The headless CMS checklist

Updated: October 26, 2020

Key considerations when evaluating agile CMS providers


In order to stay relevant in a technology-driven landscape, with information available instantly and across every channel imaginable, B2C and B2B organizations must closely examine their content creation and delivery infrastructure. Web CMSes are not providing the capabilities digital teams need to win customers, expand into new channels and ship digital products quickly. Business leaders and digital teams are looking at alternatives to traditional CMSes, including headless content management systems and CMS as a service.

But even within the headless content management system category, there are key differences among various platforms. In this article, we’ll help you determine if a headless CMS solution is right for your business and provide some criteria for comparing different headless content management systems.

A new content solution

Forrester recently described the limitations of web CMSes and how new technology solutions are emerging to overcome those challenges in “It’s The End Of Web CMS As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” 1

“We need a new container to meet tomorrow’s challenges. Building from the architecture of headless CMS, Forrester believes that that new container is already taking shape: Agile CMS. Forrester defines Agile CMS as: A solution for collaboratively curating, creating, and delivering content across channels and campaigns via iterative development and deployment processes.”

The future of the CMS category belongs to platforms with agile CMS capabilities that empower them to:

  1. Unify content
  2. Streamline creation, organization and delivery of content
  3. Manage content operations from one central hub
  4. Quickly deploy content to many different channels
  5. Easily integrate with other tools such as analytics, personalization, localization and ecommerce via cloud-native APIs

Understanding the CMS landscape

The CMS landscape has become crowded and can be confusing, especially for less technical team members and those deploying a non-web-focused CMS for the first time. From web to headless, here is a quick breakdown of the various content solutions and how they work.

  1. Web CMS (aka “The traditional website builder”): Web CMSes hide code behind a user-friendly interface. Behind the scenes, the content and code are comingled in page-centric frameworks, making it nearly impossible to modify or adapt them to new digital applications. That means for every new digital product, you need another CMS.
  2. Decoupled CMS (aka “The one with separate content and presentation layers”): A decoupled CMS splits the backend and front-end. These platforms offer templates and tools (think: website templates, pre-configured layouts, and a WYSIWYG editor) that help editors prepare content for presentation. They can offer more flexibility for content delivery, but many don’t support complex use cases without additional coding.
  3. Headless CMS (aka “The content solution that works with any presentation layer”): Headless CMSes store content separately from the code used to build the presentation layer and give developers complete control over how content is displayed. Each piece of content can be pulled via APIs from one central content hub into any digital endpoint (website, app, help center, in-store display, etc.) without directly modifying the original content.
  4. Content infrastructure (aka “The headless content solution built for omnichannel content creation, organization and delivery”): Content infrastructure is a type of headless CMS, but goes a step further to include content organization for multichannel use. The platform has two parts: a hub where all content lives, and a programmable backend so developers can ship the content to any website, app or digital device. A structured content model organizes content (headline, author, article copy, etc.) into individual components that can then be easily and quickly repackaged and repurposed on any digital channel.

The headless CMS checklist

Is headless right for your business?

  1. You’re struggling under the weight of multiple CMSes: And you’re sick of it! Cutting, pasting and reformatting every piece of content for individual channels slows down operations and wastes resources.
  2. Developers are heavily involved in making changes and publishing content: When developers are required to edit or publish content, it can bottleneck the entire process. Developers are pulled away from other important projects and content is slow to market. Headless CMS promotes empowerment among publishers and developers and separates their job functions to allow maximum efficiency.
  3. Product launches always seem to hit content related delays and content operations take longer and require more resources: Asking a legacy CMS to perform complex workflows and manage digital properties for which it wasn’t designed requires constant customization and backend workarounds from your team. It’s impossible to predict how long it will take new products to hit the market because it’s impossible to predict what those customizations will be. The process is slow and opaque.
  4. It’s getting harder to find and keep developers to work on your products: The best developers are tired of constant workarounds and delays. A headless CMS allows developers to work with the tools and languages of their choice, without inherent system constraints.
  5. The CMS has become more of a challenge than an enabler: Traditional CMSes stifle creativity because there are always roadblocks limiting the original intention and potential for projects.

How to evaluate headless CMS providers

Entry-level, enterprise-grade features, open-source — headless CMS options run the gamut. Since it’s still a relatively new term, different platforms offer a wide range of features and service levels.

When evaluating which headless CMS might be a good fit for your business, consider the following elements:


Headless means that the content repository and the frontend where content is displayed are decoupled. How the content repository is structured and how content is delivered varies by platform. This affects the level of freedom and functionality developers, product managers and editors experience.


Many headless providers focus on how content is delivered to different digital products, but decision makers should also look at how content is managed within the CMS. Some headless CMSes still use a page-centric approach with rigid templates that tie headlines, body copy and images together into specific layouts. Another approach is content infrastructure, which organizes content into reusable chunks using a content model to organize types of content and define how each type relates to another. This creates a flexible model that can be molded to fit any digital container.

Content operations

Traditional CMSes fall short when it comes to supporting digital teams that need to deliver content to multiple channels, but they have many features that teams like. These include friendly editorial interfaces, preview screens and roles and permissions for simpler governance. When evaluating headless options, look for the CMS features your team likes and make sure the headless CMS also has features that make it more agile. These include:

  • Parallel workflows: Can teams work in parallel instead of taking turns working on a project?
  • Iterative development: Is it possible to experiment and test new ideas on the backend without putting your live site at risk?
  • Scalability: Some CMSes require a big investment just to implement the platform, others let you start building right away and give you a clear path for scaling successes quickly.

APIs and extensibility

Beyond the basic content delivery API, advanced APIs and extensions help the CMS integrate with the other tools you use (PIM, personalization, automation, etc.), making the CMS more responsive to the way you want to work. API-first headless CMSes (like Contentful) offer even more flexibility and integration possibilities.

Content infrastructure is an agile solution

Content infrastructure is backed by a content-first philosophy, meaning you can define your content strategy based on customer and business needs and build the entire system from there. Developers are free to create digital products for any platform quickly and easily and immediately begin deploying existing content from one central hub to that product with no delay.

It’s a solution that is suited to meet the needs of businesses no matter where they are in their content journey. The platform is flexible and scalable, and can be integrated without disrupting current workflows. If your organization needs agile solutions, then consider content infrastructure.


1 Grannan, Mark; Forrester Research, Inc, “It’s The End Of Web CMS As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”; 15 November 2018.

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