Headless CMS: Everything You Need to Know
Content management systems (CMSs) have evolved to keep up with the emergence of new channels, changing business requirements and customer expectations. Content is no longer reserved for just a desktop experience but is now consumed on mobile devices, smart TVs, digital signage, AR/VR devices and wearables.
Unfortunately, legacy or traditional CMSs aren’t built to cope with this influx of new channels or the other changes in modern technology. However, a headless CMS can provide the capabilities to build omnichannel experiences and recapture customer attention. This blog post provides a comprehensive overview of everything you need to know about headless content management, now and into the future.
What Is a Headless CMS?
A headless CMS is a content management system with a back-end repository that is separated from the front-end display. This separation is why a headless CMS is called headless because the head is removed. It also enables a headless CMS to deliver content to different channels instead of just a single channel like a website, as a traditional CMS does.
The back-end handles the storage and management of content while connections to different front-ends (desktop, mobile, display signage, etc.) are done using APIs.
How Does a Headless CMS Work?
A headless CMS strips away those templates and front-end delivery layers (the “head”) that legacy CMSs have built in. The headless approach allows developers to push and pull content to any device, screen, or external software—as well as from any device, screen, or external software through API calls (like RESTful APIs or GraphQL).
The Role of APIs
Multichannel Content Delivery
API calls are the go-between, linking the content from the back-end repository of the headless CMS to pretty much anywhere else. APIs facilitate communication and data exchange between software components and are the critical elements of headless architecture. For instance, a headless CMS could feed content to a website just as easily as it could feed content to a smart speaker or iOS app, a capability that a legacy CMS will struggle to provide.
Similarly, using the same content API calls, the headless CMS can pull in data from a customer data platform to deliver personalized experiences. This makes integrating with third-party systems relatively easy compared to a legacy CMS, which was built to push content out linearly and rely on bootstrapping and extra plugins to create other digital experiences.
Because a high-quality headless content management system should provide a robust set of APIs, developers are free to build using their preferred frameworks like Angular, Vue.js, or React. They can create a website from scratch using any technology and connect it to the content repository using APIs. They can also use different frameworks for different projects instead of choosing and sticking with one to use the best tools for the job every single time.
A headless CMS is the perfect tool for delivering unique and innovative experiences to any device or touchpoint, enabling enterprises to achieve a competitive advantage and providing the best customer experience.
Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS
The headless CMS differs from its predecessor, the legacy or traditional CMS. This type of CMS, which can still be seen with tools such as WordPress or Drupal, was built to publish content to a single channel.
What Is a Traditional CMS?
A traditional CMS is a content management system with a tightly coupled back-end and front-end layer. This worked well in the past when CMSs were first introduced, as they made it easier for developers and marketers to manage content for a website without having to code everything from scratch.
A traditional CMS has built-in templates and front-end delivery layers (e.g., a proprietary templating framework), which you may or may not be able to modify via code. By logging into the CMS, marketers and non-technical users edit content (text, images, hyperlinks, etc.) in the back-end of the CMS, format that content, and then publish it to the front-end layer using the CMS’s templates.
The traditional approach works for websites and blogs. Still, for organizations that want the flexibility to use different front-end frameworks and publish to various channels, the traditional CMS falls short.
How a Traditional CMS and Headless CMS Are Different
Here is a quick rundown of how a headless CMS differs from a traditional CMS:
Traditional or Legacy CMS
Monolithic with a tightly coupled frontend and backend
Separated with a frontend and backend that are connected via APIs
Restricted by a templated design and proprietary frontend frameworks
Frontent technology and framework independence
Number of Channels
A single channel (website)
Easily integrates with other tools and 3rd party services via APIs
Increased scalability (especially those with serverless content delivery)
Vulnerable to attacks, particularly database vectors of attack
Increased security due to the separation of the frontend, reducing the surface area for threats to attack
Headless CMS vs Decoupled CMS: How is a Decoupled CMS Different?
