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The future of headless web content management

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The future of headless web content management

Old-timers (like me!) in web content & experience management (WCM) will remember an early entrant called RedDot. Founded in Germany during the mid-1990’s, the platform originally had the somewhat prosaic label of “InfoOffice CMS.” Yet the plucky upstart boasted an important innovation: an in-context editorial interface showing the published page with the editable blocks marked off by a red dot 🔴that you would click to get a pop-up editorial window.

It was clever, maybe even revolutionary. The company changed its name from InfoOffice to RedDot Solutions and joined the numerous European WCM vendors which migrated to North America in the early 2000s. 

But there was a problem. In-context editing was quickly mimicked by nearly all WCM competitors not named Drupal, and RedDot lost its unique selling point. After middling growth RedDot was acquired by document management vendor Hummingbird before making its way to the content management retirement community known as OpenText

I recall one of my take-aways was: Never name your product after a feature.

What does this have to do with headless?

I’m going somewhere with this…really, I am.

Fast-forward a decade to the 2010s to find a new wave of (mostly) European WCM vendors emerging with another important innovation: Completely decoupling content management from content presentation and delivery. To be clear, separating content management from experience management wasn’t new. What made it a big deal this time was a tsunami of investment funding, a simple moniker (“headless”) and alignment with newer architectural models – all packaged into modern, cloud-native platform offerings.

Headless platforms were a fresh take on the problem of how to supply content to multiple different environments, especially the many new customer-facing web and mobile applications. Traditional WCM platforms didn’t do that very well, if at all. They managed your content and then served up your “website.” Not good enough.

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The headless plateau

The people selecting the headless technology for a company are more likely to be IT than marketing. As a result, most vendors pitch themselves explicitly to them. This frequently doesn’t end well for business-facing tools, and indeed at Real Story Group we often see serious adoption problems with headless WCM platforms. 

Here’s the challenge: Content managers spent more than a decade trying to win control over not just content authoring, but also experience management. Pushing the marketplace, they ultimately won capabilities like easily-modifiable template and page componentry, dynamic previews and self-service testing/personalization subsystems. With headless they lose all that. Appeals to “don’t worry your little self about what the content looks like” can feel condescending.

Want an anecdote? An architect at a large global firm had selected a well-known headless WCM vendor for a product marketing team’s public website. Unfortunately, his business stakeholders rejected it. Their business unit produced mostly long-form, top-of-the-funnel thought leadership, with content dictating quite arbitrary layout choices – which they wanted to control. The new headless platform favored short-form, “chunked” content with minimal preview, along with page assembly in a remote application they couldn’t touch. They rebelled. 

When the architect called the headless vendor with his dilemma, the salesperson coached him to “teach his marketers about multi-channel publishing.” Well, that didn’t work. They just needed a simple way to produce micro-sites featuring rich articles, arbitrary page components and responsive design frameworks.

The future is hybrid

A modern enterprise, particularly a large one, needs to support multiple publishing models. Some are surely headless; e.g., sending marketing content to your ecommerce platform. Others are more coupled, for a variety of reasons. There’s a wide spectrum here. RSG frequently sees enterprises that made major commitments to headless solutions now having to support other WCM platforms as well. 

Why not have both instead of either/or? Well, many (though not all) traditional WCM vendors have come a long way in making their platforms headless-enabled. These older systems are rightfully criticized for not being all the way there. But these hybrid platforms are gaining in the marketplace. Part of the reason is because they often embrace capabilities most “pure” headless vendors have eschewed. Things like multichannel preview (very hard, but very useful) or single page application editors.

Many headless vendors have put themselves in a box. Having embraced an architectural model with near religious fervor, they’re unable to adapt to a more ecumenical world. I’ve been privy to some internal discussions at headless vendors on these topics, and from afar it sounds like a debate between true believers and heretics. 

WCM logo landscape on a complexity spectrum

. Source: Real Story Group

In RSG’s WCM vendor evaluations, we categorize platforms primarily by complexity. Architectural models – along with business and license models – are important but still adjunct discriminators. So, as the diagram shows, we mix headless vendors in with other competitors. It’s tempting, though, to create a separate “headless” box, because those vendors do seem on a bit of island here.

I don’t know any WCM vendors that have actually renamed their platforms with “headless” in the title. But the lesson of RedDot remains apt. Headless is a feature, not a holistic solution. I believe the future lies with hybrid WCM platforms that can support a range of use cases.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


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About The Author

Tony Byrne is founder of Real Story Group, a technology analyst firm. RSG evaluates martech and CX technologies to assist enterprise tech stack owners. To maintain its strict independence, RSG only works with enterprise technology buyers and never advises vendors.

