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What is a Headless CMS?

What is a Headless CMS?

The need for organisations to be closer to their audiences, for consistent messaging, and to deliver those messages efficiently to the people who matter is persistent. Traditional content management systems coupled with a front-end undermine this consistency and efficiency since the same model often has to be changed and adapted to suit a different channel or medium. Cue the headless CMS.

Half of what you’re used to

If we take the typical CMS and break it down into a few constituent parts, then we have the following: user-generated information, the backend where that information is managed, and the front end where that information is displayed. When we remove the front end from the CMS, we’re talking about a headless CMS. 

That doesn’t mean that the content isn’t displayed anywhere. Instead, organisations can now build custom front-ends for websites, mobile apps, digital displays, etc. while using application programming interfaces (APIs) such as RESTful API or GraphQL API to access and display the required information.

It’s worth noting that “decoupled CMS” is a term often used interchangeably with headless CMS, though they might not be the same thing (depending on who you talk to). Where a headless CMS is purely a backend, a decoupled CMS often includes a built-in front-end that can be used to display content or be replaced by a custom front-end.

Benefits of Using a Headless CMS

Where a traditional CMS can also be referred to as a monolithic CMS, a headless CMS is modular. This provides several important advantages:

Highly customisable

The modular nature of a headless CMS provides organisations with complete control over the presentation layer. This means developers can choose the frontend framework or technology that best matches the project’s requirements.

Enhanced Performance

Without the overhead of rendering a front end, a headless CMS can deliver content faster. This is especially beneficial for high-traffic websites or applications that demand quick load times.

Centralised content hub

With a headless CMS content for all platforms can be managed from a central location, and delivered where necessary with the appropriate API transactions. This ensures a consistent content experience whether on a website, mobile apps, smart devices, etc.

Simplified maintenance

Updating the CMS or making changes to the content structure doesn’t necessarily impact the front-end presentation. This separation allows for smoother maintenance and updates.

Easy scalability

Since the front end and back end of a headless CMS are separate, either can be scaled without affecting the other. This facilitates more granular control not only over the CMS and the presentation layer, but also over resources.

Future proof

There’s no front end, which means it’s easier for organisations to adapt to new technologies as they emerge without having to undergo expensive large-scale data migrations to new technologies.

Better security

Given the absence of a front end, a headless CMS provides a smaller attack surface than a conventional CMS.

Uninterrupted workflows

Developers and content curators / creators can work in parallel without disrupting the other’s workflow.

Use cases

The examples below show various environments where a headless CMS can be implemented – with the one-to-many ratio (headless CMS: front-end display) often the driver for implementation.

eCommerce: With headless eCommerce, the CMS can integrate with various eCommerce platforms on different channels. Since content is retrieved from the same source for all platforms, consistent messaging and branding are present regardless of the channel.

Global localisation: Organisations that need to serve content to different regions in different languages can serve their content from a single repository.

Marketing: A headless CMS can help marketers curate content intended for different channels. Subsequent integration with these channels (e.g. social media, email newsletters, and landing pages) maintains consistent tone and messaging across different channels.

Mobile applications: Content can be separated from the app with a headless CMS. Content can then be updated without touching the app’s codebase.

Internet of Things (IoT) applications: A headless CMS can simplify the management of information and updates pushed to IoT devices (e.g. information kiosks, and smart home devices).

Rapid Prototyping and Agile Development: Teams working with agile methodologies can benefit from a headless CMS as it allows for rapid prototyping and quicker iterations over the front end without impacting the backend content structure.

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Headless CMS Examples

The modular nature of a headless CMS lends itself to a variety of use cases where it’s more beneficial for information management and delivery (display) to be separate, as opposed to having a monolithic architecture created specifically for every channel / platform.

Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises uses a headless CMS to distribute personalised content, customer experiences, and cruise-related information across different channels and devices, Passenger-facing screens and the Princess Cruises mobile app can be used by customers to access deck plans, browse activities, and keep a personalised log of their time onboard.

The Economist

The Economist uses a headless CMS to great advantage of its content distribution efforts. It pushes content to the platforms existing and potential readers use, including websites and mobile apps, SnapChat, Alexa Skill, and virtual reality platform Oculus.

Burger King

As part of a rebranding campaign some years ago, Burger King added digital menu boards to its U.S. restaurant locations. Since the menu boards rely on headless technology to receive updates, all menu boards at the more than 6,500 locations can be updated remotely.

Source: Core DNA

Is a Headless CMS For You?

While the premise of a headless CMS – a central content repository for all your platforms and channels – is appealing, it’s not a feasible solution for everyone. A few key requirements should be considered before choosing a headless CMS:

Complex templates

With traidtional CMSs, you’ll often find the presentation layer included, typically in the form of a theme. With a headless CMS building the front-end is your responsibility, which necessitates design, development and other technical resources.

Technical setup

The setup of a headless CMS can potentially be very complex, with both the CMS and the presentation layer(s) having to satisfy various requirements and dependencies. These systems will have to work in harmony with each other, making the initial setup a complex endeavour.

Higher costs

Given the extra design and technical requirements inherently a part of a headless CMS, it stands to reason that you’ll have to spend more – not just on the initial development and implementation of your presentation layer(s), but also on subsequent maintenance.

High overheads on small projects

The absence of a built-in presentation layer as well as the technical and design requirements associated with a headless CMS makes it an unsuitable solution for small-scale websites or organisations with simple content needs.

Limited content preview

Unless catered for, content creators may not have the option to preview the layout of their content prior to publishing since there is no built-in presentaiton layer.

Vendor lock-in

Some headless CMS platforms are proprietary, which can lead to vendor lock-in and potentially limit your control over your content and infrastructure.

What to do next

Running a headless CMS can greatly simplify complex content distribution. If a headless CMS sounds like a perfect fit, you’ll need hosting capable of supporting not only the CMS itself, but your sites and applications, too. With Storm’s managed hosting, you not only get hosting for all your online assets, you also get the expertise that takes care of the technical overhead associated with a headless CMS. Get in touch today to find out how Storm Internet can help.

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