Headless CMS vs Hybrid CMS: How dotCMS Goes Beyond Headless

Will Ezell

What happens when new technologies like the Amazon Echo hit the mass market, but your CMS is just about coping with managing standard web content?

Well, whatever happens, we know for sure that one thing won’t happen: growth.

Techcrunch recently reported that 47.3 million U.S. adults own a voice-enabled device, while CCS Insights claims that the smart wearable market is set to be worth $25 billion by 2019, with 245 million units expected to be sold by that time.

In other words, the attention of your target market is expanding to new areas.

And yet, a startling number of enterprise organizations don’t have the tech stack in place to engage with their audiences through these channels. Instead, most are still wrestling with a traditional CMS that is seriously lagging behind in terms of technology.

But what does a headless CMS do, and is it enough for a brand preparing for the IoT era?

What is a Headless CMS?

To understand what a headless CMS is, let’s first take a look at how a traditional CMS works.

A conventional CMS comes with a predefined front-end presentation layer to help brands publish content on websites. For example, WordPress gives you templates and a WYSIWYG editor to design and publish content. Traditionally, this concept was genius. Today, it doesn’t cut the mustard for brands looking to engage their customers on the latest technologies.

Back when we were all using monolithic systems, everything was siloed. The technology, the teams, the tools and the data were all isolated on a single stack that struggled to adapt and adjust. Since everything was in one place, it was logical for marketers to bring in a suite solution (like Adobe, Sitecore and even IBM) to help execute a multitude of functionalities, whether it be content management, workflow, or record management.

But those suite solutions had a heavy dependency on IT resources — shackling marketing teams to their respective IT departments. The result? Slower time-to-market, decreased marketing agility and less marketing autonomy. This sluggish performance hindered business outcomes such as conversions, customer engagement, and customer retention.

A pure headless CMS on the other hand, decouples content from the front-end delivery layer. That means you have no templates or editors — just your content and some APIs to let you deliver that content to any device on the market. So, the term headless emerged to describe this concept, as your content can have any “head” you like, since there is no predefined head in place.

A pure headless CMS also helps brands avoid the traditional vendor lock that customers get with a suite solution. The IT team can develop their front-end applications in the framework of their liking (AngularJS, Node, and React are leading at the moment) where not only Single Page Applications (SPAs), but even entire websites can be built. Some of the digital marketing hang-ups that users encounter with suite solutions may even be resolved (marketing agility and for some, time-to-market), but some headless solutions still hold unsolved challenges with a major aspect of content management: the authoring experience.

The only problem here is that marketers are left out in the cold. It’s up to front-end developers to design and organize content so it displays and conveys correctly on websites, apps, voice-enabled devices and wearable technology. The role of the marketer in this publication process is limited since there is no editor, live previews or drag-and-drop interfaces.

Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS

A traditional CMS, or a tightly-coupled CMS, gives the user both a database to hold the content and a structured front end to present the content. With WordPress for instance, that structure comes in the form of themes and pages. The themes contain HTML, CSS and JavaScript that define how the content is displayed. Users can select these themes, either from WordPress or from a third party, to format their presentation layer. 

A headless CMS, on the other hand, gives users a limited dashboard to create and edit content because there’s no front end presentation layer. Instead of relying on pre-packaged themes, the user can create their own ways to present the content, but the CMSs editing tools won’t integrate with this out of the box.

Benefits of a Headless CMS

The headless CMS architecture affords marketers and developers a number of advantages over traditional systems such as front end flexibility and omnichannel content delivery.

Front-End Agnostic

The API-driven nature of headless CMS platforms allows developers to deliver content to any type of front end they need - now and in the future - without being limited by pre-built themes. The headless architecture lets developers create presentation layers to fit their needs because APIs can be consumed by most front end frameworks and devices. Developers are no longer forced to work with outdated technologies used by traditional CMSs, and can use the latest frameworks like React, Vue, or Angular to drive their applications.

Omnichannel Delivery

A leading reason as to why headless CMS platforms are gaining in popularity is that they allow content creators the freedom to deliver their content to a wide range of devices. Since the headless CMS does not place limits on the presentation layer, developers can deliver the same content to a mobile phone or in-store kiosks as they do to a web browser or smartphone app, which helps marketers maintain a consistent message across multiple devices.

