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Headless CMS is not taking over the market... yet

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher February 15, 2022
What constitutes a headless CMS - and why does that matter? Here's why.


As much as the world of content management has changed, it has also not changed so much. A recent study from Storyblok, provider of a headless CMS solution, confirms this, but it also raises some questions about what organizations see as the future of their Web and digital experience technology.

There is no dominant CMS type

When I attended the Gilbane Conference back in 2015, web content management was a key topic. Back then, it was build vs. buy, proprietary vs. open source. But headless CMS solutions were also making an entrance. I remember meeting with the head of marketing for Contentful at the time and talking about how headless CMS was going to overtake the market.

Headless is finally getting its day, but it's not overtaking traditional content management systems yet.

Back to that Storyblok study.  In this study of 515 people from the US, UK, Germany, and Sweden, 50% of respondents said that they have a traditional, monolithic content management system (think Adobe, Sitecore, WordPress); 35% use a headless CMS (like Storyblok, Contentful, and Contentstack); and another 15% use some kind of CMS app or builder or, in some instances, a custom-built CMS.

But it's not just one CMS most organizations have in-house. Forty-eight percent of respondents have between two and three CMS. Why more than one CMS? A few reasons were offered:

  • 18% need multiple to support an omnichannel experience
  • 33% want to minimize delivery risk
  • 17% are testing new CMS solutions
  • 33% require a new tech stack

Let's look at it this way. A lot of organizations use WordPress for their brand website. WordPress continues to be the dominant Web CMS. But it's only for websites (and responsive for mobile). If an organization wants to tie in a big e-commerce platform, offer a mobile application, connect a customer support portal or knowledgebase, they need something more than WordPress. So, one CMS for the website, one for the e-commerce site, one for the customer portal, one for mobile, and so on. Probably even one for their internal Intranet.

As per the report, the CMS serves many channels, including the website (38%), mobile app (21%), e-commerce platform or storefront 14%), digital screens (10%), voice-activated tech (7%), AVR/VR (7%), and smartwatches (5%).

If an organization wants to build personalized or contextual experiences that align across all its digital channels, then WordPress will not cut it. But neither are some of the other traditional CMS solutions on the market.

However, many organizations aren't at this point. If they are and they use WordPress or a similar type of CMS, then it's likely they are connecting data from the website through another technology - like customer data platform.

Will headless CMS take over the market?

Traditional CMS solutions tightly tie the front-end experience to the back-end content management. Then you have the headless CMS that only offers the back-end content management and an API that developers connect to custom-built front-end experiences (this is an excellent piece from Phil on how to detect a fake headless CMS). And then there are hybrid CMS that provide both options (some do this better than others).

Hybrid is a bit tricky because sometimes the headless element of a hybrid CMS isn't true headless, more something the vendor fakes to get content through an API, which is why you don't hear the term "hybrid" used much.

Interestingly, headless CMS vendors are starting to offer front-end builder tools along with the CMS to enable marketers to use their solution and spin up websites or campaign micro-sites quickly. After all, marketing needs to move fast and needing a developer to custom-build every front-end experience will not work.

For example, Contentful opened its framework to anyone who wants to build solutions on top of its CMS and offers some of its own, including the Compose tool for building web pages. Storyblok provides a visual editor that enables you to edit your web pages in the context of the web pages you associate in the CMS.

If headless CMS vendors continue to offer add-on tools like those above, they are prime to lead the market because they can offer a content management solution that supports every channel.

The report notes many improvements from using a headless CMS solution:

  • 31% save time in developing and managing content
  • 12% can tap into new markets
  • 11% saw an overall increase in satisfaction in user experience
  • 13% saw a decrease in CMS support budget

But there's more to this

Every organization understands the need to deliver omni-channel experiences. A headless CMS helps ensure the content delivered across every channel is consistent and up to date. But there's more to it than that. We want to deliver the right content at the right time to the right channel. In other words, we want to personalize the content experience. And you can't do true personalization with most content management systems used today (regardless of the type) because they don't provide a way to create content that can be used in this way.

As Val Swisher, The Personalization Paradox, puts it:

The second reason that personalization fails is a complete lack of focus on the content itself. To date, few companies have optimized their content for reuse, automation, and personalization.

To create content for re-use requires an intelligent content model, something you don't see in traditional CMS, and to varying degrees in headless CMS. I had a great conversation with Swisher in my podcast about what needs to happen to content management to provide the personalized experiences customers expect. That conversation brought up another type of CMS - the component content management system (CCMS).

CCMS is going through the same evolution as the Web CMS - which means there are traditional models that no longer work and newer models that support omni-channel content delivery (most with a focus on technical documentation and customer support).

With a CCMS, you can provide the level of personalization required, but these platforms are not typically considered by marketing, partly because building an intelligent content model is complex and bigger than the marketing department, but also because you still need to create the front-end experience separate from the CMS.

My take

Content management does need to continue evolving. The technology needs to adapt to support content reuse across channels, and the processes organizations put in place need to lean towards creating and managing a standardized content set that enables personalization at scale for all their customer-facing channels.

We need to combine headless technology with a truly intelligent content model and easy ways to support marketing websites while providing that API to serve content to other channels. Is that CMS out there today? I think it's still a work in progress.

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