DEV Community

Cover image for What is a Headless CMS
Agility CMS

What is a Headless CMS

joelvarty profile image Joel Varty ・14 min read

Every forward-thinking brand, both large and small, is seeking out a headless CMS. Or a decoupled CMS. Or a hybrid CMS. Or, simply a CMS with APIs. But they’re all the same, right? 


As we venture into the 2020s, brands need to ensure that their next CMS choice is the right one. Consumers are bouncing from device to device, channel to channel, brand to brand. 92% of marketers report that their company views content as a business asset – and let’s face it, when you’ve got good content that drives traffic, it is definitely something your business cannot afford to lose. 

By the time you’re finished reading this guide, you will be able to understand what a headless CMS is, its benefits, the different types of architectures, and plenty more.

Headless CMS Explained in 1 Minute

With a plethora of definitions out there, let’s first start by defining the term headless CMS.

Contrary to a traditional CMS, a headless CMS is entirely decoupled from the presentation layer or frontend, which referred to as the “head”, while the backend is your content repository and content management system, known as the “body”.

When you separate your content repository “body” from its presentation layer “head,” it becomes a headless CMS. What truly makes a headless CMS better than a traditional CMS is its content-first approach with full APIs to access and display content in any way desired. With this approach, a headless CMS enables you to author your content through the RESTful API and deliver that content wherever you need it — not just to a templated website or application.

What is a headless cms?

Going Deeper (And Going Decoupled)

In its simplest form, a headless CMS is a content repository which can deliver content to any front-end or device via APIs. If you want to display your content on a web page, a native mobile app or in some other digital format a headless CMS doesn’t restrict you the way that a traditional CMS might. Thus in a broader sense, a headless CMS facilitates an omnichannel experience. 

An omnichannel experience provides customers with an integrated and aligned approach to marketing, customer service and sales. When a customer interacts with a brand through one digital medium such as via a mobile device, they want that same experience in another digital medium such as via a desktop, tablet or another smart device. Headless CMSs provide the backend necessary for omnichannel content management. It provides the admin user interface where content is created, edited and published and a RESTFUL API so that the content can be delivered where necessary, something that is crucial for the multi-touchpoint customer journeys of today. 

A headless CMS also removes other restrictions such as the technology stack that developers must learn. Rather than needing to familiarize themselves with the stack for a new CMS, developers can focus on the existing frontend. Headless CMSes can integrate with current technology stacks, making them easier to incorporate when compared to other types of CMSes. Content is treated as data in a headless CMS, so it reduces the need for page rendering. For brands dealing with multiple channels, this is especially useful as it means that content only needs to be added once and can be sent to required channels through the CMS. 

Non-developers especially find headless CMS platforms to be useful. Rather than requiring a developer to make sure that content is displayed appropriately across channels, marketers, editors and less technical personnel can create and manage content independently.

Traditional CMS vs Pure Headless CMS vs Decoupled CMS (A.K.A., Hybrid CMS)

The traditional CMS allows users to create, edit and publish content. It provides both the backend for managing and storing data and content as well as the front-end, usually with a WYSIWYG format for displaying the content. Traditional CMS platforms had the goal of posting content on one platform, such as a web page. 

A traditional CMS tightly couples your frontend with your backend (and all your content and assets). Content is created, managed, and stored—along with all of your digital assets—on the site’s back end. The back end is also where website design and customization applications are stored. The content management back end and database are bound within the same system that delivers and presents content to devices and end-users (front end). Basically, your editors are writing and publishing on the back end of the same system your website visitors are viewing.

However, with the omnichannel experiences that consumers now crave, these CMSes can seem outdated for both developers and marketers. 

A pure headless CMS doesn’t generate any front-end code, which is why a headless CMS is sometimes referred to as “Content-as-a-Service” (CaaS). This process results in the best available digital experience for the end-users of a particular device. Front-end developers can continue developing new functionality for any channel, independent of the core/backend CMS. 

Decoupled or hybrid CMSes, provide the capabilities of a headless CMS configuration (i.e., a separate backend with APIs enabling any channel to pull content from it as well as front-end capabilities (e.g., coding and templates for presentation) where content can be pushed into a channel with limited presentation intelligence. 

A decoupled CMS offers the front-end delivery that a headless CMS lacks with preloaded templates and other front-end options typically available. However, where a pure headless CMS currently wins out is that it provides more control over how content is displayed. Headless CMS platforms are mostly future proof as since they connect to APIs; they can adapt to both current and future technologies. For teams intent on offering the best digital experiences for their customers, this is a bonus that cannot be overlooked as technology continues to advance

The 5 Benefits of a Headless CMS Architecture

There are several benefits to using a headless CMS architecture. If you’re looking for a solution that caters specifically to the needs and wants of your developers, provides you with maximum control and flexibility, enhances your platform security, and ultimately future-proofs your CMS, then a headless CMS architecture should be on your radar. Below, I highlight and explain the top four benefits.

