What is a headless CMS?

CMS business web computer website administration concept
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Panchenko Vladimir)

Whichever industry you may be in, businesses have a flood of options to pick from as they build out their technology stack. New platforms are emerging everyday to help get the right content in front of the right audience. 

The choice can be overwhelming and the sad truth is that the standard crop of tools that support content distribution aren’t up to the challenge of today’s marketing environment. 

Many are also simply outdated, cannot cope with what marketers need today and can cost businesses in lost sales. A recent survey found that 48% of UK consumers say they abandon purchases due to bad design and user experience. A reason for a bad website UX could be a poor and outdated backend and its content management system (CMS). 

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a back-end only CMS built from the ground up as a content repository that makes content accessible via a RESTful API or GraphQL API for display on any device.

You’ve probably seen a headless approach in action without realising it – especially in the world of online retail. Solutions like WooCommerce or Magento are based on a traditional, monolithic architecture and handle the front-end as well as the back-end. But a growing number of ecommerce platforms like Centry, BigCommerce or Shopify also offer a headless option with access to the store’s data via their API. 

The term “headless” comes from the concept of separating the “head” (the front-end, i.e. the website) off the “body” (the back-end, i.e. the content repository). A headless CMS remains with an interface to manage content and a RESTful or GraphQL API to deliver content wherever you need it. 

Due to this approach, a headless CMS does not care about how and where your content gets displayed. It only has one focus: storing and delivering structured content and allowing content editors to collaborate on new content.

What is the difference between a monolithic and headless CMS?

A traditional CMS includes 1) a database for the the content to read and write to, 2) an admin interface to let editors manage the content, 3) an integration of reading and writing, and 4) the actual front-end that combines the data from the database with HTML. 

How it differentiates from a headless CMS is that to have a headless CMS, you remove the templating feature (4) from the stack as that is the head of that CMS - the actual website. With that done, you replace it with a RESTful or GraphQL API that is accessible by other systems to access the data that was managed in the Admin UI. And that’s it: you now have got yourself a headless CMS.

As a traditional CMS comes with a front-end, a website can't be built only with a headless CMS. A headless CMS separated the head from its stack and therefore lacks this point by design. Therefore, the developer must craft the website by themselves and use the provided REST or GraphQL APIs of the headless CMS to access the content.

Creating the whole website on their own seems like a big task, but by decoupling the CMS from the front-end a developer can choose any technology they are already familiar with and do not need to learn the technology for that specific CMS.

Another big bonus is the fact that the developer can also focus on their own work without handling the bugs of an already existing stack of technology - therefore it is easier to optimise pages for page speed and web-vitals and even relaunch parts of the website without worrying about losing existing content.

Why do you need a headless CMS?

There’s a misconception that headless technology is too technical, built for developers rather than marketers. While it’s true that developers do love headless systems, there’s now platforms that put a visual face on the editor. Going headless also saves time – no one enjoys copying and pasting content per page, device or location. That’s also how mistakes start to creep in.

Keeping all your content in one place means that you’re able to reduce the costs of running content on multiple platforms (web, ecommerce, apps etc), you don’t need to build lots of different templates for each new project for example. Cost effectiveness is going to be key as marketing gets more complicated, so this start small and scale up approach can stop marketing budgets spiralling.

Marketers are also increasingly on the front lines of the security battle. Content is as much attack surfaces as they are a way to keep in touch with your customers. A headless approach reduces the number of entry points into your business – it reduces it down to just one. Keeping track of the constant raft of security updates, patches and plugs that comes with a traditional CMS is a full-time job.

Technology and devices will keep advancing, users are already frustrated when pages aren’t web optimised. That’s why it’s time for marketers to get to grips with headless CMS and reap the cost, time and safety benefits.

Dominik Angerer is the CEO and co-founder of enterprise headless CMS Storyblok.