Choosing the best headless CMS

A good headless content management system (CMS) will enable your business to maximise the substantial benefits to be gained from a composable tech stack. So which is the best?

Tim Dodd

Head of Product & Technology

Decision-making in the composable tech stack and JAMStack architecture

We've previously touched on why you should switch to a headless CMS. It combines a series of best-in-class, cloud-native tools and frameworks; removing most of the restrictions and pain points faced by marketers in monolithic set ups.

Performing specific roles, these tools were conceived to live in the cloud and play nicely with a host of other tools and frameworks undertaking complimentary roles within the JAMStack architecture. However, with the plethora of options now available, how do you cut-through sales claims to make the right technical decisions in this rapidly evolving field?

Make the right selections to join the 83% who report gains from a Headless CMS

How to identify the best headless CMS for your business

When switching to a headless CMS, you'll be overcoming the problems that sit deep in the core of monolithic architecture performance, security, scalability, flexibility, extensibility, high overheads and so much more (as evidenced in the State of Content Management Report 2022). The best headless CMS solutions have taken the common pain points and shaped their product to directly address each of them.

But not all headless CMS platforms are created equal. Where they've chosen to place the emphasis, whether that's the editorial or developer experience, and the specific features they've conceived, varies greatly. You need to assess what they offer for content modelling, visual representation, flexibility in manipulation, content authoring, governance workflows, and so on.

You’re also faced with a multitude of providers for your front-end framework, Static Site Generation (SSG), Digital Asset Management (DAM), Customer Data Platform (CDP), search, personalisation, and maybe also a Product Information Management (PIM) solution.

Each will undoubtedly claim a 'technology partnership' with a leading headless CMS platform or two. To what extend they are truly integrated and how this fits with your other tools and delivery processes will only increase uncertainty in your decision-making.

Trying to cut through the 'cloud-fluff' (vague marketing descriptions) as they each claim to solve all of your problems, you'd be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed.

Stick with it! The gains are significant. We'll steer you through by breaking it down into areas of consideration. This will help you decide on the best headless CMS for your business.

Omnichannel, content modelling & multiple structures in a single headless CMS

While you don't have to be all-in for the seamless omnichannel content management experience in order to go headless, those that do have this requirement (or will in the future) should be assessing their options with this in mind.

What is omnichannel? It's the ability to manage and deliver content to your customers, through a multitude of different devices and touch points, from a single headless CMS e.g. website, native app, eCommerce site, tablet kiosk (see Tesla), etc.

Within your headless CMS, you'll need to organise your content in a logical and searchable structure or taxonomy. This is your content modelling. You're looking for flexible, intuitive and easy-to-use methods to apply and change your content model in the headless CMS without being too strictly tied to the external structure presented in any individual channel.

I'm long enough in the tooth to recall the days of a separate website for mobile devices and the many 'm.' subdomains (before the days of basic media queries even!). The duplication and lack of reuse was as painful as you might imagine. Although those days are long gone (thankfully), you should consider how well your headless CMS options allow you to duplicate, move, reuse and restructure your content to protect you from eventualities you can't foresee right now.

Consider the Headless CMS for the best editorial experience

Editorial experience, flexibility & the visual representation of your content

Spoiler alert the best headless CMS for your business is not just the cleverest technical solution or the reassuringly expensive option.

Some of the most important stakeholders in the decision are your editors/marketers. The best headless CMS for you is likely to be the one which drastically reduces the time it takes them to deliver, change and publish engaging content to your audience.

After a demo of a headless CMS platform, ask yourself how intuitive and flexible you found the editorial experience and controls? Ask questions which take the vendor away from their carefully prepared demo.

The best CMS solutions don't take much training at all. Our record is full CMS coverage resulting in a confident and self-sufficient client in under eight minutes!

Consider how the CMS would fit into, or enhance, your existing content workflow. Can you envisage all editors ditching those shared drive Word Docs, Google Docs, detached content authoring tools or lengthy email threads where confusion breaks out over which version of the document has the latest edits? Look for asynchronous editing, inline commenting and feedback between editors in your Headless CMS.

Our extensive experience and feedback from clients highlights that one of the most important elements of the editorial experience is the ability to see a visual representation of your content, with live edits as you are crafting it. How many times have you seen a Word Doc shared, word counts ballooning, the impact on mobile layouts not considered, only to find dozens of edits to come later when the content finally reaches the CMS or a published draft?

Do the headless CMS options you're considering provide a visual representation of your content coupled with the flexibility gained by detaching your content from rigid templates so you can shuffle component/blocks around? If not, we'd recommend you add Storyblok CMS to your list of potential solutions. Get in touch with us if you'd like a demo too.

Content authoring, workflows & editor roles

Since I've just resurfaced that painful memory of content managed outside of your content management system, make sure you pressure-test your headless CMS options against content authoring features and how your content workflow would be applied with that particular solution in place.

Collaboration between people within the headless CMS is a significant time-saver, and not just for larger organisations with distributed content teams operating in multiple local markets. Even a modestly sized entity needs content to pass through multiple stakeholders.

You'll want to consider how your headless CMS handles content workflows (sign-off or approval stages), i.e. how does your content efficiently move from marketing, to a brand review, through regulatory or compliance checks, an SEO review and so on. Is this customisable and how would you apply this to your teams and content production processes?

