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Headless CMS

How to choose a headless CMS - a Selection Process Checklist

We will explore the key considerations when choosing a headless CMS to understand which features and capabilities matter most to you.

Key Takeaways

  • Several business and technical benefits can be gained by selecting a Headless CMS over a Monolith.
  • The best Headless CMS will scale with your business but remain flexible enough to adapt to changing requirements or market conditions.
  • Organizations must beware of the "Feature Creep Curve" to avoid expensive long-term developments to maintain infrastructure.
  • Content Architecture, API Design, Content Delivery Performance, API performance, Editorial Features, Business Flexibility, Security, and Privacy are the key areas to consider when deciding on a Headless CMS.

Choosing a Headless CMS

Moving to a headless CMS can reward organizations with business and technical benefits. Here are some of the most common ones:

Technical Benefits:

  • Meet tight deadlines for a new project involving multiple channels.
  • Meet speed and performance requirements.
  • The flexible design of your content and application architecture.
  • Pick the frontend frameworks your team prefers (React, Angular, Vue, etc.) and meet ambitious design requirements.
  • Decouple a monolithic structure to reduce technical debt.
  • Reduce hiring bottlenecks from hard-to-find legacy CMS experts.

Business Benefits:

Other Factors to Consider

While the benefits of a headless CMS are notable, some other considerations need to be made:

Organizational Goals and Objectives

Identifying your key problems and goals as a department or organization will help you navigate the buying process successfully. Knowing your organization’s pain points will tell you what to look for in a headless CMS. This will also allow you to decrease the risk of buyer’s remorse and avoid overspending and overly complex solutions.

Open-Source or Proprietary

Another decision is deciding between open source CMS or closed source CMS. Open-source headless projects may require significant development investment to make them production-ready. On the other hand, commercial options will likely be more mature and aligned with enterprise use cases, providing the full assortment of tools your team needs to manage the entire digital experience.

Feature Creep Curve

The complexity of products increases with time due to continuously adding newer features. Features released early are essential and solve core problems for most users. However, features released later are often non-essential and only solve a marginal amount of the issues for some users. The complexity caused by many non-essential features often outpaces the value they provide, and user productivity is often negatively affected.

Core Headless CMS Features Checklist

Now that we've gone over the high-level validations required when deciding to opt for a Headless CMS, let's dive into covering the specific features you should keep an eye out for.

Content Architecture & API Design

Content architecture and API design are critical for a headless CMS because they dictate how content should be structured, stored, and accessed. A well-designed architecture ensures content can be easily managed and scaled accordingly. It also affects how well marketers can reuse content across channels.

Meanwhile, a robust API facilitates seamless integration with various frontend systems, enabling efficient content delivery across multiple channels and dictating how easy it is to integrate with other tools in the tech stack.

These aspects are vital to maintaining consistency, optimizing workflows, and providing a superior user experience.

  1. Ease of Setup. If you can't build the content architecture and get API responses within a matter of moments, the CMS may not be the ideal one for you.
  2. The CMS has a GraphQL API.
  3. The API has functions like ordering, filtering, and pagination.
  4. The API can not only deliver content (read/query), but also allows you to write content into the content database (write/mutation).
  5. The CMS allows you the flexibility of staging your schema and your content.
  6. Your CMS provides you multiple versions of your content (or versioning).

Content Delivery Performance

Content delivery performance can be a difference maker for a headless CMS, directly affecting user experience, engagement, and search engine rankings. A system with optimized delivery performance ensures rapid content distribution and responsiveness, allowing your organization to cater to various user devices, channels, and diverse audiences.

This performance optimization, achieved through various features such as efficient caching, API management, and a global CDN, can reduce bounce rates and increase conversions.

  1. Your API doesn't under or over fetch content above what is required.
  2. Your content is available (and cached) across several data centers close to your target markets.
  3. Your CMS and Content APIs have middle-layer caching across a global CDN.

General API Considerations

APIs provide the essential connection between the content repository and various frontend applications. Robust and flexible APIs simplify the development process, allowing for efficient integration with multiple platforms and technologies. This enables developers to build versatile, customized user experiences while reducing development time and effort.

  1. Management API to manage schema changes, users, and administration activities programmatically.
  2. A Mutation API to write batch mutations.
  3. A well-documented API to reduce learning curves and overheads.
  4. The ability to support localization and internationalization (i18n and i10n)

Editorial Features

A headless CMS must have comprehensive and user-friendly editorial features that streamline the content creation and management process. This enables content teams to collaborate effectively and consistently adhere to brand guidelines.

By prioritizing editorial tools, a headless CMS ensures that content creators can focus on producing high-quality, engaging content that enhances user experience without being over-reliant on developers for assistance.

