A guide to Headless CMS for agencies

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WordPress has been the dominant Content Management System [CMS] globally, since its inception in 2003. However, as we reach the 20th anniversary of its release its popularity amongst major business and technology websites is beginning to wane. Security concerns, usability issues, and performance challenges have driven many to look at alternatives to WordPress. The curiously named category of Headless CMS is beginning to gain traction, particularly amongst top-end websites. 

This blog aims to outline what Headless is and why you as an agency need to know more about it. 

What is a Headless CMS?

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Credit: Tech Prastish

A Headless CMS refers to a new breed of Content Management System that separates the front end from the back end, going against the convention that has been popular for many years. It is an API-based approach where the back end is decoupled, and acts as a content repository that can feed many ‘heads’ be they websites or otherwise. 

Why agencies should think about going Headless? 

For many agencies, the temptation is to stay with the tried and tested when it comes to web design and development. Why deviate from a recipe that delivers you more confidence in pricing and delivering projects? One major reason relates to the pull factors as an increasing number of corporate clients look for alternatives to WordPress citing a combination of security concerns and performance issues. Being able to offer clients a credible upgrade makes good business sense.

The main advantages of Headless CMS?

There are numerous factors attributing to the rapid growth of the category of Headless CMS. 

Push factors include an increasingly negative view of WordPress as a platform that is fit for purpose for growing businesses. Not only is it a very time-consuming platform to manage, but as mentioned, security issues and performance lags mean that websites that want to optimize conversions realize that the underlying CMS is a critical part of the issue. Using WordPress as the core building block for a scaling company is being increasingly viewed as the wrong option by numerous developers.

According to a recent Jamstack community survey:

“The overall leader in the CMS space remains WordPress, as it has been for many years. However, with a satisfaction score of just 0.5, unenthusiastic users of WordPress outnumber enthusiastic ones 2-to-1, and WordPress has lost usage share over the course of our surveys.”

Alongside the desire for many to ‘migrate off WordPress’, the following benefits represent a compelling list of advantages of moving to a Headless CMS setup.

1) Speed

A properly configured Headless CMS is hard to trump for speed - period. The use of Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and Static Site Generators (SSG’s) means that site speeds of under 1s are typical. The resultant high-performance nature of Headless sites positively impacts everything from conversion rates to Search Engine Optimisation. For those seeking to gain every edge, milliseconds matter! 

2) Security

Security vulnerabilities with legacy systems (often called monolithic systems) like WordPress are a major concern for most businesses. With an API-based approach like Headless, each component (or application) is essentially ring-fenced so any threats are contained. Third-party plug-ins which are commonplace with WordPress increase the vulnerabilities of sites. In short, a Headless CMS is a much more secure system than a traditional monolithic one.

“Decoupled approaches inherently bear less security risk. Since server-side processes are abstracted into microservice APIs, the surface area for attacks is reduced. Most of the site is static, so you’re not exposing the whole server to the internet, and taking on the traditional security vulnerabilities that come along with that.”  

3) Design flexibility

One of the key advantages of Headless is that you give free rein to your designers to craft beautiful-looking designs without tying them to any specific templates or frameworks. Let them choose their preferred front-end applications and tooling.

4) Scalability

Headless is a much easier approach to scaling than traditional approaches e.g. sharing content via different platforms. The architecture is also well suited to traffic spikes as the Content Delivery Network (CDN) used can scale without in-house server maintenance being required.

5) Omnichannel

One of the key advantages of Headless, is how well-suited it is in supporting those looking to distribute content across a range of platforms, be they websites, billboards, or mobile apps.

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6) Future proof

As a relatively new technology you are future-proofing your CMS decision. Vendor lock-in is also less of a thing enabling you to switch more easily than was the case with traditional CMSs

What drawbacks do you need to be aware of?

1) Lack of templates 

Many marketing teams are familiar with templates that can be adopted and modified. With Headless you need to create and build the front-end design yourself. Of course, the flipside means you can build a unique and beautifully designed website that won’t have a template feel to it. This also represents a significant opportunity for agencies.

2) Not an all-in-one offering 

Unlike traditional all-in-one CMS’s there are additional elements that need to be plugged in and set up to generate a functioning website. However, most of the components are relatively easy to set up and are well-known by developers e.g. Static site generators (SSG) and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). Again agencies can easily do this on behalf of clients.

3) Developer centric nature of existing tools 

The market leaders in the Headless CMS space are all pitched at technology leaders. Websites reference ‘data lakes’ and ‘composable architecture’, terms that are alien to most marketers. Thus there are some developer dependencies on the initial set up, as well as for downstream page builds. Again this plays to the strengths of agencies.

For those web development agencies looking to offer clients a best-of-breed solution, familiarizing yourself with this category, the main players, and what it has to offer will help future-proof your agency and ensure you are aligned with an increasingly popular content management methodology. 

When it comes to which Headless CMS to choose, the decision will likely be informed by a mix of commercials, G2/ Capterra leadership tables as well as Word of Mouth referrals and recommendations. Newer Headless entrants such as Contento will also be relevant for those looking to create technology websites (especially B2B SaaS). 

About the Author

Alan Gleeson is the CEO and Co-Founder of Contento, a Headless CMS with a particular focus on B2B SaaS Websites.

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