One of the newest buzzwords in technology is “headless,” and it’s honestly hard to understand why people are so excited about a term that seems more appropriate for a horror movie than a piece of software. Let me start by assuring you that unlike most trends in human history that involve the word “headless”, this trend is a good one. Headless content management systems (CMSs), in particular, offer many opportunities for governments and non-profits that want to make a wise long-term technology investment.
Before we go into what those opportunities are, let’s go over what the main difference is between a traditional CMS and a headless CMS. In a traditional CMS, a backend (the code that manages all your content and data) is strongly connected to a frontend (the code that powers how the people sees your content) and all the code that powers your project lives on a single server.
In a headless CMS, the backend and the frontend are still connected, but they’re connected by an application programming interface (API) instead. The frontend, whether it’s a website, a mobile phone app, or a smartwatch app, can collect content from the same backend using the API and display it specifically for a particular device or app.
Now why is a headless CMS beneficial for governments and non-profits? Going headless isn’t going to be the best option for every organisation, but here are some reasons to consider making the investment.
1) You can reach more people on more devices
The average American household now has around 25 connected devices, such as smartphones, fitness trackers, and tablets. In the UK, the average number of connected devices is currently around 10. These numbers are growing around the world. It’s vital for governments and non-profits to have options for getting their message out to people who would benefit from it, no matter what device people are using.
A headless CMS can help because it gives you options for pushing the same content to multiple devices from one source. You would still have to decide which devices or platforms are the best for your organisation to target, but with the API of a headless CMS, there are almost no limits to how you can broadcast your content.
2) You can reuse more content
Many organisations find themselves spending time and effort on reformatting the same content for many different formats and platforms. A blog post about an annual report might be re-posted across multiple websites, social media, and an email newsletter. Having a headless CMS won’t necessarily remove the need to make posts on individual platforms (although there are integrations that can help).
The beauty of a headless CMS is what happens when someone discovers a typo in a board member’s name. Rather than having to update the post individually on all of those different platforms, a headless CMS lets you create once and publish everywhere. A good example of this is the CHUNKS approach used by the National Health Service, which aims to distribute content across multiple apps through APIs.
3) You don’t have to make one website do everything
Website technology and standards are constantly changing. Ensuring a single website works well across multiple devices while also conforming to accessibility standards, translating into multiple languages, and adhering to best practices for each device has become an increasingly difficult challenge.
Having a headless CMS won’t make complex design decisions for your website go away, but it will give your organisation more options to create separate designs for different platforms according to the needs of your organisation and the people you’re trying to reach.
4) You don’t have to stress as much about scaling up
Governments are responsible for perpetually growing amounts of content that needs to be publicly accessible, and even small non-profits have to consider how the technology they use will grow with them. The media landscape has shifted drastically, and new technology (especially frontend technology) continues to evolve at a very rapid pace.
You may have to re-evaluate hosting options or the public-facing parts of your web presence regularly, but one big advantage of a headless CMS is that you can try new technologies to serve larger audiences without having to switch to a new CMS too.
5) You’ll make the most of your budget over time with open source
There are many high-quality CMSs available currently. Some, like Adobe Experience Manager or Contentful, are proprietary, while others, like Wagtail and Strapi, are open source. Choosing an open source headless CMS will give your organisation more options for building the features you need as well as hiring developers, agencies, and other technology partners to work on your projects.
In addition to saving money on the licensing fee, open source CMSs don’t require expensive certifications for developers to learn the code. That means more developers can learn about the underlying software and you’ll have more options when you need to hire outside help. Choosing an open source headless technology also means the source code is yours to keep. Even if you decide to switch technology partners, the code will go with you.
Are there any downsides to a headless CMS?
Like any newer technology, there are still challenges that need to be worked out for headless CMSs. Developers at Torchbox, the creators of Wagtail, often recommend starting with an open source CMS that has a strong API and building out your project with the traditional approach first before introducing headless elements. This approach will give you a chance to evaluate whether your technical team or partner has the right skills and resources needed for managing a headless CMS.
For example, you’ll need someone who has experience with API versioning and you’ll need to be willing to manage a development version of the API for your developers to interact with locally. You’ll also need strong communication between the people managing your CMS and your frontend because adding new features will be more complicated. Previewing how content will display as well as personalisation features are also a bit more complex with a headless CMS.
For those reasons and more, a headless CMS is probably not the best option for organisations who don’t have their own developers or the resources to hire a partner who can maintain code for them. The initial investment needed to get a headless CMS up and running is also currently higher, which is something to weigh against the long-term benefits.
I hope this list helps get you thinking about whether it’s time for your organisation to go headless. If you need more help, there’s a handy guide for decision makers who are considering Headless Wagtail. Feel free to use the questions in that guide to start some conversations and figure out whether or not your organisation should keep its head.
Author: Meagen Voss, Torchbox Wagtail Partnerships and Community Manager
Meagen Voss began her journey into content management nerdery with a WordPress website in the early 2000s and is now the Wagtail Partnerships and Community Manager at Torchbox. When she’s not coding or writing, you can find her hiking in the mountains of North Carolina.