Blog / Content Management

How to Choose a Headless CMS


by Petr Palas

Jul 11, 2017

As new channels and devices emerge, only brands capable of publishing content without restrictions are able to keep pace with their customers, and brands are slowly but surely recognizing that their traditional CMS just isn’t up for the task.

By separating content and presentation, a headless CMS empowers brands to pivot into new channels and devices with ease and to greet their audience with tailored content at every digital turn; making headless CMS the undisputed content management model of the future. 

But that leads to the inevitable question: which headless CMS should you adopt? 

In this blog post, we’ll guide you through the 10 steps we believe are key to selecting the right headless content management system for your brand’s omni-channel future. 

1. Do You Need a Headless CMS?

First things first: make sure you need a headless CMS

While it’s true that headless content management benefits enterprises that wish to publish on multiple channels and deliver highly customized user experiences, there are still some projects that simply don’t need headless technology—yet. 

For example, if your brand only operates a single website populated with static content that changes infrequently, you have little need to switch to a headless CMS. Furthermore, if your company is small, going with a template-based website builder may be a better way for you.

But if you’re a dynamic brand with ambitions to conquer multiple channels with free-flowing content, read on. 

2. Define Your Goals

Once you have decided that a headless CMS is indeed the right move for your business, it’s time to set some goals.

You’ll want to consider the following:

  • Objectives and KPIs: Are you looking to gain efficiencies in content production, or do you want to generate more leads? Make sure everybody’s expectations are aligned and set KPIs that will indicate whether you achieve your objectives.
  • Budget: Consider your budget, taking into account implementation as well as ongoing costs.
  • Time: How much time are you willing to spend comparing potential solutions and on the implementation process?
  • Scope: How can you split the roll-out of the new CMS into multiple phases? Can you start with a pilot project for a single division and then spread the CMS to other parts of your organization to minimize risk?
  • Content Strategy: The right headless content management model opens new doors for your content strategy, so be sure to nail down the details before settling on a product. What content do you want to produce, for whom and which channels do you plan to use?

Whatever your goals, be sure to agree on them with your stakeholders so you can begin searching for a solution that completely meets your needs. 

3. Describe Core Scenarios

Now that you know where you’re going, you should define core scenarios that the solution needs to support. Consider what you need for each of the following areas:

  • Content modeling 
  • Content creation
  • Version history
  • Asset management
  • Taxonomy
  • Content localization
  • Workflow
  • Collaboration between editors
  • Permissions
  • Content analytics
  • Content personalization
  • API and development process

But go beyond ticking off a list of checkboxes and think of your process in more detail, for example:

  • “The content strategist needs to be able to define custom content types through a user interface that doesn’t require programming knowledge. She needs to be able to choose from text fields and numeric fields. She needs to be able to define validation rules.”
  • “Once the content marketing manager creates a new piece of content, he assigns it to a content editor and sets a due date. The content editor receives an e-mail notification.”

This will help you in preparing an RFI/RFP, shortlisting solutions and asking the right questions during a demo or evaluation. You will discover that different headless CMS products excel in different areas and provide different levels of usability. 

4. Consider the Infrastructure

Your new headless CMS should have the infrastructure in place to support your current and future content delivery needs—and that goes beyond simply offering headless content management. 

Here’s our infrastructure checklist that you can apply to any vendor:

  • Cloud or on-premise?: As more brands adopt cloud-first headless CMS solutions for higher agility, shorter time to market and lower maintenance costs, you’ll want to check the vendor’s proposed benefits for moving your operations to the Cloud. Do they provide a true Software as a Service (SaaS) solution or just managed hosting in the Cloud? Read our blog post on what makes a true cloud CMS.
  • Fast and scalable content delivery: Is the vendor making use of CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) to deliver content at high speeds? Or do you need to set up a CDN yourself?
  • Security: Does the product have a reliable security record? 
  • Availability: If you’re looking for a cloud-based solution, what guarantees does the vendor give in terms of availability?

5. Evaluate the Developer Ecosystem

If the infrastructure looks sound, you’ll want to evaluate the developer ecosystem to ensure your development team isn’t left in the dark once you adopt the headless platform. 