The term “decoupled” has often incorrectly become a synonym for “headless”, primarily when used by vendors stuck with what is a truly coupled CMS architecture.
While a headless CMS strips the front-end of the content delivery system away, a decoupled CMS separates content authoring and content delivery —and it does so strategically.
Instead of coupling the content authoring front-end with the content delivery tier, a decoupled CMS “decouples” the system into two distinct subsystems: a content authoring system and a content delivery system.
This allows the users of a decoupled CMS to reap the benefits of a true headless CMS platform, especially when both systems are headless and API-first. A content authoring platform gives marketers and non-technical content authors the tools they know and love (using the content authoring system)—for instance, a WYSIWYG editor, drag-and-drop page building, and in-context previews.
Compared to a simple headless CMS, a truly decoupled CMS architecture has several advantages, including increased scalability, flexibility, perrformance and security.
Other Variations of a Headless CMS
When researching a headless CMS, it’s common to come across different variations of a CMS built using headless architecture.
Content as a Service
Content as a Service (CaaS) refers to a use case in which the content on the web is created and stored separately from the place it will be used. Instead, content is delivered on-demand via APIs to the desired channel.
In other words, CaaS supports a content-first approach, which necessitates a headless CMS architecture. The objective is to streamline the content creation process in light of the need to feed a wide range of digital channels such as websites, social networks, virtual reality experiences, digital signage, IoT, and more.
This methodology requires a content management system with robust APIs to deliver that centrally located content to all the different devices at play in today’s market.
Unlike the original concept of a CMS, where there is less concern about how the content will be delivered through a website’s pages, it has the single goal of providing content creators the tools to enhance their workflow to a point where content is ready to be consumed by any number of end-user applications.
Hybrid Headless CMS
A hybrid headless CMS is a content management system that combines the functionality of a headless CMS with a traditional CMS.
The first headless CMSs were backend-only systems that offered no marketer-friendly features. So, non-technical users needed to rely on developers to build the front-end and, in many cases, had to be called on to help publish or edit content. Additionally, marketers didn’t have access to content previews, and their authoring environments didn’t offer user-friendly WYSIWYG or drag-and-drop editing like they were accustomed to with a traditional CMS.
A hybrid headless CMS provides the flexibility of a headless-only CMS to deliver content to multiple channels and for developers to use their preferred frameworks and technologies. It also offers non-technical users the authoring environments they lost initially, enabling them to create content without depending on developers.
An API-first CMS is a headless CMS that can deliver content to multiple channels and helps businesses create omnichannel experiences for their customers. The front-end presentation layer is separated from the back-end content repository and connected via APIs.
What makes an API-first CMS different is that those APIs are critical to building a modern technology stack. An API-first CMS prioritizes interoperability and extensibility, relies on integration with various systems, and shares data between them, such as pulling data from a CDP or pushing it to a digital asset management tool.
Git-based Headless CMS
A Git-based CMS is a headless CMS that leverages Git and GitOps workflows for storing and managing content and enables very efficient DevContentOps processes. Files are stored in the Git repository for managing content and their version history. Any changes made to content are first pushed to the repository, which eventually triggers changes on the website or app through review and publishing workflows.
Content changes are reflected in the repo and then deployed to the desired channel for viewing by end users. Git-based CMSs are known for improved version control, tracking, and auditing capabilities because they leverage Git and its advanced capabilities over SQL or NoSQL databases.
A composable CMS is a modular headless CMS that allows businesses to build their content management processes from individual components. These components can be content modules, microservices, APIs, widgets, and other elements.
For example, a content repository database can be connected to different front-end interfaces via APIs. It can also be connected to back-end microservices such as commerce, personalization, and search.
A composable CMS follows the principles of composability, which focuses on letting businesses select the tools they want to use for their unique requirements, leading to increased flexibility and business agility.
Why Do You Need a Headless CMS?
