Many great ideas and opportunities are never realized. You may have experienced this yourself working on a digital product that never came close to realizing it’s potential. One of the reasons that so many organizations fail at delivering valuable products and services is the lack of a well-defined strategy or the complete absence of a strategy. 

Creating a digital product or service is complex. Identifying the right opportunity, selecting where to compete, and solving a problem for customers in a viable, unique, and sustainable way (a.k.a your competitive advantage) are the cornerstones of a successful strategy. If you boil all of this down it’s simple — create value for your audience and as a result you will create value for your business. In an interview, Jeff Bezos phrased it this way, “In the long term, there is never any misalignment between customer interests and shareholder interests.” 

Unfortunately, strategy has become a buzzword for many, but it has never been more imperative than it is today. 

There is significant confusion today about what strategy is. There is an overwhelming amount of information, fads, and academic resources. Harvard Business School Professor and leader in strategy, Michael Porter delineates the importance of strategy in his work.  To summarize: the quest for productivity, quality, and speed have spawned a remarkable number of management tools and techniques. These tools and techniques have incrementally, and almost imperceptibly taken the place of strategy, but they are not strategy.

A strategy rests on making essential choices. To help you and your products be as successful as possible we’ve stripped away the noise. Let’s look at what a great digital strategy needs to include.

What is a digital product strategy? 

A great strategy defines the value you will create in a succinct and tangible way; where to focus, why, and what it will take to achieve that value. This empowers your team to focus on the right things and determine how to facilitate the delivery of a great product or service. 

Having a strategic foundation provides clarity.  It promotes a shared understanding that organizations, business units, and teams must have in place to pursue, and ultimately achieve their goal.  Depending on your business goals your strategy may be focused on a single product or it could guide a suite of products that become a cross-connected platform. 

A strategic foundation is made up of five core elements: the product or service vision, the challenge that needs to be solved, its current impact, the target audience whom the challenge is being solved for, and the desired future outcome. 

To be clear: a plan is not a strategy, which compounds people’s confusion. Plans are made up of tactics that define exactly what we’re going to do, when we’re going to execute them, and what will follow. Essentially, in following this plan and taking these steps, success will be attained moving forward.  Plans don’t account for the unknowns, changes, prioritization, or provide a framework for critical decision making. A plan without a strategic foundation gives people a false sense of clarity and security that often leads to failure. When a solution is seen as a quick-fix, without understanding the complexity of the challenge that needs to be solved, failure will often be the result. Understanding the difference between complex things vs. complicated things becomes extremely important. (To learn more about this concept check out the Cynefin framework in this video.) 

You will want to have a plan, but know that it will change, probably more than once. A plan needs to be adaptive, and built upon a solid strategic foundation.  

Five Core Elements of a Digital Product Strategy 

1. Vision

The vision is the long-term overarching goal the company or business unit is aiming to achieve and the reason for creating the product(s). It provides your team with a collective purpose, acting as the product’s true north, facilitating alignment, and effective collaboration. 

The importance of vision cannot be overemphasized. You need to provide people with clarity of the big picture goals and how the product will help fulfill that vision. People also want to know how their contributions will make a difference, whether on the product team or working across the organization. A well-articulated vision is also of tantamount importance for people to know what does not require their time, energy and depletes limited resources.

For example, your product vision may be to provide a platform that improves the way people work, unlocking the speed at which they can collaborate.

2. Challenge

The second core element is the challenge you’re solving for; providing context for what it will take to realize the long-term vision. By understanding the challenge we can then start to differentiate between symptomatic issues and the root causes. 

This allows us to break down the large challenge into smaller manageable, specific, and actionable issues to focus on solving. Notice we’re not trying to solve the issue. We’re making sure we understand the complexity of the challenge. Breaking down a challenge helps to unveil essential insights that will inform the success of the product moving forward. 

For example, the challenge you need to solve is subscriber retention. The most immediate opportunity is to address a poor on-boarding experience.

3. Impact

Next, we need to identify and understand the impact of the issues on the business and/or the audience. What is the baseline or current state?  This helps to clearly understand (measure or delineate) the current business state and measure the progress as people work towards the intended outcome.  Understanding the impact also allows you to highlight qualitative and quantitative metrics to support the business case by using a single variable or a cumulative effect.

For example, the impact of the unmet challenge is the high costs of new subscriber acquisition combined with customer service inquiries averaging a cost $650/user. 

4. Audience

The foundation of a successful digital product is understanding the wants and needs of your audience. Whether your users are external or internal, your strategy must define who they are. You may have multiple user types that need to be considered. There is not a single solution that is perfect for everyone. With a full understanding of our audience,  it is possible to align the focus of the vision with your intended outcomes.