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6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of

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6 martech contract gotchas you need to be aware of

Having worked at several organizations and dealt with many more vendors, I’ve seen my share of client-vendor relationships and their associated “gotchas.” 

Contracts are complex for a reason. That’s why martech practitioners are wise to lean on lawyers and buyers during the procurement process. They typically notice terms that could undoubtedly catch business stakeholders off guard.

Remember, all relationships end. It is important to look for thorny issues that can wreak havoc on future plans.

I’ve seen and heard of my share of contract gotchas. Here are some generalizations to look out for.

1. Data

So, you have a great data vendor. You use them to buy contacts and information as well as to enrich what data you’ve already got. 

When you decide to churn from the vendor, does your contract allow you to keep and use the data you’ve pulled into your CRM or other systems after the relationship ends? 

You had better check.

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2. Funds

There are many reasons why you would want to give funds in advance to a vendor. Perhaps it pays for search ads or allows your representatives to send gifts to prospective and current customers. 

When you change vendors, will they return unused funds? That may not be a big deal for small sums of money. 

Further, while annoying, processing fees aren’t unheard of. But what happens when a lot of cash is left in the system? 

You had better make sure that you can get that back.

3. Service-level agreements (SLAs)

Your business is important, and your projects are a big deal. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get a prompt response to a question or action when something wrong happens. 

That’s where SLAs come in. 

It’s how your vendor tells you they will respond to questions and issues. A higher price point typically will get a client a better SLA that requires the vendor to respond and act more quickly — and more of the time to boot (i.e., 24/7 service vs. standard business hours). 

Make sure that an SLA meets your expectations. 

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Further, remember that most of the time, you get what you pay for. So, if you want a better SLA, you may have to pay for it.


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4. Poaching

Clients and vendors alike are always looking for quality people to employ. Sometimes they find them on the other side of the client-vendor relationship. 

Are you OK with them poaching one of your team members? 

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If not, this should be discussed and put into writing during the contract negotiation phase, a renewal, or at any time if it is that important.

 I have dealt with organizations that are against anti-poaching clauses to the point that a requirement to have one is a dealbreaker. Sometimes senior leadership or board members are adamant about an individual’s freedom to work where they please — even if one of their organization’s employees departs to work for a customer or vendor. 

5. Freebies

It is not unheard of for vendors to offer their customers freebies. Perhaps they offer a smaller line item to help justify a price increase during a renewal. 

Maybe the company is developing a new product and offers it in its nascent/immature/young stage to customers as a deal sweetener or a way to collect feedback and develop champions for it. 

Will that freemium offer carry over during the next renewal? Your account executive or customer success manager may say it will and even spell that out in an email. 

Then, time goes by. People on both sides of the relationship change or forget details. Company policies change. That said, the wording in a contract or master service agreement won’t change. 

Make sure the terms of freebies or other good deals are put into legally sound writing.

Read next: 24 questions to ask ABM vendors before signing the contract

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6. Pricing factors

There are many ways vendors can price out their offerings. For instance, a data broker could charge by the contact engaged by a customer. But what exactly does that mean? 

If a customer buys a contact’s information, that makes sense as counting as one contact. 

What happens if the customer, later on, wants to enrich that contact with updated information? Does that count as a second contact credit used? 

Reasonable minds could justify the affirmative and negative to this question. So, evaluating a pricing factor or how it is measured upfront is vital to determine if that makes sense to your organization. 

Don’t let contract gotchas catch you off-guard 

The above are just a few examples of martech contract gotchas martech practitioners encounter. There is no universal way to address them. Each organization will want to address them differently. The key is to watch for them and work with your colleagues to determine what’s best in that specific situation. Just don’t get caught off-guard.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


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About The Author

Steve Petersen is a marketing technology manager at Zuora. He spent nearly 8.5 years at Western Governors University, holding many martech related roles with the last being marketing technology manager. Prior to WGU, he worked as a strategist at the Washington, DC digital shop The Brick Factory, where he worked closely with trade associations, non-profits, major brands, and advocacy campaigns. Petersen holds a Master of Information Management from the University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Brigham Young University. He’s also a Certified ScrumMaster. Petersen lives in the Salt Lake City, UT area.

Petersen represents his own views, not those of his current or former employers.

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