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API-first CMS: Everything you need to know

We’ll explain what an API-first CMS is, how it works, and its benefits and challenges.
Jing Li

Jing Li

Oct 18, 2023
API-first CMS: Everything you need to know

Many software applications frequently used today wouldn’t be the same without APIs. In content management, APIs are the cornerstone of headless architecture and play a vital role in a modern CMS.

As flexibility and adaptability increase in importance, many organizations are also adopting an API-first approach to content management, made possible through an API-first CMS. In this blog, we’ll explain what an API-first CMS is, how it works, and its benefits and challenges.

#What is an API?

Before getting into the ins and outs of an API-first CMS, we first need to recap what an API is.

An application programming interface (API) makes it possible for disparate software applications to communicate and share data. If you think about a simple marketing technology stack that includes a CMS and a CRM, APIs are responsible for transferring data between each tool.

For example, a potential customer visits a website and is interested in an exclusive piece of content that has been gated. To access that content, they are greeted by a form requesting their email address or other information in exchange and a consent box indicating that the business may contact them later.

When that customer adds their information to the form, an API call is sent to an email service to send a confirmation email to the user and the requested content. Another API call is also sent to the company CRM to store that customer information so that the business can follow up with them later with additional relevant content or ways to speak with a sales rep.

There are more examples of APIs in everyday life, but for understanding an API-first CMS, the other key piece of information relates to the different APIs, particularly REST and GraphQL.

REST or RESTful APIs are the most popular API types in the modern era and can be found in most software applications, allowing a client to send requests with different HTTP methods. GraphQL is a modern query language and a runtime for APIs that many view as the successor to REST since it allows developers to get exactly what they’re asking for when making a request.

#What is an API-first CMS?

An API-first CMS separates the frontend presentation layer from the backend content repository. This removes restrictions on where and how content can be published and enables businesses to push content to websites and any digital channel, including mobile apps, smartwatches, and IoT-connected devices. That content is published to those channels via APIs, which also work to connect the frontend and backend of the CMS.

Not only does an API-first CMS offer more content delivery options than a traditional CMS and enables organizations to build a best-of-breed technology stack. Enterprises don’t only rely on a CMS to handle day-to-day operations but also need analytics tools, eCommerce solutions, a CRM, personalization systems, and many other tools.

With an API-first CMS, businesses can connect these other tools to the CMS using APIs to share information between systems and receive a comprehensive view of the business and the customer.

What is API Content Management

Is an API-first CMS a headless CMS?

While an API-first CMS shares many similarities with a headless CMS — including separation of frontend and backend and omnichannel publishing capabilities — that doesn’t mean that every headless CMS is an API-first CMS.

An API-first CMS follows the API-first approach to software development. In this approach, APIs are prioritized at the start of the software development process before any other code is written.

Once the APIs are created, then the other functionality can be added. As such, any products built this way prioritize interoperability and extensibility, ensuring that they can be more easily integrated and share data with other products.

In the case of an API-first CMS, it can easily integrate with an eCommerce platform, marketing automation tool, or any other system in the stack.

On the other hand, some headless CMSs favor a Git-based approach. These solutions are typically developer-focused, leveraging Git for storage and version control benefits but at the same time sacrificing interoperability, scalability, and user-friendliness.

Moreover, even a traditional CMS such as WordPress can leverage APIs and provide a headless approach that enables content to be delivered to multiple channels. However, these APIs are added onto the system afterward, meaning that integration with disparate systems is just as challenging, and the scalability issues are still relevant.

#What’s driving the popularity of the API-first CMS?

Several businesses today are seeking out API-first solutions. One of the primary reasons is, of course, the ability to deliver content to multiple channels. As customers interact with their favorite brands on different devices, reaching them wherever they are with the right content is becoming increasingly important.

However, the reality is that businesses can achieve multichannel content delivery with any headless CMS, so why an API-first CMS?

The popularity of an API-first CMS is increasing due to many companies moving away from monolithic and legacy solutions as they look to increase their adaptability and responsiveness. To do this, they are adopting solutions built on MACH infrastructure, such as API-first CMSs.

Many companies are leveraging these tools to adapt to market volatility, with 85% of organizations increasing the percentage of their MACH infrastructure in the past year.

#How does an API-first CMS work?

An API-first or API-driven CMS makes API calls or requests to send or receive data. Let’s illustrate a few examples of how that works with REST APIs.

REST APIs communicate using JSON and send or receive data using GET, PUT, POST, or DELETE.

  • GET: Data is retrieved from a server, such as when pulling content from a repository.

  • PUT: Information in an existing resource is updated, such as updating a blog post from 2020 to include more relevant information.

  • POST: A new resource is created, and data gets sent to a server. For example, creating a new product listing on an eCommerce page.

  • DELETE: A resource such as a page or blog post gets deleted.

