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Getting team buy-in to switch to a headless CMS

Switching to a headless CMS is an important decision. What should your team discuss to make sure that all stakeholders are on board?


Michael AndrewsFeb 3, 2022

As online content becomes more influential in shaping a brand’s relationship with its customers, how brands manage that content is getting more important as well. Many enterprises are considering a headless CMS to unify their content management. Yet moving to a headless CMS is not just an IT project. Business stakeholders and content creators will be the daily users of the new CMS, and their buy-in is essential. 

Stakeholders will want to know what they can expect from a headless CMS. But until the new headless CMS is implemented and people gain experience using it, stakeholder expectations can be overshadowed by unknowns. Teams can’t move forward when they’re not aligned about:

  • Potential concerns
  • Understanding the scope of change
  • Expected outcomes

Let’s look at how these factors can influence moving forward.

Excitement and concerns

Over the past two or three years, interest in headless CMSs from content professionals has grown significantly. It’s moved from being a faintly known option to becoming a stated preference for many content managers who are considering a new CMS.

Many content professionals are frustrated with their status quo. Their web CMSs are cumbersome and can’t adapt to their needs. They’ve heard about the benefits of headless for authors and the user experience, and they are excited about the changes that headless CMSs can offer.

But not everyone may be on board yet. Headless CMSs have only recently become popular and are still unfamiliar to many. Their sudden appearance on the scene may seem disruptive to some content professionals who worry about how headless could change the familiar routines of their work. They may worry about uncertainties:

  • If they need to give up features that they currently have
  • How many new things they’ll need to learn
  • If switching to headless will be too much work 

These are valid questions to raise and discuss with your team. Most questions can be answered through research and discussions with implementation partners and vendors who have experience helping teams transition to a headless CMS. But beyond the specific questions lurk more general ones about what’s ahead for the team.

Before transitioning to a headless CMS, teams should clear up any misconceptions and plan ahead so they can be successful. 

Set realistic expectations. Both technical and business users of a headless CMS can expect certain changes in how they work with content. Some folks may exaggerate in their minds the amount of change involved, while others will underestimate the need to make changes. Teams should discuss the kinds of changes that are in storeboth the ones that will require special attention as well as the unexpected benefits that may not be apparent at the start.

Watch out for the familiarity trap. The team’s experiences with web CMSs won’t be a reliable guide to how you’ll be working with a headless CMS. Misconceptions about headless CMSs often arise when users assume that all content management systems behave the same way. And once stakeholders notice that headless CMSs are different, they may be diverted from how having a new CMS can improve their operations and instead become preoccupied with giving up the familiarity of their current CMS, however suboptimal it is. Stakeholders should recognize that change will be part of the journey toward improving your content management capabilities. This change should be welcomed and not be the source of anxiety.

Develop shared goals. The transition process will always be smoother when the content team is aligned around shared, concrete goals instead of having diverging expectations. The team should agree on what problems exist with their old CMS that the new CMS will solve.

Understanding the scope of change

Hesitation can relate to the unknown: how big a change is in store for content teams when moving to a headless CMS? The short answer is that moving to headless does involve some changes but shouldn’t involve any drama. The real risk of a disruptive experience occurs when organizations treat the transition to headless solely as an IT project. That’s why the understanding and buy-in of business and content stakeholders is important.

Switching to headless is unlike migrating between Web CMSs. Over the years, switching website CMSs has justifiably gained a reputation for being a big ordeal. When their CMS can’t adapt to changing organizational needs, organizations must “re-platform” and “rip and replace” their CMS. This situation has been a grinding cycle in the web CMS era. Headless CMSs aim to overcome this cycle by offering a SaaS product that is always upgrading and is flexible enough to adapt to changing needs. 

The good news is that moving to a headless CMS is generally a faster project than switching between conventional CMSs. Organizations routinely express surprise at how quickly the process happens. 

Your team will shape the capabilities of your headless CMS. Organizations decide to switch to a headless CMS because they don’t want a hand-me-down solution. They conclude they are in a better position to know their needs and choose how to configure capabilities than a vendor that provides a predefined one-size-fits-all CMS.

The success of any headless CMS implementation will depend on how it is set up and whether it reflects the needs of those using it. A major advantage of a headless CMS is how it can be tailored to the unique requirements of an organization.

You’re in charge of the scope and pace of change. The flexibility of headless CMSs allows teams to decide what’s important to them. Having that choice should never be a burden. If a team doesn’t have strong preferences relating to all the functionality they’ll need, common options are available you can select. With a headless CMS, you aren’t locked into choices if you decide later you want to switch capabilities. 

