What is a Headless Content Management System (CMS)?

Website developers and marketing teams have been utilizing content management systems (CMSs) for over two decades. Throughout that time, the capabilities of CMS tools have evolved to maximize digital engagement opportunities.

Traditional CMSs, often referred to as monolithic, have a front-end editing environment that is coupled with back-end database libraries and sophisticated delivery applications. Using traditional CMSs, marketing teams are empowered to create, edit, and maintain website and application content (without expansive technical expertise or coding skills), often within a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) graphical user interface (GUI). These CMSs also enable development professionals to customize back-end resources and capabilities.

The proliferation of digital touchpoints in our world today has demanded more from CMSs and, specifically, required more front-end versatility. That versatility must be reliably fed by back-end resources that can be maintained in one consistent and capable content hub. As the name implies, headless CMS decouples the front-end (the head, where content is presented) and back-end (the body, where the content is stored).

Within headless solutions, front-end considerations can be made for an expanded array of digital touchpoints, including multiple websites, mobile apps, smart watches, kiosks, digital signage, smart speakers, social channels, and the entire internet of things (IoT). Headless may not be an entirely fitting name for this type of CMS implementation. The headless delivery adds many  “heads,” or front-end presentation layers that remodel and optimize content for specific digital engagement opportunities. Omnichannel brand engagement, content reusability, as well as technical agility drive today’s increasing demand for headless CMS solutions.

Comparative infographic of Traditional vs Headless CMS, outlining content flow through databases, code, and front-end templates.

The Origins and Evolution of Headless CMS

Headless CMS providers initially focused on back-end content management that could be front-end agnostic. The custom presentation layers, or front-ends, for these headless CMS solutions handle unique design, structure, templates, and technologies for specific distribution channels. The prevailing enterprise architecture for this type of digital ecosystem is often MACH, an acronym for microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native SaaS, and headless.

Examples of Headless CMS:

  • Contentful
  • Contentstack
  • Kontent.ai
  • Sanity
  • Storyblok

As traditional CMS platforms became more versatile with added integration flexibility and capabilities, they created a new solution category, digital experience platforms (DXPs). Many CMSs and DXPs have introduced hybrid-headless approaches. While hybrid-headless solutions decouple the solutions’ back-end, they also include a same-platform editing environment for connected front-end presentation layers.

Examples of Hybrid-Headless CMS/DXP:

  • Drupal (with Acquia)
  • Kentico
  • Liferay
  • Progress Sitefinity
  • Sitecore
  • WordPress (with WordPress VIP)

Infographic contrasting Headless CMS with API and database against Hybrid CMS with integrated front-end. 

Headless or Hybrid-Headless vs. Traditional CMS

If you are a brand that has utilized a traditional CMS, you have probably witnessed your chosen platform’s evolution into a DXP and the introduction of hybrid-headless capabilities. Some businesses have elected to continue a traditional CMS approach to content management and their website-focused digital engagement. For those businesses, the hybrid-headless CMS providers continue to offer an editing environment that resembles the familiar experience.

Traditional CMS is optimal for the low-code, no-code preferences of marketers. Headless CMS is optimal for developers to customize front-end solutions. Hybrid-headless CMS aims to be optimal for both.

When should headless and hybrid-headless solutions be pursued? Businesses should consider these two questions:

  1. Are there new digital engagement opportunities (channels/devices/websites/apps) that would benefit your brand’s reach, engagement, and customer affinity?

  2. Would custom front-end development provide the best user experience within the new opportunity or opportunities?

If the answer is yes to both of those questions, it is time to pursue headless or hybrid-headless CMS.

Advantages of Using a Headless or Hybrid-Headless CMS

Businesses adopting the headless and hybrid-headless approaches to digital solutions are doing so for increased flexibility, scalability, performance, and omnichannel capabilities.

Flexibility in Presentation

User interface (UI) design and user experience (UX) design greatly benefit from the flexibility of headless and hybrid-headless environments. Instead of one responsive presentation layer trying to adapt to all channels and devices, professional developers and designers can tailor solutions to maximize unique considerations within targeted digital touchpoints.

Independent front-end development projects create additional omnichannel experiences that typically provide an accelerated time to market within headless and hybrid-headless solutions. Emerging frameworks, technologies, and digital engagement opportunities can be pursued with uncompromised agility.

Scalability and Performance

When a headless ecosystem is deployed, content can be created or edited once and quickly published across a variety of channels with precision, scalability, and consistency.

Within headless and hybrid-headless ecosystems, developers and designers are also able to optimize each specific presentation layer for performance. Headless solutions consistently outperform traditional CMS solutions in regard to speed and overall user experience due to that skilled optimization and developer fine-tuning for each specific digital touchpoint.

Omnichannel Capabilities

A fundamental advantage of headless and hybrid-headless implementations is the ability to maximize omnichannel capabilities with tailored solutions that perform best in every individual channel.

Omnichannel digital strategies intend to successfully connect businesses and customers wherever they are, whenever they want. These days, those customer experiences are occurring on multiple websites, mobile apps, smartwatches, tablets, smart speakers, digital kiosks, and more. Whatever the digital touchpoint, headless and hybrid-headless ecosystems can accommodate a presentation layer to optimize that specific engagement opportunity.

