Going Headless Without Losing Your Head

Gordon Pike, March 24, 2021

Use Adobe Experience Manager as a hybrid CMS

It’s an exciting time in technology, there is an ever increasing number of connected devices that are becoming indispensable in our day to day lives. Our expectations of these devices are increasing as well, we want them to do more, do it faster, when and where it’s convenient for us. This has led to an explosion of communication channels that marketers need to work with.

Smart brands see this as an opportunity to meet their customers at the right time, in the right context, bringing value that would have been difficult or impossible to deliver just a few years ago. The challenge for marketers is to seamlessly use each channel as a touchpoint for customers and still deliver a consistent brand story.

Many are turning to a headless CMS as a backend only repository of digital assets to help keep a consistent brand message while covering the most channels.

Traditional Content CMS

A traditional Content Management System (CMS), bundles digital asset management (DAM), site authoring tools and publishing capabilities into a complete platform. When the web was "THE" channel for communication this worked well. It allowed authors to create digital content and deliver without waiting for a technical middle man. As new channels emerged, authors were at the mercy of a CMS product roadmap if they wanted to take advantage of new channels. The channel may not be a priority for the CMS product, it may be difficult to do so causing delays, or it may alienate an existing user base. Worse, they may deliver a middle of the road feature that delivers an experience as interesting as a lukewarm glass of water.

Birth Of Headless

A headless CMS unbundles the content from the presentation. This allows digital content to be managed as before but untethers the presentation. This is great for flexibility but now there is more work developing the presentation to deliver the same results. Content can become fragmented across different tools or embedded in silos across applications if you are not careful. This complicates delivering a consistent brand story across all channels.

Every Project Is Not A Nail

All sites and channels are not created equal. Those debating headless versus a traditional CMS make it appear to be a binary decision. That you have to pick one or the other and every problem can be best solved with the selected hammer. In reality that is simply not true. Adobe has continued to evolve Experience Manager into a hybrid CMS - one that allows you to pick the best approach to suit your needs.

A Spectrum Of Choices

There is a variety of ways to leverage a hybrid CMS. It is a great place to consolidate digital assets and use them across an organization. AEM was already a strong digital manager for image and video assets but they have extended the capability to copy and text. 

AEM makes it easy to consume text content both traditionally and headless using content models, sling models and content fragments. Content models represent page meta data in JSON form. This provides the caller not only the content but also layout information by adding “*.model.json” to any hosted page url. This approach gives the caller the most information. Sling models allow a developer to define in code the structure of content. The caller gets the data in JSON along with some meta data but requires development to define the structure of the data. Content fragments allow an author to define a template describing the structure of the data as well as the entry specific instances of that data. This gives a more targeted JSON representation and doesn’t necessarily require code to enable. These capabilities allow AEM to be a DAM for image, video and text content. 

There are 4 main strategies for integrating AEM in your applications: traditional granite, single page application (SPA) with the AEM SPA editor, an AEM hosted web application, and an external application. They differ in author-ability, flexibility, development time, channel diversity and deployment complexity.

An approach with high author-ability, empowers content authors to deliver more of the solution and lessens the involvement of developer resources. Low author-ability requires a higher involvement by development. When moving away from a traditional CMS application like AEM Granite, developers have more responsibility for presentation and layout. This adds to the time needed in the development phase. A pure headless CMS gives you more flexibility where a traditional approach can limit what can be accomplished. A traditional CMS targets the web as a channel sometimes at the cost of other channels. A headless approach allows the same content to be utilized by a wider number of channels. Deployment assumes that AEM is already installed so adding a new granite application leverages the existing platform. For other approaches more components need to be added to the overall architecture.

Utilizing AEM as a hybrid CMS allows you to choose the strategy that fits your project best.

Traditional Granite

This is the traditional approach in AEM with the CMS being responsible for content and layout. It offers the most author friendly solution with all the tools at the expense of flexibility. There are many applications that can still take advantage of this approach.

SPA with SPA Editor

With the addition of SPA Editor Adobe has allowed the WYSIWYG authoring of single page web apps. There are some restrictions to what you can do in the SPA but this gives authors more control of the layout while allowing the benefits that a SPA can bring.

Hosted Web Application

This approach allows the development of the main application utilizing modern tools for SPA applications with hosting of the static html, css, and javascript on the AEM publishers. Assets of the SPA build for instance can be included as client libs and hosted like other traditional pages.

External Headless Application

This approach gives you the most flexibility as well as diversity in channels. This comes at a cost in development time and author-ability. AEM in this case is utilized as a pure headless CMS. This gives the maximum flexibility and diversity of channels including among others web, mobile, voice, chat or IOT.


Adobe Experience Manager is a best in class content management system that brings a lot of value in content management, integration to creative tools and a robust author experience. You don’t have to lose that value in order to pursue a headless approach. You can realize the power of consistent digital content management and a consistent brand story in a single CMS.

Need help using Adobe Experience Manager as a hybrid CMS solution? 3|SHARE has the technological chops to do just that. 


Topics: Adobe Experience Manager, Digital Marketing, AEM

Gordon Pike

Gordon Pike is a Technical Architect at 3|SHARE.