Different variations of the headless CMS can leave enterprises unsure whether it’s right for them. However, aside from the various use cases and the benefits of adopting one, there are two primary reasons a headless CMS is necessary in the modern era.
- Multiple Channels: The number of channels where potential customers are consuming content continues to increase and change. Websites were commonly accessed on desktops, but now consumers are using mobile devices to consume content and make purchases. Augmented and virtual reality solutions are increasingly being adopted as the technology is perfected.
Every year, the number of technologies also continues to evolve, meaning that a headless CMS is necessary for modern businesses to future-proof themselves and be ready to adapt to any changes.
Headless CMS Use Cases
Headless CMSs enable numerous use cases for enterprises.
- Websites: Enterprises can build personalized, high-performance, responsive, and SEO-friendly sites that enable them to reach a global audience. Also, developers are able to leverage the modern frameworks that suit them the best.
- E-Commerce Sites: New E-Commerce experiences that can increase digital sales with personalized, content-rich experiences are also possible with a headless CMS.
- Mobile Apps: Many customers prefer to browse the internet using their mobile devices. With a headless CMS, businesses can reach users where they spend most of their digital time and create native mobile apps for iOS and Android.
- Digital Signage: Everything from mobile kiosks to stadium screens and other digital signage can have content published to them using a headless CMS.
- Portals: By building portals and intranets, enterprises can keep employees, customers, and partners engaged and informed.
- Video Experiences: With a headless CMS, teams can produce and deliver engaging video experiences for live streaming and on-demand video.
With a headless CMS, developers are able to build any other front-end application they want, including blogs, microsites, and single-page applications. Delivering content to VR headsets, AR applications, and more is also possible.
Benefits of a Headless CMS
Businesses that adopt a headless CMS are able to realize numerous benefits compared to if they keep using a legacy or traditional CMS.
More Content Experience Options
By separating the front-end presentation layer from the back-end content repository and removing the templated design of a traditional CMS, a headless CMS opens up the possibility of new content experiences. Businesses can reach their customers at every stage of the customer journey and appeal to them differently rather than wait until they land on the website.
Faster Time to Market
Developers and marketers can work in parallel on different tasks when using a headless CMS. This, coupled with the ability to integrate new channels and technologies easily, enables companies to quickly launch campaigns and achieve a faster time to market.
Developers can focus on creating application features rather than re-inventing the CMS wheel or working around content deployment and presentation issues presented by legacy systems. It also reduces the quantity of managed content by eliminating duplicative content with slightly different presentations.
The most effective and powerful brands create interconnected, simplified experiences on all levels of customer interactions to keep the brand message and customer journey consistent. This means in-person and digital touchpoints are crucial to connecting with users and potential customers.
Technical agility, as well as the ability to manage content, is key. With a headless architecture, you can more easily manage the entire user experience from one central location and serve that content to any platform throughout the customer journey.
Frontend Framework Independence
With a headless CMS, developers can choose the most suitable front-end frameworks or technologies for their specific project needs. This flexibility allows them to use the latest tools and technologies without being tied to a specific technology stack.
Headless CMSs offer enhanced security compared to traditional or legacy CMSs. This stems from separating the back-end and front-end layers, which reduces the attack area for threats to attack. Also, if an attack affects one component, it does not automatically jeopardize others. Using APIs for communication ensures connectivity without direct access, effectively confining threats to one layer.
The flexibility of headless CMS allows organizations to adapt to future technologies and trends. As new devices and channels emerge, content can be seamlessly delivered without requiring a complete overhaul of the content management system.
Composable Experience Foundation
A headless CMS enables the creation of a composable architecture where different services can be combined to deliver a tailored user experience. Various microservices can be integrated to enhance functionality, providing a foundation for creating unique and customized experiences.
Challenges of Working With a Typical Headless CMS
Even though the future is omnichannel and a headless CMS will be an almost necessity for most organizations, that doesn’t mean it comes without drawbacks. Sometimes, certain types of headless CMSs may not be the best fit for your organization. Here are some cons of a headless CMS.
