Jul 24, 2020 - Justin Emond

The Truth About Whether to Make Your Nonprofit Drupal Website Headless

There is a dirty secret in the world of headless CMS that no one wants to talk about, and most enthusiasts hope you don’t bring up. The secret is that when you dig into the arguments for making a site headless, what you usually find are not the fair, well-reasoned considerations you would expect. Instead, you find a development team wants to build your website in React or Angular because Javascript programming is fresh, trendy, and fun - and because Drupal templates are boring, old, and lame.

Going headless has valid use cases, but every nonprofit marketer must know that going headless is not a panacea. The legitimate use cases for going headless are more narrow than enthusiastic teams care to admit. There are severe drawbacks to the editorial experience that are routinely glossed over, but, I can assure you, are noticed daily by the marketing team trying to manage content.

What are those drawbacks? As Preston So expertly lays bare in his analysis of the state of headless in CMSWire, going headless means losing out on contextual features like in-place editing, layout management, and content templating. Why are these core features standard in modern content management systems missing in a current headless stack? In a traditional CMS, the back end (what the marketer sees) builds the front end (what site visitors see). The problem is that when you go headless, the backend is completely disconnected from the front end, and the two cannot communicate as they can in a traditional approach.

The result is a degraded experience for marketers (the CMS users that matter), and a fabulous experience for developers (the CMS users that don’t). Crucial for the success of any digital project is prioritizing the competing interests involved and admitting as much. Think about it this way: Do you know what you get when you try to make a great car that is also a great boat? You get a shitty car and a shitty boat. (Seriously, people love building car boats.) A CMS platform can’t be an excellent experience for a marketing team and a development team (at least not in 2020). Someone has to be on top.

So what is a nonprofit marketing team to do to make an informed decision?

The first step is to clarify the use cases in which a headless configuration adds terrific value to a nonprofit digital experience:

  • Security - When you go headless with a modern stack like Gatsby, your entire site can be published as a static set of files (while remaining a dynamic experience). The implication is that the public site can be hosted entirely on a content delivery network. That means there is no hosting infrastructure exposed to the public internet. The security benefits are exceptional. 
  • Performance - For a variety of technical reasons, it’s pretty hard to build a traditional CMS site faster than a headless implementation. If truly ludicrous speed performance is crucial to your project, headless will serve your interests exceptionally well. 
  • Bleeding Edge - Some organizations use deploying bleeding edge technology as part of their business strategy. These organizations like to see around corners faster than others and use that as an advantage. Being bleeding edge always has drawbacks — new stuff, is, well, new — but it means you can sometimes deploy what will become the standard tomorrow, today.
  • Developer velocity - When architected well and fully decoupled, modifying the front end experience of a headless website can be faster for developers than a traditional CMS. Care must be taken to fully account for the additional work during the build process that is often needed to deal with the unknown unknowns inherent in using new technologies. However, when properly-achieved, nonprofit organizations can use going headless as a sound strategy to reduce the time it takes for an idea from marketing to be deployed on your production website.

Now that you have a clear understanding of the use cases where headless works, the nonprofit marketer is in a strong position to assess the path forward dispassionately. Are uncommon security, absurd performance, cutting-edge, or improved developer velocity more critical than the marketer’s experience managing the site content day-to-day? If the answer is yes, headless is worth serious consideration. If the answer is no, then a headless deployment is likely to impede marketing progress.

Want to know if headless is the right way to go?

Check our field guide to the CMS apocalypse or reach out and let us help with a free evaluation.

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