Artificial Intelligence

How to pick the best Headless CMS

In the past few years, Metal Toad has increasingly migrated clients to headless CMS providers to reduce costs, improve the conten

In the past few years, Metal Toad has increasingly migrated clients to headless CMS providers to reduce costs, improve the content owner experience, and open the doors to future technology innovations that would be difficult to achieve with traditional CMSs. Below is a high level review of our recommendation process to select the right vendor for our clients.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS, is a back-end only content management system (CMS) built as a content repository that makes content accessible via an API for display on any device.

Should you go headless?

My general counsel here is yes...if your content team is at least two people full time with no other responsibilities. My experience is that anything smaller than this, and the multi-year budget just won't be there for anything advanced. If you just have one or two full time positions on your content team, and few support resources from I.T., you'll be better off using a SaaS website builder like HubSpot CMS or time-consuming but fun to learn Wordpress.

Technology Selection Matrix

Developers have rallied together and built fantastic technology selection matrices for headless CMSs, including and I prefer the data source at for our clients. We move the data into a spreadsheet, and add a 'score' value to each row. The rows with the highest scores for us include:

  • Rest Api
  • Graphql Api
  • SDK for React
  • SDK for Typescript
  • Plugin System
  • Tagging
  • Content Relations
  • Editing Conflict Detection
  • Workflows

Of the clients we've done this for, the CMSs that scored highest have been Cloud CMS, Directus, Sanity, and Enonic. Of these, Sanity is my current preferred product, followed closely by Cloud CMS.

Content Owners Selection Matrix

After reducing the number of candidates via a technology selection matrix, the next step is to schedule demos with your top 3-5 contenders. Each demo should have at the majority of the content team attending — this is their chance to compare the demo with their day-to-day experience and bring up the issues relevant to them. Prior to the demos, ask the content owners to create a simple selection matrix, maybe four or five items, that they can fill out and compare about the vendors. Common matrix items we've seen content owners use are

  • Ease of use of design and layout
  • Ability to schedule posts in an intuitive way
  • Ability to work with regions/drag and drop capabilities
  • Quality of search results
  • Quality of copy and paste from Word to the WYSIWYG, and simplicity of the editor experience
  • Ability to resize and manipulate images on-the-fly and reduce the need for lots of Photoshop work

When we've done these demos with clients, the winners have tended to be Sanity and Cloud CMS. Sanity is definitely the commonly favored user experience for content owners across all our clients.

Price Quotes

Each vendor we work with prefers to tailor pricing to the account, so plan on a few rounds of negotiation. In general, they will ask for analytics data to help drive their quotes. This data will include:

  • Page views over time
  • Highest sessions/minute during major events
  • Qualitative description of traffic patterns
  • Throughput of media assets (video, images, etc)
  • Number of active content owners / admins using the site

Headless CMS vendors pricing tends to be reasonable for medium-large businesses, and cost prohibitive to small companies and many non-profits. We have been able to negotiate down in nearly all cases, and find favorable terms. The secret is to remember there are multiple rounds of discussions to get to a final price, and to give those rounds plenty of time (don't rush!)

This is our experience with finding the right Headless CMS vendor. All in all, Sanity has been the most common winner, and Cloud CMS a close second. One that is not often recommended, although is very popular these days, is Contentful. We find the technology features and the user experience of Contentful to be a poor fit for most of the clients we work with. That said, in the Contentful builds we've done, the experience went smoothly, and we don't rule it out.

What has been your experience selecting a Headless CMS vendor?

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