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The term “Headless CMS” refers to an online application for managing content that exercises no opinions about how you should display your data. 

The traditional CMS typically has some sort of rendering engine for displaying the content to end-users; you can think about this as the “public facing pages of a website”. This can be a convenient solution for a small company since it’s generally low-cost and developers that can bang out a Wordpress site are a dime a dozen. 

The problem with the traditional model is that your markup & business logic are intricately tied to that application. Sometimes the content is stored in a format that is difficult to export and move elsewhere. Sometimes the team supporting the software isn’t keeping pace with industry trends. Sometimes you fail to update the software and end up with Viagra ads in the footer of your corporate website. Whoops. 

With the advent of the headless CMS, you can ensure your investment will grow with your organization’s changing needs over-time. Because these products are designed with the API as a core component, your ability to migrate later and/or integrate with different frameworks or vendors is a safe assumption. 

Choosing a Headless CMS

The decision of which CMS your organization adopts can have lasting impact. When confronting this question, I like to think about the organization’s current needs, both now and in the future. Here are the questions I typically ask myself whenever confronting a recommendation for one of our clients… 

1. What is your budget & timing?

Pretty obvious, but the implementation costs can get pricey depending upon the complexity of your needs. Adding any new product into an established production environment can get tricky fast, so plan accordingly or consider a gradual migration over to the new system. 

If you’re opting for a managed solution like Contentful or Contentstack, you’ll want to make sure that the out of pocket expenses are not cost-prohibitive over time. 

2. What is your content strategy?

How much content are you producing and at what frequency? Do your content admins need complex publishing & approval workflows? Do you have a ton of existing content that will need to be migrated over from your old CMS? Do you primarily publish media like videos and infographics or are you more focused on the written word? These are common considerations that you’ll want to focus on before pulling the trigger. 

3. What features are important to your organization?

Absurdly obvious question? Yes, but every product has one or two features that may make it a better or worse fit for your needs. 

Do you require revision history or asset management? Do you need to present your content in more than one language? Does your CIO demand an Enterprise SLA for all vendors? The answers to these types of questions can have significant influence over your decision.  

Compare & Contrast

With all the competition in this space, it can be a real chore determining which product has which features. Often the language one vendor uses to describe a feature is at odds with another’s description of the same thing. 

Having gone through this process a few times, I finally got wise and started to document the features and options under review. The result is a faceted glance of 12 different products and how they fair on a number of basic criteria. Check out this handy reference, Ample's headless CMS cheatsheet...

Headless CMS Cheatsheet

We’ll be adding to this chart over time and look forward to sharing it with future clients and partners. If you see a mistake and/or have a suggestion about the features or the products evaluated, please let us know. If you maintain a headless CMS and you'd like to be included, send us your information today!

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Meanwhile, if you’re a developer and you’re interested in learning more about how to implement a headless CMS, you should come join us at JAMstack Cincinnati. Last month, we learned how to wire up Contentful to a GatsbyJS site. Notes and more can be found here. Maybe we’ll see you next month?