Utilizing Contentful as a content management system

Web content management systems typically have the capabilities to manage both the content of online services and the presentation layer – the website. As customized solutions have become more popular, content management solutions that operate completely separate from the presentation layer have emerged as an alternative to more traditional publishing systems. The terms headless CMS, API-first CMS, and API-Driven CMS are used for these solutions.

North Patrol is a consulting firm specialized in the design of digital services and information systems. We shape ideas into a vision and service concept, find the best architectural and technological solutions, design a functional user experience, and compete to find the ideal partner for implementation work. We do not sell implementation projects, nor do we sell licenses; we are genuinely on the side of the customer.

7 December 2020

Mikko Jokela

The purpose of such an interfaced content management system is to manage structured content and provide it for the use of other applications through feeds. The other applications are responsible for how the content is used and presented. The content management system, in a way, works as a mere content storage serving other applications.

There are many headless CMS options available, and also more traditional CMS products, such as Drupal or Sitecore, have abilities to work in the role of content storage. However, newer solutions have been developed specifically for this purpose, and they operate natively in the cloud. Contentful is the most commonly used of such content management systems in Finland. 

What kind of situations is Contentful suitable for?

Contentful and similar solutions are particularly well suited for at least in the following scenarios:

  • Digital self-service channels
  • Application-like end user experiences
  • Frequent updates in presentation layers
  • Multi-channel environments

Digital self-service channels can either be publicly online or in the actual backend services that require a login or authentication. Often, the process may start on the public website, but at some point requires the end user to authenticate. An example of this is the purchasing process of insurance on the insurance provider's website where, up to a certain point, the process happens on the public website, but the final pricing requires authentication. Such processes are practically always customized implementations which don't benefit from a content management system. Contentful works well as a content storage in this sort of situation.

There are situations when the user interface is intended to be as application-like as possible, and in such situations, traditional publishing systems may feel restrictive. The insurance example used earlier fits this situation well. The process itself is custom-implemented, and its functionality is constantly monitored. The aim is to optimize the application-like user experience with small user interface tweaks, in which case it's useful to have the underlying content and the interfaces serving the content in place, and the tweaks only focus on the user interface.

Extending the above idea a little, there can also be situations where it's known in advance that the presentation layer of the website will need regular changes that aren't dependent on the content. These changes can be significant in terms of the visual look or the user experience, but they may not necessarily affect the content of the site at all. In this case Contentful, which takes care of the content and interfaces serving it, is a useful solution. The content and the interfaces are completely reusable even if the front layer was implemented differently, using new technology solutions. In this context, it's also worth mentioning that when looking at the life cycle, the front layer can be renewed quickly, but the systems in the background typically have a much longer life cycle.

The fourth scenario further expands previously mentioned points, and it also is linked to the overall architectural solutions of the organization. If the operation truly happens in multiple channels and the same content is utilized in those multiple channels, Contentful is a useful solution for content management. In this case, the website is only one of the channels where content is served, and the same content can be utilized for example in the web store, extranet service, marketing automation tools, mobile applications, and sales materials. Similarly, if operations happen in different language regions, the language versions of the content can be managed in Contentful.

What to consider when using Contentful?

Firstly, it's good to remember that it very rarely makes sense to build the whole website completely customized. Traditional publishing systems still meet most requirements for an online service and its management. But once customizing needs are identified, the suitability of Contentful and other headless CMSs should also be considered. Many organizations have ended up using more than one system.  

The things that should be considered naturally depend much on the implemented entity, but if Contentful is used, it's worth paying attention to at least the following things:

  1. Planning content types and data models 
  2. Training and support 
  3. Search engine friendliness 

Utilizing headless CMSs is ideal from the application developers´ point of view because it provides the implementer flexibility and freedom. Here lies also a potential downfall that should be avoided. An agile developer may think in the lines of “Once the front is customized anyway, anything can be done. Let's start implementing without wasting time on unnecessary planning.” Surely there might be a hint of truth in this mindset, but there are at least two important reasons why content types and data models should be planned carefully:

  1. Data models help to create clear and logical interfaces to be utilized by other applications. With the help of smartly planned interfaces, creating these applications is smoother and adapting the interfaces is easier for different developers. The time spent on planning will certainly pay for itself in longer-term development costs.
    • If there is hierarchy or relation between the content, the planning needs extra consideration. 
    • If the content is retrieved into Contentful from other back-end systems, the updating and synchronization of the data should be carefully planned. 
  2. The content creators of the customer organization most likely specialize in marketing communication and might find the system a little tricky to use. Logical solutions help these content creators to understand and manage the content entity. 

As mentioned, an interfaced content management system is likely to be more difficult to use by content creators of the customer organization than a traditional publishing system. The implementation partner should provide appropriate training and invest in high-quality training materials. Additionally, they should be prepared to provide support and guidance services, especially in the beginning. 

Content creators should accept that they have very limited possibilities to edit the implementation.  Even small changes in front-end need to be done by a coder in most cases. Again, the importance of good planning is emphasized. In a smartly implemented solution, the front-end responds to small changes, e.g. deleting a single field, correctly, without application development.

Content creators must also accept that typically there isn't a preview option before publishing. If previewing drafts is an absolute requirement, it can be implemented as a customized solution or with a separate staging environment.

The third point relates to widely customized implementation. When talking about websites, the implementation should be search engine friendly and the technical choices made should support search engine optimization.

There are several competent partners available

There are currently seven official Contentful partners in Finland. Of these seven, only Futurice is a so-called gold partner. Reaching this partner level requires the implementation of several complex implementations. There are six Bronze-level partners: Frantic, Lamia, Nitro, Solteq, Talent Base, and TietoEVRY. In addition to these, Solita has announced a partnership with Contentful.

In the case of Contentful, the official partnership is ultimately a relatively insignificant matter. In addition to these official partners, there are several other companies in Finland who have implemented solutions with Contentful. Of the larger companies, for example, Siili Solutions has utilized Contentful in the renewal of Teosto´s online services. Other bigger companies who have utilized Contentful include at least CGI, Vincit, Reaktor, and Digia. From smaller companies, Devisioona (previously known as Offbeat Solutions) has implemented Lumo.fi rental service for Kojamo by utilizing Contentful.  

There are plenty of implementation partners to choose from. It is to be noted that the large number of partner choices doesn't, in the case of Contenful, mean that there is no risk to be dependent on that one partner. The actual implementations are typically highly customized solutions, which each implementor would do differently. Taking over work that is started by someone else can be surprisingly difficult.  

Customized solutions always come with effects on costs. The more things are redone, the more the development costs grow over time. In this regard as well, careful planning plays an important role.

Mikko Jokela

Mikko Jokela is an expert on web and digital business.

Mikko consults the customers on web platform and vendor selections, defining functional requirements, and especially on how digital channels could support business needs more effectively. His areas of expertise include utilizing web and digital channels for better business, and web technology selections.

Mikko has been working for IT vendors in several roles. He has been in charge of a business line, responsible for web business development and a consultant in several web projects. Mikko’s main focus has been in private sector customers but he has also work experience on education and public sector.

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