What is Headless CMS?

Joshua Robitaille on Martech

Headless CMS Over the last couple of decades, content delivery has evolved from that of a primarily offline nature to now predominantly digital experience, distributed through an array of mediums: desktops, mobile phones, smart watches, home assistance devices, VR headsets, and dozens of other gadgets.

Within a single device we access multiple forms of content on a daily basis. Take our smart phones, for example. There is content presented via a website, which we access using a mobile browser, there are newsletters we receive via email, and content displayed within various mobile apps.

As the complexities of content and its distribution grow, so do the needs of businesses that produce it. Legacy CMS tools can’t always keep up with the expectations and needs of a modern user, which is why the demand for headless CMS tools has been on the rise.

If you don’t have at least a basic level of technical knowledge, it may be hard to grasp the concept of a headless CMS and its nuances.

This article will help you understand the logic behind the system and evaluate for yourself whether the hype around headless CMS is relevant for your business.

Headless CMS: What It Is and What It’s Not

In order to understand what a Headless CMS is and whether it’s a good fit for your type of content, you must first understand what a CMS is and the architecture behind it.

What Is a CMS?

A CMS – short for Content Management System – is a tool that allows users to create, edit, manage, and publish digital content.

This, of course, is an overly-simplified definition of a CMS, so let’s dive a little deeper.

What Problem Does a CMS Address

Websites used to be developed according to the following process:

  1. Build a website on a local computer
  2. Move files onto a server
  3. Publish the developed pages

If any updates to content were required, you’d have to repeat this process.

A CMS was born out of the need to accommodate the rise of dynamic, frequently updated content. It provides an installable or a web-based interface that can be accessed by multiple levels of users to update and publish a single page independently from the rest of the website.

Examples of web-based CMS solutions are WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, SilverStripe, and Radiant, among numerous others.

Components of a CMS

There are two main elements of a CMS: a front-end and a back-end.

  1. Front-end refers to the version of the website that your regular users see online – the design and the structure in which content is presented to them.
  2. Back-end refers to the management side of this content in terms of the system architecture, website functionality, content creation, presentation, and management.

This is the basic breakdown of a traditional Content Management System. However, before we move onto discussing how it differs from a headless CMS, let’s go over one more concept that’s imperative to understanding the logic behind content management tools – a content repository.

In non-technical terms, a content repository is a database of content. Think of it as a storage unit for your content.

When built based on an industry standard – Java Content Repository (JCR) being one of the most wide-spread – a content repository and data stored within it can be accessed, organized, and managed by different types of content and document management systems.

Traditional vs Decoupled vs Headless CMS

A traditional CMS tool combines front-end and back-end functionalities of content development and presentation.

In other words, you use the same platform to create content and determine its delivery to the final user. You would typically do so via pre-selected templates and design elements.

A headless CMS tool eliminates the front-end – the “head” – from the process. It is not concerned with the delivery of content – how it looks to users online – and focuses solely on the content creation part. There are no pre-defined templates, HTML editors, or plugins.

As a result, content created inside these platforms does not contain the code that comes from such templates and other design elements. Put simply, this content is “pure.”

Headless CMS is often confused with Decoupled CMS and, indeed, they share a number of similarities.

A Decoupled CMS, too, separates the front-end from the back-end, allowing the creation and storage of raw content. However, unlike a headless CMS, it does have a front-end content delivery function with a choice of templates, plugins, and other design editing elements. The difference between a traditional and a decoupled CMS is that the former merges content and design, while the latter organizes them in layers: first the raw content, then a layer of design.

Remember how we talked about content repositories? This is where the concept comes in.

Headless and Decoupled CMS tools are built around content repositories. That means your content can be extracted, processed, and presented by more than one tool and framework.

It is made possible by an API – Application Programming Interface. An API is a bridge that allows two pieces of software to communicate between each other.

In the case of a Headless CMS, an API connects the content repository, where you are creating and storing your content, with the tool that is being used to deliver this content to final users.  

Is Headless CMS Right for You?

Now that we’ve gone over the logic behind headless CMS tools, let’s go over its benefits and disadvantages.

Understanding the capabilities and limitations of a headless CMS will allow you to determine whether it is a good fit for your content needs.

Benefits of a Headless CMS

The advantages of a Headless CMS are primarily based on the freedom of content delivery it offers.

Traditional CMS tools, while capable of displaying responsive content for mobile and desktop views, does not have the ability to deliver this content to IoT devices (e.g. smart watches or home automation systems), AR and VR applications, or mobile apps in a similarly responsive manner. Content here is locked in with the design.

A Headless CMS allows centrally managed and stored content to be accessed by several front-end frameworks via APIs and then deliver that content to an array of devices and screens.

This facilitates the creation of a truly omni-channel experience for your users. Not only that, but it also ensures that, should new forms of content display emerge in the future, you will be able to access your content and publish it on these channels.

This also means your content is more easily scalable. If a particular website or mobile application puts too much strain on a server, you simply add a new server for it and connect it to the CMS.

Another advantage of a headless CMS is the agility it gives you and your developers. Your content is not restrained to a single piece of technology, meaning you can switch between front-end delivery systems with minimal interruption to your operations. It gives your developers the ability to select tools that they are most comfortable working with or that match your business needs the closest.

Finally, a Headless CMS offers your data a higher level of security. The separation of content from templates, development workflows, and everything else means two things:

  1. you can organize access to data within your organization differently, and...
  2. you can add an extra layer of security on top of your content layer.

Disadvantages of a Headless CMS

Clearly, headless CMS tools offer a number of heavy advantages over traditional CMS platforms. However, that does not mean it’s the right approach for every business.

To begin with, opting for a Headless CMS means you have to identify the right front-end delivery infrastructure. For a startup or a small business, this often does not make much financial sense as their content needs tend not to justify the expenses associated with hiring developers or outsourcing front-end solutions development.

Another drawback of Headless CMS tools is that they shift much of the power away from marketers. They are more dependent on the developers for the presentation of content as opposed to when they have access to a traditional CMS tool, which allows them to both preview the display of content and publish it.

Decoupled CMS tools, while also more complex to deploy than a traditional CMS, alleviate some of the issues of a Headless CMS. Since it comes with certain pre-set front-end capabilities, you can preview and design your content more comfortably.

What are Headless CMS Solutions?

Multi-channel publishing is on the rise and has been for a while now. Therefore, headless CMS will only continue to grow in its popularity. The market is responding in kind.

Here are some of the solutions you can look into if you decide to go headless:

Headless content management is gaining traction, no doubt about that. Some go as far as to label it the “Future of Content Management.”

While API-driven content management tools certainly offer a number of advantages, don’t jump on the bandwagon if your business does not require a robust multi-channel content strategy AND has the resources to deploy headless architecture.

It is also worth exploring Decoupled CMS solutions to overcome the limitations of traditional platforms.