Deciding when headless content management fits your needs
Published June 6, 2023 by Jacob Pretorius – Tech Lead & Optimizely MVP
Headless content delivery is popular in the content management world right now.
In this article we will explain what it is, some of its benefits and downsides, and more importantly, when it is the right approach to take.
With most technology solutions there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and in some situations using headless would be of little to no benefit.
So as always, it depends. Let’s find out why.
What is headless content delivery?
Headless content delivery is an approach where the content management system (CMS) and the presentation layer are decoupled, allowing the content to be delivered purely and independently of its presentation.
In the traditional CMS approach, the content is created and stored in the CMS, and the presentation layer is tightly coupled with the CMS (often being served by the CMS itself), making it difficult to reuse content across multiple channels or devices.
With headless content delivery, the CMS is responsible for managing the content, while the presentation layer is separate. The content is delivered via an API, which allows it to be consumed by any application or device, such as a website, mobile app, or IoT device.
The benefits of headless
There are many potential benefits to using a headless approach, such as:
Perhaps the main use-case feature, headless allows you to deliver content seamlessly across multiple channels, including websites, mobile apps, social media platforms, voice assistants, IoT devices, and more. It ensures consistent content across different touchpoints from one content source of truth.
With headless architecture, you can use different front-end frameworks, modern technologies, and mobile device native apps to deliver content. It allows you to create unique user experiences across various platforms, such as websites, mobile apps, smart devices, and more with different teams having full ownership of that presentation channel.
Headless content delivery can result in faster page load times and improved performance in some scenarios. Since the back-end and front-end are separated, the front-end can be optimised specifically for performance without being constrained by the back-end.
Headless architecture enables scaling the front-end and back-end independently. You can handle high traffic volumes and accommodate future growth by scaling each component separately, ensuring a smooth user experience.
Headless architecture promotes faster development with less back and forth between back-end and front-end. Developers can work simultaneously on the front-end, apps, and back-end, using the different technologies and frameworks they are most confident in. This allows for parallel development, enabling faster time-to-market for new features and updates.
Headless CMS provides a future-proof solution by enabling easy integration with new delivery technologies and channels. As new devices and platforms emerge, you can adapt and extend your content delivery capabilities without major architectural changes.
With headless CMS, content can be stored and managed independently from the presentation layer. By promoting content reusability, this allows teams to repurpose and distribute content to different channels without duplicating efforts.
With all the content in one source of truth, it is much easier for editors and content writers to keep to a brand tone and feel, regardless of the delivery channel the content will be delivered on.
When is headless a good choice?
Complex digital estates
Generally headless makes a lot of sense for larger or more complex digital estates; companies that have (or are planning to have soon) multiple touchpoints which all need to deliver the same content. Being truly multi-channel brings its own challenges which this can help solve. A headless approach would bring significant benefits to news outlets or media organisations that distribute content across various touchpoints, including their website, printed magazine, and other platforms.
Multiple content platforms
Headless can also be useful for companies that are struggling with too many different content platforms. Multiple CMS products, data warehouses, and Digital Asset Management (DAM) products can lead to content duplication, rework, and redevelopment of the same features and functionality across many web platforms and microsites. This is usually a clear sign that single source of truth is needed.
Development team expertise
Additionally, headless content delivery is an ideal choice when the development team and the company possess significant expertise in that particular area. By adopting a headless architecture, there is a reduced requirement for traditional back-end developers, as their focus shifts towards building and maintaining the CMS exclusively. This allows the in-house expertise to lean heavily towards front-end development and the creation of native apps.
When the content data structures and endpoints are already established, the various presentation layer teams can operate at full capacity without relying on the back-end for support or assistance.
However, it is important to note that for more complex features, custom back-end endpoints or processing may be necessary. Therefore, this benefit is typically more applicable to content presentation, while intricate functionalities may still require back-end involvement.
These are just a few examples where headless content delivery proves beneficial. It's essential to evaluate your specific project requirements, scalability needs, and the trade-offs associated with adopting a headless architecture before making a decision.
Let’s look at some of the trade-offs.
