Headless CMS powers personalized, omnichannel e-commerce

As the headless CMS gains steam, understand why e-commerce companies are the most likely ones to reap the benefits and what trends are driving its adoption.

The headless content management system is an appealing way to deliver content quickly and efficiently, especially for e-commerce companies, whose customers expect content across a variety of different channels.

The rise of omnichannel marketing and personalization shines a light on the fact that traditional CMSes make it difficult to deliver uniform experiences quickly, easily and efficiently across web, mobile and IoT, said Liz Miller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research Inc.

"So many vendors start to tether to this idea that, if you are delivering e-commerce, the content has to be personalized. It has to be real time; ergo, you need a headless CMS," Miller said. "It's not a bad argument."

What is a headless CMS?

A traditional CMS relies on a front-end interface, or template -- usually in the form of an HTML editor -- to publish content. These templates can show content managers how the content will display to end users.

In a headless CMS, the back-end layer -- the content repository -- is decoupled from the front-end heads, or the presentation layer. Developers can develop these heads as needed for different channels, including smartwatches, mobile apps and websites, because the headless CMS stores content in its raw form. Organizations can then publish a variety of content types using that same API.

This is particularly useful for e-commerce companies that must publish content frequently as they release new products and marketing materials. For example, let's say developers at a fashion retailer receive the official photo of a new line of shirts.

Liz MillerLiz Miller

"That official picture often doesn't scale well, crop well and doesn't show up well in something that is a banner versus a mobile phone versus your website," Miller said.

In that case, the marketing team must generate multiple iterations of one photo, creating individual content for each presentation form, such as mobile, social media and the web. This often creates lag times between an image that is available on a website versus an image that is called back in real time by a phone or social media app.

A headless CMS eliminates that issue, Miller said.

"You can take one asset, have it reside in your headless CMS and -- no matter what presentation layer is requesting it -- it can request that in real time and have that then be contextually aware," she said.

We are likely headed to a world in which a lot of things are going to be either hybrid or headless.
Liz MillerVice president and principal analyst, Constellation Research

A headless CMS relies on a microservices-based architecture, rather than a monolithic one. Microservices architecture means that developers build applications in modular components, separating the code into segments. With monolithic architecture, the application's entire code lives in one principal file.

Microservices architecture is becoming more popular due to a variety of benefits, including increased scalability and flexibility for developers.

A hybrid CMS also relies on an API-driven microservices architecture, but it comes with templates, whereas a headless CMS does not. A hybrid CMS is almost always coupled with the CMS vendor's e-commerce delivery engine, Miller said. Salesforce's CMS is an example of a hybrid CMS because organizations are already using the vendor for CRM.

"We are likely headed to a world in which a lot of things are going to be either hybrid or headless," Miller said.

Traditional vs. headless CMS

The rise of headless CMS

Dawn Foods, a bakery ingredient manufacturer in Jackson, Mich., decided to transition to e-commerce retail to more easily promote new products and create a self-service mechanism so customers could more easily place orders, said Gireesh Sahukar, head of digital technology at the company.

Dawn Foods selected Commercetools, a headless e-commerce platform, and then began searching for a CMS that would align with that same API-driven microservices approach. The platform also needed to support GraphQL, a query language that Sahukar believes will become the "de facto standard for interacting with APIs in the future."

"We didn't want it to become a labyrinth of integrations to get our CMS and e-commerce platforms to talk to each other," Sahukar said. "We wanted it to be seamless."

The company selected Contentstack as its headless CMS vendor, which checked those boxes.

With a headless CMS, content isn't constrained to one format, enabling organizations to reuse that content between a variety of other systems, such as a digital asset management (DAM) platform or a product information management (PIM) system.

Interoperability was a priority when Alpro, a plant-based foods distributor based in Belgium, was deciding on a headless CMS vendor, said Ralph Urmel, international digital experience manager at the company.

The company's headless CMS, Contentful, can integrate with Bynder, its DAM platform, using open APIs.

Organizations can glean rich insight from tools such as DAM, which stores metadata and contextual awareness, and PIM, which stores product information from across the organization, Miller said.

"When you look at those three tools in a continuum, you have now connected what has traditionally been part of product, operations or marketing and created a bit of a single system," she said.

A headless CMS makes content personalization much easier since the content comes in its raw form, Sahukar said.

"When you're looking to call any piece of content, you have to be able to say, 'OK, I need this piece of content for this segment,' and you can capture and render the right response," he said.

Since headless platforms enable front-end developers to use any framework or programming language to create websites and apps, organizations can choose frameworks that facilitate personalization.

Blue Nile, an e-commerce jewelry retailer, uses a homegrown headless CMS in conjunction with React, a JavaScript library that enables developers to build interfaces on the fly for particular types of users, said Robin Schenck, quality assurance release manager at Blue Nile.

"It's very powerful for e-commerce companies to utilize those types of technologies, especially in a CMS," Schenck said.

Independence for content managers, marketers

In a traditional CMS, content is largely owned by marketing, Miller said. But, as the nature of e-commerce changes, multiple roles and teams in the enterprise need access to content.

The modular architecture of a headless CMS enables an organization to have a more agile approach to publishing content than a traditional CMS does, she said.

A variety of different roles regularly use the headless CMS at Dawn Foods. For example, content managers are concerned with visuals, search engine optimization and text, while e-commerce analysts look at product data and promotional metrics.

"We wanted to keep those roles separate because they are separate," Sahukar said. "We didn't want them stepping over each other within one system to make all of this happen, and the monolithic architecture [of a traditional CMS] doesn't allow you to do that."

A headless approach enables content managers, marketers and other business roles to have more independence when it comes to publishing content, he said. 

"Content managers have control over when they want to publish, what they want to publish and how they want to publish content," he said. "They don't need to rely on developers."

Headless CMS options are generally user-friendly and easy for nondevelopers to use and navigate, Schenck said.

"People that work in the [headless CMS] on a daily basis can just focus on the tools in it without having to worry about whether it will affect the website or break something else on the page," he said.

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