Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS: A Head-to-Head(less) Look at the Best CMS for eCommerce

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    Imagine if the only type of postal delivery your customers could receive was based on the shape of their mailbox. You might have posters packaged in tubes and large boxes of goodies waiting to send, but because only envelopes fit in their mailbox, you can only send your customers letters.

    Letters are nice, but the modern digital-first eCommerce brand must be able to deliver experiences that come in many different packages. That includes websites and mobile apps, yes, but it also means smart watches, game consoles, and smart speakers. And that’s just the devices we have today. With the advent of the Internet of Things, who knows what digital devices customers will be consuming content on tomorrow?

    Your Content Management System (or CMS) is like your post office. It’s where your content lives. There are traditional CMSs and headless CMSs, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

    Your business model and goals will determine whether a traditional or headless CMS is right for you. Matching your needs to the proper platform ensures you’ll get your content to everyone who needs it, regardless of how they find it.

    What is a traditional content management system?

    A content management system enables non-technical content creators to create, edit, and publish text, images, video, and other content without knowing how to code.

    A traditional CMS platform like WordPress uses a graphic interface of templates and plugins to make it easier for content creators to manage content on their website without a developer. They can choose font styles, create headings, place images, insert tables, and more without any knowledge of HTML, tags, or properties.

    With a traditional CMS, the post office where your content lives, the delivery person for that content, and the mailbox where your content arrives are all part of the platform and tightly dependent on each other.

    What is a headless content management system?

    A headless CMS is where the backend, or the body, is decoupled or separated from the frontend presentation layer, or the head.

    Developers invented headless CMSs to adapt to an increasingly connected world. Today, we have smart watches, gaming consoles, and smart speakers. Your refrigerator can tell you your milk is expired while you’re already at the grocery store. It's truly an omnichannel world, and headless CMSs are built to thrive in that brave new world.

    In a headless CMS, content is broken down into building blocks like headings, images, calls-to-action, body copy, and more. These are all stored in a content hub (the post office, in our analogy).

    The delivery person in a headless CMS is an Application Programming Interface (or API). This bit of code pulls content blocks from the hub and places them into the appropriate presentation layer — the mailbox where your customer is interacting with you.

    The API adjusts the shape of its content package to fit the shape of the mailbox. That mailbox could be a phone screen, a computer monitor, or just a voice.

    Storyblok editing capabilities

    So, your content stays in your content hub, but the API can transform it depending on how it will be used. The ingredients in your sports nutrition bar might show up as text on the website. Meanwhile, a customer with a gluten allergy can ask the chatbot on your mobile app about the ingredients of that sports bar. And at the same time, another customer can ask Alexa about those ingredients.

    A headless CMS means each of those channels is drawing from the same content in the same content hub instead of needing to reproduce the same information in three different platforms and then figuring out a way to keep each of those platforms synced.

    Advantages of traditional vs. headless CMS

    Just because there is new technology available doesn’t mean it’s the right tool for your needs.

    A traditional CMS may still be sufficient if you have a static website and only a couple of channels to which you publish content. This is because you can work from pre-existing templates and themes rather than custom-developing digital experiences for customers from scratch.

    hint:

    Static websites come with their own advantages and disadvantages. Learn more in our guide to static websites!

    Traditional CMSs are often called monoliths because the same platform handles every aspect of content storage, distribution, and publication. This can make it easier for non-technical content creators to use out-of-the-box with little help from developers.

    On the other hand, a headless CMS is organized around a content hub, so you can use whatever API you want and customize your frontend design as you see fit. Your content will arrive as intended. And since headless CMS is agnostic about what channel its content ends up on, you can use the same CMS for multiple channels and reuse the same content for each.

    A headless CMS makes it easier to include Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, marketing automation tools, and other software in between the process of content creation and content distribution. And since a headless CMS is an independent, self-contained hub for your content, you can change that tech stack whenever it suits your needs without worrying about breaking something.

    hint:

    CMSs and CRMs can work together, but they’re far from the same thing. Learn more in our CMS vs. CRM article.

    Better integration with modern CRMs and marketing automation tools lets you more easily tailor content to your visitor. For example, headless CMS makes it possible for your customer to add an item to their cart from their phone, then complete their purchase later from their desktop. Those personal experiences create a better relationship with customers, which leads to deeper loyalty and, ultimately, more revenue. Separating the backend content hub from the frontend presentation layer also means developers and content creators can work on their projects at the same time, allowing for a modern, agile workflow.

    Disadvantages of traditional vs. headless CMS

    A traditional CMS is designed to build content for a single channel, which makes it difficult to reuse and repurpose content for omnichannel experiences. That means you must duplicate efforts and juggle different CMSs to put the same content on multiple channels — whether that’s augmented reality, a digital kiosk, or a smart speaker.

    With a monolithic traditional CMS, the backend content database is tied to the frontend presentation, which limits design decisions. If you want to add a new feature to your website, like a wishlist or product demo, you may face extensive coding or even a complete redesign of the website and the risk of breaking the code in the process.

    There are plugins for many of the most popular customizations, but not all plugins are created equal. Some are poorly supported and unreliable. And every plugin is like building an additional doorway through which bad actors can maliciously access your website and customer data.

    Even with extensive testing to vet plugins, adding third-party tools adds to your company’s technical debt as it grows and changes. If you want significant enough changes, it may require a costly transition to a new CMS.

    Meanwhile, headless CMS has a reputation for being overly technical and difficult for content creators to use. The initial setup time and custom programming of a headless CMS can be time-consuming and expensive.

    Indeed, developers historically built headless CMS with their own needs in mind. Many headless CMSs don’t offer visual editing tools, which makes them less intuitive. However, that’s not the case for all headless CMSs.

    Headless CMS is the flexible choice for omnichannel eCommerce brands

    Omnichannel eCommerce brands should consider headless CMS. A headless CMS is for you if juggling CMS and duplicating content for multiple digital channels are slowing down your marketing team. The same idea applies if you find themes and templates lacking and the need for constant custom development is slowing down your development team.

    Finally, if real-time content personalization is core to your customer experience, it may be time to switch to a headless CMS. A Salesforce survey of 10,000 global customers revealed that 55 percent of customers are comfortable with companies using their personal information if it is used “transparently and beneficially”.

    A modern headless CMS offers the flexibility to reach your customers where they are, no matter the channel. It lets you personalize their experience and strengthens their loyalty to your brand. And it future-proofs your content for whatever innovation comes next.

    Storyblok combines a headless CMS architecture with an intuitive visual editor designed to make content creators feel right at home, building new experiences for customers without any coding skills.

    Learn more about how to make the switch to a headless CMS with our content migration primer.