Technology

Kick Out the Jams: The Hot Content Tech You Should Be Keeping an Eye On

By / Nov 25, 2019

Should you treat content more like data? It’s the general idea behind the JAMstack, a growing class of content-management technologies that hold lots of value for forward-thinking organizations.

As you probably know, technology comes with a dizzying array of terms that you find yourself having to learn.

One that might not be on your list yet that should be? JAMstack.

That’s because if you’re looking toward a content strategy overhaul in the coming years, the technology could offer the kind of flexibility that you might have struggled to find with older-generation solutions, along with some benefits from a security and cost-management standpoint.

By treating content as data distributed via API, you open up opportunities to better structure the content you build and distribute it wherever it’s needed.

Here’s a quick breakdown of a term you’re likely to hear more about:

What is it? JAMstack, like the earlier LAMP stack that older PHP-based sites use, refers to the different types of technology used in building out the content infrastructure: J for the use of JavaScript code; A for its use of application programming interfaces, or APIs; and M for Markup, which is used to lay out and render the code from which the website is based, generally the data-transmission format JSON, standard HTML, or the writing language Markdown (a personal favorite of mine). Like LAMP, it’s in reference to the tools that developers use to build your site. But unlike LAMP, a server isn’t involved in the distribution process at all. In the end, you’re distributing pre-compiled code.

What are the benefits? Most current content management systems are tethered to older programming languages as well as to one type of content destination: a website. By treating content as data distributed via API, you open up opportunities to better structure the content you build and distribute it wherever it’s needed—including websites, apps, or anywhere else your data can live. That means flexibility amid a changing world. Additionally, it ties into other emerging trends in technology, such as the “Headless CMS,” which I wrote about a couple of years ago, and static site generators, which have also gained popularity in some circles. In many ways, JAMstack combines these trends and helps maximize their potential. By combining a headless CMS with an API-driven infrastructure, you can host your website as static HTML—which can mitigate issues with databases, security, and speed that often trouble high-traffic sites.

What’s the catch? Well, it requires a new way of thinking about content distribution and infrastructure, one that moves your website away from being a centralized platform and into treating it as a store of data that is kept separate from its distribution. Think of how you manage your member data, for example—perhaps with a hub-and-spoke model where the data is at the center of a whole ecosystem. If you managed your content database in that way, it opens up opportunities, but adds complexity, because more parts are obviously going to be needed. Additionally, as many headless CMS platforms are software-as-a-service tools, there’s also the potential of added costs.

Why JAMstack Deserves Notice

That last section might have raised your blood pressure, admittedly. Sorry about that, but if you can get past all that, there’s a whole lot of potential here to work in ways that could future-proof your organization.

Much of the excitement around content management these days is in JAMstack, to the point where CMS players that initially built around more traditional models, such as Drupal and Ghost, have actually embraced the potential of the new distribution model.

Most interesting are the tools that are designed specifically for JAMstack purposes, which include programming frameworks like Nuxt.js, hosts like Netlify, and content-management tools like Contentful and DatoCMS.

One challenge of getting tools like these working for you has been the complexity factor, but that’s being worked on in significant ways. One particularly interesting new entrant to the space is Gatsby Cloud, an offshoot of the rising static site generator Gatsby.js that offers features like real-time preview and a friendly onboarding process. Another interesting JAMstack tool to come out in recent days is TinaCMS, which makes it possible to edit a static website in real time—offering a friendly front-end that aims for ease of use.

A lot of the innovation in CMS platforms is happening with JAMstack, and it’s worth your time to pay attention.

Mindset Before Tools

Now, don’t get me wrong, all of this stuff is pretty cool. And if your association is in the right mindset, it could provide potential for innovation in the long run—by getting your organization out of a mindset where it’s building in service of a tool, and instead in service to itself.

But a content infrastructure is, of course, a big investment, no matter what the benefits are. And if you aren’t equipped for the structural benefits of a JAMstack-inspired approach, you won’t be able to capitalize on it.

But this is something to be aware of, to start playing with, and to look at as a potential goal line, because it offers a lot of long-term potential beyond simply having a website where your content lives. It’s an area where your strategic road map could lead—if you’re willing to start drawing the line.

Like I said, it’s just like the steps you take to build upon the membership data you already use. Applying that mindset to other parts of your organization could be a win in the future—even if you’re not ready now.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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