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CDO’s 5 Must Have Features in A Headless CMS

When you’re in charge of the transformational role of technology in an enterprise, as Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) are, any new solution needs to be flexible. For this reason, the API-first structure of headless CMS often makes it onto the CDO’s shortlist.

The three main priorities of a CDO, according to survey data, are:

  • Unifying the digital agenda

  • Handling legacy IT systems

  • Bridging the talent gap

While a CMS is only part of the puzzle, it is one that sits in the intersection of all three priorities. A CMS needs to deliver to any touchpoint, integrate nicely with back-end and legacy systems, and work intuitively for both marketers and developers, which historically has been difficult with a headless CMS.

Fast moving businesses need an Agile CMS that can keep up. As a recent Forrester report puts it:

“We need a new container to meet tomorrow’s challenges. Building from the architecture of headless CMS, Forrester believes that that new container is already taking shape: Agile CMS. Forrester defines Agile CMS as:

A solution for collaboratively curating, creating, and delivering content across channels and campaigns via iterative development and deployment processes.

Both the adjective “Agile” and the Agile development methodology bring the right connotations to this new category: increasing reuse, flexibility, and experimentation for practitioners while allowing technical professionals to build and deploy in short, iterative bursts (sprints).”[1]

So what factors should CDOs look for to determine if the headless CMS architecture is agile enough to join the digital agenda? Below are 5 key questions to consider in your selection.

1. Framework Freedom

“Ease of integration among front-end components” was chosen as the most important characteristic when selecting a solution, as determined by a Forrester survey among digital experience professionals [2].

A major draw of headless CMS is that you aren’t locked into a certain solutions, and this should apply to the front-end frameworks as well. Ensuring that the CMS can work with multiple frameworks - React, Angular, Ember, Vue, etc - helps you in two fold. One, you know the CMS is built to adapt to whatever app/screen/touchpoint comes next. Two, you open up the pool of talent and can entice top developers who want to work and experiment with the latest frameworks.

2. Extensible

A headless CMS needs to not only play nicely with your front-end frameworks, but also integrate with back-end systems. API support across both external and internal applications is critical to build that unified digital agenda, as 59% CDOs report that a lack of integration of new and existing technologies was a barrier to their initiatives.

As companies put more focus on a relevant customer experience, content delivery needs data from third party tools, such as Marketing Automation and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, and the CMS you chose needs the APIs to do so (more on that below).

The right CMS also tackles the issue of legacy systems. Complex legacy systems are often critical to the business and, in the eyes of many companies, change implies risk. A CMS with full API support integrates nicely with the back-end systems required to run your business, while giving your developers and marketers a safe space to experiment with the experience.

3. Preview & Editing

Marketing tools have traditionally been where headless CMS falls flat. Sure, developers might be able to whip up a single page application (SPA) quickly, but if marketers have to go through IT for every change they want to make it’s ultimately slowing down business.

The historical problem with headless deliver, especially in the case of SPAs, is that when content is stored separate from it’s presentation marketers lose the ability to see how unpublished content will be presented live. When you lose the ability to preview content, the What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editing tools go along with it.


All headless CMSs deliver content separate from presentation, but marketing-friendly solutions also deliver content orientation via APIs.

When it comes to previewing within the CMS, an API can wrap each component in meta-data to show where is begins and ends. These meta-data tags create a map that your front-end framework, such as an SPA, can use to determine the order of components and the content that goes in them.

One API creates a map for the live site, and one API creates a map for the “preview site” which is allowed to view unpublished content.


The meta-data tags and Preview API also enables WYSIWYG editing. If you drag a component into a new place in the preview, the API creates a new map. The preview lets you see how that new map will be rendered by the front-end framework - giving you full confidence to push “publish”.

For an in-depth look at how this works, check out our recent article on marketing features with SPAs.

4. Personalization

52% of digital leaders cite lack of access to customer data as a top challenge to maturing personalization initiatives, according to a July 2018  Forrester Report [2]. Choose an extensible CMS with APIs that can imbibe 3rd party data (CRM, DAM, Marketing Automation, etc) and use the combined data to feed personalization efforts.

With the proliferation of digital channels, this personalization needs to happen at the core of the experience - the CMS - as opposed to each front-end application handling personalization in a data silo.

To do this, a CMS needs to have native, component-based personalization that occurs on the server-side. That way, relevant content is determined by the CMS before it’s sent to the front-end via the API map mentioned above. Every channel can pull from - and contribute to - the same pool of data and your visitors get a consistently relevant experience across every interaction.

5. Quick Time to Value

Many factors of headless CMS contribute to speed. The API-first architecture makes headless CMS inherently fast to develop with. Easy integrations with legacy systems allow you to keep moving forward without the need to rip and replace entire systems. Choosing a CMS that retains marketing tools let’s marketing move quickly and doesn’t bog your developers down with requests.

Combined, the capabilities of an agile headless CMS not only get your first project up and running quickly. Content and logic can be reused across multiple front-end frameworks, traditional server-side sites, or a hybrid combination of delivery methods. This reusability allows you to scale the experience - across touchpoints, regions, brands, etc.

To read about reusable architecture in action, have a look at how Cedar Fair launched 11 amusement park websites in just 4 months.


API-first might be the rallying cry of all headless CMS, but there is a wide spectrum of how each system supports your tech stack and teams. Keeping these 5 points in mind can help you decide the critical questions to ask as you search for the perfect solution.

1. Grannan M, Bonde A, Schadler T, et al. Forrester Research. Coming Soon: Agile Content Curation And Orchestration Will Redefine CMS. 15 November 2018.

2. Grannan M, Gill M, Chirokas M, et al. Forrester Research. The State Of DX 2018: Priorities Thwarted By Legacy Foundations. 19 July 2018.

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