Headless CMS | All you need to know

June 1, 2021
5 minute read

In the digital marketing community, there is still a lot of buzz going around about headless CMS. With our roots at UNRVLD, firmly in the build and technical elements of websites, we have delivered a large number of projects which utilise headless CMS for decades. Now that it has continued to be incredibly successful, we are fortunate to already have great insight into what it is and how it can benefit our clients.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is completely decoupled from its presentation. This means that the part that presents the content is separate from the part that defines it. Otherwise it’s not all that different from a traditional CMS.

A traditional CMS allows the content editor to define content for their brand. This content is tied to a specific form of presentation, the part that presents the content, which is known as the “head”. The head is tightly coupled to the part that defines the content. This means that the CMS stores the data and allows for the content editor to maintain it. It also presents the data in a specific way. Put simply, the data defined is displayed in one specific way and not shared between different presentations.

How headless CMS differs from a traditional CMS, is that it’s completely devoid of the presentation aspect. Usually, developers will expose the data via APIs in a JSON format to be consumed by any presentation method. This means that the CMS now is only maintaining the data and the content entry.

Why should your business care about headless CMS?

Customers interact with your brand over multiple channels and touchpoints: mobile, tablet, website, print, social platforms etc.

With a traditional approach there are many ways to achieve this and if the downside is a little bit of repeated content entry and a collection of CMS systems for mobile, website and print then I think that we can all live with that…right?

Wrong! Absolutely not.

There are two huge reasons why we shouldn’t “live with that”. Firstly, the number of channels that customers use to interact with your brand is increasing rapidly. Just to highlight a few:

  • Website
  • Mobile / Tablet
  • Print
  • In store
  • Alexa / Google Home smart speakers
  • Smart Watches
  • IoT devices – smart fridges / home management systems / TV’s

The speed at which you need to be responding is increasing exponentially. Updating your content on one system while another system displays old content can damage your brand significantly. A Twitter storm can erupt in minutes and cause irreversible damage if not responded to quickly and consistently across channels. This is why many businesses are looking to systems like Sitecore, that can implement a headless CMS to solve this.

The headless CMS approach can allow for content editors to create the content once in a structured way in a centralised CMS. It then pushes content to all channels in one go to create a truly omnichannel user experience across the brand platforms.

Is Sitecore a headless CMS?

The simple answer is yes! Sitecore has the ability to be a true headless CMS, having started as a headless CMS nearly 20 years ago. Its content has always been separated from presentation, in fact the very first versions of Sitecore served content via an API that was separate from the abstracted presentation layer. The “middle” presentational layer that (optionally) ties content to presentation was a later addition. The important point is that this fundamental principle of abstraction between content and presentation has always been part of Sitecore.

So, if this isn’t a new concept for Sitecore then you may be wondering what’s left to talk about here? Data, big data.

What’s new for Sitecore as a headless CMS?

Sitecore is so much more than a CMS; it’s a customer experience platform (CXP). How cool would it be if your CXP was headless?  Not only can it expose all the benefits of personalisation, multi-variant testing (MVT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a headless manner, it also exposes an API that you can push all your valuable interaction data to. That’s what Sitecore xConnect is all about, however your customer chooses to interact with your brand, whether it’s on your website, on your mobile app, on their Alexa, in store or even on their fridge. All that valuable data can be pushed to Sitecore via an API and used to enhance the customer’s experience.

The amazing addition of xConnect to the platform makes this all effortless for Sitecore 10. It’s an O-Data compliant API interface that allows you to push data to Sitecore xDB. It also allows you to pull data from xDB and use it in conjunction with a Business Intelligence (BI) tool like Microsoft Power BI – but that’s a different topic for another day.

Partner with a digital agency that understands headless CMS

Working with a digital agency that is well-versed in headless, can help turbo your organisation’s digital infrastructure to new levels and achieve great results. We are , and we design, build and optimise great Sitecore websites.

Over the years, we have built a long list of APIs within Sitecore that expose Sitecore content, normally represented as JSON. We’ve done this for a host of different reasons too.

We used Angular to build an interactive learning tool for a multi-national pharmaceutical business. All the questions and answers were held in Sitecore, but the User Interface (UI) was complex and so Angular was perfect. Client-side frameworks like Angular, React and Vue can do some amazing things and they consume content served as JSON like Pacman consumes dots!

We built an API for Bounty, the baby-care provided, that exposed Sitecore content to their native mobile app – meaning content changes were pushed instantly across web and mobile.

Recently, we rebuilt and consolidated 11 car manufacturer brand sites for Inchcape into one. When we did this, we needed to overhaul the search interface. We used React and got it to search via an API that combined vehicle data with Sitecore content. This meant we could keep the massive amounts of vehicle data required to allow the search to work off the Sitecore platform where it served no purpose. It also resulted in a much slicker user experience, including a sophisticated UI and incredibly fast response times.

A leading UK fleet management and outsourcing business faced some similar challenges to Inchcape, in this case we built a brand-new platform and we worked with a specialist UI design and build agency who wanted to build the UI in React without having any knowledge of Sitecore. We delivered a similarly streamlined and quick experience, but also brought xDB into play by allowing them to send us information about the customer, share session data between client and server side, and receive personalised vehicle recommendations.

Our development team took part in an internal hackathon this year in order to bring Sitecore content to life through Amazon’s Alexa. The premise of which was a customer was leaving on holiday and needed to update their insurance. The team were able to utilise Sitecore’s headless CMS nature and deliver a full integrated Alexa experience in conjunction with a small mobile app. This entailed the customer instructing Alexa to update their insurance, Alexa responding with a quote and if the client accepted the notification being pushed to both Alexa and the mobile app with the updated policy amount.

Is your business ready for a headless CMS?

Headless is not new, it has just a received a renewed buzz around it. Not every website needs to be headless or even should be. However, in order to open-up the possibilities of becoming a headless CMS they must be developed within a CMS framework. This is why we often favour hybrid solutions that support both methods; a headless CMS using Sitecore and an API (JSON), or a site that is built with the Sitecore layout engine. We always tailor our solutions to our customers’ requirements and more importantly ensure they always have the options to do whatever the future entails.