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Organizations need options in how they deliver content. Headless should be one of them PHOTO: Thomas Kelley

When it comes to content management, sometimes less is more. 

While many web content management (CMS) solutions have taken the “web experience in a box” approach, building more and more functionality for content presentation and delivery, others blend both web experience capabilities and purely decoupled — or headless — deployment options. 

We hear a lot about headless these days but what exactly does it mean and why is it necessary for modern web or digital experiences? 

Understanding Headless 

Modern CMS platforms use headless to support delivery of content to external web and mobile applications. Headless simply means the CMS provides no front-end presentation tier to deliver the content. The front-end is an external application or project that combines code with CMS-managed content.

People often use the terms headless and decoupled interchangeably. But there are slight differences between the two. 

A headless delivery strategy uses an API to return requests for content. Think of it as a game of Pong. With headless, a web or mobile application serves first. A request comes to the CMS application from a web or mobile app, and the CMS returns service with a reply that includes the content requested. This volley goes back and forth until a session is ended.  

In a decoupled delivery approach the CMS serves first. It sends a package of content, typically as a file push, to a website, application or development project. The CMS renders the content in the appropriate format for the application or site: HTML for the web, perhaps JSON or XML for an application. 

How Headless Works in Real Life 

Consider an online loan application. You wouldn't build this application using a CMS because it requires custom code and connects to backend systems that process the application. 

But web applications need managed content. Think about the labels, images, marketing messages, help text, localized content and other content you may use in a loan application. You can create and maintain this content in your CMS and deliver it to the loan application through content delivery APIs. In the case of a loan application, the CMS is "headless," providing only the backend management of the content and a method to deliver the content to the loan application. 

Another example is a mobile application. You are building a custom mobile application for iOS or Android, but you have some text and digital assets that you want to be able to update frequently, such as a new daily featured article. 

A headless CMS would enable you to apply proper content management capabilities such as workflow approvals, taxonomy and publishing dates. With a headless CMS, you can connect your mobile application to the CMS content API and pull in relevant content on demand.  

Headless Moves Beyond Applications 

Headless scenarios extend beyond applications. Many modern websites are composite projects that include traditional content pages plus application pages. CMSs should be able to support both these deployment scenarios within a single site.  

Think about a bank website. Any banking website displays multiple web pages, each discussing services the bank offers in detail. You manage this content in the CMS.

The website also provides mortgage and credit card calculators, loan applications and online banking. These features are not built in the CMS but added in as custom application pages. Some of these pages may also include text that you can manage in the CMS. 

Other examples of where headless CMS offers value include kiosks and digital signage solutions. 

Organizations with defined DevOps programs can also benefit from headless deployments. DevOps teams build content and code from repositories like GitHub or Mercurial and then need to propagate this across development and production servers. Headless excels at this kind of distributed content delivery. 

Headless Cuts Out the Middleman

A headless CMS provides provides value in a number of ways. It allows organizations to:

  • Build and deploy web applications using your existing technology frameworks and development operations programs. A headless CMS doesn't dictate your development stack or approach
  • Make content changes without involving IT. Marketing can easily change campaign assets without having to change the application's source code or rebuild the application. This frees developers up from spending time making text and other content changes
  • Have content management support without the need to install the CMS application on the delivery server 
  • Use your CMS for a range of websites and applications, each built using different technology and published on various channels or devices 

Organizations Need Options: Headless Should Be One of Them 

Many content management vendors are exploring headless options. They're hearing the demands from companies across all verticals and are understanding the use cases. Headless is a critical feature of any forward-thinking CMS vendor. 

There will always be CMS vendors that support only one approach to delivering web experience. Some will continue to tightly couple content presentation with management. Others will provide a headless or decoupled-only solution. 

The most successful CMS vendors will find a way to provide multiple options: headless, decoupled, built-in dynamic delivery and more. Because the truth is, most organizations need a mix of options for the wide range of web and digital experiences they need to deliver today.