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December 5, 2022

What is a headless CMS? (podcast)

In episode 133 of The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and guest Carrie Hane of Sanity talk about headless CMSs.

If your organization isn’t already going down this route, it will probably go there soon. Whenever it’s time to get a new CMS or change hosts. It’s usually triggered on the IT side to switch to it. But like I said, the developers love the flexibility and ease of this decoupled tool. Yeah, it’s really technology driven, but it’s a real opportunity for everyone in an organization to rethink how they’re creating and using content.

—Carrie Hane

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Sarah O’Keefe:                 Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk about Headless CMSs with Carrie Hane. Hi everyone, I’m Sarah O’Keefe. I’m here with Carrie Hane from Sanity. Carrie, welcome.

Carrie Hane:                     Hey, Sarah, good to see you.

SO:                                     You too. Tell us a little bit about your background and what you’re doing these days at Sanity.

CH:                                     Yeah, well, my background. For longer than I would like to admit, I’ve been working in-

SO:                                     I know what you’re talking about.

CH:                                     … web and content strategy and helping organizations use technology to better serve the people they’re serving. Obviously the web exploded in the late nineties, and that’s where I started. And so I’ve been able to learn from really smart people, lots of mistakes, and finally get to a point where I guess I’m considered an expert. Five years ago, I co-authored the book, Design and Connected Content, that really laid out a framework for developing future friendly digital products, which includes websites but isn’t exclusive to websites. And then last year I started at Sanity, headless content platform as Principal Evangelist. Now my work involves helping people understand structured content, the value, how to use it, what value it has, and how they can make their lives easier by using technology to support their work, no matter who they are.

SO:                                     Tell us a little bit about headless CMSs. What is a headless CMS specifically?

CH:                                     Technically, it’s a content management system that separates where the content is stored, which is the body and where it’s presented, which is the head. You can store your content in a headless CMS and then send it to any display anywhere. Yes, it’s a website. It could also be an app, it could also be voice assistance. It’s Google, everybody sends their information to Google whether they know it or not. It’s all of those things. It’s a future friendly way to think about plan and store and create your content for whatever comes next.

SO:                                     When you differentiate between a headless CMS and I guess a head on CMS, but I suppose generically, we’re talking about web CMS versus headless is kind of how this breaks down. Although I guess technically headless CMSs are a subset of web CMSs or something like that. But what makes the headless CMS special? What’s the main point of differentiation between, we’ll call it traditional web CMS and headless?

CH:                                     Well, a few things. For content creators, it allows us to really embrace the create once, publish everywhere, the cope framework of working. Whereas in a traditional, monolith web CMS, we could only ever create content for one website and that website only. We would have to create another instance if we wanted that same content to go to an app or to go somewhere else, so those different heads. It lowers the amount of content that we need to create and maintain, kind of future proofs our content because it’s not tied to any specific presentation. Then even if we are only using it for one website, we can reorganize the content because it’s not tied to a certain site map. Or we can redesign the website without having to redo all the content. That is, if your content is good in the first place, which is a wholly separate thing, which we will have to have another podcast about.

In that sense, it kind of lives up to a promise I think a lot of us have been expecting for a long time. On the technical side, it helps technologists create more componentized ecosystems, so that no matter what the latest trend is in front end frameworks or processing or hosts or whatever, I don’t even know all the terms for all of the things that IT needs to be thinking about now, but that tech stack is no longer all tied into one product or one suite. It can now use the best in breed of whatever is needed, so it’s future friendly in that way as well.

SO:                                     Who’s the target audience for this? Who’s adopting headless CMSs, and what are some of the justifications for that? You’ve touched on a few things already, I think.

CH:                                     Yeah. Well, honestly, organizations of all types and sizes are adopting headless CMS. I just saw this week we were talking about it among my colleagues, that the size of the market of headless CMSs is expected to more than double by 2030, which is only seven years away, by the way.

SO:                                     That’s not helpful.

CH:                                     If your organization isn’t already going down this route, it will probably go there soon. Whenever it’s time to get a new CMS or change hosts or, I don’t know what else. There’s a lot of things, it’s usually triggered on the IT side to switch to it. But like I said, the developers love the flexibility and ease of this decoupled tool. Yeah, it’s really technology driven, but it’s a real opportunity for everyone in an organization to rethink how they’re creating and using content.

SO:                                     What does it look like to implement, to make that transition over to headless CMs, assuming that you’ve started in, I hesitate to say traditional web CMS, because that’s ridiculous, but here we are.

CH:                                     It looks different for every organization. I think one of the things that can happen when you make this switch is a complete digital transformation. Organizations who are committed to going through digital transformation, are really completely changing how they’re approaching their digital experience. Other groups are like, “We need a new CMS, a new something yesterday,” so they literally just recreate what they have in whatever tool that they buy, just reconfigure the connections, but all the content goes over in whatever way it was.

The design looks the same, they might even have the same underlying CSS in frameworks, so it really varies from that. Going from exactly what you have now to a new tech stack or completely changing everything. And then obviously lots of things in between. But yeah, it’s an interesting time to be watching all of this because it is accelerating. I remember first hearing about headless, maybe 10 years ago, and now I don’t know how you can work in the content management world and not hear about it and not be thinking about it.