Your organization doesn’t need to be an expert on how to configure a headless CMS, especially at the start, provided you work with an experienced partner. But if you don’t have adequate support, it is possible to configure your CMS improperly where it doesn’t meet your needs. You should find an experienced partner and a reliable vendor to help you set up. They will be important helpers in transferring knowledge about working with structured content and developing a flexible, composable digital experience capability. For example, check whether the headless CMS vendor offers e-learning and professional services to support your team. 

Taking advantage of headless CMS capabilities will introduce some new practices. The primary differences between a headless CMS and a traditional one involve decision-making control and capabilities. You get to make decisions that previously a vendor decided for you. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it shouldn’t be. 

It’s helpful to distinguish the different kinds of decisions associated with using a headless CMS so that CMS users can understand the scope involved with each. These decisions will vary in terms of how often they are required, how elaborate they are, and who needs to be involved with making them. We can categorize four kinds of decisions:

  1. One-time decisions
  2. Occasional decisions to update or revise configurations
  3. Routine choices
  4. Responding to background enhancements

One-time decisions are set and done: you decide them when setting up your CMS but don’t need to worry about them after that. Examples include defining your content model and choosing your integrations.

Deciding to update or revise configurations will happen on an occasional, intermittent basis. Many decisions about your CMS configuration are revisable: you aren’t locked-in, unlike with a traditional CMS. Your setup can adapt to your changing needs. You might decide to change or upgrade an integration with third-party functionality such as personalization capabilities so that you can always take advantage of the best available options.

Routine choices are those available within your CMS’s setup. For example, marketers may set up their CMS to allow them to run optimization experiments. They can change the mix of existing content elements without having to design something completely new every time they want to try a change.

While you get to decide many of the capabilities of your CMS, for some you also get to decide how to use them. By providing content management as Software as a Service, a good headless CMS will continually upgrade its functionality without requiring any effort from you. But it will be up to your team to learn and make use of these enhancements

Gaining more influence over your work

A headless CMS can influence content practices in various dimensions. Content leaders will want to know:

  • New concepts or procedures to learn
  • New options and responsibilities
  • Who is impacted 
  • Relationships needed for success

Let’s start with who will be impacted. Not everyone who uses the CMS will need to change their practices or learn the details of how a headless CMS is set up. The changes associated with switching to a headless CMS will most affect those who are responsible for leading or managing content operations. Other staff, such as those who primarily write blog posts or approve copy, won’t necessarily be affected extensively. Content contributors who are responsible for specialized content types that have special requirements may need to make sure their setup reflects their specific needs and goals. In short, the more your job role can benefit from customizing the CMS to support your goals, the more you’ll want to be involved with understanding how the features and options of a headless CMS operate.

Set up your CMS for flexibility. Headless CMSs address the sweet spot at the intersection of flexibility and consistency. Business stakeholders can adapt their headless CMS’s capabilities to reflect their specific needs without being forced to use a rigid templated CMS. And they can leverage existing enterprise-wide CMS capabilities without needing to run a separate system that’s not connected to the rest of the enterprise.

A headless CMS can be customized to a degree not possible with a traditional CMS. It can empower business stakeholders to make decisions that are specific to their needs that can’t be generalized across the enterprise. At the same time, it removes the burden of deciding how to deal with routine issues that should be dealt with at the enterprise level. Teams no longer need to run their own CMS to be able to do what they need. So, while there may be new things to learn when using a headless CMS, you also no longer will keep up with generic web management knowledge.

Certain business leads and product owners will find themselves working with developers to configure their content model, integrations, and delivery UI to reflect their requirements. While some individuals might prefer the freedom to set up everything on their own, by working with a developer the capabilities business users can access will be much better than simple no-code options—which are hard to maintain, scale, and optimize. Moreover, developers tend to be enthusiastic about working on headless projects since so much technical cruft has been removed. They can dive in and make changes far more quickly than they could before. A happy developer is a wonderful partner to have on your side.

Working with developers opens new opportunities. While business users need to collaborate with them to set up their systems, this work empowers business users. Once things are set up, business users gain greater flexibility by organizing their work in ways that deliver the most value to meet their objectives. And if required, the setup can be modified later.

A headless CMS can be enhanced. When first setting up the CMS, the focus will necessarily be on decisions and activities that need to be in place to implement the system. It’s useful to distinguish those decisions and activities that require immediate action from features that can be added later. That’s because enterprise headless CMSs support an approach known as “composability” that allows features to be added and changed easily.

