- A headless CMS is a backend-only CMS that provides a "Content Repository" that makes content accessible to any platform or digital channel via an API.
- Unlike a traditional CMS such as WordPress, a headless CMS does not dictate where or how content is shown.
- A headless CMS enables teams to deliver omnichannel experiences at scale, globally, without being restricted by templates or pre-defined technologies.
- A headless CMS enables developers to use their preferred tech stack or framework, including popular ones like React, Angular, and Vue.
- Headless CMSs generally provide better ROI since they are cloud-based, security and backups are handled by the vendor, and they are easily scalable, all while reducing time-to-market when delivering projects.
- Specific technical resources are required to migrate to a headless CMS.
What is a headless CMS?
A headless CMS is a type of content management system where the content repository backend is separated from the presentation layer frontend. It is essentially a backend-only CMS, as the term "headless" arises from that separation, where the backend, or the "body," is decoupled from the frontend or the "head."
Since the frontend and backend are decoupled, the content repository of a headless CMS makes content accessible via an API to any frontend, such as a website, mobile app, or other "head." This content is stored in a raw structured format, such as HTML or JSON, and isn't meant for human consumption until rendered on the end device.
Also, the API-driven approach offers many advantages over traditional CMS paradigms:
- By removing the presentation layer, or the head, from the CMS, there are theoretically no restrictions on how or where content can be delivered.
- Marketing and editorial teams can create content within the editor interface of a headless CMS. This is similar to how they would with traditional CMSs like WordPress or Joomla. Meanwhile, the engineering team can define how and where this content is delivered by creating a frontend on the channel where content will be rendered.
- Engineering teams are also free of a traditional CMS's templating and framework restrictions. With a headless CMS, they can take advantage of framework agnosticism and create frontend experiences using React, Angular, Vue, Next.js, or any modern technology they see fit.
- A headless CMS offers greater flexibility than a traditional CMS, where "content" is restricted to a landing page or a blog post. There are virtually no limitations as to what can be considered content, including anything from blog posts and landing pages to banners, alerts, flight inventory, and news feeds.
- Similarly, there are no restrictions on platforms where this content can be delivered, which can extend from websites and mobile apps to smart tablets and watches or even IoT-connected kitchen appliances like dishwashers and fridges.
Why headless CMS?
While headless architecture and headless CMSs have been around for a while, their popularity has grown exponentially. If we look at Google Trends over the last few years, we can see that searches for headless CMS have essentially tripled in that period.
What's the reason behind this growing interest?
"Headless" has become the popular approach to handling content due to the increasing diversity of platforms that need content, the improved developer experience it offers, and overall faster app load times, among other benefits.
The headless approach to content management allows your teams to publish content faster and iterate their digital presence with greater efficiency, making content delivery flexible via APIs rather than web page rendering.
However, to better understand the value proposition of a headless CMS, it's important to visualize how content is delivered using this approach and how that differs from traditional content management approaches.
Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS
What is a traditional CMS?
A traditional CMS is a content management system where the backend content repository is tightly coupled to the frontend presentation layer.
Traditional CMSs force teams to be highly dependent on the vendor's preferred frameworks, databases, and technologies. They do so while only being able to render on one frontend, i.e., a single website or mobile app.
In the long term, once overheads like training, maintenance, and security updates are accounted for, the ROI of traditional CMS begins to come into question, and teams are left with unmanageable content silos across several CMS and services.
Headless CMS contrast
In contrast, aside from the ability to deliver content to multiple channels and offer ways to boost ROI, a headless CMS also stores content differently from a traditional CMS.
As a backend CMS, a headless CMS houses all the content teams need to produce for all digital entities as structured content, including text, images, videos, files, and other content assets in the backend.
Developers can query this content via API while working with modern and preferred technologies and distribute them to any digital frontend from a single source. In the long run, the ROI of this approach leads to a more scalable architecture and removes content silos.
How traditional CMSs work
WordPress is the most popular option for a traditional CMS, which we'll use as an example to illustrate the differences. Traditional CMSs like WordPress are primarily built for managing websites. They have graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that allow content creators to create content and publish it to styled "templates," choosing from endless themes and plugins.
The content created is stored within a database and displayed to the end-user or reader based on this pre-defined template.
Everything is packaged together, and the architecture of the CMS causes heavy codependency between the frontend and backend. For example, when downloading WordPress, what you're actually getting out of the box and building upon is:
- An optional further customization of that theme with a page builder like Elementor or WPBakery.
