Going Beyond Headless

by Antti Hietala, Product Manager at Magnolia
Aug 20, 2020 | 7 MIN

Let's compare pure headless and hybrid headless content management systems in terms of technical capabilities, authoring experience and essential platform features.

First, a quick refresh of what headless means. A headless CMS has no rendering layer which is referred to as the “head”. A headless CMS focuses on the back-end content management tasks and makes the content available through an API.

Headless let’s you model content by defining content types and their relationships. A headless CMS, naturally, also supports content entry, but I say entry rather than creation because pure headless tends to exclusively only structured content entry into forms.

On the delivery side, a headless CMS makes the content available through an API in a consistent clean format such as JSON or GraphQL. Clean content perfect for ingesting into other systems and processing further, but it’s not ready for human consumption yet. We still need a “head”, the rendering functionality. The content needs to be paginated, laid out, styled and rendered into HTML or other types of output that different digital front-ends expect. The content will be ultimately consumed by users and visitors.

When is headless a good fit?

A headless CMS makes sense in many scenarios. As a rule, headless is an excellent fit when you need to provide content as a service to digital front-ends and integrated systems. You may have so many different channels and delivery formats that the CMS does not know exactly how that content should be formatted and delivered for each. It’s best to leave that decision to the touchpoint itself, such as a mobile app.

However, there are also scenarios where headless is not enough. Notably, headless falls short when authors are asked to create compelling digital experiences. It’s the difference between content entry and content creation. Entering content into a form allows marketers little influence over how that content is eventually experienced by the user.

Hybrid headless bridges the gap. While pure headless has clear benefits, enterprises are increasingly looking for solutions that are not purely headless but that can provide both head-on and head-optional from the same system. Better authoring and previewing tools give marketers the control they need for cross-channel customer experience management.

How to choose the best headless CMS

Headless is here. But there are significant differences in what the headless CMS vendors provide. Discover how to choose the best headless CMS for your project now.

READ OUR WHITE PAPER

Pure headless vs. hybrid headless: a comparison

A headless CMS can be the answer, but not all systems are equal. The following comparison gives you pointers to look out. Keep this in mind when weighing between pure headless and hybrid headless systems. Compare technical capabilities, the authoring experience, and essential platform features.

APIs

Pure headless CMS solutions are typically API-first. That means there’s a comprehensive set of APIs for content delivery and management. The APIs are usually customizable too but the development effort involved varies from vendor to vendor.

A hybrid headless typically also has a ric set of REST APIs that allow developers to work with content, configuration and do platform management tasks through APIs. In Magnolia, new endpoints or business logic is straightforward to add using Java-based tooling.

Extensibility

Pure headless enables integrations with third-party systems using APIs. Additional integration points, however, vary by platform and vendor.

Along with APIs, a hybrid offers also other ways to extend and integrate the platform with essential DX tooling. Magnolia takes the best of breed approach, encouraging customers to compose their own digital experience platform, for example with Connector Packs.

Content Modeling

Most headless CMSs have content models that are based on content types and managed within a simple GUI editor. Content hierarchies or relationships can also be established. Be aware that the content models may be geared towards structured content and form-based entry.

A hybrid headless supports additional, non-structured content types such as pages, articles and stories that may deviate from the rigid structure of form entry. Content types are simple configurations that can easily be tracked and managed using Git.

Authoring Experience

With headless CMSs, the editing experience is clean and form-based. Purely headless CMSs by definition lack the “head” or presentation layer, so there’s limited control over how content will look for end-users. Marketers are often left in the dark.

Experience building is a key feature in traditional and hybrid headless CMSs. Magnolia has content apps, pages app and stories app that allow marketers to work with layout, style and presentation in WYSIWYG and preview the end results. It’s straightforward for developers to create custom apps as well.

Single Page App Support

The clean content delivery APIs in pure headless systems are perfectly suited to SPAs. Developers like working with it. Form-based editing allows marketers to choose which content to display within SPAs, but there’s limited in-context editing of presentation and layout.

Magnolia has a Visual SPA editor that enables marketers to modify the layout of SPAs built with frameworks like React, Vue, and Angular in real-time. Marketers are in control of not only content but also it’s placement. They can craft engaging digital experiences again.

Localization

Most headless CMS only offer the UI in English and lack an option to provide additional languages. This is something to consider for global enterprises with employees in multiple regions.

Traditional and hybrid headless systems are typically ready for multinational enterprises. The Magnolia UI supports English, German, and Spanish out of the box. Custom language files can be added to support a vast range of languages, wherever content is authored.

Analytics

Many headless CMS solutions can be integrated with leading marketing analytics platforms. However, developers may need to get involved. Be aware that marketers may not have the freedom to experiment with different analytics integrations, swap them at will, or run multiple in parallel.

Adding analytics tracking codes and snippets can be made available to non-technical users with a dedicated UI since a hybrid headless controls the rendering layer too. In Magnolia, marketers can integrate tools like Google Analytics independently.

Personalization

Pure headless CMSs usually have limited native support for personalization within the CMS itself. That means front-end developers need to manually add the logic for displaying relevant content for a particular visitor, or marketers will have to forego personalization altogether.

Workflows

Most headless CMS solutions require substantial effort to define publishing workflows and extensibility can be limited. Workflows, however, are crucial for editorial oversight and compliance at the enterprise level.

Customizable workflows are typically available out of the box. This includes four-eye approvals, version control, content author collaboration, and scheduled publication.

Customizability

The limited core functionality of most headless CMS software means there’s significant effort required to customize the system itself. Integration through the Web APIs is the way to go.

When the CMS core is open you have a broad range of customization opportunities. To reduce the requirement for custom development, common integrations to adjacent systems are provided as add-ons, like with the Connector Packs built and maintained by Magnolia.

Platform Maturity

The pure headless CMS market is growing, and many solutions are still in development. Content management features that you may take for granted might not be available out of the box or may require additional development by the vendor.

Hybrid headless has more CMS and experience building functionality readily available. Common DX requirements are native features and there’s a multitude of integration points for adjacent DX tooling.

On-Premise & Cloud

Most headless CMSs only offer cloud-based SaaS solutions. They’re easier to get started with, but setting up local environments is more involved. On-premise deployments for pure headless CMS solutions are much less common.

Hybrids are more likely to offer a range of deployment options, from on-premise to cloud-based or even a hybrid cloud approach. You can install locally, test and try. Enterprises can deploy the software to the infrastructure of their choosing.

Expand from pure headless to embrace marketers

While pure headless CMS can offer attractive content modeling tools and clean delivery of structured content, there are limitations. Many of these systems put a lot of focus on simplicity, and in doing so fail to meet the demands of marketers and enterprise organizations. A hybrid headless CMS recognizes the needs of both marketing and tech teams.

When weighing between pure and hybrid headless, consider the capabilities and control that marketers will need. They need control over the ultimate digital experience and the ability to change integrated systems at will.

For an in-depth look at using Magnolia CMS as a headless solution, see our Headless Whitepaper.

Antti Hietala

About the Author

As Magnolia's lead Product Manager, Antti defines the product to be built. He solves problems for Magnolia users, studies the market, and validates ideas for a sellable product. Follow him on Twitter @finnotype.