Deciding Between Headless, Traditional and Hybrid CMS Platforms

Joel Varty
Joel Varty
May 18, 2018

What is Traditional CMS?

A Traditional CMS systems is design centric - it's usually based upon a paradigm of making it easier and faster for folks to get content published on a website. Normally it's aimed to make a content editor's life more focused around the workflow of the content, and less about the development of website code. We refer to that as a "high level" focus.

Don't confuse high-level and easy with "simplistic," though. A Traditional CMS is still extremely capable, and is used to manage many aspects of the website, such as the page structure, sitemap, templates, and modules. It does tend to be almost solely focused around the website though.

Most of these systems have been around for a while, and they've survived because they fill a specific need and do their job: Sitecore, Sitefinity, Drupal, Wordpress, to name a few. They tend to be favour pre-built components and templates, and can make it quick to build out a new site. Where they tend to compromise on is in the creative side of things - you may have to settle for a template that's not as unique as it could be. Another area where you might need to compromise on is with integrations. A Traditional CMS may have "connectors" built to other systems such as CRM or Marketing Automation, but these don't tend to allow for the customized workflow and data structures that are specific to your business.

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What is Headless CMS?

A Headless CMS takes a different tack from the Traditional mindset. Instead of looking first at the DESIGN of a website, Headless cares first and foremost about the DATA that drives the web. This is called a decoupled or backend-first approach. Instead of working with templates and modules, and having an instant preview of the website, we have what is essentially a set of data structures that drive something called an API (Application Programming Interface). Headless CMS systems are almost 100% API driven, which means they are great at delivering data pretty much anywhere on the web.

First and foremost, the data from a Headless CMS is used to power a website, but it could be a mobile app, could be a backend CRM or a Financial system. Headless CMS is aimed at empowering developers to have more freedom with the systems they create, and with how those systems work together. Every internet-based or web-based system uses and API to talk to other systems, so the data from a Headless CMS is much more valuable simply because it is eminently more available; it's not locked up in a website.

Some examples of Headless CMS systems include Prismic, Kentico Cloud, GraphCMS, Storyblok and many more.

Empowering Developers is a really great way to get stuff done. Giving a Developer an HTML template to customize that's been around for several years is usually not the way to empower him or her. With a Headless system, you are giving that Developer some raw APIs to work with and really allowing the creative coding skills to shine - that's empowerment. Headless CMS systems are popping up more and more often because they make Developers happy, and happy Developers get stuff done, simple as that.

An API based, data-driven system is also much more flexible than a traditional template based system. They may have a longer initial R&D schedule with more rigorous first-build schedule, but the ability for these systems to be molded and shaped over time is much greater than with Traditional systems.

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Let's Rate a Traditional CMS vs Headless CMS

We've chosen 9 Business Challenges that could keep us up at night. Here's how we've rated Traditional vs Headless CMS. Instead of picking a winner for each, we've picked a range of scores to represent a score from 1-5.  Winners are in BOLD

Traditional Headless
Security 3-4 4-5
Scalability 4-5 3-4
Hardware 3-5 3-5
Integrations 3-4 4-5
Cost 1-5 4-5
Support 2-5 4
Always Up To Date 1-2 4-5
Ease of Use 4-5 3
Speed of Implementation 4-5 3-4

Hmm... looks like it's a wash between the two for these categories - and these are what we consider to be the top decision making categories for making decisions on which CMS to implement.  So why do we have to choose?

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Traditional + Headless = Hybrid CMS

An example of a Hybrid CMS

What is a Hybrid CMS?

A Hybrid CMS combines both the API driven Headless architecture with the design elements from a Traditional CMS.

There aren't many examples of a truely hybrid CMS platform. Certainly Agility CMS fits into this category, as does Hippo CMS (since acquired by Bloomreach). The thing about Hybrid CMS is that it tends to have less bloat than tranditional approaches, and at the same time it's less "lean" than most Headless systems. These systems target both the Content Editor and the Developer as primary user types.

Some CMS platforms have had API aspects added on over time. Wordpress, from version 4.7, has an API for most of the functionality of the CMS. Drupal has added API support. Kentico, mentioned above, has two completely different versions of the product for Headless and Traditional - this isn't a hybrid approach, technically, but I think it illustrates the importance of separating the content from the design, and for recognizing that developers are primary targets for CMS software.

A good hybrid CMS will become the foundation for the growth of the solution.

The Benefits of Hybrid CMS

Let's drill into some of the capabilities and benefits of Hybrid CMS:

1. Deliver Page Driven Content

One of the things that a Hybrid CMS should be able to do very well is deliver page driven content, I mentioned that as a benefit for Traditional as well.

2. Provide Content to Other Platforms (API)

That same content that's on your web pages should be made available to other platforms as well. It could be RSS, ATOM, OData - whatever the format, it should be available.

3. Allows for Phase Driven Development

What points 1 and 2 provide is the ability for an implementation to be delivered with a phased approach. Start with a website, make it simple, but build the foundation of the complete long-term solution.

Top-load the architecture phase that will enable Phase 1 to be easy and smooth, and set the pieces in motion to deliver phase 2-3-4 and beyond.

4. Enables Modern Integrations

People are using more tools than ever to do their jobs. With a hybrid CMS, we can provide a great experience in the page and content delivery, but also integrate with Salesforce, Slack, Marketing platforms, IFTT, Microsoft Flow, Logic Apps. These tools can all be brought into the full circle of your web properties, including things like Ecommerce.

Folks continue to use the tools they are familiar with, and the data comes to them as part of their normal workflow.

5. A Hybrid CMS Grows with Your Business

What this means is that your business is going to grow. Your CMS implementation should grow with you, it should ALWAYS BE UP TO DATE, and the reality is that a hybrid approach tends to lead you toward good architectures that provide a foundation for continual growth, with the ability to evolve and use new tools, new designs, and send your content to more places using newer technologies.

A CMS should never stay stagnant, it should grow and the process of the CMS growing and evolving – either to provide new benefits, or to implement new technologies – should be built into the platform from day one.

6. A Hybrid CMS Empowers both Editors & Developers

Hybrid CMS approaches empower your editors and it empowers developers to provide better experiences for your end users. 

The net effect is that you can deliver more value with a Hybrid CMS than with either a Traditional or Headless CMS.

Companies that invest in a Hybrid CMS are better positioned to deliver on their own brand promises, I believe, because they can provide better experiences across their whole content spectrum.

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