The Rise of Headless CMS

the rise of headless cms

Traditional CMS architecture was once the standard for web development, but today companies are looking for the increased flexibility and scalability provided by headless content management systems. Learn the differences between traditional CMSes, headless CMSes, and the next generation of content management tools — API-first composable content platforms.

Deep dive into headless CMS

To understand what a headless CMS is, (short for headless content management system), it helps to first look at the traditional content management system and what it was designed to do. Traditional CMSes have been around since the early days of web development. Platforms like WordPress, Drupal, and Sitecore were designed to store and present content elements like text, images, and video on websites.

The traditional CMS approach to managing content puts everything into one big bucket — content, images, HTML, CSS, you name it. This made it impossible to reuse content because it was commingled with code.

As digital channels and devices have evolved, the need for more flexible solutions has emerged. Now, enterprises are developing websites, mobile apps, digital displays, conversational interfaces, and more. Meanwhile, the traditional CMS has failed to keep pace. Why? Because a CMS organizes content in webpage-oriented frameworks, making it impossible for the same content to fit other digital platforms or software.

CMS evolution graphic

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system that separates where content is stored (the “body”) from where it is presented (the “head“). It separates information and presentation. This enables content reuse and remixing across web, mobile, and digital media platforms as needed. You could even reuse your content in print.

Format-agnostic content unlocks a fundamentally better experience for everyone—authors, developers and users.

Authors get a fully custom editor with structured data models. Developers get a focused API delivering performant querying and filtering. And ultimately users get content how and where they want it.

What do a recording studio and a headless CMS have in common

Making sense of the advantages of a headless CMS can be a bit tough at first, so let’s try something different.

Imagine you wanted to record a song.

A song is composed of many pieces of information – lyrics, melodies, instruments, voice tracks and more. You could just make a simple one track recording of a song in your basement. Information and presentation are mixed together.

You can replay the song but you can’t remix it.

What is much better, and what a professional recording studio does, is create a tailored recording experience for each musician. Each part is recorded as individual tracks. Then a sound engineer works with a team to remix and level all the tracks creating the perfect song.

You can replay the song and remix the song.

A headless CMS offers the same advantages as a professional recording studio. Content creators get a more organized and thoughtful editing experience. Developers, marketers and designers can remix and iterate on concepts as much as they need. And finally users get delivered the perfect mix of information, right where they need it.

You can reuse and remix your content!

Advantages of a headless CMS over a traditional CMS

Traditional CMSHeadless CMS
Hosting & deliveryIn-houseIn the cloud
Development mindsetProject-focusedProduct-focused
Content modelBuilt for a single pageBuilding block for many products
Supported devicesLimitedLimitless
Backend systemMonolithic, all-in-oneMicroservice, best-in-class
InvestmentLarge up-front costQuick proof of concept
Technical debtInherent to the systemManage

What is the difference between a headless CMS and a decoupled CMS?

In your research on CMSes, you’ve probably come across another term, “decoupled CMS.” As the name indicates, the defining feature of a decoupled CMS is that the back end and front end are separate. This separation is similar to a headless CMS, however, a decoupled CMS comes with a head, but using it is completely optional. Some use the terms interchangeably, but they are not identical. The main difference is a headless CMS does not include a presentation layer at all but instead allows developers to decide how they would like to display content. This is often through interactive JSON frameworks like React or Vue.js or static site generators like Gatsby.

What is structured content and how does it support a headless approach?

While a headless CMS software solution enables you to deploy content across any presentation layer, it doesn’t solve an underlying problem: unstructured content. As long as your content is unstructured, it cannot be easily reused across different platforms and channels or repurposed for new projects. Structured content is a general term referring to content that is broken down into small building blocks, organized in a predictable way, and classified with metadata. Take, for example, a webpage. Unstructured content mingles together all the content and code that creates that webpage. This is often done in a WYSIWYG editor, which stands for “what you see is what you get.” Digital content creators are usually familiar with WYSIWYGs as it gives them the ability to make content edits in the back end. This creates perfectly fine webpages, however, content is stuck to that format. What you see is what you get and all that you get.

A structured approach separates the various elements of that page into distinct components. Think author, title, body, image, image description, definitions, ecommerce information, product pricing, etc. All these components can still be assembled to create the same webpage, but they can also be reassembled to create various iterations of the webpage, personalized for a distinct audience, reorganized for a specific campaign, or trimmed down for a mobile experience.

Headless CMS Benefits

A headless CMS is a powerful and flexible way to manage content. It allows for faster editing experiences, and the ability to manage content for multiple channels. It offers developers the flexibility to choose their own frontend tooling, and makes it easier to scale. In addition, headless CMS also offers enhanced security by separating content from the presentation layer.

1. Faster editing experiences

Traditional CMS architectures have to spend resources on content editing, and content rendering. A headless CMS has an advantage over traditional alternatives because it doesn’t have to deal with the rendering side of things. That’s left to other more specialized parts of your stack.

2. Manage content for more channels

Truly headless content isn’t tied to a single presentation concern (e.g. website), so it can find an audience across multiple channels. You can use a headless CMS to manage content for apps and websites. You can even manage your internal/admin content in the same place and extract more value from it that way.

3. Developer Flexibility

Because headless content is served over APIs, developers can choose their own frontend tooling. If you’d prefer to work with Javascript instead of PHP or Ruby, you can do that. You can also interchange parts of your stack, or move from one framework to another without affecting the CMS..

4. Easier scaling

Headless lets you manage your content from a single source of truth, change developer tools at any time, and benefit from sending your content to high-performance cloud-based hosting and build services like Vercel and Netlify.

5. Enhanced security

Because headless content is separated from the presentation layer it’s a smaller area of attack.