1. Faster Development, Faster Time-to-Market

A headless CMS is a dream come true for developers. Developers can continue to build websites or mobile applications using any programming language with their favourite tools, frameworks, and own development processes while still allowing full control over the application lifecycle without having to interfere with any CMS code. They can use JAMstacks tools and deliver better performance, higher security, lower cost of scaling, and a better developer experience.

Not just that, but developers and editors can also work better together. Editors no longer have to rely heavily on developers to build pages with a custom layout. This promotes an agile way of working which for projects can mean being finished a lot faster! The result is that not only will the time-to-market be diminished but also a single content item can be reused and combined with a number of different presentations. Developers and editors will be able to work much better together as well rather than in a silo.

2. Easy Integration

A headless CMS allows easy and secure integrations with any of your existing systems. A developer can code in any preferred language while allowing to use the programming language of the other platform that is being integrated into the CMS. Not having a fixed structure to develop or code in allows your developers to build any code for any type of integration. Allowing this type of flexibility makes it easier not just from a resourcing side but to integrate with systems that are more complex to integrate with. Webhooks is another common way to have action triggered events. A webhook is user-defined by an HTTP callback (or small code snippets linked to a web application) which are triggered by specific events. For example, Stripe has a webhook that will automatically send an email to a customer whenever a subscription payment fails to go through.

3. Better Content Architecture & Ease of Use

The ability to architect and manage your content without worrying about its delivery is a huge bonus with a headless CMS. Its ease of use allows developers to build out your content and interface for your front-end users without the complexities that come with it. Content editors can relate their content types in different ways, but the interface usability also allows them to manage their content however they’d like.

Also, because most headless systems are multi-tenant (which I’ll explain in more detail below), it’s always kept up to date with the most current trends, allowing organizations to be up to speed on the latest and greatest front-end experiences. With a headless API, you can specify content types and fragments that you want to push to the device or touchpoint of your choice allowing omnichannel readiness through any digital touchpoint and at any given time. This means a headless CMS can provide content for display and use on any number and type of channels.

4. Greater Scalability

Architecting a content-first approach makes your system cleaner, more scalable and provides you with full control with how and where your content appears. You can host content anywhere, and this includes the use of static site generators (like using Gatsby JS for example) and other multi-server environments. Future-proofing is another significant benefit because you can easily integrate with new technology and innovations, especially when the industry is changing as often as it is.

Since the back-end and front-end are separated, if the back-end CMS platform has any performance issues or, simply, needs maintenance, it won’t create any downtime to your website. In addition to this, cloud scalability, higher security, performance, and low operating costs is another big advantage.

5. Headless CMS costs less

With little technical involvement required in a headless CMS, it’s a lot quicker for your business teams to create new functionality. For example, if a marketing department wishes to create a new series of product mini-sites, they can go straight into the CMS and start creating immediately without having to wait for developers to build CMS-based templates. Your up-front cost is diminished as well because you can start with smaller solutions and then build your way up versus starting with one BIG install. It’s best to start small and then scale up as you need to.

Why a Multi-Tenant Architecture is Perfect for a Decoupled CMS

There are three types of headless CMS architectures. Below I outline the advantages of these types of architectures and why cloud multi-tenant is the best choice when choosing a headless CMS.

Install Based: An install-based architecture is exactly how it sounds; you install the platform locally and host it on your own environment. This means you need to manage everything end to end and often still pay for a maintenance package to your provider to cover the platform updates.

Cloud Install:  A cloud install architecture is very similar to install based except your provider installs the platform in their cloud. You normally pay your provider for hosting, management, and upgrades which can be extra or included, depending on your provider’s terms and conditions. Bear in mind that this can get extremely complicated because there can be different versions of your platform out there especially if you are constantly making updates and fixes. With this approach, you can quickly get behind in platform versioning if you are updating multiple sites.

Cloud Multi-Tenant: This means your CMS itself is fully managed and upgraded automatically for you. I highly recommend this architecture because of its easy upgrades and security benefits. Here are some other top reasons why I recommend a true headless multi-tenant system:

  • The “head” can be built anywhere, and you have unlimited options.
  • You don’t have to deploy the CMS or manage it at all!
  • Better support: A vendor only has to support one version and therefore you can concentrate all your efforts, documentation and time to just one solution.
  • Often times bugs are fixed even before you get the chance to report it because the entire user base is reporting on the SAME version.
  • SaaS-based so the cost is always spread out.
  • You don’t need to manage ANY hardware or software, you just deploy your OWN code to your environment, this means more control without the hosting "black box" software method.