Supporting these workflows, you'll need configurable user roles, groups, teams and permissions. Some headless CMS tools, such as Strapi, felt this was such an important role for a headless CMS in its early days of conception, they made roles and permissions a distinguishing feature in their early releases.

Get this element right and you stand to gain hundreds of resource hours back across your business, and not just from your editorial or marketing teams.

Media assets drive user engagement but how does your CMS or DAM support your editors?

Media asset management & optimisation

Let's not forget that content doesn't just sit with the wordsmiths. Media assets provide significant value when it comes to how your customers engage with your content. However, this can be a problem area when it comes to content management, presentation and performance if your CMS and front end framework haven't got this bit right.

You'll be faced with two main options here assess your best headless CMS options by their asset management functionality or assess them based on the integrations available with a dedicated Digital Asset Management tool.

Think about how this has been done within the headless CMS itself to improve the editorial experience as much as how it would work in your target channels e.g. your website or eCommerce site where the assets are consumed by your front end framework and presented to your customers.

This is where you can benefit the most from the support of an experienced headless CMS team who have prototyped and launched commercial websites using multiple combinations of CMS and DAM solutions (e.g. Cloudinary, Bynder) and front end frameworks (e.g. Gatsby, Next, Nuxt).

A good agency will know, or can uncover, whether the 'integration' between CMS and DAM is real or not, how it is applied, and the point where the front end framework's image service picks up the responsibilities of image sizing and optimisation versus the DAM. They will also have a point of view of the maturity of new entrants to the market and when they are stable enough to adopt.

Locales, multi-market & multilingual solutions in headless CMS platforms

From both client-side and agency experience, I have lost count of how many times a monolithic set up has been used, only for the need for locale-specific content to surface late in the project. I've heard of multilingual being treated as a second phase and there's often a question such as: "We love what you've created. Can we now replicate it for this brand?".

Moving away from a monolithic set up is a great first step in avoiding these issues. But you can still be burdened with unnecessary costs and headaches with the wrong choice of headless CMS or a poorly considered content model and editor experience.

My advice would be to not validate which is the best headless CMS against the requirements as you understand them to be right now, but to also apply some credence to how the CMS might cater for these types of extensions in the future, with minimal disruption ...however improbable they may seem today.

You're only one board-level decision or unforeseen strategy change away from a very painful and costly exercise which could have easily been avoided.

An experienced headless CMS team will apply extensible models and structures that will help to protect you against future costs and headaches when you need to move into a new region, market language, product/sector or channel. Obviously this needs to be coupled with the right capabilities from the selected headless CMS.

This is another area where Storyblok CMS excels through their cleverly conceived Dimensions app which enables editors to apply sweeping changes across pages in different markets/languages without disrupting existing divergences or translations. They also provide two different internationalisation methods which you can consider for your content modelling. You might not need them today, but it's worth just lifting up the hood to see which translation tools the CMS has integrated with.

Is your headless CMS an enabler for your engineers to deliver business results?

Engineering considerations of your best headless CMS options

Of course, you're going to struggle to successfully deliver a new digital experience without all the key stakeholders being on board with the technology choices being made.

Although your headless CMS decision must place a lot of focus on the editorial experience, there will be a minimum threshold for the engineering delivery to support your desired flexibility, extensibility, scalability and performance targets.

Most of the headless CMS platforms will provide a GraphQL API. This is essentially a flexible interface that enables the engineer to retrieve content dynamically from the CMS rather than work with a fixed set of methods, burdening each request with everything the CMS holds on a particular object (like an article).

As with any entity forming part of a composable tech stack, clear and up-to-date API documentation, how-to guides and code examples will help to position your option as the best headless CMS in the eyes of your engineering team.

You'll need to consider that it will be the engineers who configure the CMS inputs; usually in the form of content blocks they define in the headless CMS to align with the web components in their codebase. The flexibility and granularity to which they can configure and administer their schemas in the CMS will make the world of difference to the engineering hours and support you require. This can have a significant impact on how intuitive the editorial experience is and therefore your efficiency, time to market and ability to deliver engaging content.

Naturally, a good engineering team will also want to probe the options being considered based on security standards and credentials, the ability to align the headless CMS to feature previews (rather than managing multiple environments), the ease with which their preferred framework can be applied and many, many more factors.

The best advice I can give is to extract all of your requirements up front and assess the best headless CMS options against those.

Don't be led by the assumption that the most expensive option is better or doing more. You may be paying over the odds, for features you don't need or simply a name... as is often the case in the SaaS world.

Equally, where you may come across reviews which entail the creation of a developer's personal blog or website, take their findings with a pinch of salt. The best headless CMS for your business needs to stand up to the pressures of a commercial environment which goes beyond a basic tutorial set up and a series of workarounds.



Consultancy and delivery of headless CMS and JAMStack

There are many, many more lower-level topics to factor into your decision the level of technical support, automated backups, GDPR/data, custom asset domains, strengths of each static site generator and host, to name just a few.

This is why we've devised a programme which not only gives you access to our experience in the world of headless CMS and composable tech, but also helps you to uncover your best headless CMS through workshops, process reviews, prototyping and an unbiased scoring matrix.

Let's talk headless

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