  1. Ease-of-use for content creators and editors.
  2. Custom roles.
  3. Custom workflows.
  4. Ease of setting up and operationally managing SEO.
  5. Ability to create flexible content models for pages, posts, marketing assets, and other editorial requirements.
  6. Storage of assets.
  7. Manual image operations like resizing and rotating.
  8. Automatic asset transformations and optimization for increased performance.
  9. Options for hosting assets in a self-owned asset bucket.
  10. Ability to create and edit the content on the fly with a rich text editor.
  11. Ability to preview content

Business Flexibility

A headless CMS can enable your organization to adapt quickly to changing market conditions and customer preferences. Business flexibility is an important business consideration as it empowers companies to stay competitive, maintain a relevant digital presence, and meet evolving customer demands while ensuring long-term success and growth.

  1. Flexible pricing based on scaling needs.
  2. Support options via the community, account manager, or documentation.
  3. Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for support and API uptime.
  4. Content federation to unify data sources

ROI Considerations

ROI assessments for a headless CMS consider both initial setup costs and ongoing maintenance expenses. A CMS with a healthy ROI balances these costs while delivering efficient content creation, management, and distribution. By evaluating ROI, businesses can prioritize features that maximize long-term efficiency and scalability, ensuring that the investment in the CMS yields significant returns. This enables organizations to make informed decisions about their content management strategy, how they will optimize resource allocation, and drive sustainable growth.

  1. Clearly defined initial setup costs including monthly or annual software licenses, hardware costs and implementation costs
  2. Clear specifications for ongoing hosting and support.
  3. Monthly API calls
  4. User and locale limits
  5. Content models and content entries

Security, Compliance, and Privacy

Sound security, compliance, and privacy features protect sensitive data and ensure adherence to regulatory requirements. A secure CMS safeguards content, user information, and access controls, mitigating potential risks and breaches. By prioritizing these features, businesses can maintain customer trust, avoid costly penalties, and uphold their reputation.

  1. Backups (manual backups, point-in-time recovery, nightly backups, and offsite backups).
  2. Robust Infrastructure.
  3. Auto-scaling features.
  4. Shared and dedicated infrastructure.
  5. ISO 27001 certified 3rd party providers and data centers.
  6. SOC2 Type II
  7. Data encryption.
  8. API security policies including custom origin policies and IP firewalls.
  9. Custom roles and permissions.
  10. GDPR and EU-US Privacy Shield compliance.
  11. Audit logs.
  12. Single Sign-On (SSO).

Next Steps to a Modern Headless CMS

A Headless CMS can provide more flexibility and reduce the technical debt your engineering team has to struggle with. It can also enable your business to deliver content to new channels and take the customer experience to the next level.

The points in our checklist should help you to make an informed decision on which Headless CMS best suits your specific use case. However, it only scratches the surface. To get a more in-depth analysis into considerations when opting for a Headless CMS, download our Headless CMS Buyer's Guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of Headless CMS exist?

There are usually two types of Headless CMS. Open-Source Headless CMS, and Cloud-based (SaaS) Headless CMS.

Some headless CMS options are completely open-source software solutions, meaning developers can access the source code if need be. Examples of this are Ghost, Headless WordPress, and Netlify CMS.

Many Headless CMS options are cloud-based SaaS solutions that can either be hosted in the cloud or on-site. Popular Headless CMS options include Hygraph, Contentful, and Contentstack.

What are common features of a Headless CMS?

All Headless CMS should first and foremost be API-driven and provide a robust Content API. These can either be RESTful or GraphQL Headless CMS. They also commonly provide a GUI (Editor interface), act as a Content Hub, provide Content Versioning, Content Taxonomies, and User Permissions.

More advanced Headless CMS would provide Digital Asset Management, Content-based Permissions, Webhooks & Integrations, and an SDK to manage content programmatically.

What are the benefits of a Headless CMS?

Headless CMS often allow for multi-platform and omnichannel content delivery since they aren’t tightly coupled to the presentation layer or frontend. Headless CMS also give flexibility to developers to use their preferred frontend frameworks and backends, without “locking them in” to a predefined tech stack.

Who uses Headless CMS?

Headless CMS are first and foremost used by developers, who define the content model and structure the content to be queried based on their use cases. Since headless CMS removes the static frontend delivery of a WCMS, presentation layers must be built before content can be delivered.

Once the structure is set, marketers and content editors begin to work with the CMS. While developers and programmers will likely spend the most time within a headless CMS, marketers, content creators, and content editors still leverage some features within one. In particular, written content and assets still need to be added to the CMS’s content repository.

What should I look for in a Headless CMS?

Once you have defined the needs around assets and content for your organization, it’s important to start shortlisting the requirements needed for a CMS. Several teams require extensibility, which Headless CMS can easily accomplish. In the case of Hygraph, there are several native integrations, and for services that don’t have a native integration, one can easily be built by leveraging the granular webhooks features.

What are some challenges to consider when choosing Headless CMS?

It can be quite tricky to make the transition to a Headless CMS when coming from a pure Web-CMS background. Headless CMS doesn’t offer the traditional WYSIWYG feeling to content creation since they aren’t solely intended for managing websites and decouple the presentation layer from the back-end. Another big concern is usually SEO since Headless CMS doesn’t offer the plug-and-play comfort of options like WordPress with Yoast. SEO has to be treated as “data”, and the technical foundation of the digital platform is at the hands of the development team.