What is "Headless" CMS and Why It Matters for Your Content Marketing

February 19, 2020
Brian Beaupied

To deliver great digital experiences, CMS platforms must be able to share content and reach customers on the many different devices they use. Learn what a "headless" CMS is, how it compares to a traditional or coupled CMS, and why it matters for your content marketing.

Digital Marketing

Bill Gates’ often-cited essay “Content is King” is as relevant today as it was in 1996. Today, anyone with a smart device or computer can publish and receive whatever content they want.

So, as businesses increase their focus on content marketing and multi-channel customer journeys, CMS platforms must enable companies to share their content to many different customer devices.

As a result, we’re seeing a rise in popularity for headless, API-first CMS platforms and the freedom and flexibility they award teams in terms of building out their digital experiences.

Before we define and explore what a headless CMS is and why it matters for your content marketing, it’s helpful for us to discuss the traditional—or coupled—CMS.

Coupled CMS

A coupled CMS is the simpler, more user-friendly option for content management. In this system, users create their content through WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) or HTML editors and save it to the back-end database. The interface resembles the finished appearance, allowing users to easily manipulate the layout. The CMS then displays the content according to the front-end delivery layer.

Think of Episerver, Sitecore, Kentico, Umbraco, WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla as a few examples of a coupled CMS.

From a more technical point of view, a coupled CMS consists of a local database for storing content and a predefined set of technology with which developers are forced to create the front-end display.

Advantages of a coupled CMS include the ease of setup and deployment, as well as the fact that authoring and delivery exist within the same infrastructure. However, they are significantly more complex to scale. Additionally, integration and migration can be difficult since the content is captured entirely within one database meant for delivery on that particular site.

Headless CMS

The alternative, then, is the headless CMS model. If we compare a traditional CMS to a body, then the head is its front-end components and templates. If you were to remove the head, you’re left with a headless CMS—one with no default front-end system to determine how content is presented to the end user. Therefore, your CMS is only a content repository.

Because there is no front-end head by default, developers can build for as many channels as they want, such as websites and apps. To retrieve the content, the headless CMS will simply respond to API calls.

You might also hear a headless CMS referred to as front-end agnostic. In our industry, agnostic simply refers to a piece of software that is compatible with many types of platforms or operating systems.

Contentful, Butter CMS, Contentstack, dotCMS, Mura, Core dna, and Strapi are some of the most popular headless CMS platforms in 2020.

A headless CMS can certainly be more challenging, as its lack of user-friendly features can leave marketers beholden to development teams. But the freedom it provides is often worth it especially if your team wishes to put greater focus on content marketing. In fact, headless CMS systems are becoming an incredibly popular solution since multi-channel publishing is increasing in complexity. We see them serve as a great solution for large brands who want the power to publish their content anywhere—especially with the advent of smart home assistants and VR headsets. In other words, its flexibility allows marketers to deliver omnichannel, personalized customer experiences.

Taking a moment to understand what is headless CMS, and why it matters for your content marketing can help teams tailor the way they deliver the digital experiences they want and the ones customers expect. By separating your front- and back-end solutions with a headless CMS, teams can increase their delivery times, iterate faster, and meet customers just about anywhere and everywhere.