The future of enterprise content is modular and headless

The classic approach to enterprise content management was to provide a central place to edit and publish content. But in a world filled with hundreds of digital channels, and dozens of types of devices, the traditional content management platform has become a spoke on a hub. A new approach to ECM is bringing back the original premise, while supercharging and modernizing it at the same time.

Well over a decade ago, as Web technologies first broadly proliferated in businesses, a major industry push was made to make Web publishing simpler and easier. The rise of the content management system (CMS) heralded an era where one didn't need Web experts with HTML and CSS skills, but just people who knew the subject matter at hand, and a self-service publishing interface.

The CMS democratized Web-based publishing almost overnight and put it in the hands of millions of people. Early social media such as blogs and wikis were consumer-grade content management tools that helped educate the world that deep technical skills or expertise were no longer required to put content online. Wordpress and Drupal had their day in the sun, helping individuals and companies alike greatly speed up the pace of Website publishing, while bringing the costs down through do-it-yourself interfaces.

However, fast forward a decade, the original promise of the CMS has begun to break down in the face of growing complexity of the digital world. This happened approximately when content silos and networks began to proliferate, with multiple Wordpress sites, the rise of mobile apps as a core new touchpoint, and the countless regional Web servers where the content needed to be in foreign languages. Individual sites were no longer the central focus. Instead, content networks and multiple endpoints were. 

Modern Headless Modular Content Management

Content Management for the Modern World

It was then that traditional CMS systems essentially became inadequate to the task of actively supporting today's sophisticated content ecosystems, countless touchpoints, and steadily maturing digital content workflows. By largely existing as a standalone content silo that was primarily good at that task, legacy CMS platforms couldn't easily help organizations as content shifted more and more to network distribution.

Now the industry has come up with workable answer to this challenge. High complexity is the name of the game when it comes to anything digital today. We've learned the hard way that parochial management of content doesn't work and is largely an unscalable dead-end. Nor does egalitarian federation by-hand or build-it-yourself integration scripts. Instead, the lesson appears to be that master content needs to be produced intelligently in a more malleable form. It's then distributed automatically as its adapted dynamically to each needed endpoint in a content ecosystem, be it in a series of regional corporate Web sites, a media distribution effort, or a network of content affiliates. 

In today's content management networks, these types of use cases are endless, but the pattern remains consistent: Content should now be authored from the outset with the intent of making it highly modular so that it can be reconfigured or reflowed to almost any needed touchpoint automatically, with as little manual adjustment or tweaking as possible.  Bonus points if the organization's procedures for producing that content can be actively enabled within the modern CMS platform itself, such as with workflow or other enabling process support.

A Poster Child for the New Category

To get a sense of what this modern take on CMS actually looks like, I recently took a close look at an up-and-coming example from a firm called Brightspot. Categorized officially as a headless CMS platform, I find that this doesn't fully articulate the core capabilities that the platform provides or that today's CMS platforms need to deliver in terms of integrated capabilities. Organizations perhaps need a more descriptive term, like distributed content management, given all the 3rd party integrations and content delivery channels it supports.

Brightspot is making a name for itself in the arena of so-called "evolved content" that is decoupled from any specific CMS. It is designed to help organizations author said modular content, then move it swiftly across their content networks. It performs content transformation, language translations, and other reformatting so that an organization's information swiftly and seamlessly flows from wherever it is, to wherever it needs to be, in the format it needs to be in.

As I've explored in my industry research over the last decade, the digital experience is becoming a pre-eminent organization-wide focus in how we deliver and capture value from our stakeholders, whether they are customers, partners, suppliers, or workers. Brightspot delivers on this vision by allowing companies to take their content, including digital assets of almost any kind, and strategically manage multiple content-based experiences and multiple audiences from a single offering point, with supporting integrations that add everything from monetization and marketing to analytics and access to rich libraries of assets.

Consequently, platforms like Brightspot can be used to deliver content in many types of much richer federated experiences in sophisticated hub and spoke architectures: A global intranet that is localized in multiple languages and regionally appropriate content. They can be used to create and syndicate online publications through a content syndication network. Or they can be wielded to create supplier hubs that are customized for each country of operation and even down to the supplier itself.

Post-Modern CMS: A Capability Breakdown

At the core of Brightspot, and platforms like it, is still the CMS user interface, but one that is designed from the outset to produce, manage, and syndicate modular content through a network via APIs. A distributed CMS understands that it operates within and realizes a federated content model. A modern enterprise content management like this has the following features and capabilities.

  • Modular content authoring. A GUI that can be used to create content that will flow and transform easily to all channels and endpoints, from browsers and smartphones to wearables and more.
  • Content distribution management. A strategic way to control and orchestrate the editorial process as well as the transformation and movement of content to distributed endpoint and channels.
  • Workflow features. A way to organize authoring, production, and syndication processes so that humans can easily track their work within complex content production processes and flows.
  • 3rd party integrations. A robust library of connected capabilities that can help enrich and maximize the value of content. These typically include advertising, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), digital asset management (DAM), federated search, marketing, payment, photos, social, language translation, and video.
  • A headless and decoupled architecture. This means the CMS can use other heads (target CMS platforms) connected to the channels, and even has its own decoupled systems for managing content strategically, even to endpoints that don't have a CMS, like a smartwatch or an over-the-top (OTT) interface.

When I spoke with David Gang, the CEO and co-founder of Brightspot, it's clear that the market is just now maturing to appreciate the strategic benefits that a headless CMS and modular approach to content can provide. Most organizations will simply not set out on their content management journey to start with a headless, modular CMS. But as their channels and operations become richer and more varied over time, they rather quickly discover that their existing traditional CMS was not designed for such a decentralized, federated existence. 

What's more, established customer experience platforms like Adobe Experience Cloud -- which Brightspot actively competes with -- are not really cut out for this world either, as they tend to look at themselves as the center of the universe. The industry has reached a more enlightened plateau in understanding how to deliver content successfully in a highly diverse and distributed new operating model means regrading the whole network as a essentially a peer.

As a result, this modern view of CMS better understands and leverages the model of the Internet itself, that organizations and the content they produce, and the stakeholders they serve are parts of highly differentiated networks with unique needs and requirements. In my advisory work in digital strategy, I've come across the same challenge by clients time and again as they attempt to evolve their CMS operations beyond simple point models. The short version is that all digital strategy now must assume a highly distributed model, involving dynamic networks of partners and stakeholders. The shorter the path organizations can take from basic digital content management to a more enlightened, decentralized model that will support far more scenarios as well as rapid growth, the better off they will be.

Additional Reading

Is digital experience management the new social business?

WordPress site 101: Free and low-cost tools to build a powerful web presence