Third & GroveThird & Grove
Apr 28, 2021 - Justin Emond

The State of Headless in 2021


Asking a developer if you should go headless is as useful as asking a barber if you need a haircut. We are almost halfway through 2021, and digital decision-makers everywhere continue to debate the merits of headless and unfortunately, the situation is far from settled. What is the state of headless vs. traditional today?

Strategic content management thinkers like Preston So have weighed in with several Sunday reads, decrying the need for a new grand bargain and noting that innovation is fraying the content management space. Contentful recently published a persuasive research-first position paper, more recent entrants like Prismic are nipping at the heels of headless leaders, and all eyes are watching the frontend framework bouts on pay-per-view (GatsbyJS and Nuxt.js duke it out this Saturday at 10 PM).

2017 was supposed to be the start of a revolution when headless was going to sweep away tired, monolithic content platforms like Drupal, WordPress, and Sitecore. Fast forward four years later, and what do you find at nearly every organization that uses a headless content platform? Acquia, WordPress, Sitecore, or Adobe Experience Manager. These “old-school” ecosystems continue to thrive and serve customer needs well. Reality, it seems, has turned out quite different than the predictions. 

So, what happened?

At a high level, there are three forces at play that advocates for the headless revolution either ignore, downplay, or are unaware of: in no order of priority, the cause of technology shifts, new versus existing use cases, and utility. Let’s look at all three.

First, shifts in technologies: Better features do not cause buyers to adopt new technologies. Take the microwave. It cooks food faster than an oven, but it languished on the market for more than 15 years until sales really took off. That adoption wasn’t driven by lower pricing but rather a historical and irreversible shift of women entering the workforce starting in the 1970s. Suddenly, both parents were working. For the first time, time constraints became important for food preparation. 

But wait! You might be thinking about the last great shift in CMS, when Drupal, WordPress, and other leading platforms rose to prominence and displaced the legacy enterprise content players that were born in the 90s. This shift was driven as much by these new platforms providing a better experience for marketers (indeed, functionality is a part of that), as much as the CMS market itself getting bigger, and first-timers jumping onboard. It’s hard to remember the world of 2005, but back then an organization could execute strategically without much website technology in place.

A second factor that has prevented the often-predicted monolithic CMS apocalypse from occurring is that major shifts take time. Doing anything in business involves risk, most people don’t like risk, and the least risky thing to do is just keep doing what you did before. The bell curve rules all: Easily half of businesses proceed blindly forward until forced into action (by bankruptcy, layoffs, leadership changes, etc.). Indeed, beware of slow-moving threats like the one that took out Blockbuster Video.

The final trend that has delayed the headless revolution is the rise of new use cases, a new market where headless platforms thrive and have grown. When comparing technologies for a website versus a product with a digital component, it’s hard to argue that any platform is better than a headless solution for a digitally-enabled product.

But what about the future?

The primary argument for going headless is that it’s the only approach to future-proof your website investment. It allows you to distribute your content efficiently to other channels like social, internal portals, mobile apps, and other as yet unknown uses in the future.

At TAG, we believe that expectations define perceptions, which is why we find it useful to analyze situations from the different worldviews of key stakeholders. To understand how to future-proof, let’s first look at the worldviews of a few key personas:

Bleeding-Edge Front End Developer

If you ask a developer what they think about WordPress, they spend five minutes ranting about how it's the worst platform ever created in the history of software, and you quickly get the distinct sense that you have somehow deeply offended them by asking this question. You have yourself a bleeding-edge front end developer. 

This developer will likely have a strong sense of where the most innovative JavaScript work is happening and will be more excited about newer headless content platforms like Prismic than market leader Contentful. This persona is often blind to the actual needs of the marketing team, and dismisses their complaints about content editing as a “user issue.”

What they get right: where breakneck innovation is happening
What they get wrong: the drawbacks for non-developers

Early Adopter Technology Leader 

This persona is usually a director or senior director of a web team with a technical background who is comfortable deploying newer technologies into production before his or her peers. They won’t move aggressively toward the newest fad — after all, paying their mortgage is on the line — but they will have a keen sense of when an exciting new approach is ready for prime time use. That use may come with some overhead or rough edges to smooth over to get to launch, but it will work, and it will work at scale. This persona has a better understanding of the needs of their editorial compatriots and will invest to improve their experience, but they still find using new technology exciting.

If you have bleeding edge front end developers on your team pushing your organization to move to a headless website architecture, but your web director is not an early adopter leader, your project is at high risk of failure and cost-overrun.

What they get right: when something new is ready for production
What they get wrong: that there won’t be any drawbacks for marketing

Pragmatist camp

The pragmatist camp is driven by dispassionately aligning business needs with the best fit technologies and ignoring all other considerations. Pragmatists aren’t early adopters—they will often leverage boring solutions, and they like data.

Suppose you ask a pragmatist when headless makes sense. They will tell you there are two use cases where headless can’t be beaten: when performance optimizations measured in tens of milliseconds matter or when there are external factors that require website security levels above and beyond industry standards.

What they get right: not doing it wrong
What they get wrong: they miss out on strong developers driven by bleeding edge

Where do we go from here?

When stakeholders point out the need to future-proof by supporting the ability to use content in multiple places, the pragmatist will point out that the digital marketing team isn’t sharing content in more than one or two channels. And, even if there are plans to move beyond that in the future, the pragmatist will point out that they have been saying this for the last two years but have not yet allocated the staff or operational mechanics.

When a new, digitally-enabled initiative or project starts, a headless solution is added to the stack. But at that point, it’s clear that content used for that product will be created by a separate team from the web team and likely won’t be shared often with the website.

As an example: Any pragmatist would happily take a bet that while Peloton will continue to use Contentful to power its digitally-native products, its marketing website will move to a traditional CMS backend within the next five years.

The future remains unknowable, and, as always, time will tell how this revolution will play out.