The downsides of headless
While headless content delivery offers several benefits, it also has some potential disadvantages to consider:
Increased development complexity
Headless CMS requires a more technical approach and specialised development skills. Developers need to build and maintain the front-end presentation layer separately, which can introduce extra complexity and overhead if the development team aren’t used to working with these two (or more) decoupled work-streams.
Higher initial setup and maintenance costs
Implementing a headless CMS architecture could involve more upfront investment and ongoing maintenance costs. Developing and maintaining the front-end layer, integrating with multiple different platforms, and managing multiple APIs can be more time-consuming compared to traditional CMS solutions where everything comes bundled together.
Content preview and editing challenges
Separating the content management system from the presentation layer can make it more difficult for content editors to preview and visualise how the content will appear on different devices and platforms in the real world. It may require additional tools or custom workflows to address this issue effectively. With a traditional CMS approach, it is much easier to preview and edit content in place.
Steeper learning curve
Headless CMS often involves adopting new technologies and frameworks, which can require additional training and a learning curve for developers and content editors who are accustomed to traditional CMS systems. It may take time to fully grasp and utilise the capabilities of the headless architecture.
Limited out-of-the-box functionality
Some traditional CMS platforms offer a wide range of built-in features and functionality, including visual content editing tools, SEO optimisation, channel-specific layouts, deep content personalisation, and more. In a headless CMS, these features may need to be custom-built or integrated separately, potentially requiring more development effort or purchases of additional products to fill that gap.
Dependency on first/third-party integrations
Headless architecture relies heavily on integrating various first and third-party services and APIs for the front-end presentation layer(s). Any issues or changes in those integrations can affect the overall functioning of the system and require additional troubleshooting or maintenance.
Potential performance bottlenecks
While headless architecture can improve performance, it can also introduce the need for multiple render-blocking API calls and potential latency when retrieving content from the CMS. Poorly optimised API calls or network-related issues can lead to slower content delivery.
Loss of consistent look-and-feel
Having all content live in the same place allows for easier adherence to brand guidelines for the content itself. Having all presentation decoupled means each development team (front-end; mobile; smart device etc) have the responsibility to ensure their designs and implementations adhere to the same brand guidelines. Over time this can become increasingly complex with many disparate technologies and teams at play.
More abstract content management
In traditional approaches, content is structured and organised in a hierarchy that closely mirrors its intended presentation to end users, often using concepts like 'pages' and 'blocks'. In a headless approach, the notion of a 'page' loses its significance since it is no longer bound to the assumption that content will only be delivered to a website. All content essentially becomes purely 'content' in a more abstract sense. Managing it can be more complex for editors.
When headless isn’t a good fit
It is important to consider where the content will be going and what the content is — now and in the future.
Web as the main delivery channel
If the main delivery channel will be the web, a more traditional coupled-CMS approach may have more benefits, features, and reduced development costs than with a pure headless approach. It’s likely that this option will come with more features out-of-the-box, which may lead to a richer web user experience.
Some CMS platforms such as Optimizely offer a hybrid approach where the same CMS and content can be delivered traditionally – via the web directly from the CMS back-end – and via an optional free Headless API package, which it provides. This can be a great best-of-both-worlds approach as the headless API package can be installed at any point in the future when there is an actual need for content to be delivered to another channel.
Projects with tighter budgets and resources are also more likely to benefit from a more traditional approach. Headless requires additional development effort, specialised skills, and potentially integrating various third-party services. If the project has limited financial resources or a small development team, the added costs and complexities may outweigh the benefits.
Rapid prototyping and release of complex features
Finally, if the project needs to rapidly prototype or release complex features, a headless architecture might not be the most suitable choice. The separation between the front-end and back-end components can introduce additional steps, processes, and deployment chains that slow down and complicate prototyping and releases with additional overhead when debugging issues.
We hope that this article provides some valuable insight into headless content delivery, its benefits, downsides, and how to evaluate if it is a good fit for your project.
To learn more about how Optimizely specifically delivers content headlessly, we’ve written a more detailed article - Powering next-gen apps with GraphQL and headless CMS.
If you need help deciding whether headless is the right choice for your organisation, feel free to reach out to discuss your next project.