Headless man thinking
What you need to know about headless CMS PHOTO: Shutterstock

There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) surrounding headless content management systems. The definitions circulating online are often correct, but sometimes misleading. There’s either not enough information, or it’s too technical for decision makers to grasp.

To bring some clarity, CMSWire has asked the experts to find out what headless content management is, what is isn’t and whether or not your organization needs to adopt it.

What is a Headless CMS?

“[A headless CMS] decouples the content and the presentation,” says Petr Palas, CEO of Bedford, NH.-based Kentico Cloud. “Your presentation layer is completely separate from the CMS, so it may be anything from a website to a virtual reality application,” Palas continued. Palas’ definition went on to explain where the term “Content-as-a-Service” — a term that is becoming synonymous with headless content management — comes from. The content can be stored in a centralized cloud-based repository and provided as a service to any application on any platform through an API.

What we can glean from this definition is that a headless CMS focuses is on the management of content — not on the delivery of it. Headless CMS provides content creators with the tools and workflows they need to get their content written and organized up to a point where the content is ready to be delivered to any channel — but that’s where it stops.

 "A headless CMS lets you build websites and apps that are decoupled from content management tools and integrated via API. So, editors can write content through a user interface while developer's engineer how it gets displayed on the company website, smartwatch app or even the down-town Kiosk screen using whichever front-end tools (Rails, Node.js, Angular) they like,” says Jake Lumetta, CEO of Chicago, IL.-based ButterCMS.

How a Headless CMS Works

The functionality of a headless CMS can be scaled down to just three (admittedly undetailed) steps.

  1. Editors and marketers input content into the headless CMS. The content exists there — often in small content blocks — without worrying itself with how it will be presented to end users.
  2. Thanks to the headless CMS facilitating API calls, those content blocks can be selectively delivered to any channel or device.
  3. Front-end developers can then design and present that content for whichever channel they like, using whichever front-end frameworks they prefer.

And that, at a very basic level, is how a headless CMS works.

Wait, What’s a Decoupled CMS?

Petr Palas mentioned the word “decoupled” in his definition of headless content management, and this is where some people get confused. While a headless CMS does indeed decouple the content and presentation layer, not every headless CMS qualifies as a decoupled CMS. But don’t panic, it’s not that difficult to tell the difference, as Melbourne-based Coredna CEO Sam Saltis explains. “With a decoupled CMS, your content is managed separately and is front-end agnostic, just like a headless CMS. But, unlike a headless CMS, a decoupled CMS still has front-end delivery templates and all the other tools in place to help editors push that content out without looking for third-party tools or relying entirely on front-end developers.”

Saltis delved deeper by saying that, “although a decoupled CMS is headless, the “head” is still an optional part of the package, so you can deliver content through APIs just like with a headless CMS, or make use of those front-end delivery tools in a way that editors would liken to a traditional CMS.” To sum up, with a purely headless approach, there’s no “head” in sight. No front-end templating and no HTML output. The only way out for the content is through an API. With a decoupled approach on the other hand, that same headless functionality still exists, but some front-end goodies are included to help editors and marketers publish content themselves to websites and apps.

Should You Jump On The Headless CMS Bandwagon?

The only question left to ask is — whether it’s through a purely headless or a decoupled CMS —  does your brand need headless functionality?

The reality is, headless content management is growing in popularity for good reason: because it future-proofs a brand’s content against all emerging technologies. Instead of trying to pivot into new channels and platforms like smartwatches and VR headsets with a traditional CMS — all of which were originally built for website publishing — a headless or decoupled platform isn’t limited to any screen size or device type. So long as an API call can be made, the content can go anywhere.

And yet, some brands have resisted the urge to lose their heads.

Boris Kraft, CTO and Co-founder of Magnolia CMS is one voice in the industry that isn’t convinced by the headless model. According to his article penned exclusively for CMSWire, “headless CMSs deliver the freedom and flexibility of 'I can do everything I want' at the price of 'I have to write, debug and maintain everything I need myself.'” In many cases, you will end up writing and maintaining the better part of a full-blown CMS, adding multiple layers of complexity to gain the advanced features that you’ve lost by rejecting a full CMS,” he wrote.

“A [traditional] CMS typically provides things like asset management, navigation, security, workflow, access control, caching, categorization and link management to name a few. These and many more are not immediately available with a headless CMS approach,” he continued. Kraft went on to malign the hype around headless CMSs by pointing out flaws in regards to security and personalization, insisting that modern enterprise platforms are just as capable of producing content for multiple and emerging channels.

The Bottom Line: Know Your Goals, Then Decide Accordingly

Ultimately, the aim of decoupling content from the presentation layer — whether that’s through a headless or decoupled CMS — is to future-proof a brand’s online presence. Having your content decoupled and ready to be beckoned by an API call to any device or channel is indeed liberating, not to mention a little exciting. But if like Boris Kraft you feel your current “traditional” CMS can get that job done, and the headless model raises more questions than it answers, there’s no reason to switch sides just yet.

And yet, many brands are switching sides — so get informed, outline your short-term and long-term content goals, and choose which content management model will best serve your brand. Whilst it’s true that there’s never a one-size-fits all solution, sometimes, just sometimes, bandwagons are worth riding in.