Headless vs. Traditional CMS: Which is Best For Your Business?

Cristina Ferrandez
Cristina Ferrandez
July 28, 2017

When you're living in a world where 200 million people now use ad blocking software as they browse the Internet, to say that content marketing is important is something of an understatement. Content marketing in general is essential because it's the perfect quid pro quo situation when it comes to reaching a larger audience - you put high quality, valuable and educational content into the world that catches the attention of the people who matter most to you and in return they're more likely to be aware of your brand, come to your website and even make a purchase.

But content marketing isn't something that exists in a vacuum - or at least, it shouldn't be. In order to see true long-term success, you need to make sure that the marketing and sales arms of your operation are totally aligned in every way. You can't pay someone to wake up and think "what am I going to write about today?" You should know, because you should have volumes of data pointing to what you need to do TODAY to accomplish objectives tomorrow, next week and even next year. It's a large part of the reason why 73% of major organizations actually hire someone specifically to manage their content creation and distribution process

When it comes to crafting a better, more organic content marketing strategy, a CMS (content management system) will quickly become something that you can't live without. The two main options that you have available to you in that regard are a traditional solution and a "headless" or "decoupled" alternative. The key to making the right decision in terms of the best CMS to go with will require you to keep a number of essential things in mind.

What is a CMS?

The more traditional type of CMS is often referred to as a "coupled" solution. The term itself refers to the close relationship between the tools you're using to create content and the way that content is eventually delivered to your site.

Think about it like the engine of a car - it lives inside the car and propels the car forward as you need. It provides you with both a way to create that content and a method to publish it (your site is often built on the rules dictated by your CMS) and as a result is something of a one-stop shop for your larger content marketing strategy.

A headless CMS is very much like a more traditional solution in concept, but it does come with one essential difference: it doesn't have a frontend. It's a content management system designed for storing and delivering content - nothing more, nothing less.

To continue to use the "car" metaphor, a headless CMS is like an engine... that isn't currently inside a car at all. It's sitting next to a few different cars and it can be moved from one to another to another as needed. It may require a little bit of additional work and certainly a skillset that a more traditional solution doesn't, but ultimately you have much more freedom and flexibility in terms of where that engine is used and what it is doing today.

The "Headless" CMS: Putting the Power in Your Hands

For many, the primary benefit of a headless CMS platform is one of flexibility. The platform itself is totally separated from all of your code via a series of APIs, or "application program interfaces." An API is a unique type of computer program specifically designed to let two different systems work together and communicate with one another.

This means that with a headless solution, you don't need to worry about incompatibility issues with the content you're creating and where it will actually live on the Internet. Simply write an API and you're ready to go. Because of this, a headless solution can also easily integrate with other platforms depending on your needs.

This in turn gives way to another one of the benefits of such a system - you're not locked into using a specific technology. The decisions you're making are no longer based on the limited options that you have available to you, or in trying to generate the highest return on investment for a past purchase. The focus is where it should always be: on the content.

That flexibility also extends to the content itself, as the design options that you have available to you do NOT depend on data structure.

Along the same lines, that API-centric architecture makes it very easy to adopt new integrations and features as they become available. To that end, a headless CMS is decidedly more "future proof" than alternative solutions. If a particular feature debuts that you want to make use of right away, all you have to do is put your developer to work integrating that into what you're already working with.

If you happen to have a skilled developer on your team, this means that upgrades are often significantly easier as well. Not only can they be managed much more efficiently, but they can also be rolled out very quickly. You don't have to wait for a third party to do anything - the power is firmly in your hands where it belongs.

A Traditional CMS Platform: The Major Benefits

More traditional CMS platforms, on the other hand, take a slightly different approach to what you can do and how. The major benefit of one of these platforms is that the backend is completely tied to the frontend. This often means that not only is it easier to bring your employees together to collaborate on and develop content, but it's also easier to manage in the long-term. It's certainly easier in many ways to publish your content effectively and within the confines of your desired schedule.

Indeed, the major theme for a more traditional solution can be summed up in a single word: speed. While a headless solution certainly gives you total control over what you're trying to build and get out there into the world, it also demands the presence of a developer before you can make anything happen.

With a traditional solution, you're looking at a significantly easier experience in terms of setup and deployment. With frontend editing capabilities, you can take a much more holistic approach to content development by making your entire effort easier to manage by the content editing team - even the ones with no design or programming background.

Speaking of design, another one of the most attractive benefits of a traditional CMS is that there are many themes and templates available for you to choose from depending on your needs. You don't need to devote a huge amount of time to getting the look and feel of something just right before you go live. Pick the theme that you feel best matches up with your intentions, plug in your content and you're good to go.

Headless vs Traditional CMS: Which Is Better?

As you can see, both a headless content management system and a more traditional solution have their fair share of advantages that can't be ignored. But the truth is that your content strategy is malleable - when designed properly, yours should be different from every other company around you even though you're all technically trying to accomplish the same thing.

This ultimately means that there is no "one size fits all" approach to selecting a CMS. There is no "right answer" - there is only which one is right for you and your long-term strategy.

Because of this, the best CMS platforms often offer something of a "best of both worlds" scenario - they offer the expandability and the flexibility of a headless CMS, with the power and sophistication of a more traditional option. There are platforms available that do support both models. They don't just act as a coupled CMS with an API, but also offer a full multi-tenant coupled CMS while offering the ability to easily update content quickly and efficiently and frontend non-technical editing capabilities.

With that in mind, the answer to the question "is a headless CMS or a more traditional option best for my business?" is a firm "it depends." Only by sitting down and thinking about precisely what you need and what a CMS is supposed to do for your business will you be able to find the one that checks the most boxes on your "To Do" list. In the end, you'll likely wind up looking for a solution that offers essentially both at the same time - a little from "Column A," a little from "Column B."

Conclusion

In many ways, it's important to look at your content management system for exactly what it is - a tool, the same as that hammer you might use to fix the siding on your house or that wrench you might use when working under the hood of your car. A tool can be natively powerful, but it also has to be built to allow you to accomplish your goals. Try fixing the engine on your car with nothing more than a set of scissors and see how far that gets you. The wrong tool for the wrong job is just as bad as not having a tool to work with at all.

Because of this, it's important to understand that there is no "one size fits all" approach to selecting the right CMS, let alone developing the right long-term content marketing strategy to meet your needs. Only by thinking long and hard about whether a particular solution is right for your company and whether or not it fits your necessary requirements from a marketing perspective will you be able to make sure that your hard-earned money is going to the right place.

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