- A pre-defined MySQL database with a pre-defined schema, changes to which require manually modifying the database itself.
- PHP that powers the usability of your site and links your theme to the database, constantly pulling entries (posts, media, etc.) from the database into your front end, where the theme defines the placement.
- Further enrichments and customization via plugins.
To visualize this content, the raw data for a blog post is pulled from the MySQL database by Wordpress's PHP application and pushed to the theme. The theme then converts the content into HTML and styles it based on the specified CSS so the visitor can consume it.
Managing, creating, publishing, and designing your content is, therefore, entirely within WordPress itself. Content is stored in the database and pulled whenever the site needs to be rendered for a new visitor.
This tight coupling can lead to usability and security issues. For example, if a developer wants to make a change to the frontend, they may need to update the backend code as well to accommodate the change. Additionally, traditional CMSs are more susceptible to distributed denial of service attacks as there is a greater surface area to attack than with a headless CMS.
How headless CMSs work
On the flip side, a headless CMS completely defies the logic of a traditional CMS. By fragmenting the flow and decoupling the front end from the back end, it focuses on content creation and storage, with little to no restriction on how content gets rendered on the front end.
In this scenario, a typical setup might look something like this:
- You create content based on self-defined schemas in a headless CMS like Hygraph.
- You connect your API endpoint from Hygraph to your website through a data-fetching library like Axios or even the native Fetch methods supported across server and browser environments.
- You query your content to your website, app, or another platform with GraphQL, in the case of Hygraph.
- You render the returned data in a way that makes sense for your application.
Therefore, when creating content in a headless CMS like Hygraph, you're simply focusing on the content itself and not the layout or design. This is then delivered anywhere through the API, so a developer and a content creator can define how and where the content shows - regardless of the platform, design, style, or format.
Types of headless CMS
Many terms are thrown around to describe what a headless CMS is - commonly ranging between Content Hubs, Content Infrastructure, and Managed Content as a Service - all of which are valid since a headless CMS essentially offers a repository for storing content that's ready to be delivered somewhere.
What is Managed Content as a Service (MCaaS)?
Managed Content as a Service or Content as a Service (CaaS) is the evolution of how content is managed, stored, and delivered. It is a service-oriented model where the "Service Provider" delivers the content on-demand to the "Service Consumer" via licensed cloud-based subscription services.
With a traditional CMS approach, content could be stored physically on a local, dedicated, or shared server and in the cloud. Furthermore, individual entities were responsible for the security upgrades and database backups to maintain their CMS.
With the emergence of global distribution, Content Delivery Networks (CDN), and caching, cloud-based solutions became the preferred security, reliability, and speed option.
A headless CMS offers content "as a service," allowing content to be created and stored within the CMS and then channeled to any platform via APIs. CaaS doesn't dictate that content is meant to be "for human consumption" directly. Instead, it provides raw content to other systems that further refine the content to be rendered on the end platform.
This way, your content is always hosted in a centralized "content repository" on the cloud - allowing you to create, manage, and edit your content whenever you wish and accordingly distribute it to any systems and channels as and when required.
What is API-First content management?
Simply put, an API-First CMS is a headless CMS. It's built upon the concept that content is maintained within a content repository, while APIs (like REST and GraphQL) distribute the content to multiple front ends based on how and what content is requested.
An API-First CMS allows brands and companies to reach out to consumers on any device, which is especially important given that devices have drastically transformed how consumers interact and engage with brands.
A traditional CMS like WordPress would make it near impossible to natively power voice assistants when used as a CMS for Alexa or Google Home since the traditional platforms aren't built to deliver experiences to these kinds of devices. On the other hand, an API-First CMS is capable of accomplishing this.
Moreover, an API-First CMS leverages APIs to integrate and share data with other systems in the MarTech stack much easier. This allows organizations to build their technology stacks as they see fit.
What is a hybrid CMS?
A hybrid CMS is a content management system that combines the flexibility of a headless CMS with the marketer-friendliness of a traditional CMS.
When headless CMSs were first introduced, they largely catered to developers, allowing them to build the front end how they saw fit without being restricted by templates or specific frameworks. However, these pure headless CMS solutions didn't offer the support marketers enjoyed with traditional CMS platforms like WordPress.
