Headless CMS | All you need to know

Find out why everyone is talking about headless CMS and what difference it makes

For some time now, I’ve heard a lot of people in digital marketing getting excited and creating a buzz around headless CMS. As a lead architect that’s worked on projects that use ‘headless’ for years I thought I’d share some of my experience to help give some clarity to those that are asking what it’s all about.

Headless CMS

What is a headless CMS?

In simplest terms – a headless CMS is one that allows the content editor to define content for their brand in the traditional sense. Instead of this content being tied to a particular form of presentation, the part that presents the content is separate from the part that defines the content. 
Traditionally its common for websites to have multiple views, usually:

  • one that presents the content in all its glory; images, styling, animations etc, and
  • secondly a printer-friendly view that is devoid of most of the presentational details and uses black and white text that is won’t use up all the expensive printer ink. 

When you consider that in this old-fashioned example, the content is the same and just presented differently, it becomes inefficient to be forced to define the content twice (once for print and again for the website). In this example the “head” is the presentation of the content, however when we talk about “headless”, we are referencing that the presentation of the content is delivered by developers and not the CMS.

There’s a lot of buzz around headless CMS recently, it begs the question, “why didn’t someone think of this earlier”? The quick answer is we did. Both Sitecore and Kagool have been doing this for years and it’s been incredibly successful. 

Why all of the fuss?

Well let’s roll forward 10 years from my printer friendly view example. We now live in a world where customers interact with your brand over multiple channels, mobile, tablet, website, print, social platforms etc. Wouldn’t it be great the be able to use one piece of content across all these channels where appropriate, but still have the ability to specify unique content for individual channels when you want it?

This is nothing new, there are many ways to achieve this and if the downside is a little bit of repeated content entry and a collection of CMS systems for mobile, website and print then I think that we can all live with that…right?

Headless CMS 2

Wrong, there are two huge reasons why we shouldn’t “live with that”. Firstly, the number of channels that customers use to interact with your brand is increasing rapidly. Just to highlight a few:

  • Website
  • Mobile / Tablet
  • Print
  • In store
  • Alexa / Google Home style devices
  • Smart Watches
  • IoT devices – smart fridges / home management systems / TV’s

The speed at which you need to be responding is increasing exponentially. Updating your content on one system while another system displays old content can damage your brand significantly. A Twitter storm can erupt in minutes and cause irreversible damage if not responded to quickly and consistently across channels, which is why many businesses are looking to systems like Sitecore that can implement a headless CMS to solve this.

What does Sitecore offer for headless?

Sitecore started as a headless CMS nearly 20 years ago. Its content has always been separate from presentation, in fact the very first versions of Sitecore served content via an API that was separate from the abstracted presentation layer. The “middle” presentational layer that (optionally) ties content to presentation was a later addition. The important point is that this fundamental principle of abstraction between content and presentation has always been part of Sitecore.

So, if this isn’t a new concept for Sitecore then you may be wondering what’s left to talk about here? Data, big data.

What’s new for Sitecore as a headless CMS?

Modern Sitecore is so much more than a CMS; it’s a customer experience platform (CXP). How cool would it be if your CXP was headless?  Not only can it expose all the benefits of personalised content, Multi-Variant Testing (MVT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a headless manner, it also exposes an API that you can push all your valuable interaction data to. That’s what xConnect is all about, however your customer chooses to interact with your brand, whether it’s on an Alexa, in store or even on their fridge, all that valuable data can be pushed to Sitecore via an API and used to enhance the customers experience.

The amazing addition of xConnect to the platform makes this all effortless for Sitecore 9. It’s an O-Data compliant API interface that allows you to push data to xDB. It also allows you to pull data from xDB and use it in conjunction with a Business Intelligence (BI) tool like Microsoft Power BI – but that’s a different topic for another day.

Has Kagool done this for any customers?

At Kagool, headless is nothing new, in fact we’ve been doing it for years. We’ve built countless APIs within Sitecore that expose Sitecore content, normally represented as JSON. We’ve done this for a host of different reasons too.

We used Angular to build an interactive learning tool for a multi-national pharmaceutical business. All the questions and answers were held in Sitecore, but the User Interface (UI) was really complex and so Angular was perfect. Client-side frameworks like Angular, React and Vue can do some amazing things and they consume content served as JSON like Pacman consumes dots!

We built an API for Bounty that exposed Sitecore content to their native mobile Apps – meaning content changes were pushed instantly across web and mobile.

This year we rebuilt and consolidated 11 car manufacturer brand sites for Inchcape into one. When we did this, we needed to overhaul the search interface. We used React and got it to search via an API that combined vehicle data with Sitecore content. This meant we could keep the massive amounts of vehicle data required to allow the search to work off the Sitecore platform where it served no purpose. It also resulted in a much slicker user experience, including a sophisticated UI and incredibly fast response times.

Example of Headless CMS

A leading UK fleet management and outsourcing business faced some similar challenges to Inchcape, in this case we built a brand-new platform and we worked with a specialist UI design and build agency who wanted to build the UI in React without having any knowledge of Sitecore. We delivered a similarly streamlined and quick experience, but also brought xDB into play by allowing them to send us information about the customer, share session data between client and server side, and receive personalised vehicle recommendations. 

Summary

As I’ve mentioned throughout this article, headless is not new – just a new buzzword or area of interest. Not every website needs to be headless, but they must be developed within a CMS framework which is why we often favour hybrid solutions that support both methods; a headless CMS using Sitecore and an API (JSON) as demonstrated, or a site that is built with the Sitecore layout engine. 

If you’d like to find out more about how Sitecore as a headless CMS could benefit your company website get it touch here

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