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Interoperability refers to a software’s ability to communicate and share content with other systems. For instance, your CMS may need to connect with your CRM, PIM, and customer service portal in order to deliver a great customer experience. 

Because a headless CMS has APIs, brands can connect their systems together far more easily using API calls to push and pull content to and from different systems. With a traditional CMS, individual integrations need to be built and maintained to support such functionality. 

Drawbacks of a Headless CMS

While a headless CMS architecture does have a wide range of benefits, it’s not without its flaws. As with any business decision, users will need to examine these drawbacks and determine if the platform will fit their needs.

Development Costs

While the lack of a front end presentation layer means more flexibility, it comes at an additional cost. Without the presentation layer that comes with traditional CMS platforms, companies will need their IT staff to develop the front end delivery layers. For companies that place a higher value on fast delivery over freedom and flexibility, this lack of functionality can lead to frustration.

Lack of WYSIWYG Editor

Since most traditional CMS platforms come with a built-in, user-friendly editor, the move to a headless system may leave content creators with limited functionality. The WYSIWYG editor is often a key component of tightly-coupled CMS software, but since headless CMSs are decoupled from the front end, they don’t have rich authoring tools. Without such an editor in place, developers will need to build tooling that replicates this functionality for non-technical users, otherwise there will be an overreliance on IT staff.

Upfront Costs

The need for additional resources can also lead to additional expenses to get the headless CMS up and running. Companies will either need to build up their internal resources to accomplish this task, or rely on external sources (consultants, third-party software packages) to get the job done. Also, the extent of the communication between the marketers who will provide the content and the IT resources that provide the means for them to deliver that content can lead to slower delivery times and competitive disadvantages.

What is a Hybrid CMS?

As mentioned, headless content management was the CMS world’s answer to the growing number of devices and screens flooding the market — it made sense to decouple the content from the delivery layer so that the content could potentially be delivered anywhere. It was brilliant, except for the fact that it left marketers in an even deeper rut where they had to work with front-end developers and new content delivery layers to simply author content correctly.

A hybrid CMS (also called a decoupled or head-optional CMS), is the antidote to this problem. It’s a combination of both the headless CMS and the suite solution. It provides the flexibility of a headless CMS regarding omnichannel content delivery and gives you the ability to integrate with one or more suite solutions without having to circle back to the IT department for every decision.

Additionally — and perhaps more importantly — a hybrid CMS addresses the issue that headless content management brings about; content authoring.

As previously mentioned, marketers and content creators are often left high and dry by headless CMS, because there is no marketer-friendly author experience. There is no WYSIWYG editor, no drag-and-drop, and code is everywhere. But that’s not the case with a Hybrid CMS, which manages content headlessly, but doesn’t strip away the authoring experience that marketers depend on. Basically, a hybrid CMS gives you the best of both worlds.

Hybrid CMS vs. Headless CMS: What’s The Difference?

Both hybrid and headless CMS solutions prevent the vendor and channel lock that is usually present in suite solutions and monolithic systems. Both platforms allow for the flexibility and adaptability needed to survive the ever-changing technological landscape that we now face.

However, a hybrid CMS is the ideal solution for today’s enterprise organization, because unlike many pure headless CMSs, a hybrid CMS is architeched from the ground up to function as a complete CMS. It’s not an add-on, it’s in the DNA of the product.

Here are the three main differences between headless and hybrid:

  1. A Bundled Authoring Experience

    As previously mentioned, a headless CMS is a back-end only solution which stores content and distributes it via RESTful API.

    A hybrid CMS, on the other hand, is a decoupled CMS which offers headless content management, plus all the content authoring features that marketers know and love.

