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Andy Martinus

Published on

April 11, 2019


CMS, digital, Headless CMS

As technology continues to evolve, the CMS options grow with it. There are countless tools and CMS solutions available, but what’s the difference between CMS, headless CMS, decoupled CMS and even api-first CMS? To understand the process and definition of a headless Content Management System (CMS), let’s start by looking at what a traditional CMS looks like.


What is a traditional CMS?

A traditional CMS is made up of the front-end and back-end; the front-end combining content and how that content is presented and the back-end looking after how that content is managed.

So, what is a traditional CMS and what tools do they have?

  • A database that houses content and digital assets
  • A content management back end where content is created
  • An application where designers and publishers create themes and templates to present content
  • A front end that displays content on HTML pages

People often think of a traditional CMS as a body; the “head” being the front-end components like the themes and templates that shape the look and feel of a website when someone visits it and host the content. If the head is removed from the CMS architecture, the result is a headless CMS.

A headless CMS (also known as a decoupled architecture or api-first CMS and is similar to decoupled CMS) is a back-end only system, without a traditional front-end presentation layer and template. It is built as a content repository, with various content types then being accessible to different devices (laptop, mobile tablet etc) via an Application Programming Interface (API) (usually a Representational State Transfer API).
This CMS architecture and structure separates the back-end content elements (e.g. tools, storage, creation and management) from front-end functions (e.g. delivery and presentation).

A headless CMS looks something like this:

  • A database that houses content and digital assets
  • A content management back end where content is created
  • An API that connects the content management back end with the front end
  • The ability to connect to any publishing front end (devices, browser etc).

In other words, a headless CMS has content at its centre, making it a hub for marketers and web managers to house content and the structure in which that content is hosted (app, web, mobile etc).


So, what has brought about the rise in headless CMS?

The headless CMS concept is one borne of the demands of the digital era and a business’s need to focus on engaging customers with personalised content via multiple channels at all stages of the customer journey.

As the content in a headless CMS is considered “pure” (because it has no presentation layer attached) just one instance of it can be used for display on any device; website, mobile, tablet, Internet of Things devices (IoT devices), smart watches, etc.

The primary driver has been the change in the way web content is consumed and has evolved. I consume information different from the person next to me and so on and so forth, and want to learn about products, news and services on different formats to others.

The introduction of new connected devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) has seen a change in the way web content is consumed. Gone are the days of web content only being delivered through a web browser.

With this trend unlikely to change any time soon, marketers will continue to have to manage the introduction of new ways of consuming content, one way to do this is to build within a headless environment.

Building this way means that a site can easily create and manage more content and deliver them to more places, with less worry on how that content is presented on the front end and more focus on creating the right content for your consumers.

Multi-channel publishing is becoming increasingly complex and as a result businesses’ want to be able to publish content anywhere and constantly need to adapt content for new devices and channels. A modern CMS platform requires flexible, scalable and customisable solutions to deliver a truly personalised experience.


What are the benefits of a headless CMS for marketers and marketing functions?

Moving to a headless CMS provides a shift in responsibility when it comes to user experience; the onus moves from the developer to the browser/device. This provides a number of benefits, including:

  • Complete control over how and where content appears (you can create content once and have it displayed anywhere)
  • Easy and secure third-party integrations
  • Future-proofing (easy integration with new technology and devices)
  • The user experience is fast, consistent and responsive.

And the downside?

  • No functionality for presentation
  • The CMS is reliant on other technologies
  • Not possible to see live previews.

Is the future of CMS headless?

As part of our Q&A blog series , we interviewed Guy McWilliam, Director Partners & Alliances UK at Sitecore and Headless CMS was high on the agenda. When asked if headless CMS was the future, Guy said:

“When the competitive battleground is morphing from products to experiences and customer service, headless is absolutely the future!
Customers today demand you engage with them on any channel they choose to engage with you. The key however is the combination of headless delivery and experience platform backend creating what many call a “hybrid headless” solution.
There are two key factors in this approach. First, brands need to deliver top-notch digital experiences on every channel their customers are on. Second, even though a visitor might be engaging on a new channel the company shouldn’t forget everything they know about the visitor. Brands need to craft digital experiences that show to their customers that they know them – this is what Sitecore’s headless solution enables.”.

A headless CMS may not be right for every business in 2019, but it is certainly something to consider when looking at the future of your tech stack and website. Before getting excited about choosing a headless CMS, it’s important to ensure you have a good understanding of the various CMS vendors, the CMS solutions they can provide and stay focused on the user experience.

Creating an environment that allows developers and marketers alike to focus on customer experiences that are both unique to your brand and the individual consumer puts your customers first and lets you adapt to the modern demands of technology in a way that wasn’t possible years ago.

If you would like to find out more about choosing the right CMS vendors and CMS solutions, contact us today.

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