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What is a Headless CMS?

June 22, 2021
Kaeli O'Connell

GraphQL + Headless CMS = dynamic customer journeys

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A headless CMS is a content management system where the backend content repository (known as the body) is decoupled from the frontend presentation layer (known as the head). The body is able to function independently without the head attached––thus, “headless.

The need for headless architecture arose from an evolution in digital experiences. In the past, organizations only needed to deliver content through a web browser. Now, consumers intake content through a wide variety of channels including mobile devices, AI-powered voice assistants, and wearable tech. Headless CMS are designed to address this shift by giving companies the tools to engage with their audience across multiple channels.

In this post, we’ll detail what a headless CMS is, how it works, and how it can benefit your organization.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Headless CMS vs traditional CMS

To better understand what a headless CMS is and how it works, let’s start by comparing it to a traditional CMS.

With a traditional CMS, the frontend and backend of the system are tightly coupled together. Everything from creating and managing, to storing your content happens within the backend of the CMS. The system (frontend) responsible for presenting content to users is confined within the same space. Because everything exists in one place, these platforms are often referred to as monolithic.

The most popular examples of a traditional CMS are WordPress and Drupal. When you use one of these platforms, your team works on content in the same system that your web visitors are currently accessing. Because the frontends and backends are so tightly coupled, any changes to one can impair the other’s functionality.

With a traditional CMS, developers are bound to the frameworks and technologies given by their software vendors. These templated structures are designed to only render a single frontend experience, primarily a browser-based website. Because of this, it is difficult for organizations to create experiences that are well-suited to different touchpoints such as mobile apps or IoT devices.

What a traditional CMS lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in ease of use. The software typically has a graphical user interface (GUI) that enables users to create content using predefined templates and themes. Content is stored in the database within the CMS, and is displayed to visitors based on the defined template. To allow you to visualize content, the CMS pulls raw data from the database and pushes it to your selected theme. The content is then converted into HTML, and styled using CSS before displaying it to the user.

How a headless CMS differs from a traditional CMS

A headless CMS does not have a defined frontend system. The backend is still responsible for both content management and storage, and is comprised of the following components:

  • A database

  • A system for creating content

  • An application programming interface (API)

Given the importance of APIs, a headless CMS is often referred to as an API-first CMS. APIs connect the headless CMS to devices and channels, allowing you to publish the content held within the CMS. Content is pushed to devices in a raw structured format like JSON. It is not adjusted for consumer viewing until being rendered on the end-users device. This makes the headless CMS frontend agnostic, meaning you can deliver raw content to any device or channel to create any frontend design.

Being headless, the CMS can run without a GUI. Many of the original headless CMS solutions did not offer a page editing interface, making it more challenging for users to design content. Today, modern headless CMS like jContent provide a WYSIWYG editor, allowing you to create and edit content faster.

What are the differences between a decoupled CMS and a headless CMS?

While the terms headless CMS and decoupled CMS are often used synonymously, they are not the same. From an architectural perspective, headless is a subset of decoupled. They both have a backend system for managing and storing content and can deliver that content to various touchpoints through APIs or a web service.

Where they differ is the presentation layer. A decoupled CMS has a defined system for frontend presentation while a headless CMS does not. Because of this, headless CMS offer the greatest level of flexibility and control over all types of content management systems.

Benefits of a headless CMS

Decoupling the frontend from the CMS comes with many advantages. Here are some of the key benefits to using a headless CMS:

The ability to create unlimited frontend experiences

Being free from a designated frontend, a headless CMS allows you to publish optimized content across different platforms. Your team can create experiences unique to each channel and seamlessly push the content using APIs. This gives you more control over how your content appears as you are not stuck using a single template.

Developer flexibility

Because a headless CMS serves content via APIs, developers are not bound to a particular frontend technology or programming language. Whether you want to build with AngularJS, React or Ruby, you can choose the technology that best suits your needs. If you ever want to move from one framework to another, you can do so without impacting the functionality of the CMS.

Easier to manage omnichannel content

Without a headless CMS, organizations need to stand up different systems to create content tailored to each channel. Along with creating burdensome silos, this makes the process of managing content across channels much more difficult.

For example, if you were an ecommerce company that wanted to update your customer-facing messaging to reflect a new promotion, you’d need to go into each system to make the changes.

With a headless CMS, you have a centralized hub for your content. This allows content creators to edit the copy in a single place. The headless CMS then delivers the raw content to each frontend where the proper designs are applied. As a result, your workflows are improved and you can publish changes with greater ease.

Security

A headless CMS provides better security than a coupled content management system. By separating the content from the presentation, there is a smaller area of attack, reducing the system’s vulnerability.

Future-proof your business

Using a headless CMS allows you to future-proof your tech stack. Because you have the flexibility to change technologies, you can quickly adopt any new frameworks that emerge. You are also prepared for any new digital channels as you can quickly spin up optimized experiences for those touchpoints.

Who should use a headless CMS?

If you only need to create a simple website, you can get by with a traditional CMS. However, if you want to create quality omnichannel experiences at scale, a headless CMS can prove an invaluable tool. A headless CMS gives you complete control over content delivery, allowing you to meet your customers where they are while providing world-class experiences.

Here are some other cases in which you should consider using a headless CMS:

  • You want the freedom to use your preferred frameworks and languages

  • You update content frequently and need a more streamlined way to make changes

  • You want a centralized place to manage your content

  • You want to create higher quality content than what pre-defined templates allow

Going headless with the jContent CMS

The only real drawback to using a headless content management system is the potential lack of accessibility. Without a content editing interface, it can be difficult for marketers to get an accurate preview of content before making it live. In the past, this restricted the viability of headless CMS to companies with large teams of developers.

Fortunately, you no longer need to worry about such limitations. Jahia solves this problem by offering user-friendly content authoring tools built into the jContent CMS. You have the flexibility to create structured or unstructured content and can save multiple versions of pages to quickly publish new experiences according to your use cases.

Request a demo today to see how our cloud-ready CMS can help you execute faster.

Kaeli O'Connell
Author : Kaeli O'Connell

Digital expert by day, jigsaw puzzle aficionado by night.

GraphQL + Headless CMS = dynamic customer journeys

Learn how here
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