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Headless CMS Explained: What is it? Why does it matter?

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A headless CMS is a backend-only content management system that helps you unlock your potential by providing flexibility and customization to both your developers and your content creators. In this article, we go over what a headless CMS is, how it works, why you might want to use one, and how to pick the right one.

What is headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a backend-only content management system that’s built from the ground up as a content repository. The content is then accessible via a RESTful API or GraphQL API for display on any device. This separates your data (the “body”) from how it’s presented (the “head”), hence the term “headless”.

Thanks to this separation, you have a remarkable amount of freedom. Developers can use whatever technology they want without worrying about how it’ll impact the frontend, and content editors can reuse their content across any number of any type of devices as it’s not locked into one specific channel.

A graphic showing how APIs power headless CMS.

A headless CMS uses APIs to display backend content on any device.

Where did the idea for headless CMS come from?

Headless evolved directly from the needs of modern users to maximize the value of their content and deliver it in the most effective, efficient way possible.

Websites, mobile apps, AR/VR, smart speakers – omnichannel capabilities are a fact of life these days. Organizations need to be able to reach their users wherever they are, both in terms of location as well as device and even what type of content is presented to them. This requires a good deal of agility that most traditional CMSs in use simply couldn’t offer.

Because methods of content presentation were rapidly evolving, it became clear that the content itself needed to be as untethered to the way it was presented as possible. The more independent the content, the more easily it could work within a variety of contexts.

Thus, the concept of headless CMS came to be. With the power of APIs, there’s no need for complicated workarounds to get your content to the right users at the right time. You’re free to maximize value by using it over and over again without channel limitations.

What is an API and how do APIs work with headless technology?

A headless CMS separates the frontend from the backend, allowing developers to build a tech stack suited to their needs and then freely distribute content to a limitless number of different channels.

Headless CMSs achieve this by delivering content through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). APIs provide a standardized way for developers to access and interact with the content stored in a headless CMS. They don’t connect to a default frontend, rather, they can be accessed through HTTP requests, which can be made from any programming language, platform, or device that supports HTTP. As such, APIs are pieces of technology that allow two software applications to communicate without directly linking the two.

The end result is a far more flexible system. It doesn’t have to rely on pre-made connections. Instead, developers can create the connections that they need. This means great flexibility, scalability, and customization.

Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS: What is the difference?

As we’ve discussed, headless CMS separates the frontend of a system from the backend. Traditional CMSs, by comparison, do not do this. Instead, they’re an all-in-one system: content goes in the backend and is produced for one specific frontend only, in most cases, a traditional website.

A graphic describing how a monolithic CMS (or traditional CMS) works.

Traditional CMSs – also known as monolithic CMSs – are all-in-one systems that do not separate their frontend from their backend.

Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS
Traditional CMSHeadless CMS
Tied front and backendsSeparated front and backends
Template approachFull developer flexibility
Limited growthScalable

While this makes setting up and operation simpler in some cases, it’s also severely limiting. You can’t expand to new channels easily if at all. Moreover, all of your content, code, and assets exist within one closed system. That means it can’t easily be reused, remixed, or repurposed.

Thanks to this setup, traditional CMS is also called “monolithic CMS”. Some examples of traditional CMSs include WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.

You can also think of headless CMS vs traditional CMS as different types of Legos. A traditional CMS is like a fixed Lego kit: you receive a set amount of bricks with specific instructions on how they all fit together to create a preset end result. It’s easy to put together, but you’re inherently limited by the structures and pieces included in the set. Similarly, with a traditional CMS, the all-in-one structure means you’re limited in what you can create.

On the other hand, headless CMS is more like going to the Lego store where you can pick whatever bricks you want to build whatever you want. There isn’t a specific blueprint you have to follow – you choose what shapes you include, how they connect, and what the final result will be. With headless CMS, it’s a similar experience: you have access to the raw materials without any constraint on how they’ll be presented. It’s totally up to you.

Are headless CMS and decoupled CMS the same?

