What is Headless CMS? Everything You Need to Know

March 27, 2023
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There exists an ocean of information as well as misinformation regarding headless content management systems. The information available online is often correct but sometimes absurd. There's either not enough information, or it's too complicated for non-technical individuals to understand.Content Management Systems (CMS) have been around for quite a long time, but some remarkable revolutions have been made lately. Whether you should adopt the all-new "headless" approach to content management or stick with a mainstream, monolithic system? Let's explore.[lwptoc skipHeadingLevel="h1,h4,h5,h6"]

What is Headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management approach that provides an opportunity to author content. Still, instead of having your content coupled to an individual output such as web page rendering, it portrays your content as data over an API.The "head" relates to where your content ends, whereas the "body" is where your content is stored and authored. This idea sounds a little strange, but the purpose of a headless CMS isn't that you don't require ahead; it's about choosing certain heads (outputs) where you want to send your content.In the recent past, we have witnessed a trend in CMS as more scalable in making content available. These CMSes are usually termed as "Headless" or "API-first" CMSes. Some of them are portrayed as "Content infrastructure," "Content Hubs," or even "Content as a Service." However, on taking a closer look, they all appeared to have the usual database backend with a web-based user interface and content made available via an API.Headless CMS systems are still in the evolutionary phase intended to provide a better approach for content management with a highly flexible structure; content is treated as data. At the same time, editors work in a real-time collaboration ecosystem.

Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS

Unlike headless CMS, a mainstream CMS is a platform that you need to install and manage on your own or install on a server offering managed services. Conventional CMSes are also known as "monolithic" because they possess all the operationality and considerations for how you want to work on a single platform. Conventional CMSes often provide a "What You See Is What You Get" content editing interface as they possess only one medium for presenting the content that is a web page.

traditional cms vs headless cms

The fundamental architectural differences between traditional and headless content management systems.

What about Decoupled CMSes?

As feedback to the description of headless CMSes, some of the conventional CMS providers have developed APIs on top of their platforms and term them as "decoupled." The decoupled approach ensures both website rendering options and the flexibility of the headless approach. However, the difference is that a model heavily impacts decoupled CMS APIs developed for a single website. This type of coupling restricts the number of contexts that your content can plausibly influence.

  • Decoupled CMSes needs the addition of APIs on top to distribute content
  • Headless CMSes are API-exclusive

How does a Headless CMS work?

A headless CMS is intended to:

  1. Providing editors with an interface for managing content.
  2. Providing that content using APIs for developers to run queries and develop apps with.

Most headless CMSes serve as a Software as a Service (SaaS), which means that your editors will be required to sign in to a web application, and the APIs are hosted in a cloud-based backend. Some headless CMSes allow you to host all the services on your server and database. This model provides you the opportunity to apply your scaling and operations.

Headless CMS Benefits

Faster editing experiences

Conventional CMS models have to spend resources on content editing and content rendering. A headless CMS has the edge over the conventional approach as it doesn't have to deal with the rendering aspect of the content. It spares both time and effort to focus on core aspects of your operations.

Manage content for more channels

Indeed headless content isn't bound to a single website interface to be showcased to diverse viewers across multiple mediums. You can utilize a headless CMS to handle content for multiple applications and websites. You can even control your internal content in the same place, and by doing so, you can fetch more value from it.

Developer flexibility

As headless content is distributed using APIs, developers can opt for their frontend approaches. For instance, if you'd prefer to work with Javascript instead of PHP, you can easily do so. You can also interchange portions of your stack or move from one platform to another without troubling the CMS.

Easier scaling

Headless lets you handle your content from a single source of truth, alter developer tools at any instant and enjoy the perks of sending your content to state-of-the-art cloud-based hosting and develop services like Vercel and Netlify.

Enhanced security

Headless content is separated from the presentation layer, and it's tough to attack the core. It makes your content more secure due to less exposure and vulnerability to attack.

