pile of lego people heads
PHOTO: Carson Arias

Last year, I wrote an article titled “Why 2017 Is the Year of Cloud-First Headless CMS.” And since then, headless has been one of the key topics in the content management system (CMS) market in the past 18 months. With that, however, came much confusion, as many vendors started to claim that their products were “also headless.” 

Let’s have a look at where we are today and how customers should choose between traditional, hybrid and headless CMS offerings.

Headless CMS Gains Popularity

In the State of Headless CMS 2018 survey — which was conducted by my company, Kentico — 55 percent of the almost 1,000 CMS practitioners surveyed said they knew what a headless CMS was. Of those who said they knew what a headless CMS was, 29 percent said they already use one. However, when asked which headless CMS they used, about one-third of them said they were using a hybrid solution, such as headless WordPress or Drupal.

That means that the actual rate of adoption of pure headless CMS is around 10 percent of the overall market.

Does that mean headless is eating the market share of the traditional vendors? Only partially. From what we see, many customers try out headless CMS for specific projects, side by side with their existing CMS platforms. However, if users’ first experiences with headless live up to their expectations, we may see more replacements as customers begin to look at headless as a solution for their omnichannel strategies, and not just as a tool to support a specific tactical need.

Related Article: With Content Delivery, What Goes Around, Comes Around

Omnichannel, Flexibility and Front-End Frameworks Drive Demand

In our survey, 48 percent of the respondents said they wanted to use a headless CMS for strategic goals to consolidate their content in one place and distribute it to various applications.

The need for consolidation is a result of growth in the number of content silos. Over the years, many organizations have accumulated a plethora of CMS products and other content-related tools for specific channels, and they have a hard time keeping content in sync. Moreover, babysitting numerous CMS installations becomes a headache for IT departments.

Two other reasons respondents gave for wanting to use headless were tactical in nature: 47 percent said they wanted flexibility, and 44 percent said they wanted to build lightweight websites.

Overall, today’s demand for headless CMS seems to be driven primarily by technical people: 63 percent of the respondents who hold technical roles said they have knowledge of headless CMS, compared with just 29 percent of respondents in business roles. Technical people want to use modern front-end frameworks and microservices architectures to avoid the limitations of traditional CMS offerings.

Customers Confuse Headless and Hybrid

As the popularity of headless CMS grows, traditional CMS vendors are telling their own headless stories. Some have started to refer to their offerings as “headless,” while others are using terms such as “also headless” and “hybrid.”

The confusing terminology makes it more complicated for customers to navigate the market. It seems the industry is still looking for the right names that will adequately represent the nuanced differences between CMS products that were built as API-first and content-first and those for which API was an afterthought.

Related Article: How to Prep for a Headless CMS

What Separates Headless From Hybrid

Now, you might think, “As long as I can use an API, I don’t care whether the CMS is traditional, headless or hybrid.” However, there are some significant differences you need to understand before you make a choice.

First, a pure headless CMS is designed as content-first from the very beginning. It avoids using channel-specific concepts such as webpages or drag-and-drop page design tools. It guides you to think about your content independent of its presentation and to create properly structured content that can be reused across multiple channels other than just websites.

Second, a pure headless CMS can be provided in a true software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. The strict separation of content management and presentation means the vendor can take full responsibility for running the CMS while you can focus on creating websites and applications that display the content. It means you don’t have to worry about upgrades, security or scalability and can achieve much higher agility than you could with a self-hosted CMS or a platform-as-a-service or managed-hosting model.

Third, while the idea of “getting the best of both worlds” sounds attractive, combining the web-first and content-first approaches is like mixing oil and water. Once you allow your content authors to create content initially in the context of a website, it will be hard to reuse it in your mobile apps, chatbots and other channels.

Make Your Choice Based on Your Content Maturity and Aspirations

Despite its growing popularity, headless CMS won’t work for everybody. The headless model requires a certain level of content maturity. You need to adopt the content-first approach if you want to fully leverage the benefits of headless CMS to deliver an omnichannel digital experience. Otherwise, you may end up with a poor implementation that brings possible technical benefits but won’t work for content contributors who are accustomed to the web-first approach.

If you’re primarily focused on the web channel, and you only need to use the API for simple “add-on” scenarios, such as providing part of your content to a mobile app, a hybrid CMS may be a good option for you. But if you go that route, remember this: You may be creating a content debt you will have to pay once you decide to go truly omnichannel.