Some people use “headless CMS” and “decoupled CMS" interchangeably, but it’s important to note that they’re not the same.

Headless CMS is a system that separates content from code and will never have a frontend presentation layer attached by default. By contrast, a decoupled CMS will also separate those elements, but it does have a presentation layer linked. In most cases, this is a website.

So while the two are similar, the key difference comes down to the default presentation layer: a headless CMS won’t have one, but a decoupled CMS will. This sacrifices a bit of the flexibility and power that headless CMS is known for but isn’t quite as restrictive as a monolithic CMS.

Headless CMS examples

Headless CMS is growing in popularity, with 36% of users already embracing a headless system. This popularity has led to the rise of many headless providers, such as Storyblok, Contentful, Prismic, and Sanity.

However, it’s important to closely consider any CMS that claims to be headless, as this is not always the full truth. Some will embrace headless elements, but not truly be headless.

For example, WordPress is one of the most popular monolithic CMSs out there. As headless providers have started to take leading roles in the industry, WordPress has started to offer an API approach, called by some “decapitation”. While it aims to be similar to a headless CMS, it still misses the mark: this functionality is not what the system has been designed for, and as such, is unlikely to achieve the same benefits that headless users see.

Why use headless CMS: Headless CMS Benefits

The flexibility of a headless CMS offers plenty of advantages. Here are a few reasons to consider embracing it for yourself.

1. Omnichannel

Headless CMS is flexible enough to allow you to repurpose your content endlessly on an unlimited number of channels. With today’s rising Internet of Things (IoT) options for users, getting access to these abilities is crucial to getting your content into the hands of those most interested in it.

The reusability of the content also means it’ll be consistent regardless of where you publish it. The reach this offers also boosts scalability for a faster, easier way to reach more users with customized content.

2. Shorter development times

Thanks to the use of APIs, developers are free to use any frontend tools that will best serve their projects. That means they won’t have to learn a new language if they don’t want to or get stuck with outdated tools if there are better ones that could replace them. They can interchange at will, without ever worrying about how their changes will impact the frontend presentation layer.

As a result, development times speed up. There are fewer roadblocks and developers can focus on the task at hand – and not on trying to make ill-fitting technology work for them.

3. Composability

With a decoupled backend and frontend, developers can assemble and present their content in a modular way. Content can act as flexible, reusable building blocks that can be dynamically assembled at will.

This allows it to be repurposed as often and in as many ways as necessary. Developers can integrate new technologies and channels while maintaining consistent user experiences across the board. With this dynamic composability, users are free to quickly scale and evolve depending on what their projects demand.

4. More secure

Headless CMSs are naturally more secure options than traditional CMSs. This is because the backend is separated from the user interfaces. As a result, there is far less exposure to an attack.

Moreover, any attacks that compromise one area will not necessarily compromise the others: connection through APIs allows communication, but not direct access, so threats will be automatically quarantined to wherever they first occur. Users can make it even more secure with the use of a CDN.

5. Future-proof

Designed to be flexible, agile, and ready to adapt to new technology, headless CMSs are an essential part of MACH principles that work so they should never have to become outdated. The structure is designed to incorporate new technology, not shut it out. Its APIs mean that whenever new technology comes along that you’d like to use, you can integrate them and know it’ll operate within the system.

When to use a headless CMS

Monolithic CMSs might work for some people, like those with simple needs, small operations, or little tech skill. However, the number of use cases for when to use a headless CMS are many.

  • Websites: Whether using JavaScript frameworks like VueJS/Nuxt.js or static site generators like Gatsby, adopting a headless CMS will help you produce higher-performing, sophisticated websites.
  • eCommerce Platforms: Managing an eCommerce platform such as Shopify or BigCommerce requires the input of a lot of content. Headless can help centralize it and distribute it across multiple channels, making products available and streamlined across the web.
  • Mobile apps: Native mobile apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone are all use cases for headless CMS, benefiting from its ability to deliver custom experiences to users based on their data and behavior within the app.
  • AR/VR: AR and VR are emerging technologies, both well-supported by headless thanks to its ability to provide a content repository to deliver the experience and integrate with various AR tools such as Unreal Engine.