Salient Features of Headless CMS

Websites & web apps

Headless CMSes are renowned choices in high-performing "Jamstack" sites and quickly align with static-site-generators like Gatsby, 11ty, and Next. They can also be utilized for web applications and support modern Javascript Frameworks such as React, Vue.js, Svelte, and Angular.

Also Read: Top 20 Headless CMS – How to Choose the Right One

Products & Services

A well-developed headless CMS is not a web-based content approach. You can manage content for any product or service, including voice assistants, digital kiosks, print, websites, and that all from the same place.

E-commerce sites

Some headless CMSes are scalable enough to serve as an eCommerce backend. You can have the leverage to integrate headless content with already existing eCommerce platforms and Warehouse Management Systems like Shopify.

Real-world headless CMS use cases

When it comes to multiple-channel digital marketing, a headless CMS is a perfect deal. Below are a few of the most interesting real-world use cases of headless CMS.

1. Downtown D.C. enhances tourist experience using digital signboards

The Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District found a lack of information about nearby restaurants, hotels, and attractions for pedestrians tourists.Instead of using traditional signboards, the organization deployed thirty interactive kiosk-powered digital display boards to provide news and alerts in multiple languages.Using a headless CMS as kiosk software, such digital signboards can be updated with new content in real-time for more relevant and consistent travel and leisure information.

Downtown D.C. enhances tourist experience using digital signboards

2. Burger King deploys digital menu boards to 6,500+ stores

During a rebranding drive, Burger King installed digital menu boards in different U.S. restaurant locations in a short period of only four months.The fast-food giant can easily update and showcase menu items, deals, promotion campaigns, and pricing based on inventory and availability in real-time by headless technology. These dynamic digital menu boards attract people more efficiently, which results in the form of improved sales.

Burger King deploys digital menu boards to 6,500+ stores

3. IKEA develops an augmented reality catalog mobile app

Using IKEAs innovative AR application, customers can use their smartphone's camera to capture an image of their room and select items from the furniture company's catalog to experience how they'll look in the respective area visually. IKEA's app and other similar AR apps allow customers to test products before actual purchase.

IKEA develops an augmented reality catalog mobile app

4. The Economist

The Economist is a notable example of a brand gearing up to penetrate almost every mainstream medium and touchpoint in the market, to only through a headless CMS. The global news and op-ed giant uses a headless CMS to publish content to multiple channels ranging from mobile apps, Snapchat, Social Media, Website to Oculus, and much more. In simple words, the brand is now available on mobile, social media, voice assistants, and virtual reality VR devices, with single headless CMS distributing the content.

The Economist headless cms case study

How can you choose a suitable headless CMS?

There is a multitude of options that makes it challenging to navigate through the ocean of features. We think it's best to focus on a CMS that allows you to thrive and is highly adaptable and scalable as per your requirements. Below is the list of questions you need to ponder over to evaluate your choice effectively.

  • Is it possible to develop the kinds of content structures you need to?
  • Is it necessary to look after content hosting and maintenance all by yourself?
  • Will your content be stored securely and privately?
  • Would real-time editing and collaboration improve your workflows?
  • Will your comprehensive text content be locked to HTML?
  • Can you scale your content operations without spending extra money?
  • What is the procedure for managing files and images?

Headless API Types

To better evaluate the value of a headless CMS, it's mandatory to know more about APIs. API stands for Application Programming Interface. In the given context, it means you get content in a way that is simpler to integrate with existing or new software utilities. Typically, you do this by sending the headless CMS a network request to an API end node. This network request is much more the same thing you do while visiting a webpage, but instead of a web page, you get a list of the backend of the content.While using this information to develop software using a programming approach with APIs, most developers prefer them because it gives them complete control of developing their applications. Some CMSes also allow you to change content using APIs. API is a broad area that goes beyond the domain of CMSes and the World Wide Web. Therefore, exploring the two frequently-used APIs is recommended when we talk about content management, namely REST and GraphQL.

What is REST API?

