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Why Bother with a Headless CMS?

Some things to consider when building your web site.

Whenever a team proposes the programming language, architecture or framework of choice to tackle a problem, my first instinct is to respond with: Why bother?

I’m not trying to be contrarian. I’m also not trying to hold onto the past while the engineers pitch the latest and greatest tech to solve a problem. I’m just trying to inject some pragmatism into the conversation. Those early decisions are always the most impactful and therefore potentially the most costly. The decisions made in those early meetings will establish the path and trajectory for the rest of the project.

The old thing (in this case, a monolithic CMS like WordPress that produced regular HTML web pages) might be boring but it works. Provably works. And so when it came time to rebuild and redesign postlight.com, I had to say it: Why bother with headless WordPress?

What is a headless CMS?

Put simply, a headless CMS doesn’t bother with the templates. Or with making pages. There’s an entire world of templates out there. Templates are essentially web page “containers” that are wired up so that when you hit publish, WordPress “pours” its content into the right places of the page and serves it up to the world. 

“Headless” means it serves up the content as raw data via an API. WordPress is perfectly suited to serve content this way because it has an API ready to go out of the box. The work then shifts to building a front-end that takes that raw content and puts it into various assets for consumption. This often occurs via some flavor of JavaScript framework. React is the framework of choice for many these days.

Yeah, but why bother?

Well, there are many good reasons to use a headless CMS:

  • Going beyond the web page. The CMS is no longer just for publishing anymore. Content is doing all sorts of things today. The article has given way to many flavors of content packaging. By decoupling it from any single template, all sorts of possibilities open up. For example, if you’re looking to deliver your content via an Alexa skill or integrated into a mobile app, a headless CMS makes a whole lot of sense.
  • Speed. By leveraging frameworks like React, you can be much more targeted about which bits of the page have to come over the wire instead of delivering the entire page each time.
  • New and improved experiences. Did you ever land on one of those news sites that just keeps giving articles forever as you scroll? That’s a chore with static templates. By allowing content to progressively come in over the wire as you scroll, you can pull off a pretty slick experience.

But I’m building a marketing website. Do I really need a headless CMS?

Ah, now we’re getting down to it. The answer is: Maybe not. The constant temptation with new technology (headless WordPress isn’t even that new anymore, but it’s certainly not as well-defined as traditional WordPress) is to use it. While I could list out the disadvantages of a headless CMS here, that isn’t fair either. 

The best way to make this call is to ask a few questions and let that drive your decision:

  • Will your content make its way out into world in various shapes and forms (e.g. IoT, social, web, mobile app)? If so, then you should be leaning towards headless.
  • Do you have the skill sets at your disposal to build a headless CMS platform? This usually requires people that are versed in more modern frameworks and technologies (e.g. React).
  • Will your platform need to shift and change a whole lot? If your CMS is set to position you to do all sorts of things with your content then you’re going to want the flexibility of deploying teams to leverage that API for all sorts of purposes (microsites, etc.).
  • Is your CMS big? In other words, can more than one team take advantage of that API and run parallel with other teams? 

But all of these roll up to one big, giant, mega-question: Can you explain why this is a good idea in terms of growth? Because with headless, you’re giving up simplicity, and you need to get something in return. A faster development cycle, a better experience on mobile out of the box, and an increased likelihood that more people will see and engage with the content we produce.

Sites and platforms are funny in that it can be sort of dumb to see them in terms of ROI. Websites are about getting a return on other investments: Investments in content, in design, in building a team.

If you can’t make that case, and not just argue it but really prove it out, you should use what’s familiar. Ultimately this is a business decision. 

But am I good for five years? Ten years?

Good technology decisions look ahead. There is no doubt that a headless CMS best positions you for those unknown demands down the road. Unless you’re just standing up a basic Home/About Us/Contact Us-style marketing site, you should seriously consider a headless CMS path. So while the hard questions are worth asking, it’s hard to argue against the strategic flexibility of looking ahead.

If you’re interested in diving in and exploring the world of headless WordPress, our popular Headless WordPress Starter Kit is a great place to start. 

Rich Ziade is president of Postlight, a full-service digital product studio in New York City. Email him at [email protected].

Story published on Sep 18, 2019.