What Is a Headless CMS and Why Does Everyone Want One?

Traditional CMSs managed websites, but what about all of the other digital experiences in today’s ecosystem?

By Curtis Maher

Jul 26, 2023

7 min
Image of a person fitting a round block into a set of composable wooden blocks.

Here's the TLDR: a headless CMS separates back-end content management from its front-end presentation, using APIs to deliver content to any consumer-facing experience.

But what does this mean in layman's terms? And more importantly: why are at least 64% of enterprises using a headless CMS – and why are 90% of the remaining organisations evaluating headless CMSs within the next 12 months?

The data indicates that the headless CMS is quickly becoming the new industry standard. But to understand why there's so much demand for replacing traditional CMSs with the new headless model, we need to understand the evolution of the CMS.

The Headless CMS: A Necessary Evolution for Today’s Digital Landscape
Image is a timeline that reads the following:
Internet is invented - 1 January 1983
6 August 1991, The first web site and web content management system is created by CERN
The first generations of CMSs are introduced including Vignette, PHP, StoryServer, Drupal and WordPress
Early 2000s to present day, Web 2.0 emerges and the internet we know today takes shape
The concept of responsive web design is introduced in 2010
January 2014, Mobile internet use exceeds desktop
Web 3.0 Continues to take shape, with technology such as AI- and AI-generated content, LLMs, blockchain, IoT and more.

The timeline arrow points forwards in time, indicating that we will continue to see the internet and content management systems evolve over the years.

The first generations of CMSs are nearly as old as the internet itself; the headless CMS is built for the modern digital landscape of the 2020s and beyond.

With the creation of the internet, businesses quickly realised the need to establish their presence online. Their main goal was to build and manage their "digital front door", or their website. The problem, though, was how difficult it was to build a website, line by line with code. This was the driving force behind the creation of the first generation of content management systems (CMSs).

These traditional CMSs, like WordPress and Drupal, were the solution that was needed in the 1990s and early noughties: they made building a website easy. This simplicity was key to their success because, at the time, building and managing a website was new, difficult and intimidating. These first-generation CMSs worked by gluing all the pieces of a website together on behalf of the user: the code (HTML and CSS) and the content (text and images).

But the internet has since evolved. These simple website-builders were once the only solution, but today, these CMSs present serious limitations for the content and development teams that use them. The coupling of content with front-end code forces teams to build and manage content less efficiently. It also limits the use and reuse of content beyond the website, to various other front-end experiences.

This tight coupling of content and code creates holding patterns for content and web teams. The traditional CMS just doesn't take into account the needs of content creators and web developers who have to work together for even simple updates to their website. What's more, traditional CMSs face another glaring blind spot: what about managing content for all of the other digital channels beyond the website?

The graphic reads, Omnichannel Digital Experiences: Customers are interacting with your business every day, all over the digital ecosystem. 

Outside of the text, there are various bubbles that represent different digital experiences. This includes:
Live Chat, AR/VR, Reviews, Websites, Email, Maps, Voice Assistants, Customer Portals, Blogs, Video Calls, Search Engines, In-store, Connected Devices, Phone Calls, Chatbots, Social Media, SMS, Mobile Apps, Directories

Traditional CMSs managed websites, but what about all of the other digital experiences in today's ecosystem?

Why the Headless CMS Is Replacing Traditional CMSs

A lot has changed since the first CMSs came to market over 20 years ago. The digital landscape has grown exponentially, and today, websites are only one piece of the omnichannel digital experience. Consumers expect to interact with a brand all over the digital ecosystem, including mobile apps, social media, review aggregators, third-party listings with publishers and so much more. And expectations for these experiences have skyrocketed, thanks to the demand for natural language experiences like AI-powered search and chat.

The result: consumers' digital experience has grown more and more fragmented with every new channel that enters the mainstream. This evolution of the digital content landscape is what led to the creation of the headless CMS.

How Headless CMSs Actually Work

The content layer (or back end) of the headless CMS is where all the content is created, organised and stored. It's like a big database that holds text, images, videos and all other types of digital content. Here, all of this content is structured using a schema that's created by the user, making it easy to manage all your content and add new content in one place.

This graphic demonstrates how the headless CMS works by showing how the API links to various other front-end experiences, like Email, Mobile, Website, Listings, Chat and Search.

With headless CMSs, businesses store and manage content from the back end and use APIs to present that content in consumer-facing channels.

