Headless or not – that’s the question

Headless Content Management Systems are cropping up more and more often. But what are they exactly? Why are they popular? Why should you use them? Are they always a good solution? But then, for which problem?

In my view, headless systems are well-suited for all kinds of content management-related issues, but there are some scenarios in which it’s better to use a traditional CMS.

The case for headless CMS

Let’s start at the beginning: what is a headless CMS? Where a traditional CMS typically involves three things (Content Management, Content Delivery and Content Presentation), a headless CMS involves only the first two. This raises two questions:

  • Why?
  • Who is responsible for the presentation in that case?

To begin with the first question: the presentation is generally no longer restricted to the web. There are far more touch points, mobile to start with. Those can still be served with a traditional CMS, but the developments around IoT require a different approach: each online initiative requires a content strategy that asks which touch points the customer/user will be operating. This quickly transcends the Content Presentation strategy of traditional CMSs. It is therefore pulled outside of the CMS.

As I argued previously, a Content Management System becomes a building block in a modular Cloud Architecture. According to this idea, a traditional CMS quickly becomes a burden, because it spreads too wide and meddles too much with things like A/B testing, personalization, campaigns, etc

The content presentation is then left to, for example, the mobile developers (native apps), the front enders (web) and the interface developers in charge of the touch point in question. The CMS is dismissed.

The opposition

Not that the old guard didn’t see this coming. During our Sitecore department meeting on March 1st it already became clear that Sitecore is splitting up its product, just as I'd predicted. A similar trend can be noticed at Episerver, which is looking to make its personalization module available separately (in other words, outside the CMS itself).

It isn’t a painless process. Sitecore and Episerver brand themselves as the forerunners of headless CMSs. The dissociation between content and presentation makes that factually true. In the words of Lars Fløe Nielsen, Sitecore CDO:

Sitecore has never marketed itself as “headless,” because, as we have always separated content from presentation, we thought of “headless” as a commodity. No big deal. It wasn’t until recently, when some in the industry incorrectly concluded that our content, layout, and presentation layers were coupled, that we felt the need to clarify our headless approach—which has been in existence well before “headless” was even a term.

Headless, then, or not so much? Because Nielsen also states:

[…] a fully headless CMS introduces significant risk in that it increases the complexity of your solution for both your developers and your marketers’.

Which one is it? Nielsen contends, rightly as far as I'm concerned, that personalization becomes more difficult in a headless scenario, because the “the customer experience will also be decoupled.”

I’d put it like this, pick one or the other: either you position yourself as headless, in which case you do away with everything that gets in the way of that headlessness (which of course includes personalization), or you don’t, in which case you're just not headless. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

So, no, then, Sitecore and Episerver and Magnolia and whatever else their names might be: you aren't headless systems, but we still love you! But we love you for what you actually are, not for what you aren't but say you are!


Whether you want to implement a headless CMS or not depends a lot on your scenario, your strategy and your architecture. And if your strategy carries you in that direction, you can benefit a lot from the cloud revolution, which nowadays simply offers more in terms of best-of-breed architectures than the software suites that the big CMSs are turning into.

That doesn't mean you should dismiss those suites in advance. They still demonstrate their added value to our clients every day. For instance in complex situations where a one-stop-shop solution offers advantages, and you follow the online strategy of the system offering you those solutions.

A borrowed good vision is better than a poor one you've thought up yourself. A headless CMS only provides headless CMS, in other words no personalization, no A/B testing, no template system, no search function (not for your site, in any case), etc.

Many companies don’t see the need for a whole set of tools and products; that's what they want to get away from. Those are valid reasons to steer clear of a headless CMS, if only because best-of-breed architecture won't necessarily make your company's fortunes. It is possible.

But if your company is looking for the ultimate well-oiled machine, where you want the best choice for each component, and you make most if not all your money online, deploy a cloud-first strategy. A strategy that allows you to implement Continuous Delivery by the book, not because it’s possible, but because it’s only through its specific agility that you can keep ahead of things.

That includes a best-of-breed architecture, and a headless CMS can be a good choice for that.

Conclusion of investigation

Is 2017 indeed the year of the major headless systems breakthrough, or isn’t it? That question cannot be answered with a clear yes or no. Of course it depends on who you are as a company, how important your online business is, and how quickly you want to react. We at Mirabeau keep well ahead of the curve and can provide the most ambitious companies with the most advanced architectures and methods. We use a “cloud unless” strategy. We work with agile/scrum and embrace continuous ‘everything’ (testing, delivery, integration, deployment, ...). That is where headless systems fit in just fine, and we also promote that.

But some companies are seen as followers rather than leaders online. For the moment, they can get by with suite systems, which do well within the promised strategy they follow. It is a bit difficult to deviate from it, but one already knows this.

Therefore, the advice we give our customers is strongly dependent on these factors. So, no one size fits all, but a customized solution.

But the trend is all too clear. In 2020, the case for headless will be more and more of a no-brainer.

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