    There is still a strict separation between the content repository and the presentation layer (i.e. the front-end and back-end are not tightly coupled, but instead communicate with each other via API), and yet a marketer still has access to:

    • Preview capabilities

    • Drag-and-drop content composition

    • In-line editing capabilities

    • Native personalization and content targeting

    • Native experiment capabilities

    • Channel-specific support

    • The ability to integrate with third-party marketing solutions

  2. Less Development and Maintenance

    A pure headless CMS gives IT teams a blank canvas to create their own custom front-end application that can meet specific business requirements — which sounds great... Until you realize you have a totally custom dimension to your digital presence.

    You see, on top of having to wait for your developers to code something from scratch, a custom-built front-end almost always compounds the dependency on IT, skyrockets the total cost of ownership (TCO), and can slow down time-to-market. IT will be solely responsible for supporting and maintaining the front-end platform since they’ve built it — and marketers have no idea how to approach it. Any requested changes to the front-end will also have to be executed by IT, and depending on their workload, those changes could take weeks or even months.

    With a hybrid CMS, the front-end templates and customization tools can greatly reduce the time it takes to launch and update that same front-end.

  3. 3. Best-of-breed Integrations Made Easy

    Both hybrid and headless CMS give you the APIs you need to integrate with third-party platforms, and to send content to any device. But when it comes to the ease of integration, a hybrid CMS wins every time.

    That’s because a hybrid CMS has been built from the ground up to integrate with other platforms — it’s not just a CMS that has been stripped of its front-end delivery layer. It has high interoperability, enabling you to work with the best-of-breed solution across a range of verticals from accounting software to AI and ML technologies.

    When it came to developing dotCMS, we built the platform to encompass these three distinct differences — and then some.  

What are the Benefits of a Hybrid CMS?

Proponents of headless CMS platforms, mostly developers, argue that these systems can meet the technical needs for today and long into the future for content delivery. Marketers, however, are left without the authoring features they had with traditional CMS platforms, yet they too know about the limitations of a traditional platform when it comes to omnichannel content delivery and interoperability. 

Recommended: Choosing the Right Hybrid CMS - A Buyer's Guide

There’s a solution to appease developers and marketers that lies somewhere in the middle. A hybrid CMS platform offers the flexibility of a headless CMS, while also maintaining the ease of use for marketers with traditional systems.

Here are five hybrid CMS benefits you should be aware of:

  1. Faster Content Delivery

    Since the hybrid CMS removes the need to develop a front-end interface from scratch, developers can deploy and launch these systems with much less effort than with a headless system. The user-friendly dashboards included in hybrid CMS software allow content creators to publish their content without relying on developers, while still enjoying the flexibility that headless systems offer.

  2. Multi-Channel Delivery

    Not only does a hybrid CMS allow for faster delivery of content, it also helps marketers deliver that content across multiple channels. These systems give customers consistent user experiences while moving from their office desktop, home laptop, mobile phone apps, and in-store displays, all the way up to the point of purchase. This consistent experience keeps customers engaged and can lead to both higher conversions and improved customer loyalty.

  3. Future-Proof

    The ability to deliver consistent branding across multiple channels also ensures that hybrid CMS platforms can maintain that messaging in ways that have yet to be seen. From refrigerators to automobiles, Internet of Things (IoT) technology is in all kinds of places, and in the future marketers will want to tap into this. Hybrid CMS platforms have the ability to deploy content to web-enabled devices of all types, so businesses that implement these platforms are ready for future technological innovations. 

  4. Easier Third-Party Integration

    As vital as CMS platforms are, they do not operate in a vacuum. These platforms must often connect to other business systems, ranging from accounting and inventory to marketing and customer relationship management (CRM). With API-driven architectures, hybrid CMSs allow for easier integration with third-party tools and systems. Many major hybrid CMS vendors have low or no-code tooling available, so integrations are straightforward and there’s a faster time to market.

  5. Lower Startup Costs

    Hybrid CMS platforms offer lower startup costs compared to traditional or headless systems. They often don’t require the ramp-up time of traditional CMS packages, and they also don’t call for the time and effort needed to create the authoring tools necessary for headless systems. Easier integrations also means significant cost savings on development.

Hybrid CMS Use Cases

One of the best things about hybrid CMSs is customization. The right hybrid CMS enables companies to tailor their workflow to meet their unique, specific needs. However, there are a couple of places where a hybrid CMS really shines.

