mannequin without a head
Moving to a headless content management system requires more than technological change, you must also prep your people and adjust your strategy PHOTO: Jolene Thompson

In today’s era of brand disloyalty, convenience and customer experience are the new differentiators. As people demand the information they need, where and when they want it, we’re seeing a major re-architecting of the web toward "push-based" delivery, where the content you want comes to you, rather than the other way around.

For content providers, this means rethinking traditional content delivery, where content is exposed as HTML with the assumption that it will display on a web browser. In the post-browser world, a headless (or decoupled) content management system (CMS) will play a part in the race to maintain, grow and engage audiences in real time (and in the right context) across a growing number of content-consuming devices with different contexts and capabilities.

example of content modeling for a headless web CMS
Content must be modeled so it can be understood by multiple end consumers

Tomorrow’s devices will use our content differently and won’t be able to "read" the type of data we typically store in a CMS. But with a CMS focused on pure content management, and a separate front end system that uses APIs to fetch the right content components and present them in the right way for a particular platform, content owners can quickly deliver content anywhere and in any way it’s required. The headless CMS market has experienced strong growth as a result, with some vendors growing at 500 percent year on year.

Commit Time to Content Modelling

In the traditional CMS model, content is mixed up with presentation, which makes it difficult to quickly repurpose your content for multiple channels. In headless CMS, presenting your content as clean, structured data is key to delivering the right information to the right places.

To achieve this, stakeholders must break down content into reusable components so that content-consuming devices can access only the bits of information they really need. Breaking content down into granular components will make it possible for your business to provide relevant content in real time to customers asking precise questions.

Deconstructing your content might seem like a simple task at first, but you’ll quickly uncover the complex ways content fits together.

Take the example of an organization that produces conferences and other types of events. For this organization, it might be tempting to create a single "event" content type for webinars and classroom workshops. But the content requirements for both are totally different. For example, one requires a physical venue, and the other requires a dial-in URL. So two content types are clearly required.

Zoom in further and you’ll find individual fields within a single content type also need clear definition so choosing the right content component in a specific scenario becomes obvious. After all, any ambiguity in your content model will make it hard for a content-consuming device to understand the context of your content.

What’s the best way to define your content model? This is best accomplished through collaborative workshops with all stakeholders who understand the complexity of your content, along with CMS specialists who understand the implications of the decisions you’re making when it comes to complexity and performance.

Create Alignment With Your Business Goals

The success of your content platform will come down to careful planning and an assessment of your business requirements. As with any digital investment, this planning and assessment is best done as part of a detailed discovery process.

Working with your stakeholders, you’ll first need a detailed understanding of your key business drivers and objectives. You’ll then need to identify and explore the business, process, technology and capability changes required to transition from siloed content production to a centralized content hub.

But be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Any new content platform should connect with legacy systems that will still deliver business value in the near term. Anyone "going headless" will want to build in enough flexibility to replace and scale the individual building blocks of their systems as and when they need to.

Design a Content API

Once you have an airtight content model in place, you’ll want to design a content API for the purposes of exposing your content to current and emerging channels.

This process is much like the process of designing your content model: it’s all about making it easy for systems to quickly and efficiently search for the relevant content components they need.

You won’t necessarily be in communication with those devices and platforms looking to access your content. That’s why it’s so important to provide clear documentation so anyone, or any thing, wanting to use your content is fully aware of your capabilities.

The good news is you don't have start from scratch. Standards, such as JSON API and GraphQL, are worth investigating and are supported by a growing number of content management systems.

Prime Your Editorial Teams for Change

Finally, when readying for a switch to a headless CMS, businesses should acknowledge how decoupling content from its presentation represents a big shift for editors and content managers who have grown accustomed to their roles as content creators and designers.

Editors who are well-versed in using presentation tools and design templates for their content will need to think beyond web pages and relinquish control over design and layout. They will need to come to terms with a content model that has little place for the much-loved WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editors, because new devices will not know how to interpret much of the information those systems supply.

This shift may require a mindset change that falls outside the natural comfort zone of marketing and editorial teams, and may require education about the benefits of the headless model.

From an editorial perspective, a key benefit that comes with separating content creation and production workflows is the time it gives back — time editors and content producers can use to focus on creating high-quality content, rather than manually repurposing and presenting content for different channels.

A headless CMS also empowers teams with designs and development capabilities to create richer, more responsive user experiences.

Think Big, Start Small

Content owners need to embrace the complexity of the content distribution landscape. They’ll get left behind if they don't. Structured content, together with a flexible, modular content platform, will give you the agility to push content to new digital platforms in a short period of time, and in the right format for each individual platform.

But you don’t have to uproot your legacy systems to ensure your content is read, heard, seen and experienced across a breadth of new customer touchpoints. An approach that involves small, measurable experiments and iterative development is undoubtedly the best way to start learning about new touchpoints.