APIs can be more or less scalable when it comes to developing applications on top of them. In mainstream practice, Headless CMSes have offered REST APIs. They outline the content behind multiple URLs such as posts, authors, or images. Developers have to deal with multiple requests with the IDs of the variety of content types together. REST APIs can be effective for simple data structures, but this approach can be time-consuming if your content models are more complex. It requires more effort to change or mold these APIs for different purposes.

What is GraphQL?

Facebook introduced GraphQL as an alternative to the less flexible REST approach. It allows you to query the API with the fields and relationships you require for each event. This is exactly how you interact with the databases. It also makes it simple to introduce new fields and content types as your system grows horizontally.The reason to choose more flexible and scalable APIs is to eliminate the hurdles in reusing content across different channels. Why headless CMSes shouldn't store Rich Text as HTMLOrganizations and businesses are bound to increase their availability across multiple channels, whether websites, mobile applications, voice assistants, or even printed stuff. Multichannel presence pushes a new requirement regarding how content should be more managed and deliverable. Using a headless CMS and having your content offered using APIs is a good initiative. On the other hand, you also want that content perfectly structured to make it simple to use and consume.With this approach, you may find it confusing that nearly all modern headless CMSes store rich text content as HTML. It's excellent to offer this content to a web browser. Still, it's not a favorable multichannel storage format as distributing it to other formats can be difficult and time-consuming.Here the role of Portable Text specification comes into play as it offers rich text storage. Editors still enjoy the perks of having a familiar editing interface. On the other hand, developers get a more predictable format that is easier to distribute to different display destinations. It's highly customizable as you can:

  • Insert customized content blocks.
  • Select how editors can insert copy-pasted content.
  • Control how the text will visually appear.
  • Allow for content structures that support relationships between types, within and on top of rich text.

In simple words, it allows you to link some internal documents and then refrain from accidentally deleting other documents linked to that document and even enables you to view the relationships by sending simple queries.

Should You Go For The Headless CMS Trend?

The only question left to ask is whether you should choose a headless or a decoupled CMS? If your organization need a headless approach or not?The reality is, headless content management is trending due to a notable reason. It's a future-proof approach that can align with all emerging technologies. Instead of trying new channels and services like smartwatches and VR headsets with a conventional CMS, initially introduced for web-based mediums, a headless platform isn't limited to any medium, screen layout, or device type. As long as an API is available, the content can be reached anywhere.Despite this, some businesses resist opting for headless CMS.The headless model doesn't inspire Boris Kraft, CTO and Co-founder of Magnolia CMS.

“Headless CMSs deliver the freedom and flexibility of 'I can do everything I want at the price of 'I have to write, debug and maintain everything I need myself.'” In many cases, you will end up writing and maintaining the better part of a full-blown CMS, adding multiple layers of complexity to gain the advanced features that you’ve lost by rejecting a full CMS,” he stated. “A [traditional] CMS typically provides things like asset management, navigation, security, workflow, access control, caching, categorization, and link management, to name a few. These and many more are not immediately available with a headless CMS approach,” he continued.

He further went on to destroy the hype around headless CMSs by mentioning flaws related to security and personalization, insisting that modern enterprise platforms are capable enough to produce content for multiple mediums.

The Bottom Line - Know Your Goals, Then Decide Accordingly

Ultimately, the objective of headless content separated from the presentation layer is to future-proof a business's online presence. Having your content respond to API calls and be distributed around any platform or device provides high flexibility and freedom of approach. On the other hand, business owners like Boris feel their current conventional CMS can handle this job effectively. The headless comes amidst more complexities than solutions, and there's no reason to make a sudden shift.For now, many brands are retiring their conventional CMS to have their hands on a headless approach. It's your turn to evaluate your needs, outline your short-term and long-term objectives, and opt for the CMS that can best fulfill your content requirements.


Headless CMS gives editors a friendly interface for intelligent content management while providing APIs for developers to develop applications, making it simpler and faster to store, edit and publish content on multiple channels. They have more opportunities to offer than their traditional counterpart because they are API-exclusive and have nothing to do with content rendering.

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