Consider the following:

  • API-readiness: Check that the CMS supports API-based importing, management, and delivery for programmatic content control.
  • Documentation: Whether it’s open source or proprietary, the vendor should have plenty of documentation for your developers to sink their teeth into. 
  • Dev tools: Look for SDKs, libraries and a demo source code that give your developers a foundation to build upon.
  • Community: Does the CMS have traction in the community? Are there community-driven resources and forums online that your team can engage with?

If the solution is lacking in any way that might affect the agility of your development team, it may be worth looking elsewhere. 

6. Think of Your Marketers

Your developers may fall in love with a particular headless CMS, but you also need to consider your marketers and content publishers.

  • Easy content production: To ensure their productivity, consider a headless CMS that makes it easy to create, update and collaborate on structured content. For example: If you need to publish multiple language versions, how does the CMS fit your localization process?
  • Empowerment: Does the CMS enable non-technical users to create more complex content, such as landing pages? Or do they rely heavily on developers for anything beyond filling in predefined fields?
  • Analytics: Does it provide insights into how customers interact with the content?
  • Personalization: Does it have a personalization engine to tailor customer experiences?

7. Investigate the Vendor

This tip is particularly important if you’re thinking about choosing a cloud-based SaaS headless CMS. 

You see, the vendor may have all the technical requirements for the job—but what are they like as a service provider? 

  • Vendor reputation: Be sure to do your due diligence by reading reviews, inspecting their existing clientele, and checking their status in the eyes of analysts like Gartner or Forrester.
  • Service Level Agreement (SLA): Ensure that the service availability meets your expectations and the vendor can actually deliver on their promise. Check out the vendor’s status page to see their track record.
  • Support: You’ll want assurances that the vendor will be on hand to help 24x7 with real support staff (not just chatbots), and that the company is staffed appropriately to deliver such a service on an ongoing basis.
  • Onboarding: Is the vendor capable of providing more than just reactive support? Will a dedicated expert guide you through implementation start to finish? Are there training options for your technical as well as non-technical users?
  • Partner ecosystem: This is especially important if you plan to outsource development. Does the vendor provide certified partners you can choose from? Or are you on your own in finding someone who can manage the implementation?
  • Vision and future plans: Where is the vendor going with their product in the long term? What are their priorities  for the next 12 months and how do these align with your needs? What is the growth plan for their company—are they going to stay independent, go public, or raise another round of VC money?

8. Ask for a Demo

A 1-on-1 live demo with the vendor will not only help you get answers to your product questions, it’s also a unique opportunity to learn more about who you’d be working with. Are they responsive? Do they have someone in your area or at least in your time zone? 

Don’t let the vendor rely on PowerPoint presentations in their demo. Give them the scenarios you created in step 3 and let them show you what it’s like to complete typical tasks in their CMS. Record the demo so that you are well prepared for the next step.

9. Try Before You Buy

Now you may want to cut the list down to your top three options and go for the test drive.

Most cloud-based headless CMS vendors offer free trials that can help your developers and marketers get to grips with the model and user interface—and we highly recommend taking advantage of those offers before investing too heavily.

Again, use the scenarios from step 3. If you plan a complex architecture, do a proof of concept or ask the vendor to create a proof of concept for you. 

10. Get Feedback from Everyone

Migrating to any new CMS—headless or otherwise—will impact everybody involved in your company, all the way down to your everyday user. So it shouldn’t be a decision made purely on the preferences of one person or team.

Asking your developers, marketers, content strategists and, perhaps most importantly, your content editors, will give you insights into how they find the CMS. This will earn you their buy-in for the migration process. This is especially important with a headless CMS as it requires a significant mind shift in how you think about content.

Decide and Deploy With Certainty

A headless CMS is built to help brands navigate the ever-changing landscape of the digital experience. Your choice will impact how quickly and how well your brand can pivot into devices and channels, even those that do not yet exist. 

So, take your time to move through the guide above in order to find the right headless CMS for your brand. Once you find one that meets your needs, go ahead and deploy it with certainty. 

Looking for a headless CMS?  Take Kentico Cloud for a test drive: sign up for a trial or schedule a 1-on-1 demo.