Headless CMS: A Guide to Innovative Content Solutions

Blog  |  Software Development

Headless is a buzzword you might have heard around the innovator and technology water coolers. But what does it mean, especially in the context of content management software or systems? It might sound like something out of a modern-day Ichabod Crane retelling. But the concept of a headless CMS is easier to wrap your head around than you might think. (Pun intended).

What Is a Headless CMS?

Headless, when used in technology circles, refers to a decoupled tool, app, or software. Content management systems, for example, can be broken into two smaller parts:

  • The part that holds data.
    This is the part of the system that holds all the content. That includes texts and posts, images, metadata, videos and anything else you load or enter into it.
  • The part that presents data.
    This is the part of the system that presents those other elements to the end user. It takes all the bits of code and information and puts it together in a visually-pleasing way that a person can engage with.

What is a decoupled CMS, then? A headless CMS is only the part that holds the data.

Why Is It Called Headless?

The metaphor goes like this: The part of the system that holds the data is the body. The part of the system that presents the data is the head.

Think of it like your own body. Your organs and nerve system send signals constantly up to the brain. But it’s your head that does most of the work of presenting information to the outside world. You speak, for example, and demonstrate emotions with facial expressions. Your head also does a lot of the work of taking in information from the outside world (via your eyes and ears). 

The “head” part of a content management system does the same thing. It communicates and takes in communication (in the form of comments, interactions with forms and pages, social media shares and other user activity).

Okay, But What’s the Purpose of a Headless Content Management System?

To understand the why of headless CMS, you must understand the difference between headless and traditional CMS.

Another name for traditional CMS is monolithic CMS. If you think that sounds like a large, clunky item, you’re somewhat correct. Traditional CMS have less flexibility than headless options because they present a single package. You can store and present your information in all the ways that the software or app allows — but that’s it.

We’ve come a long way from the basic WYSIWYG editors on sites such as Life Journal or Blogger. But while traditional CMS options let users do a lot more, they’re still limited in that they present information in one basic shell.

Blogger, for example, presents information in the blog shell. That shell has a lot of customization options, but it is what it is. 

A headless CMS takes your content out of a single shell and lets you integrate it with multiple shells at one time. That means you can use a single repository for data and content but publish efficiently to multiple channels.

Simple Illustration of Traditional CMS Versus Headless CMS in Action

In a traditional CMS, the flow of content is basically:

  • Users author or create content.
    For example, if you open WordPress and start typing a post, you’re authoring content.
  • The content is converted to data.
    WordPress and many monolithic CMS let you look at some of this data in the HTML or coded view.
  • The data passes through a process to render it.
    You press publish and the CMS uses all that data to create something people can view or read. One example would be a webpage.

Content management systems don’t have to support traditional websites, though. The same thing happens when you write LinkedIn or Facebook posts. You’re simply authoring content on Facebook’s “CMS.” 

Now, consider how the same process works in a headless CMS:

  • Users author or create content.
    No real changes to this part. Typically, headless CMS solutions provide support for authoring and editing content.
  • The content is converted to data.
    The major difference here is that the data layer is adaptable. It’s not designed for a single shell; it’s constructed so that an API can take it apart and ship it off like building blocks. 
  • APIs integrate with publication solutions.
    Effectively, they bridge the gap, taking the content data from the headless CMS and inputting it into a decoupled interface for presentation.
  • The data passes through a rendering process.
    People can then view and interact with it on the various platforms.

Are Headless CMS Solutions the Future of Content?

Most experts agree that headless is part of the future of content—probably a big part. Software market values and forecasts support those hypotheses. 

In 2019, the total headless CMS market in the United States was worth just over $328 million. By 2027, it’s expected to be worth more than $1,628 million. That’s almost a five-fold increase and represents an impressive compound annual growth rate of 22.6%. Especially when compared with a 9.4% CAGR for the overall CMS market for the same period.


What Are the Benefits of a Headless CMS?

