Building the modern web with headless CMS

CMS business web computer website administration concept
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Panchenko Vladimir)

Websites have come a long way since the first page was created in 1989 at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee. Rather than simple information and links to other pages, today’s websites can deliver rich content experiences to users that are the equivalent of native applications. Of course, building and running those pages has become more complex.

To build and design those sites - and meet those goals - new techniques and technologies are needed. 

Headless content management systems (CMS) are growing in popularity to help companies manage their sites more efficiently. But to make the most of them, you need to understand them in context, and look at your processes.

Traditional vs modern web development

In the past, websites were built in HTML - they were simple experiences based mainly around text, and they were edited and managed by developers, by hand. This was cumbersome, so more tools were created to make designing and building websites easier. Still, everything was designed, built and managed in one place by the web developers involved. Code and content were held together.

Over time, the web experience grew richer with more images, video, animations and other dynamic elements. Sites grew in scale and complexity to become today’s modern interactive experiences that users have come to expect. 

Today, the number of stakeholders in the website has skyrocketed and so have demands on the site to drive meaningful business results. This has made execution more complex for those who are responsible for managing sites. According to Hanover Research, more than half of marketing and IT leaders (59%) say making a simple change to their website can take more than a month, and 19% said updates take four-to-six months. These timelines inevitably stand in the way of agile, iterative marketing approaches, leaving opportunities to engage customers and close business on the table.

One approach to help in this situation is to split up the front-end and back-end infrastructure technology stack. The front-end provides the site experience that the user sees, while the back-end provides the content that gets pulled into the site when it is created. 

This lets developers concentrate on building sites and creating code, while other teams can upload content and manage brand assets. Most importantly, these teams can work in parallel without bottlenecking each other nor breaking the site in the process. By splitting up how websites are designed and built, each team can meet their own goals faster and more efficiently.

For the front-end, today developers have adopted new tools. Jamstack - JavaScript, APIs and Markdown - is growing in popularity, as it enables developers to design their sites and have them served to the user at run-time. This makes it easier to build the websites from a technical perspective, and faster to load, too, improving the user experience.

Conversely, the back-end infrastructure has to hold all the content and assets. A headless CMS provides the content that is used to populate sites at run-time, and marketing or content professionals to manage content in the CMS rather than relying on developers to make updates for them. This approach is growing in popularity; IDC estimates that the market for persuasive content management systems like headless CMS will grow by 14.8% each year to 2026.

This move improves how those different teams work around website projects, but it also requires some changes in process, too. Splitting things up makes each team more efficient, but the overall result can be improved still further through better collaboration. In order to achieve this and collaborate more effectively, teams have to work together in parallel.

Managing goals through collaboration

In order to get the most out of this new approach, you have to look at the goals that you have in place as well as other teams involved. This will involve you understanding how goals are measured and the metrics that each team is working towards, as well as how activities work alongside each other. 

For example, your developer team may work on two week sprints to deliver new functionality for the site, or to add a new integration. For your marketing team, the key goal will be a major rebrand across multiple sites that will be executed during a two month period, with all the sites transitioning at the same time. 

For IT operations and security, the goal will be continuous availability and security for sites, dealing with any new problems or updates to website components or CMS systems as they are released. This creates multiple different priorities and cadences that each team has to work on.

Research by Hanover shows that both marketing and IT leaders think they are obligated to run websites - 81% of marketing leaders believe they are responsible for maintenance and updates, while 59% of IT think it is their remit. The truth is that both sides are responsible for elements of the web experience. The modern era demands a more nuanced and collaborative approach where multiple teams have to collaborate in order to achieve their objectives. 

To achieve this, each team has to work on their goals in context, rather than in siloes. In practice, this calls for more discussion between teams on their goals within the larger framework of website operations and development. This can make it easier for teams to understand each other.

A headless CMS allows you to reset the relationship between Marketing and IT. Using Jamstack and headless CMS makes each team more productive on their own turf. What matters most is that you can work together while still meeting your own metrics. 

For example, using a headless CMS allows the marketing team to update their brand assets, and then carry out testing with the developer team to check that these assets appear correctly over different website builds like mobile. This can then be updated centrally so all connected sites get the same look and feel, rather than each site having to be updated on its own. This version control approach fits well with how developers like to work today.

Woman creating her own website on computer

(Image credit: Shutterstock/Kaspars Grinvalds)

WebOps and working together

You can learn lessons from how software developers and IT operations teams work together around delivering enterprise software using DevOps. In the past, software was commonly put together and then ‘thrown over the wall’ to IT for them to run. Developers would work to two week sprints to deliver new functionality, while IT would want to maintain existing systems and availability. Both teams worked to their own goals, but they were not aligned on the results.

DevOps changed this by implementing new release management processes like continuous integration and continuous deployment. CI/CD pipelines are now commonplace and automation takes care of the move from initial development through testing to production deployment. The same mindset can be applied to website operations (WebOps) too.

DevOps makes the process for delivering software easier and more efficient, and WebOps can do the same for site management and delivery. WebOps relies on collaboration and automation to improve the productivity of the whole team, from developers and designers to content editors, stakeholders, and more. Rather than crossing over or getting in each other’s way, the result should be a cross-functional web team that can then develop, test, and release website changes faster and more reliably. Each team will have their own goals, but they should be able to work on delivering them together.

Moving to a headless CMS approach makes this process easier. Marketing and content teams can support their own needs, and then work with the technology experts involved to ensure that they can deliver their goals. This involves anticipating any competing priorities and setting out clearer role definition across teams. 

According to Siteefy, there are around 1.14 billion websites worldwide, and around 252,000 new sites are launched every day, particularly as more companies are adopting digital transformation strategies that ultimately rely on their online presence to succeed. With more demand for websites to deliver user experiences, the combination of headless CMS deployments and front-end site design can help everyone to deliver in a more agile and more efficient way.

Scott is Managing Director, International Markets at Pantheon, where he has spent the last ten years developing the company’s approach to development, partnerships and supporting team culture development.