For example, your ideal customer may be a small businesses with 10+ active users that can realize the full benefits of improving the way their employees work.

5. Outcome

The fifth core element of your digital product strategic foundation is identifying the desired outcomes you are hoping to achieve by addressing the issue(s) that make up the larger challenge. 

Another way to look at it would be what is the future state or results(s) you want to achieve. How will this feature, product or suite of products address the individual issues?  How will this promote long-term potential benefits and enable other outcomes if done correctly? While the vision articulates the big picture goal, outcomes focus on the results of addressing issues in an incremental, measurable way that moves the organization forward. To build that forward momentum we need to understand the first step and take action toward realizing those outcomes. Often, this becomes invaluable in helping to identify an ideal starting point. Ultimately, this will also help to ensure everyone involved is on the same page, having a shared interpretation of success.  It allows benchmarks to be established that will measure the progress toward the vision and desired outcomes.

For example, the desired outcome you are aiming for is an increase of 40% in the customer onboarding completion rate and a 25% increase in customer adoption within the first 90 days.

The shift from strategy to execution     

Having a strong strategic foundation is imperative.  It is essential in providing clarity, team focus, informing better decision making, accelerating the speed of delivery, and team collaboration.  Conversely, poor execution of a great idea is as detrimental as not having a strategy at all. Shifting from strategy to effective execution is not an easy process. It requires alignment, excellent ongoing communication, often additional skills, and a culture that supports change. This is where proper planning comes into play.  A plan that focuses on deploying the appropriate capabilities, processes, tools, and resources at the right time.

There are significant considerations in leadership, management, and across the entire product development lifecycle (i.e. waterfall, agile or a hybrid model).  However, with a solid foundation in place, you’re forging the right path towards success. 

As you and the rest of your team works to identify solutions to your prioritized issue(s) you will have the information necessary to ensure you are working on the right things.  It enables you to do the right things in the right way. 

You can now begin to understand who across your organization will need to be involved to create, execute, and support your product. Essentially defining a clear picture early on of roles and responsibilities. 

In exploring each solution you can also start to map out and understand the interdependencies.  Interdependencies in this scenario are the relationships between people, processes, and systems that will be necessary to bring your product to market. When business cases are developed prematurely in the process without this insight, things will often fall apart.  When executed correctly, this is when business cases can be defined and outline the true potential investment ahead. This information brings potential complexities to the forefront that need to be managed, crucial to your product’s success.

As you define the solution, you can now also start documenting your requirements addressing key business, design and technical considerations essential to delivering your product. 

A strong strategic foundation becomes a powerful advantage. It gives you critical insight, galvanizes our efforts into essential focus, and empowers our people to be at their best in any role. The market may decide who the next generation of winners and losers are, but you can take control of your own success, not skip the steps that so many do, and inevitably realize your opportunity.

When creating a mobile app or web application, do you have a strategy for how the static content in the application is managed? An app can contain a myriad of static content that wouldn’t make sense to load dynamically from a database or server each time the content is viewed. Some types of content that fall into this category can include:

  • Home screen content
  • Inline content blocks
  • Navigation labels
  • About us page content
  • FAQ sections
  • Video sections
  • Product information that isn’t stored elsewhere

This is a challenge our clients encounter regularly, and we love helping them solve this problem.

Why should you use a Headless CMS?

Traditionally, a mobile app or React application will have its static content embedded directly inside the application code. For apps geared toward traveling users or display kiosk applications that need to run locally, this is particularly true.  While embedding content is the most straightforward and easily implemented method, the downside is that any content update will require a code change, testing, and a redeployment. Options such as loading content from an XML or JSON file exist, but these still require some technical proficiency, and potentially a redeployment if the files are still embedded in the codebase, or a server setup to host the files elsewhere.

Our clients are better served if the content can be edited directly by the content owner responsible not just for the message but the users experience, be it the product manager, the marketing department, or someone at the helpdesk. Fortunately, a new breed of content management systems is specifically tailored to address this need. They’re called Headless Content Management Systems (CMS).

A Headless CMS provides a content management interface, much like a traditional CMS such as WordPress or Drupal. But instead of outputting the content onto a website, a Headless CMS makes the content available via an API to your web or mobile application. The application can then subsequently display content loaded in realtime from the CMS, or cache the content and permit it to be displayed offline without loading times.  This is particularly advantageous for large assets such as video files.

The difference between headless CMS data flow and traditional CMS data flow

While there are both self-hosted and cloud-hosted products available, we typically recommend our clients look at hosted products (CMS-as-a-Service). These provide the benefit of eliminating ongoing management of a CMS installation and hosting. Forget constant version patches to your open source CMS; this is all automatically handled by the CMS provider. Ultimately, long-term costs and expended effort are minimized while reliability and security are maximized.