  1. Mobile Apps

    A hybrid CMS can help you publish and manage non-web content better than any other CMS. With the help of APIs, you can push the content to the app in a way that’s not only quick but also simple for marketers.

  2. Multichannel Content

    Using a hybrid CMS, marketers and content teams can push their content through every possible channel. Most CMSs also give content teams the possibility of reusing content across channels. Also, hybrid CMSs make it easy for developers to code APIs to connect new channels, leaving the content process to marketers.

  3. eCommerce Sites

    Usually, eCommerce stores require time and dependence on developers to add content and create product catalogs. The good thing about hybrid CMSs is that they enable content teams to create all these assets by themselves. A hybrid CMS also enables eCommerce sites to deal with high volumes of structured information and customers.

  4. Single Page Applications

    A Single Page App (SPA) helps brands and companies deliver a personalized experience within a single page.hile it’s true that SPAs aren’t for every company out there, a hybrid CMS can give you the elements to build one without adding a single line of code.

5 Ways dotCMS Goes Beyond Headless Content Management

On top of encompassing the three distinctions between headless and hybrid (the existence of an authoring experience, less maintenance, and more integration options), we’ve taken dotCMS the extra mile.

  1. Decoupled Architecture

    dotCMS boasts a strict separation between content and the presentation layer — but unlike a pure headless CMS, we haven’t thrown our presentation layer in the trash. Our authoring experience, which includes WYSIWYG and inline editing, is still there for marketers and non-technical users to leverage.

  2. 2. Open Source Software

    Open source software gives every user the freedom to innovate. It eliminates the dreaded ‘vendor lock’ and puts the power in your hands when it comes to integrating with new technologies or partners.

  3. API-driven

    Exposing everything over APIs allows for seamless integration and blending of technology stacks also leveraging previous investments in legacy applications instead of a rip-and-replace strategy. RESTful is our standard for these APIs.

  4. Containerized

    After being adopted by digital giants like Amazon and Netflix, containers and the microservices they contain are slowly but surely creeping across the digital spectrum.

    dotCMS users regularly leverage containerization tools such as Docker4 and Kubernetes to enable cost-efficient DevOps and optimized infrastructure utilization.

  5. Lightweight Technology

    Hybrid CMS platforms have underlying technology that is robust, proven and supportive of enterprise-grade platforms, without the burden of an entire data center and over-the-top infrastructure to make it perform. Plus, our Content as Infrastructure philosophy ensures your most important asset — your content — can flow anywhere inside and outside your company.

    The icing on the dotCMS cake is our ‘NoCode’ experience, which gives marketers more codeless control over their content delivery so brands can speed up their time to market.

    At dotCMS, we’ve built a hybrid CMS that doesn’t just go beyond headless, but beyond even the most flexible hybrid CMS on the market. 

    Through marketer-friendly features such as Edit Mode Anywhere, we’ve raised the standards of headless content management, giving content creators a fully-featured editing experience, while still allowing developers to take advantage of a frontend agnostic headless environment. 

    Edit Mode Anywhere is a dotCMS feature that lets marketers to edit content in-context, design layouts, drag-and-drop content, and view device-specific previews—even if the app is deployed outside of the CMS. Content authors can edit any content-driven application, from single page applications to in-store kiosks, without writing a single line of code. 

    In other words, dotCMS truly has the best of both worlds.

Why Choose A Hybrid CMS

Things have changed over the past decade in the CMS space and hybrid CMSs are becoming the norm. Now, separation between content and presentation is a must if you want to build lighting fast, no-code experiences.

A hybrid CMS can provide the solution for companies as people consume content of all kinds across the internet. Also, as content strategies that take those changing habits into account become a necessity.

Hybrid CMSs start where all CMSs should start- looking at the customer and their needs. Then, it takes marketers, developers, and every stakeholder into account to create the best customer experience possible.

With a hybrid CMS you can connect with your customers at a deeper level and you’ll be future-proofing your business and driving innovation as well as profit.

Do you want to know how if a hybrid CMS is the best fit for your company? Contact us.

Will Ezell
Chief Technology Officer
March 12, 2024

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