The Dawn of Content Management

Since the dawn of the internet, a lot has changed. We started with hand-coded, pure HTML websites. Then CSS came around, and our designs got a much-needed boost. Next, we experimented with websites built in Flash and XHTML. More recently, we’ve all adopted HTML5 and are in the midst of the front-end, JavaScript-framework-driven website craze. Along the way, smart and/or lazy people everywhere decided that writing content inside their website markup was for the birds and the Content Management System (CMS) was born.

These systems were a big win for authors, marketing departments, and website owners, everywhere. You no longer needed to know how to code to publish content on the web. All you had to do was fill out a form, push a button, and the content updated. These simple publishing systems eventually led to the rise of blogging platforms, introducing a completely new way for amateur and professional journalists and writers to reach a new audience.

Since those early days, the CMS has matured, and the rise of commercial CMS platforms begat a booming industry. Software heavyweights now charge seven-figure sums for massive, monolithic CMS platforms that promise to be all things to all people. At the same time, popular free and open source CMS platforms, like Drupal and WordPress, have gained widespread adoption, with software developers around the world contributing to their functionality.

We’re now living in a world where you can spend from zero to millions of dollars launching a content management platform for yourself or your business. Amazingly, regardless of how much you spend, you’ll get basically the same functionality out of any platform you choose with only some fit and polish added as you increase your investment.

Spoiled for Choice. Deprived of Options.

Interestingly enough, despite the diversity and widespread availability of CMS platforms, if you speak with just about any software engineer who has worked with one, they will tell you to steer far, far away from (insert CMS platform name here) for various technical and usability reasons. It’s true - in an environment rich with options, they’re virtually all various shades of bad. Whether the issue is a legacy codebase full of hacks and poor architectural design decisions, a database system built on a tarball of XML files (no, really), WYSIWYG design tools that generate dreadful code, or convoluted development workflows that require far too many steps to create the simplest of content, most CMS platforms are dreadful experiences for those of us that have to maintain them for our beloved content creators.

As engineers, when starting the process of evaluating the various CMS platforms available, we quickly find ourselves drowning in choices. Even with all these choices, we are thirsty for an option that does what we want, the way we want it, and that isn’t a nightmare to maintain. As previously mentioned, CMS frameworks want to be “all things to all people”. It’s true, but in trying to be a mile wide in features, they’re only an inch deep, feature-by-feature, in quality and value. Some offer a great authoring experience, but perform poorly when delivering content, or making that content accessible to anything more than a traditional web page. Some offer great publishing and distribution capabilities but have lousy authoring experiences or are so complex to implement that very few ever get to take advantage of their publishing features. Some are more-or-less lousy at everything and are exorbitantly expensive to boot.

Paradoxically, if you ask any software engineer if the right answer is to build your own, the answer will be a resounding “NO” - at least from those experienced enough to have been down that path on more than one occasion.

Is There an Alternative?

Given the bleak picture painted above, you would be wise to ask if there’s a reasonable alternative available, with the plethora of poor options and the lack of desire for software engineers to create something better. Fortunately, the answer is “YES”, there is a new trend in the CMS landscape that is gaining more-and-more traction these days.

Tired of wrestling with the widely-adopted platforms their organizations have chosen, brave or crazy software developers have been moving to a new form of CMS that purposely does less, in an effort to do those things well. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, this new class of CMS has chosen to do the basics of content management by focusing solely on the “content” part of content management. The software community has coined a new term for these types of CMS solutions - “headless”. The market is quickly adopting these solutions and several new products have popped up that afford viable alternatives to, and competition for, the staid old CMS options.

What is a Headless CMS?

A “headless” or “decoupled” CMS is a Content Management System that focuses solely on a content authoring, curation, and publishing workflow, removing the presentation and distribution elements that a more traditional CMS offers. This separation of concerns between content and delivery enables organizations to centralize content creation and approach unique distribution channels in a more appropriate and manageable way.

How Does a Headless CMS Work?

A headless CMS works just like a traditional CMS from the content creation and authoring standpoint. Your content strategists, authors, and curators will work inside of a web-based interface that affords them complete control over the content that will be presented to end users. However, the authors are released from the responsibility of managing the presentation of that content. A headless CMS contains all of the tools necessary to manage various content types, such as articles, blog posts, audio and video, image assets, and other forms of distributed media. A headless CMS will still contain a digital asset manager (DAM) for managing media resources, and it will contain curation tools to allow content strategists to assemble compelling experiences from a variety of content sources.

What are the Benefits of a Headless CMS?

In a world where content distribution has moved far beyond the traditional web browser onto mobile devices, smart TVs, set-top devices, news feeds, podcasts, video streams, smart appliances, voice assistant devices, and other IoT devices, developing content in a presentation mode designed only for the web only solves a small fraction of most organizations’ content delivery needs. By decoupling authoring and curation from presentation and delivery, organizations can focus on developing quality content, regardless of the target consumption channel. This decoupling serves to segment and separate content from presentation - a long-held goal of software and information architects alike.

One of the major benefits of content decoupling is that content is insulated from changes that typically require content to be revised, reformatted, or redeveloped. Though websites may frequently be redesigned, mobile applications may be versioned over and over again, and new distribution channels may be required on a frequent basis, your content structure, storage, and management should not be required to change. Many CMS monolith vendors will sell organizations on the power of WYSIWYG design and editing that allows authors to write inside of a view of the web content, but the fact remains that doing this means your content is tightly-coupled with your presentation - something that is expected to change frequently throughout an organization’s lifespan.

