The phrase “Content Is King” has never been as true as it is today. Our lives revolve around content: TV, movies, social media, podcasts, blogs––we all consume a never-ending stream of content online; you’re even doing it right now!
But what does this mean for marketers? Well content is everything, of course. Content marketing has become one of the dominant marketing strategies today, with a staggering growth forecast of USD 417.85 billion from 2021 to 2025. The reasons for this are obvious: marketing is all about grabbing people’s attention, and nothing does that quite like high-quality digital content.
But creating quality content comes with its own challenges. A team of creative content marketers creating multiple blogs, podcasts, videos or webinars every week can quickly become unmanageable, making it difficult to track KPIs and monitor impact.
So, to achieve a strong content marketing strategy, you’ll need a content management system (CMS). A CMS allows you to organize, post and edit website and digital content—without any technical expertise—while giving admins control over when posts go live and visibility into how they perform.
Now that all sounds fairly straightforward––but if you’re looking to implement a CMS, you’ve probably come across the term “headless CMS,” which may have left you scratching yours. So, in this article, we’ll talk about a headless CMS, decoupled CMS, and which is the right solution for your organization.
What Is A Headless Content Management System?
A headless Content Management System is a CMS in which the content is decoupled from any particular front-end platform. Editors can manage content in a back-end which can then be published to any application or device via the use of APIs.
For a long time, using a standard CMS for the vast majority of use cases had just been common sense. Almost every website you come across, especially blogs, will have been built using a CMS, such as WordPress or Squarespace. You can easily post content, images, edit the website CSS, and add custom HTML, all in a nicely packaged, easy-to-use platform—andnormally for a pretty reasonable cost for the potential returns if your content performs.
But as the internet has evolved, content has too. When building out content today, we have to think a bit more flexibly. CMS systems like WordPress are great for putting together content for a website, but what if you want to make that same content seamlessly available on a mobile app, or on a smartwatch?
This is why headless Content Management Systems have emerged.
In the “headless” analogy, the website is the head—which has been chopped off. With the head gone, the content is free to be used wherever it needs to be. When using a traditional CMS, you would have to fine tune each bit of content to each of these devices. But using a headless CMS, content can be used in any application across any device, through the use of APIs.
In a nutshell, a headless CMS simply means that editors can post one article, which can then seamlessly be published across multiple websites, applications and platforms where needed.
How Do Headless CMSs Work?
Headless CMS platforms work in a slightly different way to traditional CMS solutions. There are some similarities: they are almost always cloud-based, and have an admin interface where users can post, view and edit articles, just like a traditional CMS.
But where they differ is that headless CMS platforms work via integrations with other systems, powered by APIs. When you use a platform like WordPress, you’re creating content in a WordPress database, which is then posted to your WordPress website; you have a lot of control over the way the content looks, and the process is seamless.
With a headless CMS, you still get the interface to manage content, but instead of going directly to the content delivery platform database, there is a layer of integrations that content must pass through. This means there is slightly less control over how content looks, but it does mean that content can be delivered anywhere and everywhere it can reach users.
Using a headless CMS, the back-end content is separated from front end design, so developers will still need to work on the way content is displayed for each application; even when the content itself can all be managed from one central location. This also means that you cannot build a traditional website using a headless CMS on its own.
What About A Decoupled CMS?
If you’re researching CMSs, you’ve also probably come across the term “decoupled CMS”, and you may be wondering where they fit into this. Both headless and decoupled CMSs split the content away from the “head”, I.Ei.e., the website, or content delivery platform.
Where the two differ, is that a headless CMS has no front-end system at all, while “decoupled” CMSs do have a head built in—it’s just optional for you to use. Because headless CMSs have become so popular, many traditional CMS systems have moved to become decoupled, allowing content to be extended to other platforms via the use of API.
WordPress is now a strong example of a decoupled CMS. Content can be shared to the WordPress platform in the traditional way, but content can also be lifted using APIs and placed into any other platform or application, on any device.
