What Is a Headless CMS? Comparison and Use Cases

What Is a Headless CMS? Comparison and Use Cases

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Headless CMS (content management systems) have become one of the best solutions in the new digital experience platforms (DXPs) category. While the headless approach offers numerous benefits, many people still struggle to understand how it works.

A headless CMS enables marketing teams to push content on multiple channels, from landing pages to mobile apps, mobile sites, and “internet of things” (IoT) devices via an API.

This article will help you understand what a headless CMS is and how it differs from the more traditional CMS platforms. We’ll also cover the pros and cons of a headless CMS and its best use cases.

A headless CMS is an API-exclusive, decoupled content management system for optimizing the omnichannel marketing strategy. Simply put, a headless CMS functions as a digital content repository that enables cross-platform content delivery.

Headless CMS Explained

A headless content management system is often called a content infrastructure or content API. It’s a cloud-based content management system that separates the back-end content repository (“body”) from the front-end presentation layer (“head”).

It offers content as a service (CaaS), so content creation and content editing are possible within the CMS infrastructure while making the raw content available for other systems.

Custom infographic on how a headless CMS works

This is how a headless CMS works:

  1. Content editors create and manage content on its back-end interface.
  2. The front-end developer team will build the “head” (​​where the content ends up) and manage the content distribution. Developers can utilize their preferred front-end tools and frameworks to develop applications or deploy new channels.
  3. The GraphQL API or RESTful API will be connected to each API endpoint to make the content available across websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, and other digital platforms.
  4. Such a system enables the same content from a repository to appear as a blog post on a web page, feed posts on social media, or native content pieces on a smartwatch.

Some of the best headless content management systems include Sanity.io, Contentstack, Contentful, and GraphCMS.

Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS

The critical difference between a headless CMS and traditional CMS is that the former offers back-end functionality only. In contrast, the traditional CMS architecture provides an all-in-one solution for managing content and the presentation layer.

A traditional CMS, also known as a monolithic content management system, only allows content to render on a single front-end – a web page. Thus, marketers have to repurpose their content pieces if they want to publish them on different platforms.

WordPress, Wix, and Magento are some of the best monolithic CMS examples. Typically, such a CMS consists of:

  • A database to store, read, and write content
  • An admin page for all-things content creation
  • A presentation layer to deliver content
Custom infographic on how a traditional CMS works

On the other hand, the headless architecture utilizes the content model framework. It breaks down content into individual parts according to their purpose, resulting in more structured content.

For example, content modeling enables a headless CMS to store the digital content’s title, body, visuals, and tags separately. This allows marketers to customize and reuse the same content on different platforms conveniently.

Here are some other differences between headless and traditional content management systems:

 Traditional CMSHeadless CMS
API-first approachNoYes
Platform independenceThe back-end connects to the front-endThe back-end runs independently
FunctionsContent management – creating, editing, and storingContent management and publishing
Content architectureBuilt for a single front-endAdjustable to any presentation layer
Content customizationLess customizableHighly customizable
Content modelUnstructuredStructured
Supported devicesLimitedLimitless
Omnichannel marketingLess compatibleHighly compatible
Developer flexibilityNot flexibleExtremely flexible
HostingIn-houseCloud-based
SecurityLess effectiveEnhanced
SpeedHigher page load timesLower page load times
Development focusProject-orientedProduct-oriented
WorkflowWaterfallAgile

Do You Need Headless CMS?

Although it’s more familiar, the traditional CMS architecture can be too limiting. Not only does utilizing this CMS often result in generic layout and design, but reusing content pieces also involves lots of copying and pasting.

On the other hand, marketers won’t have to worry about such problems with a headless CMS. If you’re still unsure about whether to switch to this content infrastructure, here are some of the main advantages of headless CMS:

Front-End Flexibility

A headless system gives more flexibility to optimize omnichannel publishing. It minimizes restrictions caused by predefined components like templates, layouts, and formats while maintaining content consistency and relevance.

As a content repository, a headless CMS functions as a central content hub to draw data. The digital content structures make it more convenient for marketers when customizing content for different digital platforms.

Multi-Device Compatibility

One of the problems with going multi-device is adjusting the content for each operating system (OS). However, by using an API-exclusive CMS, marketers don’t need to worry about how to publish their content on different OS.

The headless architecture enables developers to use the CMS’s API to create queries for various OS, including Windows, Linux, Android, macOS, and an embedded OS for IoT devices.

Agility

The content model framework enables a headless content infrastructure to support an agile workflow where the marketing team can work parallel with the developers. This is excellent to boost productivity and ensure continuous improvement.

The agile workflow doesn’t depend on a sequence – it lets marketers go back to certain phases where adjustments are necessary. Once the content is created, developers can process it for display on any presentation layer.

