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Choosing a CMS for Your Headless Shopify Store

Robert ReinhardCTO

A non-technical guide to helping you choose the best CMS for your headless Shopify store.

You’ve heard about ‘going headless’ with your Shopify storefront and it seems very technical – the real benefit is using a world-class content management system (CMS). The next question is, ‘what CMSes should I be considering?’

Choosing a CMS can be very daunting: you’ll be marketed to you with a lot of technical jargon, performance specs, and costs. This article explores some of the most important questions and considerations that the non-technical workforce should be using to guide their choice.


What is a Headless CMS?

By definition, a CMS (Content Management System) is the system designed to manage the content of a website – it lets you change the pages, words, and media on your website. What makes a CMS “headless” is that it works with modern development tools that decouple the backend (data) from the front-end that your customers see.

Where classic CMSes will give developers both the data you enter along with page templates, a headless CMS gives developers only a clean set of data, typically as an API. This allows your development team to use their preferred modern development tools, which in turn gives them more control over the front end and performance.

You can think of your CMS like you would an office space, because it’s where you’re going to work on a daily basis, it should be somewhere you enjoy being.


Why use a CMS with Shopify?

There is no question that Shopify is a best-in-class commerce platform, but it does fall short when it comes to world-class level marketing website management. In other words, it does a fantastic job of creating smooth, fast, & confident transactions – but it lacks in giving marketing teams the ability to create and manage pages of their site without a development team. Yes, there are meta fields and now there are Sections, but they still don’t come close to the efficiencies made by top-tier content management systems.

When you pair a full-featured CMS with a modern design & development partner that focuses on atomic design principles to implement the headless storefront, you unlock the ability to create your own pages and make your own edits on the fly - without needing designers or developers - while staying on brand.


Deciding factor 1: User Experience

How a user experiences your website is the number one most important thing when creating something for your customers. The first deciding factor of user experience is about you and whoever administers your website. A well-architected CMS can make a world of difference in the efficiencies of your team.

The first step for a team to understand the type of user experience they need us to understand what tools and systems your team has used in the past and brainstorm likes and dislikes of those systems. For example, if most of your team has used WordPress in the past, they may be used to features like publishing workflows or post types in and shortcodes. Those same folks would also have opinions about those features and how they could be better or if they should be requirements of the new CMS. Take your team’s input and make a prioritized list of features and functionality that you would like to see in your new CMS.


Deciding Factor 2: Community, Apps, and Plugins

Whether you’re using an internal team or an agency partner to implement your content management system, it’s always nice to know that there is support available through online communities. These communities can help with technical issues, elevating common bugs to the CMS support teams and providing tips and tricks to get the most out of your tool. Some CMSes have company-run websites for support and these are good to skim through, but external communities will provide some real-world details when getting an understanding of how helpful the community is. A quick way to do this without being unduly influenced by SEO articles or marketing materials is to search communities like Reddit, or if you want to see the technical side, search the CMS name on Stack Overflow. You’ll notice quickly that the longer the CMS has been in the market, the more support they will have. (You’ll also notice trends in sentiment.)

Similar to the community when it comes to support and tips is the tools app or plugin ecosystem. This is more relevant if your implementation team has experience with modern headless systems – the term “plugin” is a little different than with traditional CMSes like WordPress. In the case of a headless CMS, the apps or plugins provide functionality solely for the admin-side. This means that they make the work more efficient or secure for your site administrators but don’t necessarily add functionality for your customers. Nevertheless, the CMS you choose should have a mature ecosystem of add-ons like this, demonstrating that — again — there are a community of developers behind the CMS.


Deciding Factor 3: Pricing

This one comes last because creating, managing, and maintaining websites is expensive and at the end of the day the price of the content management system shouldn’t be a leading cost of operating your business. There are a few things to watch out for: variable or fixed pricing, ongoing support costs, and hosting costs.

Variable costs will be common for cloud-hosted systems and they vary based on either the amount of content or the amount of traffic your site has. When it is based on the amount of content, or types of content, it will be important to make sure you understand how you see your website growing and make sure that cost structure doesn’t break the bank.

Fixed-priced systems are typically self-hosted. This means that you’ll have to consider hosting costs - which can be new for teams that have been on a classic Shopify implementation.

Some systems may offer support or strategic packages, these are great to entertain for at least the first six months of your new site and through the implementation. We often see the need for support taper off after that time period.


Making your decision

An important first step is to ask your partner teams, colleagues, and people you respect in your network which CMSes they’ve had the best experience with. This will help you stay away from all the comparison articles out there, or the listicles with hundreds of CMSes to choose from. And to answer a common question - if the CMS on your list supports headless implementations, it will work with Shopify.

The next step after you narrow your list to 2-3 options is to get a real demo. Whether that is from your agency partner who will be implementing the CMS or directly from the CMS sales team. When getting the demo, ask about the use cases you made in the user experience exercise above and ask them to show you examples of the work you see your team doing most often. (Creating landing pages, adding SEO content, ADA Compliance features like Alt Tags or Tab Order.) Have your admin team join these meetings and see which they get the most excited about.


Need more guidance?

Reach out! We’ve been building websites with CMSes for 20+ years and have even built a few of our own. We follow User First and Atomic design principles when implementing content management systems for our clients. This makes the most out of a headless CMS and allows your team to build and edit new pages without the need of having designers and developers on staff. It lets you focus on what matters - your business.

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