How to Evaluate which Headless CMS to use

When evaluating a Headless CMS for an app project, we typically start with the following criteria:

  • How is content managed in the CMS, and how flexible is the data structure?
    Depending on the content in the application that our clients need to manage, we will want to find a CMS that allows matching the data types to the required content structure. If data types are complex and change frequently, we prioritize a user-friendly type of builder. If there are relationships between content types, we look for a CMS that has strong options in that area. This criteria is as unique as content requirements.

  • How is the data accessed?
    The most common data-access standard is via RESTful APIs, which provides a flexible foundation for most projects. In addition, some Headless CMS solutions offer SDKs or starter projects to jumpstart development, which can save time by providing CMS specific API connectors out of the box. Another rising standard is GraphQL, which reduces roundtrips between the app and the server. GraphQL also minimizes the amount of data transferred to the absolute essentials. If you are using third party tools and frameworks that are built around using REST, you’ll want to stick with a CMS that uses RESTful APIs. If your project is more greenfield though, GraphQL might be able to reduce your development effort and provide better performance.

  • Can file assets be managed and served from the CMS?
    Some apps include media assets, such as images and videos. In that scenario, the CMS needs to include an asset management module, as well as the ability to store files through the CMS in a cloud storage environment. Different Headless CMS solutions have varying limitations on these parameters. We ensure that the offering is aligned with the app’s content requirements. We are mindful to assess limitations such as size limit per asset, total storage amount, and included bandwidth.

  • How many records does the CMS allow?
    Some Headless CMS solutions have limitations on the total number of records that can be stored in the CMS. Depending on the specific use case of our projects this is something we are diligent to examine. One such example would be a database of property information that is batch uploaded into the CMS, which could consist of tens of thousands of records. Given that Contentful allows 5,000 records at the $39/month price level, and 50,000 records at the $879/month price level, this could be a deal breaker based on the project needs and budget.

  • Is a content delivery network (CDN) built into the CMS infrastructure?
    If the content is accessed and displayed in realtime from the Headless CMS, having a content delivery network available can save a few seconds in lag time. This is particularly true if an application we are working on has a global reach. For example, Contentful is hosted in the AWS US East data center, so a CDN would accelerate load times for users outside of the continental US.

  • How strong are the support resources and how big is the development community?
    Given the vendor lock that’s part of working with a Headless CMS, it is critical that we are confident the requirements of the application can be achieved with the selected solution. Having solid documentation and community support (Slack, forums, etc.) is key to this.

  • How old and established is the company?
    The oldest players in the Headless CMS industry were founded in 2013, but it seems that there are new Headless CMS providers emerging every month. We significantly study a company’s track record before making a recommendation, and would only recommend a younger company if the technological benefits outweigh the risks.

  • Is there a status page to shows uptime history?
    Building on the track record requirements, we look for transparency around platform uptime and frequency of issues. We’ll review a solution’s system status page for transparency of information as well as issue history. Good examples are https://www.contentfulstatus.com/ and https://status.graphcms.com/.

Our favorite Headless CMS solutions

Based on these evaluation criteria, the Headless CMS products that we are recommending the most to our clients are:

  • Contentful
    One of the oldest and most established players in the Headless CMS industry, Contentful checks the boxes for most of our projects with ease. From our experience we consider them the current market leader, which is also reflected in the strong community support available. We particularly appreciate the variety of code repositories on their Github account, which includes SDKs for several programming languages.  As mentioned above, they do have limits on the number of content records stored in the CMS, which many other providers do not, so look out for that if you anticipate storing a large amount of data in the CMS.

  • Prismic
    Like Contentful, Prismic is one of the older companies in the space. They offer a full-featured account for a single CMS user for free, which can be perfect for smaller or experimental projects, or anyone wanting to try a Headless CMS for their product. Even Prismic’s entry level paid account is only $84/year, undercutting most other mainstream competitors. Their team has also created a myriad of starter project libraries and SDKs that cover everything from Angular2 to .NET.

  • GraphCMS
    This solution is the first Headless CMS to use GraphQL instead of a RESTful API. We consider GraphQL superior to REST, but it is still a newer standard and in some cases the interconnectivity with other systems might be a limiter. GraphCMS’ entry point on pricing is a little higher than the other providers listed here (starting at $588/year), but if GraphQL is something you can take advantage of, it very well can pay for itself.

If you would like to view more Headless CMS options, including open source and self-hosted solutions, headlessCMS.org is a great resource.

As you can see, headless content management systems have come a long way and established themselves well in the CMS world. Consider leveraging one of them to empower the content owners in your organization and reduce load on your development team for content updates. If you find yourself needing a hand on getting started with your mobile app or React application project or are considering a Headless CMS, feel free to reach out. We’d love to talk.