Headless CMS in a business context

Have we made the full circle?

I started with web development in 1996, back then it was plain HTML with a tiny bit of JavaScript. Then in 1999, I began building a Content Management System (CMS), using Active Server Pages (ASP) and the era of server-side web page delivery began. In the last couple of years, however, the innovations in web development shifted to the front-end, fueled by the advancement of modern JavaScript, fantastic UI libraries and frameworks (e.g., React, Vue and so forth), a suite of static site generators, a myriad of new headless CMSs and developer friendly platforms like Netlify allowing you to deploy your web app without any ceremony.

All of this made it easier, faster and much more cost effective to build incredible next-generation web experiences that your customers love.

The business side of Headless CMS

So it’s natural that these developments have the attention of the business. What used to be slow, expensive, complicated and where you needed precious specialists is now easier, less expensive, more flexible and gives a much faster time to market.

Most of the large CMS vendors, who have been around the block for 10-15 years, mastered in providing software to create, manage and publish content – but often that content is bound to paradigms dictated by the CMS software, so launching a new site, a new app requires someone to create the design, someone to map the frontend code to the paradigm of the CMS and mapping content to this – and often using modern JavaScript Framework and libraries can conflict with the CMS delivery engine or inline editing capabilities.

This is why we have seen the rise of pureplay headless CMS vendors, who lets you manage content, which can be mapped to any presentation layer, whether it’s a native mobile app, Progressive Web App, website, IoT etc. This gives modern frontend developers full flexibility, and they can start with the right toolset for the task and don’t have to worry about the constraints of a CMS. They can bind content when they need to – and in collaboration with the business.

From a business point of view, you get full flexibility, fast time to market, no dependency on a selected CMS. Your frontend is decoupled from the CMS – it’s headless. Imagine making a redesign effort without changing anything in the underlying architecture of your CMS!

However, all this goodness comes at an expense. The marketing tools that most of the large CMS vendors have been putting on the market are not being utilized, so you end up getting a nice performing, easy to spin up digital property– which has the same static functionality, as we had on the web in 1996. Of course, different tools can be added on top to add the missing functionality, but it’s a significant consideration.

A bigger problem is the need for business to edit experiences in the context of the presentation layer. When using a headless CMS, you work with raw content, which may not always be business user-friendly. So while the well-established CMS vendors are racing to expand their offerings to headless, the pureplay are building a better backend for the frontend (just like we did when CMS took off in the late nineties).

Moving to headless is a wise choice for the business, as you get full flexibility for creating apps and sites, with the latest modern frontend tech and with no constraints from monolithic CMSs – those days are long gone.

Business benefits of headless are:

  • Operational efficiency

  • Faster time to market

  • Lower costs on development

  • A much bigger pool of developers to support your business

that being said, going headless from a business perspective should also mean you have a plan for:

  • Creating and managing content and make this as easy for the business as possible

  • Optimizing experiences with testing and personalization

  • Tracking performance based on your audiences

Otherwise, we are back to 1996, just with a fancier and easier way to spin up a website.

Next frontier - Headless CMS at the edge

Another important factor in modern web development is performance. Fast is not enough. Everything has to be blazing fast these days. While performance has always been important – it was important when our visitors used slow modems, then they got broadband and fast internet, and we became lazy about optimization. But given mobile usage and Google is now using page speed a factor in mobile search ranking, should make everyone care about performance, as performance = better search ranking = more traffic = more conversions = better business outcomes.

So on top of going headless with all the business benefit it brings, is also going headless with great performance. In order to achieve that, consider using Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) that are able to deliver the user experience from the closest edge to your customers, do it really well at scale and in a much more cost efficient manner.

At Altola, we are very excited about Netlify, offering easy global deployment through CDN with many edges. Deploying through Netlify is fast and can be done either through source control hooks (git) or through API calls, which is music to the developers’ ears.

When we explored going headless at the edge for exceptional performance, Netlify was a natural choice, and we didn’t want to compromise on optimization and managing content, so connecting Sitecore with Netlify was a natural choice for us. However, distributing our app code and content to CDN would mean that we would compromise on the use of personalization.

So we decided to build an integration with Sitecore and Netlify, where the web app and content can be fully managed in Sitecore Experience Platform (through Sitecore JavaScript Services) and then published to the Netlify’s edge. For the personalization to work, we augmented the server-side capability to signal when a page has a personalized component and via the app code logic, which includes SLAs (response times), the request is made back to Sitecore API for personalized content and renders it in the browser. If for some reason the SLA isn’t met, we display default content (already at the edge) to avoid compromised user experience. This configuration highlights Sitecore XP as a Contextual Content Delivery API endpoint, and the rest is taken care of at the edge.

The business benefits of this “headless at the edge with personalization” offering are:

  • Increased business outcomes (from more conversions), this is due to personalization and fast performance

  • Faster time to market (headless)

  • Operational efficiency (headless, deployment and personalization)

  • Lower cost of development (headless)

Take a look at our Sitecore + Netlify integration module here.

If you are using Sitecore today – and are moving to headless, feel free to reach out to us, we would love to share some thoughts on how to optimize your site and deployments for best impact.

Follow up with Lars Birkholm Petersen or connect with Altola on Twitter.