How to choose the right headless CMS

Once you’ve figured out if headless is right for you, the next step is finding a system that is best suited to your organization. A lot of this comes down to understanding your needs.

Try to make a list of what you’re looking for in a system. There are a lot of providers out there, and even something this simple can help you understand what traits will make your perfect headless CMS stand out.

Still, a lot of systems will offer similar features, so it’s also important to keep an eye out for where they differ. Be sure to ask questions such as:

  • How flexible is a system to my needs? Can I add multiple content types and channels, and will there be any limits to this as time goes on?
  • How easy is it to use for all team members, even the less technically inclined?
  • How will this headless CMS be safeguarding my data?
  • What are this provider’s SLAs and policies toward resource upgrades?

It’s also wise to take advantage of all the resources that providers offer you during the investigation phases. For example, many organizations produce case studies of their existing customers. These shed light on how real-life clients see their needs met and problems solved by a certain provider. Third-party reviews are equally important for the same reasons.

Finally, don’t be afraid to contact any headless CMS you’re curious about! It’s one of the most direct ways to get the information you’re looking for. It’ll also give you an idea of what kind of customer support you can expect in the future.

Demos can be incredibly helpful. They provide a hands-on experience for you to interact with the system and get a feel for how it’ll mesh with your organization’s needs. The same can be said for free trials, where you get even more time to experiment with its offerings.

Headless CMS FAQs

What are the main benefits of a headless CMS?

Headless CMS offers a host of benefits for any project type. A few examples include:

  • Freedom to use the optimal technologies
  • Easier, faster scaling across multiple platforms
  • Composability for dynamic content presentation and reuse
  • Improved page performance and SEO
  • Better security
  • Advanced customization and content personalization

Who needs a headless CMS?

Organizations that want to create top-tier content, embrace users on multiple channels, provide a seamless experience across any platform, and optimize their content creation and distribution should consider a headless CMS. It’s also a good option for those who want to future-proof their technology and prepare themselves for agile scaling. On the other hand, small, simple organizations might prefer the less sophisticated but easier-to-use systems offered by monolithic CMSs.

How secure is headless CMS?

Headless CMS is a very secure way to manage your content. In fact, it’s more safe than monolithic CMSs. This is because headless CMS relies on APIs and the programs are not directly connected. As a result, there is less surface area for DDoS attacks, and any threats that make it through can only affect the one segment they entered. Some headless CMSs, like Storyblok, offer high-quality certification to prove the commitment to safety further.

Does using a headless CMS require advanced development skills?

In most cases, yes. Headless CMS offers great flexibility, but taking advantage of it typically requires more development skills and knowledge than traditional CMS solutions. Developers will need to know how to create custom frontend applications that deliver the content from the CMS through APIs.

However, for non-technical headless CMS users, the answer depends on the CMS. Some headless systems offer intuitive design elements (such as a visual editor) so that even non-developers can easily make changes and manage content independently.

Is a headless CMS just an API?

No. An API (Application Programming Interface) is a technical set of protocols that allow two programs to share data and communicate without being directly linked. By contrast, a headless CMS is a backend-only content management system that relies on the power of APIs to connect data sources, frontends, and third-party applications.

Can I migrate from a traditional CMS to a headless CMS?

Yes. While any migration process can bring unique challenges, many users find that the improved flexibility, scalability, and performance of a headless CMS makes the transition worthwhile. For more information, please see our step-by-step CMS migration guide.

Key takeaways

Headless CMS offers power, flexibility, and possibility to a growing number of organizations worldwide. By dividing the presentation layer from the backend, you can unlock worlds of potential for both your developers and your content creators.


Roberto Butti

Roberto Butti

Roberto is a Developer Relations Engineer at Storyblok who loves supporting teams for building websites focused on the code's performance and code quality. His favorite technologies include Laravel, PHP, Vue, Svelte and ... Storyblok. He loves exploring and designing composable architectures.