Why are people opting for headless CMS? Probably the biggest benefit of going headless with CMS is that you can efficiently publish to multiple channels simultaneously. 

That reduces administrative time for staff while also ensuring the message is consistent across all channels. Human error in copy, pasting, or republishing content across various channels is effectively abolished with headless.

Some other benefits of headless CMS include:

  • It’s platform-agnostic.
    You don’t have to choose a platform. Headless CMS solutions can deliver content into website frameworks, mobile apps and other interfaces. That supports multichannel messaging and helps ensure your message can’t be held up by one platform or publisher. It also supports flexibility for website architecture and design. 
  • Offers developer flexibility.
    Ryan White, iwerk’s Lead Software Engineer states, “Because headless content solutions utilize APIs or web services to provide the data; they are not tied to one platform. Developers aren’t limited in how they work with them and can choose the front end platform that makes sense.” Your team or vendor might use PHP, for example, but they could just as easily work in JavaScript or Ruby. Flexibility can make it easier to find technical partners that are right for your business or content projects.
  • Reduces downtime for end-users.
    Updating the back-end solution (that’s the headless CMS) doesn’t have to impact front-end solutions where people are interacting with your content. They’re separate entities.
  • Supports scaling.
    Your content creation teams don’t have to specialize in editing or platform-specific content tools. That makes it easier to speed up processes and add people as needed. The same is true for developers. You can swap out tech resources as needed to support the scale without derailing progress or current workflow.
  • Future-proofs content processes.
    A traditional CMS ties you to one solution. If that company goes out of business or the solution becomes obsolete, you might need to overhaul your entire content workflow. But with headless, you can move to different frameworks or swap parts of your stack without severely impacting the overall workflow.
  • Drives cost efficiencies.
    Headless CMS reduces the burden on tech teams. Content and marketing teams can begin creating messaging on new campaigns or efforts as soon as they’re ready. That’s true even if tech teams or vendors haven’t tweaked or built APIs to deliver content to the front-end systems. Greater process efficiencies often result in cost savings. 
  • Increases security.
    Since the data-housing part of the CMS is decoupled from any front-end systems, it can be harder to attack. At the very least, it’s a smaller target.

Potential Real-Word Uses for Headless CMS

Enterprise organizations, small businesses, content marketing teams, publishers and many others are already putting headless content management software to use. Here are just a few ways you might use headless CMS:

  • Produce accessible content.
    Headless CMS isn’t just for websites. In fact, traditional webpage architecture is often not the first reason many people turn to these tools. Certainly, you can create the connection that lets you publish to sites. But you can also create content in headless and pass it into applications that support voice assistants, digital braille devices and screen readers. That lets you increase accessibility and reach more people.
  • Real-time updates to various channels.
    Headless CMS makes it possible to create content and updates from anywhere — especially when it’s paired with cloud data storage. But you can also send that content anywhere, including apps on mobile devices, digital kiosks or even printers. For example, you could run a flash sale and update content on your website, mobile e-commerce app, in-store digital signage and POS screens. And do it all with the press of a button or click of a screen.
  • Support E-commerce.
    Extremely robust headless CMS solutions might double as the back-end for e-commerce sites. But you don’t have to go that far for headless to be useful in e-retail. You could integrate your CMS with an e-commerce site blog, social pages and mobile app for more effortless digital marketing.

Should You Switch to Headless?

It depends on your content needs and technical resources. Small sites with only a few pages don’t really call for this type of solution. And if you only ever publish on one platform and don’t plan on making a change, you wouldn’t get the benefits of headless. 

Businesses and teams that have large content projects, require multichannel marketing or want to scale up and future proof should consider a headless CMS. You do need software development resources to support headless solutions, but you don’t need them in-house. 

For example, iwerk can help structure your content from the ground up. We can also migrate your existing content onto a headless solution from both the presentation and data layers. 

Get in touch today to find out how we can help you implement and manage a headless CMS. Our software development teams provide expert advice and support to help maximize the benefits you receive from any custom software solution.