Headless CMS explained in 1 minute

Traditional CMS architecture was once the standard for web development, but today companies are looking for the increased flexibility and scalability provided by headless CMS software solutions. Learn about the differences between a traditional CMS, headless CMS, and the next generation of content management, an API-first content platform.

Deep dive into headless CMS

To understand what a headless CMS is, or headless content management system, 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, Drupal and Sitecore were designed to store and present content elements like text, images and video on websites.

The traditional CMS approach to managing content puts everything into one big bucket — content, images, HTML, CSS. This made it impossible to reuse the content because it was commingled with code.

As digital channels and devices have evolved, the need for more flexible solutions has emerged. Now, enterprises are developing websites, mobile 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 fit other digital platforms or software.

CMS Evolution

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS, also known as headless software or headless system, is any type of back-end content management system where the content repository, the “body,” is separated or decoupled from the presentation layer, the “head.” What this really means is that a headless CMS allows you to manage content in one place and still be able to deploy that content across any frontend you choose. This is key to omnichannel strategies because it lets you integrate content into any system, software, or website just by calling the APIs the headless CMS exposes.

Advantages of a headless CMS over a traditional CMS

Traditional CMSHeadless CMS
Hosting & deliveryIn-houseIn the cloud
Development mindsetProject-focusedProduct-focused
Content modelBuilt for a single pageBuilding block for many products
Supported devicesLimitedLimitless
ReachOne-to-oneOne-to-many
WorkflowWaterfallAgile
UpdatesScheduledContinuous
Backend systemMonolithic, all-in-oneMicroservice, best-in-class
InvestmentLarge up-front costQuick proof of concept
Technical debtInherent to the systemManaged

What are APIs and how do they work with headless?

An API connects two applications so they can exchange data. Content that is housed in a headless CMS is delivered via APIs for seamless display across any site, device or other digital touchpoint. This makes content in a headless CMS endlessly reusable, no matter the omnichannel customer experience you are after today, or the channels that emerge in the future. This is different from Wordpress and other monolithic CMSes that tightly couple the frontend with the backend, keeping you locked into how content can (and cannot) be displayed.

Think about headless architecture and APIs like this: the main job of a headless CMS is to store and manage your content. It doesn’t really care what you want to do with that content. The main job of display platforms like a website or mobile app is to present content to people. They don’t really care how that content is stored or managed. APIs are the magical connection points that allow these backend systems (e.g., headless cms) and frontend systems (e.g., website) to communicate in the specific ways a digital team wants them to.

Learn more in our Ultimate guide to CMS.

What is headless CMS vs. decoupled CMS?

In your research on CMSes, you’ve probably come across another term, “decoupled CMS.” As the name indicates, the defining feature of a decoupled CMS is that the backend and frontend are separate. This separation is similar to a headless CMS, however, a decoupled CMS comes with a head, but using it is completely optional. Some use the terms interchangeably, but they are not identical. The main difference is a headless CMS does not include a presentation layer at all but instead allows developers to decide how they would like to display content. This is often through interactive JSON frameworks like React or Vue.js or static site generators like Gatsby.

What is structured content and how does it support a headless approach?

While a headless CMS software solution enables you to deploy content across any presentation layer, it doesn’t solve an underlying problem: unstructured content. As long as your content is unstructured, it cannot be easily repurposed across different platforms and channels. Structured content is a general term referring to content that is broken down into small building blocks, organized in a predictable way, and classified with metadata. Take for example a webpage. Unstructured content mingles together all the content and code that create that webpage. This is often done in a WYSIWYG editor, which stands for “what you see is what you get.” Digital content creators are usually familiar with WYSIWYGs as it gives them the ability to make content edits in the backend. This creates perfectly fine webpages, however, content is stuck to that format. What you see is what you get and all that you get.

A structured approach separates the various elements of that page into distinct components. Think author, title, body, image, image description, definitions, e-commerce information, product pricing, etc. All these components can still be assembled to create the same webpage, but they can also be reassembled to create various iterations of the webpage, personalized for a distinct audience, reorganized for a specific campaign, or trimmed down for a mobile experience.

Going beyond the headless CMS with structured content and a content platform

A content platform is the next evolution of content management. Like a headless content management system, it doesn’t take the traditional approach of organizing content around pages. Instead, it starts with structured content in the form of a content model. A content model defines and organizes all the different content types, or building blocks, that an organization uses. These content models are tailored to the needs of each organization, so that content creators aren’t stuck with the overly prescriptive page templates of a traditional CMS.

Combining structured content with a content platform, digital teams are able to increase efficiency, create consistent content across channels, and future-proof their content operations.

Unify content into a single content hub

By making content endlessly reusable, structured content and a content platform eliminate manual processes like copy and pasting. This makes editing way easier — change the copy or image in one place, and that change applies everywhere the content is located. With all content stored in one centralized content hub, content editors can easily apply the COPE principle: create once, publish everywhere – or edit once, update everywhere.

Enable collaborative workflows

By separating frontend from backend and organizing content with predictable content models, a content platform allows content editors and developers to work in parallel. Content editors can nimbly update content across all channels without developer support, freeing up developers to tackle more strategically important work. This offers a competitive advantage for companies that want to increase their speed to market and make the best use of their digital teams’ time.

Increase reusability and scalability

A content platform makes content reusability a breeze. Content reusability is a key component for making the most of resources spent on content creation. When all content is accessible for use on any digital endpoint, digital teams can repurpose content across devices and channels. It also allows content to scale across different regions, use cases and campaigns. Content can be optimized for various user experiences by integrating tools for personalization and localization to ensure the right content reaches the right audience at the right time.

Learn more about structured content in the Content reusability workbook.

Why builders choose Contentful’s headless content platform?

Contentful pioneered the headless-approach to content management and is now pioneering its evolution to a platform-first approach. While a headless CMS software solution focuses on content delivery, Contentful’s content platform goes beyond delivery and provides a central hub for authoring, assembling, editing, and managing content.

Contentful’s platform approach focuses on the full life cycle of content. This includes decoupled delivery capabilities but also backend customization to drive seamless cross-functional collaboration, a tailored user interface to improve internal content editor authoring, and exposed tooling and frameworks that allow digital teams and agency partners to quickly build the functionality needed, whether it’s extending the platform or integrating it with any digital experience stack.

Contentful is API-first, fully extensible and scales up for the most demanding digital experiences. This includes multi-channel customer experiences, localized sites for multi-region brands, dynamic websites, responsive mobile apps, smart speakers, in-store digital displays, agile commerce and even customer and partner portals. It also includes future channels which have yet to be invented.

Contentful’s GraphQL API and RESTful APIs allow developers to programmatically manage and orchestrate content within the platform itself. This includes easy creation of new project spaces, assigning user roles, managing webhooks, content import/export and content modeling, which is scriptable from any source.

The Contentful Marketplace lets you browse through apps, most of which are free and open-source, that extend and expand the capabilities of the Contentful web app for almost any use case you could need. You can integrate your favorite third-party services, build better workflows and customize what you can do with Contentful.

Don't miss the latest

Get updates in your inbox
Discover how to build better digital experiences with Contentful.
add-circle arrow-right remove style-two-pin-marker subtract-circle