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Everything You Need to Know About The Headless CMS

To modern digital strategists, nothing may be spookier than the uptick in consumers’ demand for seamless, cross-platform content experiences. Why’s that? Well, with rapid advancements in technology, it can be hard for creatives to distinguish between which trends may merely generate buzz and which may generate business. In comes an unexpected knight in shining armor, or rather a headless horseman – the Headless CMS – to help businesses create, store, and manage content.

But what’s behind all the hype? What makes us believe that the Headless CMS is more than a fad or fleeting jargon? In our eyes, It’s a paradigm shift that promises to reframe how we develop and deliver content in a digital age. Let’s demystify the Headless CMS and explore how it could make your life easier as a content manager or business leader.

What is a Headless CMS? A headless CMS is a content management system that separates the content creation and storage from the overall content presentation. In a headless CMS architecture, content is stored, organized, and managed in a data structure but delivered to various digital channels such as websites, mobile apps, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices through APIs. The term “headless” refers to the removal of the “head” or front end–allowing developers to create custom front-end experiences independently.

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

The key difference between a headless CMS and a traditional CMS is the separation of content creation and storage from overall content presentation. Headless CMS systems provide greater flexibility in delivering content to various platforms and devices through APIs, which enables front-end custom development. Traditional CMS platforms combine content management and content presentation, offering a more integrated solution but with less flexibility in front-end development.

An infographic visually depicting the differences between a headless CMS and a Decoupled CMS. This graphic shows the separation of content creation and storage from overall content presentation

The decoupling of both the content management and presentation layers allows for more flexibility in content delivery to different devices. For example, native apps can be built so that they are specific to each device—rather than trying to create a one-size-fits-all app that works across all devices.

Here’s a breakdown of how this works:

  1. Headless CMS: Here, content is created and stored separately from how it’s displayed. Content is typically stored in a structured format, such as JSON or XML, and can include text, images, videos, and more. The CMS provides APIs to access and retrieve this content.
  2. Native Apps: To display this content on various devices, such as smartphones, tablets, or desktop computers, build native apps for each platform. Native apps are developed specifically for a particular operating system (e.g., iOS, Android, Windows) and take full advantage of the device’s capabilities and user interface guidelines.
  3. Device-Specific Development: With a headless CMS, device-specific apps can be created that use the API to fetch and display content. Each app can be optimized for the unique features and user experience of the target device. For example, an organization can design a mobile app with a responsive layout and touch-friendly controls, while the desktop app may have a different layout optimized for larger screens and mouse and keyboard input.
  4. Consistency in Content: While the presentation layer (the native apps) varies across devices, the content itself remains consistent because it’s managed centrally in the headless CMS. This ensures that users receive the same content and information, regardless of the device they’re using.

The Benefits:

The primary advantage is its decoupled architecture, which separates content management and content presentation.

Content Management Perspective: Headless CMS allows for the delivery of content to various platforms and devices through APIs. This flexibility in content presentation ensures a unique user experience across different channels. In addition to flexibility, the content created in a headless CMS can be reused across multiple platforms and channels. This is especially useful for businesses that want to maintain consistency in their messaging and branding.

Since content is delivered through APIs, content delivery can also be optimized for speed and efficiency. Managing content for multiple regions or languages becomes more manageable with a headless CMS since efficient delivery of localized content goes to both global and local markets.

Development Perspective: When working in a headless CMS, developers have the freedom to choose whichever front-end technologies they desire to build the UI. The separation between the back end and the front end enables more efficient development workflows.

Headless CMS systems can also scale more easily because the back end is not tightly coupled with the front end. This means it can handle increased traffic and growing content libraries without major architectural changes. In addition to scalability, updates, and maintenance are also simplified because changes to the content or back-end infrastructure do not require changes to the front end. This reduces the risk of introducing new bugs or issues when making updates.

From a cost perspective, headless CMS systems can be cost-effective because organizations can scale each component independently. Resources can be allocated based on the specific needs of content management and content presentation layers.

Headless CMS systems often support multi-team collaboration more effectively. Content creators can work independently of front-end developers, which can improve the efficiency of content production.

Depending on security needs, developers can implement stricter controls and access management for the content delivery layer without affecting the content management system.

The Cons:

While headless Content Management Systems offer numerous advantages, they also come with some drawbacks and challenges that organizations should carefully consider when deciding whether to implement this approach:

Content Perspective: Ensuring that content is synchronized across various channels and devices can be complex. Developers need to handle content delivery and presentation logic, which can lead to potential synchronization issues. Content preview and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editing can also be challenging in some headless CMS setups, and content creators may find it difficult to visualize how their content will appear on different platforms without a sophisticated preview system. Managing content versioning, workflows, and approvals can be more complex in a headless CMS, and content governance may need to be implemented by custom solutions.

SEO optimization can also be challenging in a headless CMS because search engines may not be able to easily index JavaScript-rendered content. Organizations may find that additional SEO efforts are often needed to ensure content is visible to search engines.

