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Headless CMS Explained

  • While a traditional CMS is one monolithic system, a headless CMS separates the "body" of a content management system (the backend) from the "head" (the frontend).
  • That means you can use whatever technology you want to build your system while also distributing your content to an endless number of channels.
  • This article goes over what headless CMS is, covers the benefits it offers, and shows you a few real-world examples.

Section titled 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.

Section titled Headless CMS vs Traditional CMS: What is the difference?

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.

Here's an at-a-glance look at how headless CMS and traditional CMS differ:

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.

Section titled 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.

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.

Section titled Headless CMS examples

Headless CMS is growing in popularity, with a quarter of users in 2024 already embracing a headless system. This popularity has led to the rise of many headless providers, such as Storyblok, Prismic, and Strapi. 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.

Section titled Headless CMS benefits

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

Section titled 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.

Section titled 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.

Section titled 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.

Section titled 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.

Section titled 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.

Section titled 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.

Section titled Learn more about headless CMS

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.

Want to learn more about headless CMS? Here are some resources to get you started:


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.