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Will Ezell
Chief Technology Officer

Headless CMS vs Hybrid CMS: How dotCMS Goes Beyond Headless

Jul 24, 2018

By: 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.

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. 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.  

5 Ways dotCMS Goes Beyond Headless Content Management

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

Headless CMS vs Hybrid CMS

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. 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 see our platform as the hybrid CMS that doesn’t just go beyond headless, but beyond even the most flexible hybrid CMS on the market.

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​Why dotCMS is Your Hybrid CMS Solution

Before writing off the investment in a suite solution to go to a pure headless CMS, consider a different approach: Hybrid CMS. Hybrid CMS gives you the best of both worlds, however, there are only a few CMS vendors in the industry that can operate as a hybrid CMS by design, and dotCMS is one of them.

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