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What Is A Headless CMS?

In simplest possible terms, a headless CMS is a backend content management system (CMS) that exists independently of the frontend or the presentation layer.

What Is A Headless CMS?

How content is consumed evolves every day. We’ve gone from computers to smartphones to smartwatches, smart fridges, and various other IoT devices in mere two decades. This quick shift has given rise to headless CMSs and a headless approach to web development in general.

Faced with the ever-changing content consumption landscape, companies and their marketing departments had to prioritize content platforms to use or spend an immense amount of time on optimizing and publishing content to each of the different platforms. 

With a headless CMS, that dilemma is quickly becoming history.

With 64% of enterprises already going headless and more than 90% of those not currently adopting the approach planning to evaluate headless solutions over the next year, it sure looks like the right time to ride the wave of headless is NOW.

So, What Is a Headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system where the front-end, the presentation layer, and the back-end, the content database, exist independently of each other. 

To illustrate, let’s compare it with the traditional, coupled CMS. While the traditional CMS has one default front-end where the content is displayed (think your classic WordPress blog) content in the headless CMS can be published on numerous front-ends.

The front-end layers are defined in advance, and the content is served to them through APIs that enable the high flexibility and speed necessary in today’s day and age.  

But, what exactly are the differences between headless and traditional architectures?

Coupled vs. Decoupled vs. Headless

Traditional or monolith CMS is a coupled solution, i.e., the back-end and the front-end are directly connected. 

All the content is stored in the website’s back-end and pushed to the default front-end layer, including pre-defined code, HTML templates, CSS, and JS files. 

The back-end and front-end are dependent on each other, meaning that you can’t change one without changing the other, too. 

The coupled CMS consists of:
1) The back-end

  • The database where content is stored
  • CMS where content is created and published

2) Connected front-end to present the content to the consumer

In decoupled CMS architecture, the back-end and front-end are kept separate. We use the back-end to create, store and manage content and APIs to deliver the content to the predefined presentation front-end. 

Think of it as one step away from coupled, but not yet headless. So, we have: 
1) The back-end

  • The database where content is stored
  • CMS where content is created and published

2) Pre-defined but separate front-end to present the content to the consumer

3) API that connects the back-end with the front-end

With headless CMS architecture, while the back-end and front-end are also separate, headless doesn’t include a pre-set front-end using standard templates to present the content. Instead, APIs can deliver the content to multiple channels seamlessly. 

Finally, headless CMS consists of: 
1) The back-end

  • The database where content is stored
  • CMS where content is created and published

2) API that connects the back-end with the front-end

3) Numerous front-ends, whichever the publishing front-end technology your company may choose

Okay, so headless is more flexible than the other two. What else does it bring to the table?

The Benefits of a Headless CMS

The flexibility of choice. Because the back-end and front-end exist independently of each other, your developers get to choose the technologies they want to use to build front-end experiences.

Omnichannel presence. In the olden times, you’d publish content on your website only. But now, you have to publish content directly to mobile apps and various digital and IoT devices. Well, headless help make that happen, all stemming from a single touchpoint.

Future-proofing your tech stack. Headless makes any future development or modification super easy. 

If your application design becomes outdated, your developers can quickly redesign the front-end without modifying the whole CMS. If another channel appears, you can simply add it to your stack without re-implement the CMS. 

Overall better user experience. By now, you’ve definitely heard about the mobile-first approach. While certainly better than desktop-first, the mobile-first approach is in itself a limitation. 

With its multi-channel capabilities, headless enables every-front-end-platform-first experience. And we all know the value of a great user experience today. 

Easy maintenance, scaling, redesigning. Because the front-end isn’t tied to the back-end, headless enables easy maintenance of both ends, eases scaling efforts, and makes redesigning your front-end a piece of cake. 

Increased security. In traditional architecture, a cyberattack on your front-end also means a cyber attack on your back-end. 

In headless, your database and the actual CMS are out of reach of cybercriminals, and the worst that could happen is your front-end layer being down for some time. 

Increase time efficiency for your team. Multi-channel is important, but having to do multi-channel with a traditional CMS architecture takes extreme amounts of time. 

On the other hand, headless means that your marketing team only uploads the content once, and APIs then further distribute it across the channels, freeing up their time to work on other things.

The Drawback of the Headless CMS

No built-in presentation layer or live preview functionality. Headless CMS typically doesn’t come with out-of-the-box templates, so you’ll likely have to get developers to develop your front-end(s). On a similar note, the headless CMS doesn’t have the live preview functionality, which may make your marketers wary of it. 

And that brings us to the second biggest drawback of headless CMS.

Reliance on developers. Headless CMS significantly increases your dependence on developers. The first-time integration, any updates or upgrades, and maintenance will have to be done by them. 

What About Headless Commerce?

We’ve already talked about headless commerce (follow the link). The thing is for many modern-day businesses the lines where the content and commerce side of businesses end/begin are blurred.

More and more we use stories (content) to sell a product + eCommerce does not refer just to selling physical goods anymore. In a climate such as this having a complete product story engine designed for headless architecture, composable commerce, and composable stacks is way better than running separate solutions for each approach be it content, product or marketing focused.

Headless CMS and Your Business

Today’s customers demand a great user experience on any and all channels, and going headless will help deliver that and increase your user acquisition, retention, and engagement rates. 

To find out whether headless is right for you, ask yourself these two questions: 
1) Does my business need a multi-channel approach? 
2) Do I have a dedicated web development team at my disposal? 

If the answer to both questions is yes, you won’t go wrong with headless.

Or, why not, talk with us! Schedule a 1-on-1 demo so we can talk about your business requirements and show you how Crystallize fits your use case.