The key differentiator between traditional CMSs and headless CMSs is the use of APIs to deliver content from the management system to the front-end experiences. A headless CMS, as its name suggests, does not have a built-in front end – which allows teams to display content to their end-users freely, without the constraints of a tightly coupled CMS.

This headless approach to content management presents teams with value in three key ways:

  • Teams have the flexibility to experiment with new channels

  • Content can be managed more efficiently, in a single platform

  • Teams can build new experiences (and deliver content) to users faster

Where Organisations Benefit from the Headless CMS

Headless CMSs Offer More Flexibility to Users

Businesses need to meet their customers in more places than ever before. If they don't, it's a missed opportunity. And if they do it poorly, they risk providing customers with an inconsistent, outdated, or simply bad experience.

Knowing this, businesses use headless CMSs to optimise and deliver content to various front-end experiences, such as websites, mobile applications, IoT devices, or other digital experiences. This flexibility enables businesses to reach their customers anywhere — not just where their CMS is natively integrated.

And because their content is stored in one place (instead of being forced to duplicate content for each individual front-end experience), businesses that use headless CMSs are able to reuse and repurpose content across different channels — ensuring a consistent, up-to-date experience everywhere.

For example, imagine a retailer with product information stored in their headless CMS. Using APIs, they can send the most up-to-date information on that product directly to their website and to their mobile app, to their third-party listings, to any search or chat experiences and more. This removes a huge operational barrier for the teams managing these different experiences. And because APIs provide a consistent interface for content delivery, your development team can spend less time on set-up, management and maintenance — meaning your collective team can bring new content to market faster.

The bottom line: With a headless CMS, your marketing team can control a wide range of digital experiences from one platform — plus, they're better positioned to adapt to new channels and trends. Meanwhile, your customers can seamlessly navigate between channels, with consistent touchpoints to your brand that allow them to find exactly the information they're looking for.

No More Silos: Headless CMSs Unify Content Management

With content sprawled across an organisation — stored across disparate platforms and tools like your CRM, customer support platforms, cloud storage services and more — it can be difficult for teams to avoid slow (and sometimes duplicative) content management workflows.

The headless CMS fights these inefficiencies by unifying content in one platform. With the right headless CMS, you can connect to countless external sources and deliver content to your end users from one unified platform. Plus, you can use these connections to keep your content accurate and up-to-date on an ongoing basis – no manual work required.

This means businesses can use a headless CMS to break down information and content silos to create a unified hub of their content that serves as a reliable source of truth.

Innovate More Quickly with Front-end Freedom

The web development space is constantly evolving, along with user preferences for a sleek, intuitive UX. As consumers become accustomed to modern digital experiences, older interfaces stand out sorely.

With a headless architecture, developers are empowered to choose any front-end technology or framework to build with. This gives developers the freedom to work with the tools that suit their needs – and means their CMS is built to last for the long haul. This includes the ability to mix and match complementary, best-of-breed technologies as the team builds out their digital experience platform.

For example, using a headless CMS, development teams are able to leverage industry-leading frameworks like React and Angular, create interactive interfaces, integrate with external tools and systems (like a CDP or A/B testing tool) and build any custom solution they need.

Developers aren't the only ones with the freedom to try new tech as they like; marketers will also be able to experiment as new channels continue to emerge over the years. As new channels continue to emerge, the API-first headless CMS will continue to provide the tech foundation teams can rely on.

Pro Tip: Wondering whether a CMS is truly headless? Look for the MACH Alliance membership seal. The MACH Alliance is an organisation that seeks to promote agility and flexibility within technological ecosystems. This aims to help businesses develop a future-proof tech stack. Architectures that meet these requirements will be microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native SaaS and finally, headless.

A Future-Proof CMS is Headless… And What Else?

A headless CMS allows your team to effectively manage all of your business's core information and content in one central location. But there is even more to look for in a CMS beyond its headless architecture.

Think again about the complexity of your organisation's content: can the CMS collect, clean, transform and generate content? Consider future-proofing: with the rise of LLMs, do you need a CMS that supports conversational AI experiences? What about a CMS that can generate content at scale? Finally, do your developers have what they need? And what is their experience like?

When considering content management solutions, there's a lot to bear in mind, but a headless architecture is a great place to start.

Read Next: How to Choose a CMS

Ein neues CMS ist eine erhebliche Investition für Ihr Unternehmen. Wissen Sie, worauf Sie bei der Auswahl achten müssen?

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