Will your CMS present your content correctly across a growing number of channels? A new option can.

The merits of headless content management systems (CMSs) have been debated for many years. In fact, I remember writing about their benefits when I worked in 2005 on what was arguably the original headless CMS, Percussion’s Rhythmyx. Today, front-end web developers tend to favor headless, but digital marketers don’t, since they lose the ability to collect insights from customer interactions and personalize experiences. Thus, the debate. Thankfully, the best option for marketers and developers may have surfaced only recently.

For those new to this complex topic, a headless CMS lets you store, edit, and manage your content on the back end, but it doesn’t render, or present, the content on the front-end for consumption on a mobile phone, web page, or other channel without developer intervention. Those tasks are decoupled, leaving it to developers to determine how the device will render the content.

A non-headless, or coupled, CMS requires developers to write code and manage the presentation of content for different channels—mobile, web, whatever—after the content is published. Understandably, coupled CMSs sometimes can’t keep up with the proliferation of new devices and front-end technologies without extensive back-end development work. Headless CMSs create and store content that is device agnostic.

All this has become a central consideration in choosing the right CMS for your needs in an increasingly omnichannel world. And on the surface, the headless option makes good sense. With headless, front-end developers can code-in the look and feel of the content, eliminating the need for additional work on the back end. Headless also means they don’t need to cope with the intricacies of different rendering systems or technologies like .NET, JAVA, PHP, or Ruby. And it often quickens the customer experience by shifting the rendering to the devices, which are far more powerful than the cell phones of yesteryear.

The big “but”

So far, so good. There’s just one problem. Well, three, actually. First, separating the content creation from the presentation in headless means that, before the page is actually rendered, its composition is described only in code. To even reposition a component or add a new one requires additional coding.  It also means marketers lose their what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) capabilities that let them create and edit content in context.

Perhaps the greatest drawback is that headless, by its very nature, separates marketers from the data and insights needed to enhance or personalize customer experiences. That’s a really big deal in an age when delivering a great customer experience grows in importance day by day. Customers today expect companies to remember who they are or even anticipate why they’re visiting. 

The hybrid approach

The good news is there is now a third, hybrid approach that blends the best of both worlds. Front-end developers can use the tools of their choice to get the most from content. And they can do that without additional back-end development.

Marketers can once again see what they are creating, just as they did with web pages. However, now they can be confident the same content will appear correctly across different mobile phones, web sites, tablets, displays, kiosks, or other channels. Most important, marketers can personalize and optimize experiences.

This hybrid approach, which is described in much greater detail in the white paper, “What you need to know about headless CMSs,” is already built into the latest version of the Sitecore® Experience Manager, the CMS at the heart of the Sitecore® Experience Platform™ (XP). But here’s a sneak peek into the technology that makes it work.

Sitecore has always decoupled content from presentation, meaning the foundation of this new approach has been inside our CMS all along. Our implementation partners and developers have been able to use Sitecore as a headless system, relying on their own tools to do the rendering outside the Sitecore server.

Personalization is back

But with Sitecore XP 9, we’ve incorporated two add-ons that make it easier than ever to connect the dots—Sitecore® Experience Accelerator 1.6 and JavaScript Services Tech Preview. They allow any device or browser to interpret Sitecore content, replete with personalization rules set by the marketer. A new JavaScript SDK lets front-end developers use modern JavaScript libraries and frameworks like React.js and Angular to render content on any device, and Sitecore expects to add more options going forward.

Just as today’s customers expect more from their experiences, marketers and developers can now expect more from their CMS. Find out more about Sitecore’s hybrid approach from the “What you need to know about headless CMSs” white paper. What you learn from it might even end the debate over headless forever.


John Field is a product marketer for Sitecore. Find him on LinkedIn.