SO:                                     I know a lot of the people listening to this podcast, and certainly my side of the world is sitting largely in XML, DITA and technical and product content world. What you’re describing to a certain extent when you talk about multichannel publishing and separating content and formatting, kind of sounds like XML based publishing and kind of sounds like DITA specific… Well DITAs obviously an implementation of that. I guess then the question I have to ask is, is a DITA component content management system actually a headless CMS?

CH:                                     I suppose technically because it’s a body that’s separate from the head, I don’t really have any experience with DITA CCMSs, so I don’t know more. What I associate that with is technical communications, which is only in my mind, one use case for any of these systems. I don’t know, have you seen other use cases? What are your thoughts and what are you seeing?

SO:                                     Well, there are other use cases, and we have some customers that are using XML structured content and specifically DITA outside the core tech pubs, tech com world. But ultimately, when I look at these two, I would say the DITA world, the DITA XML world is optimized for a certain kind of content type. And what you’re describing with headless is a lot of the same principles, but it’s not specifically optimized or built around a framework that is designed for technical content specifically. It’s almost like the DITA CCMS world is the specialized… Sorry, people that was not really intended to be a terrible pun. But is sort the solution that’s intended for a specific industry or a specific use case, we’ll say. Whereas the headless approach, or when we talk about headless CMSs, we’re talking about something that is intended for more of a general purpose solution. I guess it’s a subset. Is that fair?

CH:                                     Yeah, I think-

SO:                                     Sorry, headless is the super set and DITA PCMs would be the subset. And I guess the other important note is that although it’s not required, DITA and XML are based on a sort of a tree view of a document, similar to HTML. And the headless CMSs as a general rule, are built on knowledge graphs, which are less of a tree and more of a multidimensional thing that’s hard to conceptualize.

CH:                                     Yeah, a graph.

SO:                                     Yeah. The knowledge graph. And the really sad thing about knowledge graphs is that I saw those for the first time about 20 or 25 years ago when we had things like information models and entity relationship diagrams in some of the software that I was supporting. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges, as we talk about this concept of moving websites or web content or content outside of tech com might be the fairest way of saying it, into this headless approach. What are the biggest challenges that you see there?

CH:                                     I think the biggest challenge is the content creation world. The content strategy world is not ready for that. And not because people don’t get it, it’s because they don’t even know what they don’t know. Most organizations are not mature enough in their content operations to really take advantage of a headless CMS. And so the danger becomes the tech. IT moves them there because they need it for their tech ecosystem. And then they’re given the keys. I’ve heard some people say they’re given the keys to a Lamborghini and they don’t even have their driver’s license yet.

I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t like headless. I don’t like that,” because they’re disoriented. It’s not what they’re used to. It’s set up completely different. And so then they blame this technology for a problem that’s not the technology’s fault. And then what will happen? Will we go backwards? Probably not. But it’s going to take a lot for the whole… I think it’s even bigger than a market, the whole world really. We’re all moving or moved to digital first publishing, and what isn’t digital these days. And we’re still in this old mindset of print analogies, print whatever, and haven’t thought of new ways of approaching how we can create and publish information. And I think headless is a big opportunity and it’s potentially a jumping off for a new era in publishing, but we’re not going there fast.

SO:                                     What you’re describing sounds exactly like the pain we went through in trying to move people from a word processor, style based mindset, to a structured content, separation of content and formatting mindset. And I’m not saying we’re done and it’s been super painful and the change management issues have been extensive. If it’s going to be pain and there’s going to be all this change and change resistance and all the rest of it, what are some of the opportunities? What makes it a worthwhile change?

CH:                                     It opens the door to doing more fun stuff because it can reduce the amount of content you’re creating and maintaining. People who create content can get out of the business of constantly reacting and putting out fires and move to being more proactive and creative and thinking about these new ways to reach their audience, connect with their audience, and instead of constantly trying to keep up. As people who work within organizations or with organizations are so far behind actual people, the consumers out there who want new things and new ways of interacting with things. And I think we’re on the cusp of that. I’m not saying headless is the end goal, but I think it’s a good jumping off point for trying out new things and getting our houses in order enough, so that we can then move forward instead of being on a treadmill and trying to keep reaching for a different goal that just keeps staying the same distance away.

SO:                                     That seems like a good place to leave it. We are going to attempt to get off the treadmill and onto the, I don’t know, the ski slope, maybe a little bunny slope.

CH:                                     The trail.

SO:                                     The trail. That metaphor did not work at all, but we will hop off the treadmill onto an undisclosed other means of transportation that is actually going to advance us forward. And Carrie, thank you for coming in and talking about this, because I think this is, at this point, a topic that’s not well understood and we need more people out there to explain it and explain where this is going.

CH:                                     Yeah. Well thanks for having me. It’s always fun to chat.

SO:                                     Yeah. And we’ll do some more of that in 2023. That’s a truly terrifying thought. And with that, thank you for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.