The Headless CMS Industry Shift

First off, let’s dive into the effects of digital transformation. A survey found that 70% of companies either have a digital transformation strategy in place or are working on one. This means that adopting technology and therefore using technology to interact with one’s customer is critical. Technology is moving faster than ever and in order to keep up with our customers and partners through all the digital channels available, a headless CMS can offset this for you.

To keep up with the digital transformation, you need to move fast, fail fast, and get up and try again. Organizations need to develop faster, get to market faster and then tweak and change as they move along. They need to integrate with all the systems that each business now needs. I get it, as you get busy and go through digital transformation, you add additional technology to your stack and therefore need a system that can easily integrate and work with all your systems. A headless CMS promises all of these touchpoints to you!

Second, it should come as no surprise that consumers today shop across multiple devices and channels. With new channels cropping up all the time, enterprises must look beyond a handful of digital touchpoints. An omnichannel approach offers the ability to create, orchestrate, and deliver delightful, fresh and iconic personalized customer experiences at a global scale across all touchpoints and all stages of the customer journey. This approach enables companies to stay in front of the rapidly changing digital landscape.

On average, brands that employ a strong omnichannel strategy retain 89% of their customers compared to 33% of those with weak omnichannel engagement. You need to be able to scale your platform to support all these channels, but you also need a team that can handle all this work. Having an easier to use interface that is content first, allows you to focus on your content, publish and push your content to all your digital channels. This is why a headless CMS is so critical. It can provide content for display and even better, distribute that content to any type of channel. This saves resources, reduces the amount of duplicate content and also helps when you need to change things fast and deploy even faster.

This omnichannel approach offers the means to engage prospects, customers, and partners wherever they stand. By empowering businesses to seamlessly create, manage and share content cross-channel, this approach can better support today’s complex customer journeys.

Headless CMS Use Cases

Okay, so a headless or decoupled CMS can store content and delivery anywhere via APIs, unlike a traditional CMS, which was built to send content to one or two specific types of front end. But what does that actually look like in practice?

Visit Orlando

How Visit Orlando uses a Headless CMS

Visit Orlando, the official tourism association for Orlando, Florida - home to Disney World and one of the most visited tourist destinations in the US - wanted to increase their engagement, conversion rate metrics and ticket sales. To achieve this goal they wanted to manage their content across various channels and personalize marketing campaigns for a targeted audience. 

Visit Orlando was severely hampered by an inefficient ticket management system and process and needed to revamp their entire digital strategy and bring everything under one umbrella. Through Agility’s Headless CMS they now have a multi-site, multi-channel content management system and a new ticket sales and POS solution. Their team is now able to focus on adding new properties onto the platform, both as new website instances or as digital channels. 

Learn more:
Visit Orlando Case Study


How Ciniplex uses a Headless CMS

Cineplex, a leading name in the Film Entertainment and Content, Amusement and Leisure, and Media sectors, accommodates over 70 million guests per year on its digital platforms. The initial challenges Cineplex faced was a system that didn’t allow freedom of design and was extremely limiting in terms of performance, scalability, usability and multilingual capabilities. They needed to improve the overall customer experience across various channels and improve conversation rates. 

Agility’s CMS has allowed Cineplex to increase the scalability of the site and to optimize their hosting resources. The latest iteration utilizes a new hosting environment across load-balanced servers for optimal site speed and performance. The site is now handling more traffic with less CPU load than in previous years. 

Learn more:
Cineplex Case Study

Headless CMS: Go Content-first to Future-proof your Brand

Consumers are making use of more devices and channels than ever before, and brands have to meet them there to provide quality omnichannel experiences. Going headless, whether that’s through a pure headless CMS or a decoupled CMS, is the simplest way to achieve that.

By adopting a content-first approach, which seeks to make your content the focal point of your digital presence, while your many front-ends and their frameworks can be evolved and expanded, is the most logical way to ensure that your brand and its content can meet consumers wherever they end up going. Whether that’s smart speakers, digital signage, VR headsets, or something else exciting

With features such as page management, user-generated content and more, find out why Pepsico, Visit Orlando, and Pret a Manger chose Agility CMS as their headless CMS of choice.

Keep Reading  

If you want to learn more about Headless CMS, make sure you read these articles:

Discussion (0)

Editor guide