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Headless CMS Explained

June 9, 2022 12 minute read
Take an API-first approach to content management and personalize your omnichannel customer experience with a headless CMS.
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With its evolution to headless, content management systems (CMSs) are experiencing one of their biggest changes in 20 years. Traditionally, content is produced, managed, and stored in a CMS that’s directly connected to just one website. But today’s digital experiences demand a more flexible CMS that can publish to many channels at once. That’s a big reason why the market for headless CMS solutions is forecast to grow from $322 million in 2020 to $1.6 billion by 2027

To be clear, a headless CMS isn’t disconnected from a marketing technology (martech) stack. Your headless CMS acts as a powerful back-end content repository that can publish and personalize content across any tool you use to build omnichannel customer journeys. And, with a headless architecture, your development teams can constantly iterate and experiment on your front-end website without compromising the back end and impairing content creators. 

It’s worth learning about this development in CMS technology and why it’s creating market buzz. Let’s explore the core capabilities of a headless CMS, its benefits, and its disadvantages.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system that can provide content to multiple channels and devices via API endpoints. It’s a CMS where the front end that renders content is decoupled from the back end where content is created, managed, and stored.

How does a headless CMS work?

Content management systems have been the foundation of web development for more than two decades. They store and manage content on the back end and display content on the front end for users. But, as the ways content can be consumed has grown, developers sought a way to use the back end of one CMS while rendering content for a variety of channels using different front-end tools. (“Channels” here refers to all the different technologies and devices through which content is delivered, like virtual assistants and augmented reality, as well as tablets and digital signage.) And so headless content management systems emerged. 

With a headless content management system, the front end that renders content is decoupled from the back end where content is stored and managed. The system’s back end organizes and manages content and exposes it to any front-end system or technology that developers choose for presenting the content on a specific channel. This ability gives developers greater flexibility to innovate, allowing them to use the most effective tools for delivering optimal user experiences.

Some companies will use their headless CMS to deliver the same content to multiple website instances, product listings, and native mobile apps. But, no matter the use case, a headless CMS has many benefits. 

Differentiating between headless vs. traditional CMS 

A traditional CMS allows content teams to create, manage, and publish content from the back end. It also allows them to publish to a unified front end typically made up of pre-structured web-page templates. This architecture can make it more complex to publish content across multiple websites, product feeds, and marketing channels. Without API access to content, it also becomes more difficult to consume across many channels.

At the same time, a traditional CMS is often more user-friendly than a headless CMS, which is typically developer-focused. A traditional CMS can also allow administrators to control the appearance of a website using low-code tools. Plus, depending on the CMS, there are large communities to turn to for help.

A headless CMS effectively decouples your front and back ends. You create, manage, and store content in the back end and then display that content in other systems. In this case, the CMS is only concerned with creating and managing the data, leaving the display up to another system entirely. Headless CMS solutions are API-first, increasing flexibility and reusability. If your brand wants to personalize and innovate the end user’s experience across touchpoints, a headless CMS can make that easier. 

And, because presentation is separate from the back end, brands don’t have to worry about slowing down their content creators' workflow any time they invest in new channels, integrations, or strategies like personalization. Traditional CMS systems may require a new back end per channel.

Instead of just publishing content to a website, a headless CMS can publish to various media, including:

  • Mobile phones, tablets, and smartwatches
  • IoT devices and apps
  • Digital signage 
  • Personal assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Cortana that have conversational user interfaces (UIs)
  • Native applications for specific devices
  • Augmented and virtual reality platforms
  • CRM systems and chat platforms

Pros and cons of headless content management

While there are many benefits to using headless CMS, here are a few of the most important:

  • Maintain a single content repository. With a headless CMS, all content can be kept in one place, simplifying version control, brand management, and content organization.
     
  • Streamline future changes. A headless content management system makes it easier to redesign websites, because you don’t need to also redesign the back end — only the front end needs to be changed.
     
  • Enjoy greater freedom for designers and developers. With a headless content management system, developers are free to use their preferred tools or the most effective solutions for developing front-end experiences. For example, some developers may prefer to use a Javascript framework over a cross-platform mobile application framework.
     
  • Give users a better experience. A headless content management system enables development teams to make choices based on users’ needs and expectations rather than being limited by the choices available within the specific front-end system unified with the back end.
     
  • Accelerate production. A headless content management system may enable applications to move more quickly through development stages because the front-end team no longer needs to wait for the back-end team to finish its work.
     