Scalability and Enhanced Security

Utilizing diverse marketing channels means more resources and data to process. Fortunately, most headless CMS options are highly scalable – the headless approach ensures little to no downtime during maintenance.

If security is your top priority, opting for a headless CMS is the right move. With it, the content publishing platforms won’t be accessible from the CMS database as they’re all separated on different web servers and domains.

Additionally, content delivered via an API is often read-only, adding an additional layer of security. This helps improve eCommerce security protocols and protect from potential cyber threats like DDoS and unauthorized access.

Best Use Cases for Headless CMS

While a headless CMS seems to be the better option for content management; it may not be suitable for all types of projects. Here are three headless CMS use cases for inspiration:

eCommerce Sites

Some headless CMSs can be utilized as an eCommerce site’s back-end. Moving an eCommerce site to a headless environment is worth considering for business owners who want to:

  • Improve customer experience. As a headless CMS offers faster loading times, which you can compare using a website speed test tool, than its traditional counterparts, using such a platform can help retailers achieve higher visitor satisfaction.
  • Offer personalization. Going headless helps businesses seamlessly connect marketing and product content seamlessly with customer purchase history and browsing activities, resulting in a more personalized shopping experience.
  • Gain competitive advantage. A headless CMS enables developers to roll out quick updates without damaging the back-end system. This helps businesses stay on top of the market trends.
  • Ensure advanced security. eCommerce sites are often the main targets for hackers as sensitive information is exchanged during transactions.

Staples Canada is among the best eCommerce sites built on a headless infrastructure. The enterprise retailer incorporates Shopify Plus’ headless eCommerce with the Storefront API to publish content on various customer touchpoints.

Staples Canada, an eCommerce shop built on a headless CMS infrastructure

Additionally, integrating a headless CMS with an existing eCommerce platform can help streamline the checkout process. Marketers can rely on the eCommerce platform for all financial transactions while maintaining the design freedom for the view layers.

Products and Services

Offering content as a service, a headless CMS is a perfect solution for content collaboration for products or services like a voice assistant, AR/VR, or IoT devices. With headless CMS, creating content native to those channels is straightforward and simple.

For example, Spotify Design is a global community for product designers. It uses the Contentful headless CMS with the Gatsby static site generator for an innovative homepage design.

Spotify.Design, a design community website that uses headless CMS

Websites and Web Applications

Websites and web apps built on JavaScript frameworks like React, Ember.js, Vue.js, and Angular can utilize a headless CMS as they work well with most APIs.

A headless CMS can also help manage content on Jamstack sites created with static site-generators like Gatsby, Hugo, Pelican, and 11ty. As static-site generators don’t use databases as a content repository, the headless CMS’s API-first approach is a perfect match.

Elastic is an excellent example of a website using a headless environment. It utilizes Built.io’s headless CMS, enabling a marketing team to easily move content from different platforms into a single content hub.

Homepage of Elastic, a website using headless architecture

Alternatively, website owners can set up a headless WordPress system to use the CMS’s back-end while having more freedom for the front-end. This can be done by:

Drawbacks of Using a Headless CMS

While the headless content infrastructure brings many benefits, there are also some drawbacks:

  • Complexity. Unlike using a monolithic CMS or drag-and-drop page builder, the headless CMS architecture requires marketing teams to build applications and customize their design from the ground up.
  • Formatting issues. Developers can’t always preview how the content will look on the presentation layer.
  • Dependence on developers. The headless CMS solutions require a lot of coding. Therefore, marketing teams should be ready to collaborate with developers to customize content routinely.
  • High costs. Going headless is costlier as you need to separately pay for the CMS, developers, and infrastructure to host your apps. In other words, the process will be more efficient if you already have the development resources to support the headless migration. For example, if you’d be using a regular CMS, most of the resources for development time would be used to improve the website’s overall look or buy necessary extensions instead.

Conclusion

Due to the growth of the world wide web, headless development offers a perfect solution for omnichannel marketing.

Unlike a traditional CMS with a built-in front-end, a headless CMS is a back-end-only content management system. Using an API-driven approach, a headless CMS enables editors to create content on its back-end interface and developers to deliver it on multiple platforms.

In web development, a headless CMS enables the development team to create web pages using popular JavaScript frameworks. It can also ease handling more extensive projects, such as eCommerce sites and streaming services.

If you want to deliver a cross-platform digital experience, consider moving to a headless CMS. On a side note, plan your development resources and marketing strategy thoroughly to ensure an effective migration.

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Linda D.

Linda is a Digital Content Writer at Hostinger. She's passionate in all things website development and keen to share her knowledge to help others build success online. Linda spends her free time listening to music, watching films, and enjoying nature.