What Does a Headless CMS Not Do?

A headless CMS does not manage the presentation of content to end users. Rather, the CMS features a robust content API (application programming interface) that allows consumers to directly access authored content in a variety of different ways. A headless CMS can provide presentation templates that can be used to display content for the web, mobile devices, and other presentation layers, but the distribution of the final product is offloaded to other, more appropriate technology for dissemination via various content channels.

Hidden Costs of CMS Monoliths

While many CMS and WCM (Web Content Management) vendors market their products as turn-key solutions that require little-to-no technical expertise, the reality is much different. Large up-front licensing costs can be made more palatable if the solution doesn’t require much ongoing technical support or maintenance, and most vendors are really good at selling this illusion. In reality, large monolithic CMS and WCM solutions require a significant amount of maintenance and upkeep, and an enormous amount of software engineering efforts to do much beyond the basic presentation of a single website. Likewise, these solutions require that software engineers develop specialized skills to customize, own, and manage these products. It’s not sufficient enough to be a Java developer, or a .NET developer, or a PHP developer, you instead have to be an AEM developer, or a Sitecore developer, or a Drupal developer. Likewise, your infrastructure and operations teams must become specialized in the management, maintenance, and performance-tuning of these monolithic products.

Further, the performance and durability of these solutions are often grossly overstated. While it’s true that you may be able to run an enterprise-grade WCM platform on a small amount of hardware, the end result will often be poor performance, slow response times, and frequent outages. A multi-purpose software solution that has run-modes for authoring, publishing, and distribution requires a significant amount of hardware and management know-how to maintain and operate in a way that is performant for both authors and consumers. Often, to have any modicum of performance, additional costs are required to create caching layers that prevent users from ever interacting directly with the CMS or WCM platform.

Total Cost of Ownership for a Headless CMS

Over both the short-and-long-term, the cost of ownership of a headless CMS is significantly lower than that of a traditional CMS or WCM system. Management of the infrastructure is significantly lower as the authoring experience can be hosted in a separate, disconnected manner, which requires much less hardware than hosting a large, unified CMS or WCM platform that also manages content distribution.

Likewise, the human cost of a headless CMS is lower, as the content is always authored and stored in the same way, regardless of the presentation method. When your website undergoes a complete redesign or your mobile application is redeveloped, or a new content distribution method is launched, the authoring experience, curation tools, and publishing workflows remain the same. Content does not have to undergo migration or rework to be formatted for a new presentation mode, and historical content can immediately be presented using new templates and designs, again without rework of the content.

Additionally, headless CMS solutions are far less expensive to procure, license, and stand-up, as the software is much simpler due to there being no need for multiple execution modes like many of the enterprise CMS or WCM solutions require. Where large CMS monoliths require licensing for each mode, each site, each user, and each integration with a third-party product, headless CMS solutions are single-purpose solutions.

From a maintenance and management perspective, a headless CMS offers additional benefits as the software, infrastructure, and operations engineers are not required to learn specialized skills to own and manage the authoring experience. Since distribution is handled in another way, the delivery of content is also not constrained to a specialized skill set that binds developers and organizations to a specific vendor-managed ecosystem. Engineers are free to use the best methods of delivery for each distribution channel and don’t have the overhead cost of licensing a monolithic distribution mechanism, which is then insufficient on its own to serve end-users in a performant manner.

A Quick Recap

While there is some appeal in CMS and WCM solutions that promise to be all things to all people, the reality of the situation is that most monolithic solutions do most things only adequately, and with significant associated costs. By contrast, a headless CMS solution offers organizations the flexibility of managing content in a separate manner that is focused on providing an excellent experience for authors, content creators, curators, and strategists alike. These solutions provide greater control over publishing workflow, asset management, taxonomy, and categorization of content. By allowing authors to work disconnected from presentation and distribution, it frees them to focus on creating great content, rather than on tweaking presentation and design elements - a task that is better left to design professionals. Aside from the practical and technical benefits of a decoupled solution, a headless CMS also offers organizations significant cost savings over other monolithic solutions.

So, What Now?

If you’re sufficiently intrigued by the concept of a CMS platform that focuses on content and curation and you’re ready to start exploring the possibilities, the best possible place to start is by looking at some of the most popular solutions available.

  • Zesty.io - A robust, SaaS product that offers a rich content API, a content schema builder, built-in SEO features, team workflows, and a built-in staging environment.
  • Contentful - A developer-friendly, RESTful API-driven platform built on a Microservice architecture. Features built-in CDN integrations to help publish content quickly.
  • Prismic - An API-based, SaaS solution that provides content modeling tools, previews, scheduling tools for publishing content, multi-lingual support, and a full revision history system for tracking changes and revisions.
  • ButterCMS - Another SaaS-based, API-first CMS that offers an effortless setup experience, and premium, human-first support.

Each of these solutions has its own set of features that may or may not be the best fit for your business. A great exercise to help determine the best solution for your organization is to create a feature matrix and find the solution that checks the most boxes for your specific needs. Of course, if you need assistance with this kind of analysis, or want a professional opinion on the specific use case that your organization has, Skookum is here to help! Reach out, and one of our team members can get you on your way to finding the best possible solution for your organization’s unique content ecosystem.