The way people interact with digital content has changed, and with that, so too is the way in which those digital experiences are built. How have content management systems been adapting themselves to accommodate the changing demands of digital?

A term you may have heard in this regard is “headless CMS.” In this article, we’ll give you a quick introduction to this type of CMS, showing you its essential nature and why you should care.

A headless explanation

The key differentiator of a headless CMS compared to traditional content management platforms is that it separates the presentation of the content from the content itself. Get the headless metaphor? The presentation layer is the head and the content is the body. The idea here is that by removing the link between the underlying content and the output, the content can be made compatible with a number of different outputs.

Suddenly your content has become reusable, being presented differently on different clients. Developers can build clients using their favorite tools, connect those clients to the headless API and fetch the content, with presentation being taken care of locally. There is no longer a need to learn a CMS specific presentation framework.

Read more: Headless CMS for marketers - the must knows »

A headless example

In the past you had a traditional CMS with a close tie between content and presentation. You created a page, published it to the web, and called it a day—while people digested your content in a browser on their desktop or laptop, or even smartphone if your design was responsive.

The advent of native apps, multiple new channels like VR/AR, IoT, voice assistants, wearables, and self-service terminals—together with new front-end technology—fueled the need to separate content from how it would look and function. A presentation for the web does not translate well to a smartwatch, to put it mildly.

Headless CMS illustration

A headless extension

Headless CMS won’t be the best option for every use case. For example, if you only want to deliver content to a website and don’t expect this to change anytime soon, switching to a headless type of architecture might just unnecessarily increase complexity.

A viable alternative is a so-called hybrid architecture, which means that the CMS comes with an optional presentation engine—the head—enabling you to build complex websites using modern stacks, host your front-end and enable customization of the backend, while at the same time deliver content to mobile apps, modern web apps, and other solutions.

Hybrid CMS offers the best of both worlds. But be sure to scrutinize each vendor’s offerings carefully, as the differences between hybrid content management systems can be substantial.

Read more: Headless CMS: Expectations vs. reality »

A headless future?

The digital world is changing rapidly. Rich web interfaces like Angular and React are now driving the headless enterprise, whereas native apps used to be the driver a few years back.

Just remember, cloud-native headless CMS architecture may be less expensive and suitable for some solutions, but others may need the increased flexibility offered by a content platform that supports both pure headless implementations and hybrid approaches.

There’s no doubt that the headless approach is growing in popularity, and the number of solutions on offer has exploded. The great news is that this competition promises to accelerate their development, meaning the future is headless—with a touch of hybrid.

Headless CMS: everything you need to know

First published 11 July 2018, updated 23 December 2020 and 16 March 2022.

Frequently asked questions

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS separates the content layer from the presentation layer, allowing editors to create content to be sent to multiple channels via APIs.

How does a headless CMS work?

An editor adds content in forms to a database, which then uses APIs to deliver the content to a limitless range of digital channels.

What are the use cases of a headless CMS?

Omnichannel presence in websites, apps, wearables, etc. require content to be free of locked presentation/design.

What is the difference between headless and traditional CMS?

A traditional CMS keeps a close link between content and presentation, while headless cuts this tie.

Vegard Ottervig

Vegard Ottervig

Vegard Hovland Ottervig holds a Master's degree in film studies and has worked with journalism and marketing since 2010. He loves cycling, philosophy, gaming, and writing.

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