Headless, decoupled and Contentful: A non-technical explanation for the confused

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February 4, 2019

Jo Fraser



Even if you’re just taking baby steps toward digital transformation, there's a good chance you’re confused with the glossary of terms around content management options. With all these new CMS replacements popping up, you can be left scratching your head thinking, "Aren't these all the same?". It can seem a bit like the tower of Babel. Everyone is speaking a different language but we’re all trying to communicate the same thing.

When you’re trying to decide your next CMS move, knowing what would suit your digital project is important. Having a deeper understanding is your first step. And while Contentful would love to welcome you to the family, we thought offering up an explanation of the different available options might give you clarity. We know we're not for everybody! That's what makes us give the customers who do choose us the best service for their business goals.

What is a decoupled CMS?

The defining feature of a decoupled CMS is that the backend and frontend are separate. Whereas a traditional CMS typically intertwines both back-end and front-end tasks, a decoupled CMS splits them. The processes of creating and delivering content are removed from each other.

A decoupled CMS doesn’t assume anything about your project either. Instead, it offers up templates and tools (think: website templates, pre-configured layouts and a WYSIWYG editor) that help you create what you want.

This might sound familiar if you’ve been reading up on headless CMSes. But unlike a headless CMS, the decoupled CMS comes with a head but using it is completely optional. Whereas a headless CMS takes no responsibility for how content is displayed, a decoupled CMS is proactive. It prepares content for presentation and pushes it to the specified delivery environment of your application. This is a key difference between decoupled and headless CMSes.

To put it simply, a decoupled CMS can do everything a headless CMS can, but also takes the presentation layer into consideration. Companies who choose decoupled CMSes want the flexibility of a separate frontend and backend but need some publishing support. Decoupled CMSes help future-proof your website too. You’re able to completely redesign the site without re-implementing the CMS itself.

You might consider a decoupled CMS for:

  • Projects with unlimited access to a team of developers who know what they're doing. Documentation work can be limited with decoupled CMSes

  • Single-page websites

  • Companies who don't work with eCommerce. Decoupled CMSes often don't support complex add-on functionality without a lot of extra coding

What is a headless CMS?

There is a fair bit of confusion (and contention) about the differences between headless and decoupled CMSes, and a lot of people assume that they are the same thing. At Contentful, they’re not interchangeable terms. A headless CMS doesn’t have a frontend or presentation layer. There is simply no built-in option at all.

Typically when using a headless CMS, developers can handle the presentation layer in a few different ways. From interactive JS frameworks like React to static site generators like Gatsby or Jekyll, developers can choose what feel suits the web project. So, what does this look like for your developers? In practice, this allows your developers to quickly design frontend experiences and code using whatever language they prefer. They’re not restricted to backend technologies and can rely on APIs to connect the backend functions to any frontend delivery environment.

When headless CMSes first started making a buzz, most developers fell head over heels in love. Frontend developers, in particular, benefited from being set free from the conventions and structures of the backend. They would now have full control over the user experience using their native tools. Words like “revolutionary” and “game-changing” were thrown about –– and they certainly are, but it pays to approach with research and a plan. And like anything else, they have their limitations.

One of the biggest issues developers seem to face when approaching a new project with a headless CMS, or redesigning a website, is that they don’t put their content first. Content is an afterthought when it comes to presentation or technology. Building the presentation layer first and adding content later is a practice that tends to bite you in the butt later. The true strengths of headless are only beneficial if you put your content first.

What is a content platform?

Pop Contentful into a Google search and there’s a good chance you’ll see us regularly praised as a good headless CMS option. As much as we like the attention, we don’t like to identify as a headless or decoupled CMS. Yes, we do have the functionality of a headless CMS but we also offer a lot more. Enough that we’ve defined an entirely different category: content platform.

A content platform has two parts: a hub where all content lives, and a programming tool so developers can ship the content to any website, app or digital device. The content platform turns all content into code through a structured content model, so you can build any digital product for any platform. It’s content-first; you start with your content strategy and content model and work from there. This approach means you never lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve.

Contentful is API-first; we didn’t create our powerful APIs as an afterthought. While many similar headless and decoupled CMS also offer APIs for delivering content, Contentful is known for having the industry’s leading management API which allows your engineering team to organize and manage even the most complex digital ecosystems. Our powerful APIs are also very well documented. Your developers will have straightforward resources and support every step of the creation process.

We’re also the most enterprise-tested vendor in the market. A vendor you can trust with securing and scaling your strategic initiatives. Contentful is the only cloud-native vendor to be featured in the latest Forrester Wave. They’ve agreed that our “API-first and cloud-native approach excels,” and that we’re “a good fit for progressive digital initiatives that want to unify content services across channels and projects.” As such, we’ve scaled with some of the world’s biggest, most innovative brands. They’ve trusted us to manage their content, usually as part of a modern tech stack as they undergo significant digital transformations. A new way of creating connected digital experiences that we’re entirely onboard for.

We like to think one of our best features is our support teams. Starting with, and mastering, new technology can be a challenging experience, even for the most tech-savvy amongst us. And your support doesn’t just stop after signup. We’re your partners in this! Whatever your goals, we’ll help you identify the best practices and workflows that fit. Some of our support options include:

  • Personalized training sessions for your editors and developers.

  • Round-the-clock options to get in touch with our support team, including options to raise a support ticket, chat on the phone, and the ability to message with an expert directly from the web app

  • A dedicated Customer Success team who is making sure your infrastructure is serving your business goals. They’ll help you use our tools and processes to thrive, not just survive!

  • Some of the best documentation and resources on the web

Would you like to learn more about the Contentful content platform? Explore our premium plans for Enterprises.

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