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Headless CMS: Not Brainless CMS

6/17/2020 | John Kottcamp

Headless CMS is the talk of the town these days.
 
The premise is that Content Management Software should be limited to the organizing, storing, and managing of digital content. A separate system should be created to publish content to any device, platform, or digital channel, including websites.
 
This thinking is sound.
 
The management of content should be independent from the publishing of content, but the enterprise still requires the ability to do both. Instead of thinking about this concept as a headless Content Management System (CMS), think of it as decoupled architecture where the technical management of content is independent of the omnichannel publishing capability. Nevertheless, there is still a brain making intelligent decisions as to where to publish the content. 
 
In an enterprise content experience platform, there are various MarTech hubs where defined processes, systems, and functionalities need to reside. Core among them are the Content Hub and the Publishing Hub. These work in concert with other hubs that comprise the complete platform – data, intelligence, commerce, knowledge, experience, and analytics. Let us take a few minutes to focus on the Content Hub and the Publishing Hub to explore the roles they play in creating and publishing digital content experiences. 
 

 
A Content Hub supports a variety of processes that enable the creation, storage, and management of content and assets. It includes, but is not limited to, a CMS system. Creative tools, like Adobe Creative Suite, feed into a Content Hub. Digital Asset Management (DAM) is the single center of truth for storing and managing the assets. Automated tag management and taxonomy tools also belong to a Content Hub. Even Product Information Management (PIM) belongs to a Content Hub when used in conjunction with the Commerce Hub for digital commerce. Finally, advanced Semantic or Linguistic AI tools sit adjacent to and interact with the Content Hub to develop a more relevant and contextual experience via the Data and Intelligence Hubs. 
 
What is a headless CMS and why would someone want to chop its head off?
 
When modern Content Management Systems were developed, they were geared toward building and publishing websites. Most CMS vendors like Sitecore, Adobe, and WordPress designed their products to facilitate content authoring and publishing, specifically for websites. Today, content is published everywhere – IOT (Apple watch), smart cars, refrigerators, and a thousand other channels, devices, and platforms. SDL, on the other hand, started out as publishing software. To provide a complete experience, SDL worked backward from the publishing of content to the authoring and management of that content. That means that SDL has always had the ability to decouple content management and content publishing functions. 
 
When newer communication channels appeared, it became important to have the ability to publish to any and all channels simultaneously. This was the promise of omnichannel publishing, and a key element for what Forrester called the “Always Addressable Individual.” 
 
As CMSs began to address this need, they had to rethink how they approached content. They knew they had to be able to manage content and could publish to any channel. This required thinking in terms of a decoupled architecture. Since most CMSs could not do this, the market started talking about the need for a CMS that handled content management without the publishing function. This is what became known as a headless CMS. 
 
SDL never had to overcome the dilemma of whether to be a headless CMS or a publisher. As mentioned previously, SDL’s CMS was decoupled from the beginning and therefore was always capable of publishing to disparate channels, devices, or platforms. SDL provides the benefits of a headless CMS, while still incorporating a head, an innately intelligent omnichannel publishing capability. 
 

 
Over time, other CMS providers began using Rest APIs to publish out to multiple channels. This effort effectively separated content management from content publishing. Thus, these Rest APIs operated as headless CMSs. Recently, everyone has jumped on the headless CMS bandwagon because of the need to publish beyond websites. A new class of software vendors could cite headless CMS architecture to build the case that companies who were thinking of upgrading or replacing their existing CMS systems could save money and increase their flexibility. 
 
It always feels good to embrace the latest advancements in technology. The term “headless CMS” is often ascribed to Facebook. Like most internet legends, it is hard to pin down its precise origin. We do know that in 2012 Facebook began work on a new query language for APIs called GraphQL. In 2015, GraphQL was released publicly and in 2018 Facebook described a newly formed GraphQL foundation hosted by the Linux Foundation. In the last couple of years, GraphQL has become the global standard for APIs.
 
Digital communication is the successful transfer of content from creators to content consumers.
 
From a technical point of view, digital communication flow starts when content is authored in the Content Hub, then assembled and distributed using GraphQL in the Publishing Hub to any number of channels in the Engagement Hub. When this is properly integrated, the combination of hubs is no longer headless. They are simply decoupled and intelligent. It is content management with a brain. 
 
If your company is thinking about updating, upgrading, or expanding your content management and publishing, you should consider decoupled architecture. We advise against going purely headless because it is purely brainless. We recommend you look for a decoupled solution that uses GraphQL as the means to publish to as many different channels as your content experience journey dictates. Do not let the technology restrict or constrain your customer experience, but rather, let the technology empower all journeys. 
 
It has been fifteen years since Thomas Friedman told us “The World is Flat.” Virtually all enterprise-sized businesses are global. When companies select the components for their Content and Publishing Hubs, they need to consider the implications of conducting business around the world. 
 
Beyond publishing to multiple channels, global companies must plan for publishing to countless local markets and languages. This exponentially increases the complexity of successfully delivering content from creator to consumer.
 
Relevance is in the eye of the beholder.
 
Whether they are your customers, employees, or partners, people may consume your content on websites, mobile devices, via an app or in their cars. They will prefer content that is translated into their own language. If you want your content to be effective, then the entire content experience should be localized to reflect customs, norms, and behavior. Localization is always more than just translating the words. 
 
Moreover, global companies must make sure their brand is properly represented everywhere, and their content must pass legal and regulatory muster. Compliance and governance are critical. These companies must decide how much centralized control is needed while maintaining the most effective level of local management. 
 
Not only must global companies think in terms of decoupled architecture, but they must also manage roles and responsibilities within the global organization. In most cases, a local market will never be allowed to change a company logo, but they may be empowered to insert a local offer, change the messaging to reflect local market conditions, or decide what product SKUs can be offered. The corporation needs to manage the inheritance and dependencies between the hub and spokes, wherever business is conducted around the globe. 
 
Content is the currency of CX. Virtually all content is digital, and the majority of experiences people have with a company’s brand are digital and content-centric. Presenting content-based experiences that are relevant and advance the goals of the business requires a sophisticated approach to the entire content journey — from creation through publishing and engagement. That approach requires robust technologies supported by a well-thought-out set of processes. Just like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, companies need to consider, “If I only had a brain.” Today, a headless CMS is just not enough.

Global experience. Global team. Global solutions.