If your API-first CMS offers GraphQL, like Hygraph, you can avoid over-fetching or under-fetching data when different API calls are made.

#How an API CMS works

An API CMS or API-only CMS works the same way as an API-first CMS. However, despite the ability to use APIs, an API CMS lacks additional features relevant to modern content management.

For instance, in an API-only CMS, the content authoring capabilities are often very limited. This means that non-technical personnel cannot create or edit content without developer assistance, and they can’t preview content before it gets published.

#Benefits of using an API-first CMS

When businesses choose to adopt an API-first CMS, they can gain several benefits:


With an API-first CMS, it is possible to embrace the benefits of composability. Instead of working with a legacy or monolithic system, you can build a modular system with the best tools for your business.

Content reusability

Unlike the rigid, page-builder approach of traditional CMS platforms, API-first CMS systems empower content creators to craft content as modular components. This transformation enables the seamless repurposing of content across various channels, promoting efficiency and consistency in content management. By breaking free from the confines of predefined templates, organizations can now adapt and distribute content more flexibly, ultimately delivering a more dynamic and engaging user experience.

Improved marketer-friendliness

An API-first CMS doesn’t only offer the capabilities that developers are looking for. It also allows content creators to create, edit, publish, and preview content without developer assistance. This ensures that marketers feel just as comfortable using the CMS as a traditional CMS like WordPress. Furthermore, API-first CMS offers a paradigm shift for editors. Editors would work with pre-defined frontend components which ensure design consistency across the website or app and makes the publishing process much easier.

Improved developer flexibility and productivity

An API-first CMS helps developers in multiple ways, but flexibility and productivity increase exponentially. First, they can work with the modern tools and frameworks they want without being restricted by templates or specific languages. Secondly, productivity increases because they can use the best tools for them, and developers don’t have to worry about additional requests from marketers.

Faster go-to-market

With increased productivity for marketers and developers, an API-first CMS enables businesses to go to market with new ideas and campaigns much faster. They can pivot to capitalize on changing trends without missing a beat.

Improves content experience

The content experience for customers is also much better with an API-first CMS. Instead of being restricted to interacting with a brand on a website or desktop, they can have high-quality content delivered to them on their smartphones, tablets, or other devices.

Future-proof your stack

An API-first CMS is a future-proof system that doesn’t need to be changed as new technologies are released or the business grows. It offers future-proof scalability that allows the business to integrate new technologies, publish content to channels that haven’t been created, and more.

Foundation for your tech stack

An API-first CMS provides the foundation for the rest of the technology stack. As brands seek to embrace composability and MACH, they can easily integrate any tools required using APIs with the CMS at the center of it all.

#Challenges for API-first CMS

While an API-first CMS offers numerous benefits, it doesn’t come without challenges. Even with an API-first approach, businesses might still struggle.

Integrating legacy systems

Legacy systems weren’t built with an API-first approach, so it can be challenging to integrate them with modern systems. However, many organizations still rely on legacy systems due to the years of valuable data on them. Nevertheless, if the legacy system supports APIs, users may start with a trickle migration to a CMS with Content Federation capabilities, such as Hygraph. In Wordpress, for instance, you can access the data via a REST API or GraphQL plugin.

Frontend stack unification

While the API-first CMS may offer the flexibility to choose modern technologies and frameworks that developers love, it may not be the same across the entire frontend codebase due to the presence of other systems.

API-first CMS and frontend stack unification are, however, symbiosis. By using API-first CMS, you will be able to unify the frontend in the future since it gives you the freedom to use any frontend you choose as opposed to traditional systems, which have their own template languages.

#Overcoming API-first challenges

To overcome challenges of integrating legacy systems and frontend unification and get the full benefits of an API-first CMS, businesses need the help of Content Federation. Through Content Federation, businesses can pull together data from multiple sources on the backend using APIs. It means that companies can extract data from legacy systems without migrating everything to a new system.

Hygraph is a headless CMS and Federated Content Platform that supports the composable approach and provides a modular architecture fitting of an API-first platform. However, Hygraph goes beyond API-first and solves the problems that plague many enterprises with Content Federation.

Engineering teams can build high-performance composable applications using native GraphQL Content APIs, and content creators can create, reuse, and distribute content wherever needed.

#Wrapping up

API-first CMSs enable companies to leverage the full power of APIs to deliver content to multiple channels and build their modular tech stacks. This helps them to improve developer productivity and flexibility, achieve a faster time to market, and future-proof their systems. However, adopting an API-first CMS isn’t without challenges.

Hygraph offers an API-first CMS with additional features to overcome the challenges that other API-first CMSs might struggle with. Contact us to learn more about Hygraph and the API-first approach.

Blog Author

Jing Li

Jing Li

Jing is the Content Marketing Manager at Hygraph. Besides telling compelling stories, Jing enjoys dining out and catching occasional waves on the ocean.

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