Development Perspective: Headless CMS systems can be more complex to set up and maintain compared to traditional monolithic CMS solutions. Often, technical expertise is needed to implement and manage the front-end presentation layer, which can increase development time and costs.

A headless CMS also requires more custom development to create features that may come pre-packaged in traditional CMS solutions, such as user management, forms, and SEO tools. Some headless CMS options may not include certain built-in features, such as e-commerce capabilities, which could necessitate third-party integrations or custom development.

In addition, content creators and marketers may face a learning curve when transitioning to a headless CMS–particularly if they are accustomed to traditional CMS interfaces, such as WordPress or Drupal.

Smaller organizations or teams with limited resources might find it challenging to fully leverage the benefits of a headless CMS due to the technical expertise and development effort required.

Costs & Vendor Lock-In: While a headless CMS can offer cost savings in some areas, it can also result in increased maintenance costs which could be higher than traditional CMS setups, particularly if extensive customization or integrations are needed.

Some headless CMS providers have proprietary APIs and features, which could lead to vendor lock-in. Migrating away from a specific headless CMS can be challenging if the content and presentation layer are tightly coupled with the vendor’s ecosystem.

How do I know if A Headless CMS Is Right For Our Business?

Determining whether a headless Content Management System is right for your organization requires a careful evaluation of your unique needs, resources, and overall goals.

Below, we’ve provided 10 necessary steps and questions that will help you assess whether it is a good fit for your team and organization:

Step 1: Assess Your Content Strategy

  • Evaluate your current content distribution needs. Do you need to deliver content to multiple platforms and devices (websites, mobile apps, IoT devices)?
  • Consider the volume and variety of content you manage. Is it structured data like product information, or does it include unstructured content like articles and media files?
  • Determine how frequently content needs to be updated and whether real-time content delivery is essential. Do you have a content calendar that you adhere to?

Step 2: Evaluate Technical Expertise

  • Assess your organization’s technical capabilities. Does your team have the development expertise required to build and maintain a front-end presentation layer in-house?
  • Consider and discuss the availability of developers familiar with API integration and front-end frameworks such as React, Angular, Vue.js, and jQuery.

Step 3: Review Budget and Resources

  • Determine your overall budget for CMS implementation and ongoing maintenance. Remember, while a headless CMS might offer cost savings in some areas, it may ultimately require higher development costs. If additional developer expertise is required, do you have the resources to bring on more team members? Do you have the capacity to offer in-depth training and certification?
  • Assess the availability of resources for custom development, integration, and ongoing support.

Step 4: Examine Future Growth and Flexibility

  • Think about your organization’s growth plans. Will you need to scale content delivery to new platforms or regions in the future? If so, how soon?
    Consider whether your content strategy is likely to evolve and change over time and whether a headless CMS can accommodate those changes.

Step 5: Content Preview and Collaboration

  • If you have content creators, assess whether your team requires robust content preview and collaboration features. Some headless CMS platforms offer these tools, while others may not and others do not.

Step 6: Security and Compliance

  • Evaluate your organization’s security and compliance requirements and determine if a headless CMS can meet these requirements–particularly in terms of data protection and access control.

Step 7: SEO and Performance

  • If your organization heavily relies on SEO, consider how a headless CMS will impact these efforts. You may need to invest in and implement additional SEO optimization techniques.

Step 8: Existing Infrastructure

  • Review your current technology stack and infrastructure. How easily would a headless CMS integrate with the existing system? Does it complement our organizational technology roadmap?

Step 9: Vendor Evaluation & Pilot Projects

  • Research and evaluate market leaders. Consider factors like pricing, scalability, support, and the availability of features that match your organization’s needs.
  • Consider running pilot projects or proofs of concept to test how a headless CMS fits within your organization. This can help identify any potential challenges or advantages that might not have previously been taken into account.

Step 10: Feedback from Stakeholders

  • It is essential to gather input from various stakeholders–including content creators, developers, marketers, and IT teams. Understanding each of their needs and concerns will provide valuable insights into this massive decision.

Industry Leaders:

Curious about some of the major players in the Headless CMS space? Here are a few we’ve run into during our work:

Did you know that WordPress and Drupal work as a Headless CMS, too?

In regards to WordPress, managed hosting providers such as WP Engine and others have invested heavily in their platforms to support a headless WordPress CMS.

Need a complete guide on the Headless WordPress CMS? In their article, WPEngine looks at how a WordPress website can function as a headless CMS solution and what some of the benefits of this approach are.

Acquia also has published an insightful post regarding a headless Drupal and its benefits for developers and marketers.

In Conclusion

While the separation of content creation and storage from the overall content presentation offers many benefits, some drawbacks ought to be considered when assessing whether it is a right fit for your organization. Are you curious about implementing one? Let us know. We’d love to talk about it with you.


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