thinking

Going headless

As an organisation’s digital strategy evolves, Tom Troughton and Jamie Griffiths from Idox’s Reading Room explore the rise in popularity of ‘headless’ Content Management Systems (CMS), explaining what they are, the benefits they offer and how engagement can be maximised through their use.

“Headless CMS”. It’s a phrase that you’re likely to have heard being batted around a lot over the last year, and it’s becoming an increasingly popular development choice for businesses and organisations across the globe as their digital aspirations evolve.

It almost feels like a catchy buzzword; one of those internet trends that may disappear as quickly as it’s been introduced. But it’s actually been about for some time now, and it’s recently been gaining traction as many site-owners begin to outgrow the more ‘traditional’ CMS solutions.

So, what is “headless”?

A headless – or ‘decoupled’ – CMS focuses solely on how content is managed in the back-end. It includes only editorial and management features, with no concern for how information is presented.

Think of it as one of today’s popular marketplace platforms, like Drupal or WordPress, but with the entire front-end removed. It’s a CMS, without the head.

With no delivery mechanism, a headless CMS exposes content for consumption by a wide range of channels, systems and platforms through the use of dedicated APIs. This, in turn, affords you the opportunity to specify exactly where content is to appear.

It also means that content delivery is not restricted to traditional web browsers. You can have multiple APIs that feed into a variety of channels and platforms, such as wearable tech, outdoor advertising space and mobile applications.

In terms of fulfilling evolving digital needs, it’s a fantastic way to begin broadening your horizons.

Headless: the evolution

The way in which websites are managed has evolved rapidly over the last two decades. During the ‘dot-com’ bubble of the late 90s, we began with static HTML webpages. With a need for greater control over content, initial CMS solutions began to arrive in the early 2000s affording administrators access to databases, workflows, WYSIWYG editing tools, and so on. Swift progression led to the emergence of ‘one-size-fits-all’ platforms in the early 2010s, designed to meet an array of digital marketing needs. They range from easy-to-use blogging platforms to large, complex systems requiring specialist knowledge. These ‘box-tickers’ have since helped organisations maximise their approach to digital by utilising an array of back-end features, allowing for maximum engagement with users.

But, as these platforms have become more and more refined, the wider industry has matured dramatically. There has been a ‘blurring of lines’ between digital content and the physical world, and websites are no longer the be-all and end-all in serving user needs. We now have mobile applications, wearable tech, the Internet of Things, outdoor digital advertising space, smart TVs and so forth; all of which are underpinned by their very own infrastructures and architectures.

While today’s popular marketplace CMS continue to focus on web browser delivery, it is clear that there are now so many more strands of digital that need to be considered. Organisations need flexibility in how content is delivered, how user needs are served and how digital aspirations are ultimately achieved.

Enter headless.

The benefits

We have covered them in brief above, but the benefits of going headless focus largely around the flexibility and extensibility it offers. It has also redefined the way in which SaaS solutions are viewed. SaaS – ‘Software as a Service’ – has traditionally encompassed your traditional cloud-hosted, subscription-based solutions.

The SaaS model for headless CMS offers a more fluid approach, where user interfaces are created in order to define content structures and processes – such as users, roles and workflows – which CMS administrators are then able to utilise and manage. Dedicated APIs then deliver the content as raw data, allowing for an agnostic approach to consumption and delivery to be taken.

With headless, content becomes extremely portable as it’s not tied to any delivery mechanism. With this in mind, it also becomes very flexible as it’s not restricted to a predefined CMS framework. Consumption also becomes unlimited, as there are so many APIs that can be utilised in order to deliver content to your chosen channels and technologies.

Jamie Griffiths, Operations Director at Reading Room, notes: “The irony about headless is that this is in some ways a throwback to how websites were built during the ‘immature’ days of web content management systems. Even then, decoupling presentation away from data was an effective way to distribute content across many websites. What is particularly exciting about the resurgence of this approach at this time is how it allows us to use any number of different devices or services.”

“Already at Reading Room, we have been using headless to meet digital requirements for organisations small and large, local and global.”

The future

Of course, the industry evolves so quickly that it’s difficult to accurately predict what the future holds. Still, it’s clear that headless is going to play an important role over the next few years in helping organisations to more effectively embrace their digital aspirations.

Speaking about the direction that this approach is moving in, Tom Troughton, Senior Technical Developer at Reading Room, commented: “From a technical perspective, moving to a headless approach removes the dependency on large, complex CMS systems. These systems typically require specialist technical knowledge – vastly reducing the pool of developers able to work with them – are slow to change, and over-complicate development and deployment processes.

“Consuming content as a service removes all constraints from delivery of the front-end, allowing us to use the most appropriate technology with a more responsive, agile framework. Put simply, our developers are happier, more productive, and face less constraint. And clients see the benefit in faster response times.”

Want to talk further about your CMS options? The Reading Room team has extensive experience in identifying the right digital approach to meet your objectives, develop your online brand identity, and drive engagement with key audiences. Get in touch to speak to one of the team.

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