To understand what a headless CMS is, it helps to first look at the traditional content management system and what it was designed to do. Traditional CMSes have been around since the early days of web development. Platforms like Wordpress and Sitecore were designed to store and present content elements like text, images and video on websites.
But digital platforms have evolved, creating the need for more flexible solutions. Now, enterprises are developing websites, mobile sites, apps, digital displays, conversational interfaces and more. Meanwhile, the traditional CMS has failed to keep pace. Why? Because a CMS organizes content in webpage-oriented frameworks, making it impossible for the same content to adapt to other digital platforms.
One way to solve this problem is a “headless” CMS — if the presentation layer of a website is the “head” of a CMS, then cutting off that presentation layer creates a headless CMS.
A headless CMS is any type of content management system where the content repository “body” is separated or decoupled from the presentation layer head. Some traditional CMS platforms offer an API that allows you to send content to a separate presentation layer. They call this “headless” because the presentation layer is separated from the body.
While this type of headless CMS enables you to choose an appropriate presentation layer for a digital platform, it doesn’t solve an underlying problem: structuring content so that it can be reused across different platforms and channels.
The traditional CMS approach to managing content put everything in one big bucket — content, images, HTML, CSS. This made it impossible to reuse the content because it was commingled with code.
Some CMS platforms offer a “headless” or “decoupled” option through an API that connects the content repository to a separate presentation layer. But the problem of managing the content itself remains. How can content be organized so it’s easy to reuse across digital platforms? How can it be stored separately from code, so the code doesn’t hinder a variety of digital applications?
Content infrastructure is a type of headless content management system, but it doesn’t take the traditional approach of organizing content around pages. Instead, it starts with a content model — a framework for organizing types of content and defining how each type relates to another.
In this type of headless CMS, a content model is custom-built for each organization, so that content creators aren’t stuck with the preprogrammed models offered by a traditional CMS. The content model breaks down content into individual elements, such as a blog post headline or the copy on a call to action button. You can define how each element relates to others, creating a flexible model that can fit any digital container.
With the proliferation of digital platforms, enterprises are often crippled by a proliferation of CMS instances — dozens, or even hundreds. As a result, they have to duplicate content from a website CMS to an app CMS and then to a digital display CMS.
Content infrastructure eliminates endless copy and pasting work, enabling organizations to unify all content in a centralized content hub. This makes editing way easier — change the copy or image in one place, and that change applies everywhere the content is located. Unification improves brand consistency and compliance, and enables editors to nimbly update content across all channels, making campaigns a breeze.
Content infrastructure also enables simultaneous collaboration, replacing the slow waterfall approach to development in favor of an agile framework where teams can work in parallel. This type of headless CMS offers a competitive advantage for enterprises that need to rapidly spin up new software, landing pages and microsites.
Lastly, content infrastructure makes reusability a breeze, a key component for making the most of resources spent on content creation. When all content is accessible for use on any digital platform, brands can make the most of features like personalization and localization.