So, a “true” headless CMS is built with API-integrations first, and no front end. A decoupled CMS is built with a front-end system first, with APIs added on later to allow content to be projected into other applications. We’ll come to the pros and cons of these different approaches shortly.
Should You Use Headless CMS?
Whether your organization needs a headless CMS over a traditional or decoupled CMS will come down to your specific use cases. It’s really a question only you can answer––but to help you make the decision, let’s consider some typical use cases:
Flexible Content Delivery
The clear benefit of using a headless CMS is that it’s not for just websites. Content can be delivered for a diverse range of platforms, like mobile apps, web apps, printed materials, podcasts, smartphones, even voice assistants like Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa. If you need to cater for these platforms, a headless CMS could be the right choice.
Use of JAMstack:
If you’ve developed a website and separate mobile application, you’ll likely want the content output and user experience to be consistent between the two. When using a headless CMS, you can easily maintain the same content library, without the hassle of manually adding the same content in multiple places.
Improving Content Existing Websites
If you’ve built custom web applications that support APIs, headless CMS platforms can be a great way to improve the user experience and add new content in a consistent, easily manageable way. A strong example is in the healthcare industry: many healthcare providers have created custom web apps for patients to log into. With a headless CMS, admins can add and edit content in these custom-built platforms, without having to replace them with a traditional CMS.
If these use cases resonate, maybe you should consider a headless Content Management System. But there are cautions to be aware of.
What Are The Pros And Cons Of Headless Content Management Systems?
So, now we know the use cases of headless CMS, let’s talk about some of the pros, and cons to help you decide if it’s the right fit for your content marketing strategy.
Benefits Of Headless Content Management
- Easier Content Management Experience: With a headless CMS, the content management experience is far more streamlined for marketing teams that need to create content multiple platforms. There’s a single place to edit all content, and APIs take care of the rest, instantly.
- More Opportunity For Content: A headless CMS allows you to create content for every channel that supports API integrations—web apps, mobile apps, smartwatches, voice assistants, smart fridges––you name it.
- Flexible Functionality: One of the drawbacks of a traditional or headless CMS is that developers are limited to the framework of the CMS platform. With that framework gone, there is far more functionality that can be added, while content can still be easily managed.
- Enhanced Security: Security is an important benefit that cannot be overlooked. A headless CMS reduces your risk of attack: if your back end is breached your front- end will continue to function, while if your front end is breached, the back end content remains secure.
- Look to the future: A headless CMS is the ultimate scalable tool; you can quickly add your content to new technologies and innovations without having to rip up your old systems and platforms.
Cons Of Headless Content Management System
- Design Is A Problem: One of the main benefits of a traditional CMS is that you can easily and efficiently control exactly how your content is displayed on your website using pre-built themes and templates. With a headless CMS, that is no longer possible, and presentation has to be left to more complex, time-consuming design and development processes. You can’t even preview how your content will look before it goes live.
- Reliance On Technical Expertise: With a CMS, you are in control of everything. With a headless CMS, you will need technical developers and probably designers to ensure everything works smoothly. Great if you have a large team or work with a good agency––a challenge for small businesses.
- Slower Updates: While you can upload content across platforms faster with a headless CMS, integrations will take far longer than with a decoupled platform, which will take care of iterations and deployments for you with plug-ins. With a headless CMS, you need to do all the work yourself.
- Extra Cost And Complexity: The main drawback of a headless CMS is they add extra cost in time, development and design, and complexity over something as straightforward as WordPress.
Because a headless CMS adds more time, complexity, and cost to development, we recommend them mostly for use in specialized businesses that need the extra platforms for content distribution, such as media, news or marketing businesses, or organizations that need to develop specialized web applications, like customer banking portals, e-commerce sites or healthcare services.
For most websites with standard webpages, or blogs, a standard CMS system will work perfectly for your needs, with a much easier content uploading process and far more seamless control over content, while being limited in scope.
Decoupled CMS platforms are a good compromise for most businesses who need more granular content functionality, but don’t want to give up the ease of use, cost-savings and efficiency of using a traditional CMS platform.
To learn more about how to choose the right CMS platform for your organization, check out our guide to the Top Content Management Systems.