Headless CMSs make it easy to connect to multiple front-ends and display content on almost any device, but the marketing teams creating that content need to rely on IT departments to make some changes. This can create friction between the two departments and slow down both sides considerably.
Poor Content Authoring Experience
Not only do marketers have to rely on developers to change certain types of content, but they will also find other content tools they took for granted with the traditional CMS lacking. In-context previews and WYSIWYG editing capabilities are often non-existent or difficult to find in a headless CMS.
CrafterCMS overcomes this by offering an intuitive and robust content authoring tool named Crafter Studio, which is designed to cater to the demands of contemporary content teams. Additionally, Crafter Studio serves as a flexible platform, allowing seamless customization with modern development tools to meet enterprise-specific and advanced requirements.
Fragmented Technology Stacks
Organizations today rely on several tools as part of their tech or marketing stacks. While a headless CMS makes connecting with front-end displays for consumers easy, many lack the integration capabilities necessary to connect with analytics, eCommerce, and other systems.
Despite some of these drawbacks, the headless CMS has continued to evolve to help fix some of these problems. For smaller organizations that don’t need to display content in several different ways, reverting to a traditional CMS may be the answer. For everyone else, there is another alternative.
What’s Next For the Headless CMS?
Headless CMS evolved from the legacy or traditional CMS to meet the demands of the modern era. However, there are other evolutions already underway. Content is a key piece of the modern marketing puzzle, but it isn’t the only one.
It’s why companies are turning toward digital experience platforms (DXPs) to help them manage the entire digital experience across the customer journey. A DXP is an integrated set of technologies that enable the creation, management, delivery, and optimization of digital experiences.
DXPs are available as monolithic solutions like previous legacy systems, but many follow a composable approach and are built by combining various products from different vendors. A headless CMS is a key component of this type of composable DXP. It will remain relevant as businesses seek to future-proof themselves and achieve flexibility and adaptability.
CrafterCMS: The Future of Headless Content Management
For brands that wish to maintain relevance in an omnichannel world, going headless is no longer a luxury; it’s necessary to stay nimble to future technology changes. A headless CMS can enable new use cases and help brands enter the new content management era. However, not every headless CMS is created equal.
CrafterCMS is an enterprise-grade headless CMS that supports not only the delivery of personalized content experiences across multiple channels but also the needs of content authors, software developers, and IT operations, all working together to create the best digital experience for their customers. It goes beyond a headless CMS to offer a headless “plus” approach (aka hybrid headless CMS) that gives enterprises exactly what they need for more advanced digital experience platform requirements. Moreover, with it's flexible and modular architecture, CrafterCMS provides a composable architecture for tailoring the content management experience across a variety of use cases and user roles.
In addition, Git is the underlying content repository in CrafterCMS, so as a Git-based headless CMS it provides much more advanced content management capabilities when compared to database-centric CMSs. With its truly decoupled architecture, with content authoring decoupled from serverless content delivery, CrafterCMS also scales very easily and allows for much lower operational costs.
With CrafterCMS, it’s possible to streamline content editing and publishing processes by eliminating 95% of common bottlenecks and challenges associated with headless-only CMSs. Marketers can utilize user-friendly tools for effortless creation, updates, and publishing across various digital channels. It also enhances software development and QA productivity by more than 40%. And with its Git-based content repository decoupled from its serverless content delivery, CrafterCMS enables seamless collaboration between content editors and developers through DevContentOps processes, and improves operational efficiencies by over 75%.
Read our case studies and learn how CrafterCMS has benefited global brands, including Marriott, MasterCard, and Penn Mutual. Contact us today to learn more about how CrafterCMS can benefit your brand as well.
The Future of CMS (and Overcoming Problems in Content Management)
What Is a Hybrid CMS? (The Solution For Marketers & Developers)
eCommerce Personalization: Strategies for Success
Composable CMS: The Key to Increased Agility and Flexibility