Hybrid CMSs return that marketer support by offering what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) editors, drag-and-drop tools, and other features similar to a traditional CMS. Meanwhile, engineering teams can still get the flexibility they need to build omnichannel experiences.
Why use a headless CMS, and do you need one?
Traditional CMS has the benefit of comfort - since we're all familiar with them. A CMS like WordPress is often a default solution when you want a simple website, don't have the technical resources to create a custom experience, and are ok with working on templates that resemble generic websites.
However, for organizations that depend on delivering cross-platform experiences across multiple channels, especially on a global scale, a headless CMS grows in importance. Since you have complete control over how and where content is delivered, a headless CMS is usually preferred for forward-thinking teams, especially in fast-paced industries.
Because a headless CMS doesn't restrict you to a specific technology (PHP and MySQL in the case of WordPress), you and your team are free to build projects with preferred options like having a CMS for React, Angular, Vue, and so on.
If you don't want to be restricted to a specific tech stack, don't want to be constricted to pre-defined templates and themes, and need added functionality that lets you push content to multiple platforms, then investing in a headless CMS would be worth looking into.
You may not need a headless CMS if:
- Your content doesn't need to be updated often.
- Your team doesn't have sufficient development resources internally.
- Speed and scalability are not important factors for your projects.
You should use a headless CMS if:
- You have diverse platforms and need a central content hub to pull the data from.
- You have frontend development resources available.
- You want to use your preferred languages and frameworks.
- You want to deliver projects on Jamstack principles and remain agile in your processes.
- A unique design is needed to display your content.
- Your project is multi-device and multilingual.
- Content is regularly added or updated.
Benefits of a headless CMS
1. Frontend freedom
Bring content to any platform (native apps, VR, IoT, etc). You aren't restricted to just publishing content to a single website or mobile app. Hygraph allows you to develop with any technology for any platform making your product scalable when your users need you to be.
2. Well-structured data
Working with clearly defined data lets your development team know where to pick up instantly. Hygraph content infrastructure clearly defines the operations (queries and mutations) supported by the API.
3. Future-proof content
A headless CMS allows for your content to be modified immediately and as needed by your content creators. Minimize the impact of redesigns, product changes, and migrations with a decoupled content solution. Additionally, you don't need to worry that a headless CMS won't be able to deliver content to another digital channel that emerges five years from now.
4. Security and scalability
With one point of connection, your headless CMS allows for only one access point of vulnerability. Hygraph offers many robust features for protecting your endpoint, including permanent auth tokens, DDOS mitigation strategies, and more.
5. Team flexibility
You want to hire the most talented developers possible. There is no need to teach a prehistoric web template language just to manage your content. Instead, work with any modern language stack your team pleases.
6. Consolidated content repository
It's counterintuitive to copy, paste & recreate content for your app across different platforms. Consolidating your content within one API minimizes overhead costs, time, and development resources.
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Challenges of headless CMS
While a headless CMS offers numerous advantages, many organizations are skeptical about adopting one. That's because not every headless CMS offers the hybrid features that modern enterprises need. Some of the potential challenges include:
A headless CMS doesn't come with a front end. So, whether you want to create content for a website or another channel, you need frontend developers to build something from scratch. Without adequate developer resources, this can end up being time-consuming and expensive.
No drag-and-drop page building experience
With a headless CMS there is a paradigm shift from a drag-and-drop approach to building content components pre-built on the frontend. This may look intimidating at first, but brings a great deal of benefits on the long run. Hygraph empowers content creators and offers a rich editing experience, including versioning, previews, content staging, and more.
While pre-built frontend components work great for the ongoing work, at times when something new is required to be created it would have to be done by the frontend team.
The future of content management with a headless CMS The headless CMS has already altered the content management landscape, enabling organizations to create and publish content to different channels and more easily manage international campaigns.
Now that content can be delivered to any device, it has created a new digital era and facilitated enhanced customer experiences. Headless CMSs have evolved into digital experience platforms (DXPs) that help businesses manage the entire digital experience throughout every stage of the customer journey.
DXPs integrate not just content management but also analytics, personalization, commerce, and other tools and features, giving teams exactly what they need to manage the complete customer journey.
Brands are also going a step further and embracing composability to break down bulky monoliths that offer these solutions in an all-in-one format and build their technology stacks with a modular approach that leverages best-of-breed technologies, all with the headless CMS as the centerpiece.