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The Ultimate Guide to Headless CMS

Summary: The world is continuously evolving. So, the way you create, curate, and deliver content should evolve too. The concept of headless CMS introduces resilience, agility, and flexibility to content, making it accessible for a variety of uses. Learn what a headless CMS is and why you should make it a part of your organization’s content distribution strategy.

Today’s consumer expects a lot from their shopping experience, both in-person and with eCommerce. Shaped by new technologies and shifts in buyer preferences brought on by the global pandemic, consumers want rich, individualized experiences across every touch point. And they want those touchpoints to be fluid.

Brands looking to deliver on shifting consumer expectations are looking for tools that can support agility, scalability, flexibility, and continuity. This guide will introduce a new kind of CMS – one that makes it possible to deliver content anywhere, to any channel or device, without significant re-tooling. At the same time, this tool can scale up or evolve with the addition of microservices. It’s called headless CMS.

A Headless CMS is a type of content management system that decouples the content repository (backend) from the presentation layer (the “head”), making it possible to pull unformatted content and deliver it to a variety of channels or platforms. A Headless CMS takes its inspiration from headless commerce, a concept that decouples the front-end user experience layers (the “head”) and from the backend infrastructure.

In this guide, we’ll learn everything you need to know about headless CMS as a beginner, such as what it is, what it’s purpose, how it works, and how it differs from the traditional CMS. We‘ll also walk you through several real-life examples of headless CMS. Let’s begin:

Features of a Headless CMS

In a headless CMS, the front-end/presentation layers also called the Head are disconnected and remain separate from the CMS. A headless CMS only cares about storing and sharing data via API, it is up to individual front-ends for each platform to render the data appropriately outside the CMS.

A headless CMS is the most simple form possible for storing and managing data – and that’s it. The rest of the services are coupled onto the CMS in an independent stack, allowing developers to customize that stack with microservices, ultimately making the entire system more flexible. In a headless CMS, developers are free to integrate the latest technologies to deliver superior, personalized experiences to users – wherever they are.

Difference between a Headless CMS and Traditional CMS

The absence of the front-end layer called Head is the primary difference between the headless and traditional CMS. While this may give you a surface-level overview, differences become more clear as you dig further. Let’s learn about some such differences:

headless cms vs traditional cms

Parameter
Traditional Monolithic CMS
Headless CMS
Technology stack Coupled with the CMS, all-in-one Independent of CMS, microservices based
Supported devices Limited No limits
Content Optimized for websites, style information connected to the content Raw, a building block for whatever needed
Hosting In-house or cloud Cloud
Scalability Limited by stack, high development time Fast, supported by microservices
Performance Slow Optimized
API approach APIs attached with plugins or extensions API-first
Maintenance New features or upgrades impact the entire website and its performance as well as the ability to create new content Site performance and content creation are unaffected by development upgrades

Difference between a Headless CMS and Decoupled CMS

In between the concept of a traditional CMS and a headless CMS is the concept of a decoupled CMS. As its name suggests, a decoupled CMS separates the presentation layer from the back-end. However, the front-end is still a part of the CMS – another choice to make, to code, and to optimize. While the style of the content is not stored with the content (as it is with the traditional approach), it is immediately limited by the front-end chosen.

While many traditional CMS solutions are claiming to be headless, beware that many are only decoupled. Only a headless CMS solution allows content to remain distinct from where content will go or the microservices architecture that will support it.

headless cms vs decoupled cms

Headless CMS Architecture

Headless CMS Architecture is very simple: it is concerned only with content. It provides a simple way to get content from editors and marketers in (backend UI) and out to various platforms or channels (API).

Front-end developers apply the design to the content on the way between the headless CMS and its ultimate designation, each following the preferred language or framework allowing for a variety of development approaches (native, hybrid, etc. etc.).

how does headless cms work

Headless API Types

Headless CMS is powered by APIs to push content from storage into the presentation layers as requested by users. There are two ways to design APIs for this process:

  • REST API
    REST API (also known as a RESTful API) stands for Representational State Transfer, a set of constraints about transferring information, structuring content behind multiple URLs (/posts, /images, etc) and transferring through HTTP. The API is suited for simple data structures, but is not well suited to complex content models.
  • GraphQL API
    GraphQL is an open-source language for APIs that is known to be flexible and efficient, allowing clients to request exactly the data needed. Released in 2015, GraphQL is ideally suited for more complex APIs.

Why Do We Need a Headless CMS?

Technology and user expectations are moving targets – there are always new ways to present content. In order to stay on top of change, brands need a CMS that can adapt to changing conditions – one that doesn’t lock them into specific services, capabilities, channels, or platforms. A headless CMS is endlessly customizable and scalable, helping brands remain ahead of the competition in terms of responding to shifting opportunities.

Headless CMS Benefits

There are many advantages to a headless CMS:

  • Front-end Agnostic
    A headless CMS is omnichannel approach in its delivery, meaning the content can be sent via API to different channels or platforms.
  • Faster Editing Experiences
    We can push any edits we make to the content out to all channels and platforms, speeding up the updates.
  • Manage Content for More Channels
    Content management is decoupled from channels, so for a content manager the number of channels can expand without increasing workload.
  • Developer Flexibility
    Developers and designers can use any language or framework rather than limiting themselves by the bounds of their legacy CMS. System upgrades or new presentation layer changes are rapid to make and do not impact the creation of new content. In some cases, this can reduce development time from weeks to a single day.
  • Scalability
    A traditional CMS may not respond well to increases in traffic, particularly if the solution is in-house, with scaling often limited to the database size. Limiting the headless CMS to content only, the service speed increases and many headless CMS options (or custom solutions) can be built to adjust cloud infrastructure to any surges.
  • Enhanced Security
    A single vulnerability in a plugin, theme or extension can take down an entire traditional CMS, but a headless CMS minimizes risk by allowing greater choice in microservices and greater separation of services from content.
  • Future-proof
    A headless CMS is neutral by nature, allowing for the addition of microservices to adapt to new technology or experience options and offering limitless capability to connect to new platforms or channels as they emerge.