If a new channel opportunity arises, headless tech stacks allow businesses to develop additional front-end presentation layers with unparalleled efficiency and agility. Imagine if the popularity of the metaverse makes a comeback. Or, if one of the world’s tech giants release augmented reality glasses for which your brand could have a perfect application. Headless and hybrid-headless solutions provide businesses the best opportunity to be quick to the market within any emerging digital channel.

Ultimately, headless and hybrid-headless are future-focused. Successful implementation now accelerates a brand’s capabilities to access and engage tomorrow’s prospects and customers where they will be.

How to Choose the Right Headless CMS

Business Needs for Headless CMS

Business needs should always drive tech solutions, never vice-versa. Too often, something shiny and new appears in the tech world and then everybody around a business meeting table wants to have it. Don’t let that meeting room make the decision for your brand to go headless. First, determine your business needs within your current tech stack and digital touchpoints, both utilized and aspirational.

  • Are there channel opportunities that may perform better with dedicated customization and optimization?
  • Do you have data silos? Would one headless back-end help eliminate those data silos and create a consistent source of truth to benefit your brand?
  • Would personalizing content to specific points in a customer journey, or brand personas, advance important business relationships?
  • Does your tech stack have systems (maybe a CRM, PIM, or MAP) that are not integrated with other business technology, data, or content resources.
  • Is your current monolithic CMS unable to efficiently support new digital engagement opportunities?
  • In-house developers are restricted, even hand-cuffed, by existing CMS platform (which also restricts business solutions).
  • Having difficulty filling positions to support and work with existing platform solutions.

If ‘yes’ is your prevailing answer to the questions above, you are on your way to identifying true business need for the adoption of headless or hybrid-headless CMS.

Prioritize Business Needs for Headless CMS

When prioritizing your business needs, be certain to engage the perspectives of both developer and marketers. Your developers will identify their priorities for back-end capabilities and front-end development flexibility. Marketing and content teams will identify their priorities for managing resources and publishing timely content across necessary channels. 

Some of the common considerations include:

  • Editor needs (collaborative tools, low-code/no-code editing, publishing workflow)
  • Hosting solutions (costs, scalability, support, security, SLA, disaster recovery)
  • Front-end and back-end training plan, resources, and tools
  • Multi-site, multilingual needs
  • Licensing and implementation costs
  • Cloud deployment preference
  • API type, integration ease, limits
  • Third-party interoperability

Review Capabilities of Headless and Hybrid-Headless CMS Options

A review of existing tech stack and all business data sources is also a critical step in selecting a headless or hybrid-headless CMS option for your brand. Compatibility and integration efficiencies can help a team to zero in on the solutions that best suit your existing business technology. Seamless API integrations will significantly reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO), as custom development needs add to implementations costs and time to market.

Ensure User-Friendly Features

Who are your internal contributors and CMS users? For most businesses, it is the IT development team and the content marketing team. Are the solutions offered by your headless selection an asset to both your technical and non-technical team members? 

Accessibility considerations within each customized front-end layer are also essential to inclusive usability. The project team should include members with a thorough understanding of WCAG expectations and development practices that can maximize digital accessibility.

What Hybrid-Headless CMS Platform to Choose?

For businesses leaning toward the “best of both worlds” approach offered by the hybrid-headless movement withing modern DXPs, here is more information from some of the leading options.

Person using a laptop with virtual content management icons floating above hand, symbolizing digital publishing.

 

Getting Started Implementing a Headless CMS

More and more leading brands are abandoning clunky monolithic CMS platforms. In their place, headless and hybrid-headless solutions are providing composability to leverage best-of-breed technologies and omnichannel content delivery. Reusable content from headless back-end resources is empowering excellence across today’s diverse digital experiences.

Too often, businesses form relationships with digital agencies that have a skill set that is limited to a very small list of platform and technology solutions. Platform teams at Americaneagle.com are among the world’s most diversely talented and experienced within a wide range of headless and hybrid-headless options. We recommend ideal platform and technology solutions from our extensive array of expertise that provide optimal performance and value to achieve each client’s defined goals. 

It is not uncommon for even the most tech-savvy professionals to feel unsettled or uncertain when considering new technology solutions. Our clients gain confidence in the extensive experience shared and true partnership developed with Americaneagle.com. Let us share recent examples of success with other businesses of similar size, tech integrations, or industry. You might be interested in reading more about a recent headless ecosystem that we recently launched with Mecum Auctions.

Call us at (877) 932-6691 or submit the contact us form.  We welcome the opportunity to partner in the implementation of optimal headless or hybrid-headless solutions for your brand.


About Author

Rex Paisley Americaneagle.com Blog Author
Rex Paisley is a Senior Marketing Specialist with Americaneagle.com. With contributions consistently centered around website and digital marketing solutions, he is a career creative professional who has authored, designed, and developed marketing assets across a wide range of industries. A competitive spirit, he enjoys unpacking the success factors behind the many business wins with clients of Americaneagle.com.


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