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Decoupled vs. Headless

If you read much about content management systems (CMS), if you are shopping for a new CMS or digital experience platform (DXP) , or if you just have your thumb on the pulse of digital marketing, you’ve heard a lot about headless CMS systems over the last few years.

The speed of content access, the variety of development platforms and the ability to present your content far beyond the corporate website is more than compelling—it seems essential to survival in this age of IoT and smart-everything.

What’s the Difference Between a Decoupled or Headless CMS?

The typical CMS is used to create, read, update and delete (CRUD) content on a website and other digital channels. There was a time when “content management” meant content management for websites—a one-source-to-one-channel relationship.

Most modern CMS solutions decouple content from presentation, making room for connectivity driven by an application service interface (API). The API and plugins provide connectivity with the various business systems we all require and to the various channels that must be served. In the decoupled scenario, content created for your website can be used for any medium desired.

Additionally, these platforms typically include tools for curation and management of content by non-technical users.

A headless CMS does what a normal CMS does, but with no preconceived notion as to how the content will be used and no stand-alone application for web-browser use. A headless CMS is API-first, cloud-first, and IT-centric.

The result is content management that is flexible, agile and fast, clearing the way for the establishment of a best-of-breed development stack for output to any channel or service: web, mobile, voice, kiosk and beyond.

The tradeoff between a headless platform and a decoupled CMS is that the application layer of a decoupled CMS is absent from the headless option. With headless, content becomes a service (CaaS), and the familiar, stand-alone applications which allowed content creation by non-technical users, if desired, must be integrated through an API.

This leaves the horizon wide open for the adoption of a best-of-breed application stack, but it also puts developers in the driver’s seat, leaving business users with no way to create content independently.

Your Website: ‘The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated’

Much has been predicted about the demise of corporate websites over the past few years, yet websites do not seem to be going away any time soon. Surely, the way we structure websites has changed over the decades (for instance, we now cater to how bots search as much as to how humans search, driving users to landing pages before homepages), but websites are here to stay, which means, for most corporate entities, business users need to create and curate in real time, independent of developers.

To do this, they need the application layer. This isn’t content as a service; this is just how business gets done.

Recently vendors of pure headless solutions have begun to respond to this need (perhaps begrudgingly), by suggesting applications to plug into their headless CMS or by creating their own applications for web presentation.

In either case, the results look much like a decoupled CMS with limited functionality for the business user. Drag-and-drop functionality may or may not be present and personalization and customer journey optimization capabilities, if desired, will almost certainly require more integration and more developer time.

Look Before You Leap—You May Find You Leap Farther

Those who sell pure headless solutions promise customers and agencies fast development and total control through a CMS that frees both developers and business users from the constraints of a web-centric system. Although not expressly untrue, the tools offered favor developers and developer-control of the process.

Business users will find content editing tools lack the WYSIWYG and drag-and-drop experience they have come to expect (at least they are not out of the box). Personalization, marketing insights and campaign creation will likely require more effort as well.

That is not to say there are not cases for headless, but look before you leap. If your web presence is primarily through kiosks, IoT devices and in-store signage, you may have found your panacea in a headless solution.

If, however, your website is central to your business, consider the needs of your business users and look at the robust API offerings a mature, decoupled CMS delivers. You may find you can achieve the omnichannel presence you desire while leveraging all the out-of-the-box capabilities of a modern CMS.

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