Disadvantages of Headless CMS

While the industry is moving towards headless CMS, there are some disadvantages to consider:

  • Not Marketing Friendly
    A headless CMS is largely a back-end tool to store content with very little consideration for how that data is viewed and requiring that design implementation fall to developers, with no “user-friendly” tools to assist marketers. This neutral content also means that metadata such as titles, alt text, or descriptions have to be added as a separate functionality for SEO.
  • No Content Previews
    A headless CMS stores neutral content, meaning it lacks the WYSIWYG preview that makes content easier to read, preview and update by marketing teams. All updates to design fall to developers.
  • A Fragmented Tech Stack
    Supported by microservices and with light front-ends created for each supported channel or platform, this can lead to a fragmented tech stack that creates some confusion about how things work or keeping things updated.

Headless CMS is still  *new* and there are many advances being made to create best practices and create new microservices that re-introduce ‘ease’ back into headless CMS.

Headless CMS Use Cases

As previously noted, headless CMS can display content in any form. As such, it is ideally best for situations where many displays or channels could be involved including:

  • Websites & Web Apps
  • Products & Services
  • eCommerce Websites
  • … (limitless capabilities)

Real Life Headless CMS Examples

Burger King

burger king - headless cms example

Burger King recently rolled out digital menu boards to over 6,500+ stores across the US – all in record time, only 4 months. To keep the digital menu boards updated, Burger King uses their core dna headless CMS to update inventory, pricing, or include attention-grabbing ads.

IKEA

ikea - headless cms example

IKEA launches an augmented reality (AR) catalog mobile app that allows users to test products in real time, offering realistic 3D products overlaid into people’s homes and offices. The furniture brand also leveraged core dna’s CMS and eCommerce platform to drive the innovation from a common content base.

JetSmart Airlines

jet smart - headless cms example

JetSmart was undergoing a rapid stage of expansion throughout South America countries, which presented new challenges for delivering localized content. The brand leveraged Kontent by Kentico CMS, which comes with regional content repositories accessed in a streamlined interface to accelerate the process of translating content for new audiences.

Shiseido

shiseido - headless cms example

Shiseido Professional has been delivering beauty worldwide since 1872, but faced common challenges managing content across a variety of digital properties. The company moved to the contentful headless CMS, achieving a 50% cost savings for content development, taking processes that used to take months down to just minutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are the Best Headless CMS?

The best headless CMS are ones that give ultimate freedom to developers to create front-ends in any way they want, for any channel or platform. The prominent examples of such best headless cms, including headless CMS including the open-source options are Strapi, Cockpit, core dna, Contentful, Butter CMS, GraphCMS, and Directus.

2. Is WordPress a headless CMS?

WordPress is a traditional CMS that aspires to be a decoupled CMS, but it is not a headless CMS by default. However, you can use WordPress to manage content and some other custom frontend stack to actually display the content for the site visitor.

3. How Headless CMS Helps with Omnichannel Marketing?

Following are the ways in which a headless CMS helps with Omnichannel Marketing:

  • Faster Time-to-Market
    Headless CMS allows for rapid changes to the front-end without impacting the back-end, meaning you can deploy new ideas rapidly and optimize them across devices or channels without requiring manual intervention.
  • A Flexible Technology Stack
    The use of APIs and microservices makes it possible to easily and quickly change up the technology stack to offer the latest and greatest experiences to customers.
  • Deliver More Personalized Experiences
    Brands that deliver omnichannel, personalized experiences reap the rewards, with SAP reporting a 74% increase in sales and a 64% boost in acquisition and loyalty.

4. Why Do You Need a Headless CMS to Get Personalization Right?

Creating highly customized content for different segments is not enough. To ace the competition, you must focus on creating high quality content that you can reuse for multiple segments at the right time. A headless CMS gets personalization right by giving you the flexibility to connect with multiple channels to deliver content and manage your omnichannel experiences.

5. How to Choose the Right Headless CMS?

To choose the right headless CMS, ask yourself the following questions during the search:

  • Is your CMS truly headless or just decoupled?
  • Is the CMS self-hosted or hosted?
  • What security and compliance considerations are there?
  • What pricing tiers are there, to support (affordable) scalability?
  • Does it support content migration in bulk or via API (often more flexible)?

The top headless CMS platforms are Strapi, Cockpit, core dna, Contentful, Butter CMS, GraphCMS, Kentico Kontent and Directus.

Looking to shift to a headless CMS?

We can offer you the necessary consulting and development services to assist in getting you off on the right foot.


Lalit Singla

About the Author

Designation: Technical Architect
Forte: Programming / Logical Ability to solve any technical or programming issue
Likes: Indian Classical Music
Dislikes: Modern Rap songs
Claim to Fame: Attended the same school as a Punjabi singer
Biggest Tech Blunder: Built an entire project on the wrong stack and ended up redoing the entire thing
Wannabe: Social Servant

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