Ask for input from everyone who will use the CMS. Focus first on needs rather than solutions. Most stakeholders won’t have sufficient expertise to suggest the best solution to their needs. The immediate goal should be to develop a vision of the capabilities that are desired. These can be then prioritized to develop a roadmap for capabilities provided.

It’s not a “waterfall” launch. Unlike a traditional CMS, the implementation of a headless CMS isn’t launched with a big bang where the functionality is frozen the instant it’s introduced. Rather, a headless CMS can evolve continuously. Treat your transition as an incremental and iterative rollout. Not every detail needs to be decided or formalized before the initial launch. 

The objective when setting up a headless CMS should be to make its users independent and self-sufficient. If users need to develop content to support personalization and optimization, then it should be set up so they can do that on their own, for example, by providing an integration with a tool such as Uniform. Customization should prioritize features for groups that share common goals and work processes.

A headless CMS can promote stronger enterprise relationships. In addition to empowering teams, a headless CMS also promotes collaboration between teams. To get the fullest benefits from a headless CMS requires different teams to establish ongoing relationships that they may not have had previously. For example, marketers and other content creators will likely work more closely with UX design teams and developers than they might have previously since they will be proactively shaping the capabilities that they need instead of reactively accepting vendor-defined capabilities. In addition, content creators in different divisions of the enterprise will now be able to share content and access shared operational capabilities. An enterprise headless CMS can unify how content is managed and reduce organizational silos. It promotes more collaboration between content teams that may have previously worked separately from one another. 

Focus on the outcomes a headless CMS can deliver

As you consider the details of changes that are needed, always keep in mind why you are making the transition. 

A headless CMS can deliver benefits to your business and customers in both the short term and the longer term. 

In the short term, a headless CMS will accelerate the ability of your organization to make changes in how it manages content. The technical team can move faster, gain more flexibility, connect the IT infrastructure, and keep it up to date. Customers will get more responsive user interfaces to access content and complete tasks. Business users benefit from having content management capabilities that are always current and able to adapt to evolving requirements. Adding something “new” no longer takes weeks.

Being able to move faster will enable wider transformation in content operations. In the longer term, a headless CMS can strengthen connections within your enterprise. 

One of the unique benefits of headless CMSs is how they offer the ability to develop, manage, and deliver structured content for customers. Adopting a more structured approach to content is possibly the biggest change that a content team might make. Structured content can be transformative, offering powerful benefits, but it’s not a prescriptive approach you have to impose on everyone. Rather, structured content is an approach that can be customized to fit the needs of your organization. 

Structured content is the foundation for providing both personalization and omnichannel delivery. It allows teams to break down specific information and messages to get them in front of customers at the right moment. If structured content is new to your organization and if you haven’t been able to implement it previously, you’ll want to start gaining experience with it. Structured content is widely recognized as a dominant trend in content management because web page-focused approaches struggle to adapt to personalization and omnichannel scenarios. 

Headless content management makes content more connected. Instead of only focusing on specific web pages, teams can also think about how to connect content to where it is needed. For example, content about products may be used for:

  • Customer marketing
  • Employee training
  • Customer support

The structuring of content enables it to be shared and used by different teams to support different functions. That not only brings more efficiency, but it also allows various teams to organize their work around the customer.

While the structured content capabilities of a headless CMS make sharing content possible, it’s up to teams within the enterprise to turn that a reality. Connecting content across the enterprise can promote more collaborative relationships between divisions and departments. 

Some of the biggest benefits of a headless CMS will take root over time: they can’t be demoed. Stakeholders will understand these benefits as they gain hands-on experience with their new CMS. The long-term benefits will accumulate, building up through a virtuous cycle or network effect. The more you use a headless CMS in your organization and connect different content together, the larger the business impact that’s possible. 

The importance of business and content input

Headless CMSs as a category offer many advantages, but not all headless CMSs will provide the same capabilities or experience for content creators and other business stakeholders. Some headless CMSs are developer-centric and don’t provide good support for business users.

Business stakeholders can’t take advantage of the capabilities of a headless CMS if the CMS they are using hasn’t been designed with their needs in mind. Be sure to evaluate the usability of the CMS and look into what training for business users is offered. 

Discussing the needs of business users and content creators will help your enterprise clarify whether you’re ready to move to a headless CMS as well as which headless CMS will be right for you.

Written by

Michael Andrews

I’m Content Strategy Evangelist at Kontent.ai. I appreciate the value of great content. My mission is to help others produce the best content they can.

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