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What is a headless CMS?

A Headless Content Management System (CMS) is a backend-only platform which separates the design and content of a website. This allows you to create content in one place and display it on various devices using an API.

The CMS does not have a built-in front-end layer and primarily acts as a content repository. This allows marketers to focus on creating valuable content, efficiently inputting it into the CMS just once. Meanwhile, developers have the freedom to control how the content is displayed online, optimising the presentation for each device. The term ‘headless’ refers to the fact that you are splitting the content (the body) from the web design and presentation (the head). 

Headless CMSs are becoming more popular due to the flexibility offered to developers and the improved user experience across devices. Therefore, we have created this blog to help you understand how a Headless CMS may be helpful for you as you create and evolve your web content. 

Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS

A traditional CMS is a monolith solution that enables you to store, manage and present content from a single platform. Examples include Wordpress, Webflow, Shopify and Drupal.

In the past, website content was primarily viewed through a browser on your computer. This led to a close relationship between the front and backend of websites. Therefore, managing the two together was simple. A traditional CMS became an excellent tool for managing the frontend and backend of a website in tandem. Most traditional CMSs then expanded their capabilities to include mobile optimisation, helping you alter the presentation of content for changing screen sizes. Because the content and design are tightly coupled in a traditional CMS, no API is required for pulling data between ends. 

Traditional CMSs still work well for many projects. A traditional CMS is a good option for businesses with a simple website that is not required to share content across multiple digital platforms. The website can be quickly launched, and management is easy even if you have limited experience in web development. 

Pros & Cons of Traditional CMS

Pros of Traditional CMS

  • Simple and easy to manage content
  • Manage entire site from one platform
  • Accessible with limited technical experience

Cons of Traditional CMS

  • Limited flexibility
  • Scaling can be problematic
  • More time and money required for maintenance, enhancements and expansion

In current times, we now consume website content through multiple devices with varying screen sizes and functionalities. As technology evolves, new devices and ways of displaying content are becoming commonplace in everyday life. Traditional CMSs can be very limiting in optimising the design for each individual device. This led to the headless CMS architecture being built, giving developers the ability to explore different methods of publishing content.  

A headless CMS differentiates itself as it only deals with content and has no impact on the front-end. Once content has been created and is ready for publishing, an API communicates the data to the front-end. It can be presented in a variety of formats which are optimised for different platforms.  

Benefits of using a Headless CMS

1. Manage Content for More Channels (Omnichannel)

Businesses are seeing an exponential growth in the need to market their products and services through multiple channels. Data from Google found that omnichannel strategies drive a rate of 80% more incremental store visits. An omnichannel strategy must be cohesive across platforms and aligned with your brand, working together to increase conversion rate. A headless CMS enables you to effectively provide content to multiple channels seamlessly and at scale. 

2. Delivers the right content at the right time

As a society, we have become expectant of viewing content on demand in the way most convenient for us. A traditional CMS has limitations in flexibility in how content is presented, and different devices can create challenges for viewing the content. On the contrary, a headless CMS meets these consumer demands and brings a user-focused flexibility. Loading times are quick and the performance excellent because the design is custom built for each device.   

3. Technology Agnostic

One of the great benefits of using a headless CMS is the flexibility you are given when using different technological solutions. All your content is centralised on one platform ready to be published to any number of front-end technologies required. As the CMS is agnostic you can attach the content to a variety of different platforms, giving you more options for improving accessibility and reach. Often the only requirement for a frontend is that HTTP is supported. This means that developers can present the content exactly how they want it to be shown, regardless of the device. For example, the same content could be managed from a central platform while being optimised specifically for a website, screen in an aeroplane, billboard, and smartwatch. 

Good use cases for a headless CMS

Is a headless CMS always preferable over a traditional CMS? The answer is no – there are pros and cons to headless systems. But there are definitely cases where a headless CMS is going to futureproof your web content and benefit your digital strategy. Here are some examples of good use cases for a headless CMS:

Websites & Web Apps

Headless CMSs are becoming popular with developers building Jamstack websites. Jamstack sites utilise Javascript and APIs, working with static-site-generators such as Gatsby and Next. Selecting a headless CMS works well with these platforms, creating high performing websites. Headless CMSs also benefit Javascript Frameworks used to create web apps such as React and Vue.js.

Omnichannel Digital Experience

A number of organisations rely on various technologies throughout different phases of the customer journey, creating an omnichannel digital experience. These technologies include web or mobile applications, in-store kiosks, marketing platforms and voice assistant technologies. 

For example, many banks use an omnichannel digital experience. Within the financial service industry, most banks have digital banking capabilities. Customers access web applications via their desktop browser or mobile apps. As a result, they can manage their account via the application. Furthermore, the same information is found and managed by visiting a traditional bank via screens linked to a database. Promotional offers, display banners and newsletters can also be presented in different formats, helping financial services up-sell and cross-sell products. 

Selecting a headless CMS is the ideal choice for this type of set-up because managing the content is efficient and updates are transferred across systems seamlessly.

E-Commerce Sites

E-commerce websites are complex, requiring frequent updating and an effective marketing strategy. If there is a physical store in the mix, another layer of complexity is added to the business. In e-commerce situations it is helpful to keep all your product data and content in one place, rather than having to manage and update information in multiple places. 

This is an excellent case for using a headless CMS as you have the potential to display information across a variety of devices, including a website, mobile app, and POS screens in-store. In addition, you can easily distribute product information across all of your platforms for marketing purposes. Headless CMSs also allow you to integrate with existing e-commerce platforms such as Shopify. This helps create an easier transition process if your business is already using a popular e-commerce platform. 

How do I choose the right headless CMS?

With multiple headless CMS options, it is important you choose one which is the best fit for your organisation. Because the transition and development can take time and investment, it is key that you make the correct choice at the beginning. 

You must assess what you need from different areas of the CMS, including personalisation, APIs, hosting and scalability. For example, do you need a CMS which is highly customisable? Is real-time collaboration a priority? Which headless CMSs are your developers comfortable using? Once you have a defined your goals, research the focuses and offerings of different headless CMS tools. 

Security is another critical consideration when choosing the right headless CMS. Headless CMSs are generally better protected than traditional CMSs, however there are variances between vendors. Cloud-first headless solutions have the highest protection in place and tend to be easier to maintain. Although, this may not be the best solution to fit the needs of your organisation.

Speak to us about your CMS requirements

At dotcrafted, we are experienced in working with Optimizely, Open Source Umbraco CMS, and also offer website support and maintenance. If using a headless CMS sounds like an option for your business needs, speak to us about your CMS requirements! We would love to work with you and help you consider the best platform for your business.