multiple touchpoints and some of these your technical teams will control, especially when it comes to IoT innovations, and other touchpoints your marketing team will want to keep control of, such as the main desktop and mobile site. 

EaaS structure gives both teams the control they need. Developers can deploy content as a service through REST APIs to quickly adapt to new touchpoints, and marketers can reuse this same content, along with reusable experience components and a native user interface, to decide how it is displayed on the channels they manage, giving both teams extreme flexibility and control. 

With EaaS, not only do both sides remain in control of their respective channels, but the same content — and the data attached to that content — can be reused across every touchpoint. This cross channel content re-use opens the doors to implement consistent personalization across the entire experience. Data can be collected across every touchpoint, consolidated and used to power server-side personalization that can push the relevant content to any channel.

It's not about static delivery (request resource via API, get same resource for all audiences), but about personalized delivery (request resource via API, determine the context, get any variant of any resources mapped to individual user that can be tested to drive specific outcomes). 

Personalization capabilities often get lost in a headless approach due to the technical limitations, but if your brand is expected to compete primarily on the basis of customer experience, as the majority of brands do globally, you cannot afford to lose a single bit of personalization magic.

Headless CMS Limitations

Headless/CaaS hits limitations in this area pretty quickly. Let me give you some examples:

  • Some experiences are based largely on non-transactional applications (mobile app, kiosk, etc.) You can't be API-only.
  • Some experiences are designed purposefully for engagement, discovery, and inspiration. You can't be headless only.
  • Some experiences embed more resources than just content. They are part of a continuous experience across all channels of the customer journey. You can't be content-as-service-only.
  • Some experiences need to guide a customer on their journey. Not everyone should see the same thing in the context of an embedded experience within a transactional application. You can't do static delivery or headless content injection. Personalization rules!

While in some simpler web-focused use cases, you can get away with a traditional decoupled architecture, for more complex digital experience use cases you should explore Experience as a Service.

EaaS includes the layer of pure content management, headless delivery if/when needed, and — most importantly — a layer of experience delivery, which is the ability to manage and deliver containerized and highly-individualized micro-experiences across all channels.

More Than One Way to Approach the Headless Debate

We in the industry are responsible for educating our customers that there are many ways to approach content delivery. The choice is still theirs, but there’s more than one way to cut the headless chicken.

The beauty in the head-optional EaaS approach is it provides the vehicle for experience management at it’s finest, with minimum limitations and downsides — for either IT or marketing.

Whichever way you go, just don’t lose your head.