Surreal headless guy, invisible face seated on the floor with gear symbol instead of head, as a brain mechanism

What Is a Headless CMS?

Originally, “Traditional” CMS were built for websites, this was in the days where you only had one medium to view web content, usually a large tower hard drive by your feet and a monitor as deep as it was wide was involved too!

However, in the past 18 years we have been through (and are still going through) the mobile revolution, which has meant we are able to consume content through mobile applications.

While the new era of Digital is fully upon us, we must be prepared for anything, as the Digital Revolution is, and will always be in flux, it is continuously moving and changing.

With the introduction of the Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality, bots and virtual assistants, a company’s ability to share content has become very complex. Suddenly, we went from consuming content on one device, to consuming on many devices using any format. 

This change in viewing has forced a change in how we publish content. It was clear what needed to be done, the content repository; the “body”, needed to be decoupled/separated from the presentation layer; the “head”, this would allow any piece of content to be consumed across any device via APIs.

A headless CMS eliminates the need to reformat content for every channel; you create the content once and seamlessly reuse it everywhere.

Coupled vs. Decoupled vs. Headless vs. Hybrid Headless

There are 4 key forms of content management delivery architecture, Coupled, Decoupled, Headless and Hybrid Headless. Depending on which you choose will determine how your content is managed and where it is delivered.

A Coupled CMS is where the frontend and back end are bound together, this means your content will be created, managed, stored, and delivered via the same system

A Decoupled CMS sees the frontend and backend separated, this means the content is managed separately in the backend (usually in a Digital Asset Management system; DAM), then the content is delivered and presented via APIs to the frontend. A big advantage of this is the content creation team (usually the marketing team) can work on the frontend while the developers work on the backend simultaneously. 

A Headless CMS is a content-only data source without a presentation layer. In practice, headless is another form of decoupled architecture, but instead of the CMS pushing content to the frontend, the front-end pulls content from the CMS. It is important to note that a pure headless system never does any templating and only serves raw data to another system.

A Hybrid Headless CMS is a mix of both headless and traditional architecture, which means it can operate using the traditional coupled architecture with the added benefit of being able to deliver content in a headless fashion.

How headless architecture works?

A headless CMS is a back-end only content management system (CMS) built from the ground up as a content repository that makes content accessible via a RESTful API or GraphQL API for display on any device.

The term “headless” comes from the concept of chopping the “head” (the front end, i.e. the website) off the “body” (the back end, i.e. the content repository). A headless CMS remains with an interface to manage content and a RESTful or GraphQL API to deliver content wherever you need it. Due to this approach, a headless CMS does not care about how and where your content gets displayed. It only one focus: storing and delivering structured content and allowing content editors to collaborate on new content.

When should you consider a headless approach?

  • When your target audience is using multiple devices to consume your content
  • If you have multiple platforms/repositories that contain content, and you want to integrate them to create a seamless customer experience
  • If you want to give your front-end developers more freedom to design without the complexities or restraints from a tradition CMS approach

What are the benefits? Why companies choose a headless CMS

  • Freedom to choose your technology stack, content models, and services to create any online experience
  • Headless CMSs provide IT teams with a secure backend infrastructure, while offering the flexibility to choose a front-end framework that is right for them.
  • Flexibility for Marketers to focus on content management while Developers focus on building engaging experiences
  • Increased speed of publishing content
  • Focus on delivering best-of-breed content production and delivery
  • More flexible design Improved scalability
  • Agility to reuse content and publish across multiple devices and channels
  • Lower costs
  • Fewer updates/less disruption
  • Less need for developer involvement

What are the drawbacks of a headless CMS?

Off-the-shelf headless CMSs aren't a magic bullet to fix all your content challenges. They can come with two major trade-offs that need to be seriously considered.

For one, what you gain in flexibility, you lose in accessibility. Since presentation is left to developers writing JavaScript, non-technical marketers can’t use What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) authoring or editing.

This not only affects the editor but can have substantial impact on your SEO. Headless frameworks rely on client-side rendering of the content. Not every search engine bot is able to do this to the extend needed to fully analyze the content. The frameworks you need for client side rendering can improve your payload significantly. At least for the initial request.

But there is an even bigger potential risk: When you cut the head off a CMS sending customer interaction data between the front end and the back end in real time becomes a lot harder to accomplish. That means you might have a hard time personalizing experiences or run content analytics activities.

Hyper-Personalization has gone from a “nice-to-have” to a table-stakes requirement. Customers are learning what great personalization feels like from industry leaders like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and others.

A few Headless CMS examples:

  • CoreMedia
  • Contentful
  • Contentstack
  • Ampliance
  • Bloomreach

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