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The Ultimate Guide to Headless CMS

  • Lalit Singla
  • By  Lalit Singla
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  • 87D32530-FD6E-468E-BB24-045278513D21 Created with sketchtool. 8 MIN READ
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  • 6BCC25D0-42B3-420B-8C28-C5D7EF3F6856 Created with sketchtool. Updated: November 4, 2021

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.

In this guide, learn all about headless CMS: what it is, what it’s used for, how it works, and how it differs from the traditional CMS. Finally, the guide will walk through several real-life examples of headless CMS and how to take the next steps towards implementation.

What is a Headless CMS?

what is headless cms

A content management system (CMS) is a solution to create / gather, store, manage, and present digital content including HTML / CSS, products, blog posts, photos, videos, or components of websites.

Let’s first step back and examine the contrast between a monolithic (traditional) CMS to help understand the evolution toward a modern, headless CMS:

Monolithic CMS Features

A traditional CMS provides all capabilities of a CMS in one solution – a “monolithic” or “legacy” CMS solution. This monolithic CMS solution has a single codebase that provides all the capabilities of your CMS either in the core system or as plugins to that system – making the system bigger and bigger over time. A traditional CMS is organized with web frameworks, storing data that is ideally suited for web display – a holdback when it comes to reusing that content across channels or platforms.

Headless CMS Features

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. Following that same separation concept, a headless CMS architecture 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 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.

Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS

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

Headless vs Decoupled CMS

headless cms vs 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 that will support it.

Headless CMS Use Cases

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

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

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.

How Does a Headless CMS Work?

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.).

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. REST 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.

Headless CMS Benefits

There are many advantages to a headless CMS:

  • Front-end Agnostic
    A headless CMS is omnichannel in its delivery, meaning the content can be sent via API to different channels or platforms.
  • Faster Editing Experiences
    Any edits made to the content are pushed out to all channels and platforms, speeding up how quickly updates can be made.
  • 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 being limited 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 considered *new* and there are many advances being made to create best practices and create new microservices that re-introduce ‘ease’ back into headless CMS.

How Headless CMS Helps with Omnichannel Marketing?

Omnichannel marketing is the concept that customers should receive a consistent, personalized experience across all channels (in-store, online, social) and across all device types. In terms of experience, omnichannel marketing considers a consistent inventory system, omnichannel customer service, seamless, personalized communication and the ability to move between devices during all stages of the buyer’s journey.

Put simply, omnichannel marketing knocks down the walls between each siloed effort (retail, online, etc.) and puts the customer at the center:

omni-channel marketing

A headless CMS, with its microservices Cloud-based structure, provides the flexibility needed to deliver personalized content and optimize delivery to many different channels at once with the scalability needed to support marketing efforts.

Research today demonstrates that omnichannel customers spend more time interacting across all channels – and that the more channels they use, the more valuable these customers are in terms of individual purchases and lifetime value. Omnichannel marketing tracks data across the entire customer journey in order to personalize interactions in real-time, no matter the channel or device they are using at the moment.

  • Faster Time-to-Market
    Headless CMS allows for rapid changes to the front-end without impacting the back-end, meaning new ideas can be deployed rapidly and will be optimized 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.

How to Choose the Right Headless CMS?

There are several traditional CMS options that are attempting to move toward headless (WordPress, Drupal), but these systems were not designed to be headless – and they cannot offer the same thing a true headless CMS can.

When looking at headless CMS, consider that there are some free headless CMS options as well as open-source headless CMS options. Consider the following questions during the search:

  • Is it truly headless or just decoupled?
  • Is it 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)?

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. IKEA 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. JetSmart 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. Shiseido 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.

FAQ

Why is it called headless CMS?

The term “head” refers to the front-end, the presentation layer that interacts with the user. In a headless CMS, these front-end layers 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.

What are the Best Headless CMS?

The best headless CMS is one that gives ultimate freedom to developers to create front-ends in any way they want, for any channel or platform. The best headless cms, including headless CMS open source options, includes Strapi, Cockpit, core dna, Contentful, Butter CMS, GraphCMS, Kentico Kontent and Directus.

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.

Conclusion

The concept of headless CMS introduces resilience, agility, and flexibility to content, making it accessible for a variety of uses. As the world is constantly under change, with new technologies, needs, or channels, organizations should consider how to go headless to reap the benefits of this approach.

If you are looking to shift to a headless CMS, either off-the-shelf or custom made, Net Solutions offers consulting and development services to assist in getting you off on the right foot.

Request Free Consultation

Talk to our experts for Headless CMS development


Lalit Singla

About the Author

Lalit Singla is working as Project Manager at Net Solutions since the last 5 years with over 10 years of experience in LAMP Stack. His expertise lies in Enterprise eCommerce and custom database driven development. In his free time, he enjoys listening to classical music.

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