But we would be remiss if we didn’t also cite the drawbacks of a headless CMS. Many industry analysts have warned of the "hype around headless" and believing headless content management systems are a silver bullet that will solve all problems. While it does solve some issues, it also introduces others. As with all things, it’s important to balance the pros and cons and choose the right solution for each use case.

For example, headless CMS solutions are technically demanding, so they require more developer support. That need can easily make the development team a bottleneck in the process, turning a valuable and expensive resource into a major constraint that can slow things down.

Additionally, many marketers find headless content management systems more challenging than a traditional CMS because they lose the ability to control the experience. They also sacrifice the low-code functionality they may have become used to in a traditional CMS. If the marketing team isn’t fully on board with the decision to go with a headless CMS, then it can lead to problems later when they don't get the tools they were expecting.

On the security front, traditional CMSs usually have a more extensive and rigorous track record with security evaluations, reviews, and certifications. They also often have robust access control systems that may not be available in all headless CMS systems. Finally, a traditional CMS typically includes a certain degree of security features on the front end that may need to be replicated by the developer. This shouldn't be a problem for experienced developers, but it can be easier for a less experienced team to inadvertently introduce security vulnerabilities, so consider your team’s background when weighing this possibility.

As you decide whether or not a headless CMS is right for you and your organization, think about the pros and cons above, as well as the rise in hybrid headless CMS tools we’ll discuss a bit later below.

Examples of headless CMS platforms

As headless CMS technology has taken shape, platforms for it have developed. Let’s take a look at one of the best known, as well as others like it.

Drupal

Drupal is one of the most highly regarded, powerful, and mature CMS systems available today. It’s used by businesses in a range of sectors — in the travel and tourism industry, there’s Princess Cruises; in higher education, there’s Pennsylvania State; and in the public sector, the State of Georgia and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. All use Drupal.

With the rise in headless CMS, developers have expressed great interest in architecture for headless Drupal, because they can continue to take advantage of Drupal’s robust features for securely managing content, while using any tool they choose to present information in various channels and devices. Examples of Drupal architectures include:

  • Traditional Drupal retains all of Drupal’s usual responsibility for both front-end rendering and back-end management. Traditional Drupal offers built-in WYSIWYG editing capabilities, low code tools, integrated SEO benefits, accessibility optimizations, and more.
     
  • Hybrid headless Drupal allows developers to use low code tools and access the content via the API. This allows the CMS to power multichannel experiences and layer JavaScript components on top of a Drupal front end to deliver highly interactive end-user experiences.
     
  • Fully headless Drupal separates concerns between the front-end presentation layer and the back-end CMS management. This approach appeals to developers who want full control over the front end.
     

But Drupal isn’t your only option for a headless CMS solution. Other popular technologies on the market include:

  • Contentful
  • Storyblok
  • Sanity.io 
  • Contentstack

Introducing the hybrid headless CMS

Many organizations may struggle to choose between a traditional CMS and a headless CMS, but the choice is actually a false dichotomy because there’s a third option: hybrid headless CMS. A hybrid headless CMS combines attributes from both traditional and headless CMSs, so users can create content and store it in a database. That content can be served flexibly, either through the existing, unified front-end rendering layer or retrieved by a completely separate, decoupled front-end layer via APIs. This approach sets you up to serve content through any digital channel in your stack today, as well as to new channels that may arise. 

Few CMS platforms can operate as a true hybrid that serves both traditional and headless CMS needs well. Even fewer can do both at the same time. That’s why we see so many "traditional vs headless" discussions because those platforms are biased due to their own limitations. Industry analysts more frequently recommend hybrid CMS solutions and even say, "Hybrid is the new headless," to help companies break out of the trap of the limited choices presented.

Getting started with headless

Choosing the right CMS solution for your organization means being informed and feeling confident in your knowledge. We understand and have prepared a list of resources below to guide your research.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to talk to someone directly and to walk through the mechanics and capabilities of the technology. Schedule a demonstration of a headless CMS to see for yourself what’s possible for your developers, marketers, and the company’s bottom line.

Additional resources

Headless CMS for Developers

What Is a Hybrid CMS?

Headless Commerce: Innovation for Customer Experiences

Guide to Hybrid Headless CMS and Decoupled Apps

Why the Hybrid CMS Is Becoming the CMS of Choice Among Marketers

Headless and Hybrid Drupal 101