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What Is Headless CMS?

Headless CMS is a content management system that allows you to manage content and access it from your applications using an application programming interface (API).

Headless CMS scheme

Unlike traditional CMS solutions, headless CMS does without the presentation layer (the “head”) that would dictate how the content should be displayed. Instead, you control the presentation completely with your own code.

This not only enables a content-first approach to your engagement with your audience (as content creators no longer have to wait for development teams to catch up), but it means you can use the same content across multiple channels—website, mobile app, digital assistant, virtual reality, smart watches, etc. This makes the headless CMS the ideal solution for the fast-paced omnichannel world.

Coupled vs. Decoupled vs. Headless CMS

When you’re choosing a new CMS, it’s important that you understand the differences in various architectural approaches used by different products. 

Coupled CMS scheme

Coupled CMS

The coupled architecture combines everything in a single application: the content repository, the back-end user interface for editors, the templating system, as well as your custom code. A coupled CMS may be a good fit for you if you plan to build a brochure website and you don’t expect to publish to multiple channels.

Decoupled CMS scheme

Decoupled CMS

In this case, you make all modifications in the content management environment (typically behind the firewall) and synchronize the published content with the content delivery environment. The decoupled CMS enables similar use cases to the coupled CMS, just with a more robust architecture.

Headless CMS scheme

Headless CMS

A headless CMS makes the presentation layer much more flexible as it eliminates the front-end part: by providing access to the content through its application programming interface (API), it can be used on any platform and on any device. If you plan on supporting multiple channels, a headless CMS is your best choice.

Pros and Cons of Headless CMS

Pros

  • The API makes the content available through any channel and on any device and allows you to make the CMS part of your microservices architecture.
  • You can write your websites or mobile applications using any programming language, your favorite tools, and your own development process.
  • You have full control over the application lifecycle without having to interfere with any CMS code.
  • It provides higher security and much easier scalability.

Cons

  • A pure headless CMS doesn’t provide channel-specific support (especially for the web channel), which means developers may need to develop some web-specific functionality themselves.
  • Marketers may be limited in what they can do with a pure headless CMS and rely more on developers in scenarios like creating a landing page with custom layout.

True Headless CMS vs. Headless WordPress and Drupal

Many traditional CMS vendors, like WordPress and Drupal, provide some kind of REST API and claim they are “also headless”. They are, however, missing some critical elements of a true, best headless CMS—those that make it possible to use content for any channel.

Traditional web-oriented CMS systems often use in-line page editing and drag-and-drop interfaces, which both create content in a format that doesn't allow for content reuse. Oftentimes, you will discover that their REST API may not even make such content available or the way the content is provided makes it useless for other channels like mobile apps.

Even though Drupal’s version 8 comes with a content API and WordPress uses a REST API plugin to provide similar functionality, they remain page-centric solutions. Headless Drupal and WordPress lack the additional elements that ensure high scalability and security of the APIs in real-world applications. 

Kentico Cloud headless CMS, however, is truly headless and provides a Content Delivery Network (CDN) to ensure global coverage, high speed, and high service availability—all of which have a considerably positive impact on overall performance. Kentico Cloud uses a super-fast API to deliver content across multiple channels and devices.

Read more about "true headless" and "hybrid" solutions on our blog.

True headless CMS illustration

Scenarios for Using Headless CMS

Content Hub—One Place for All Your Content

A cloud-first headless CMS, such as Kentico Cloud, makes for a perfect centralized repository for all your structured content. It can be used as a master content management system that serves as a single source of truth across the whole organization.

With a single cloud-based repository , you can import content from various sources and collaborate on it with your colleagues. Thus avoiding the inefficiency, inconsistency, and duplication of work caused by departmental content silos.


Content hub scheme

Omnichannel Content Delivery

The  API provided by a headless CMS allows you to deliver content to any channel, any device, and any platform. Let’s take a look at some specific scenarios.

  • Static page generation—you can use the headless CMS for content storage and then use script to generate static HTML files for your website.
  • Conversational interfaces, such as digital assistants or chatbots, need a specific content structure that may not be well supported by traditional page-oriented systems.
  • Microcontent for Software as a Service (SaaS)—think of a banking application that contains hints, short product descriptions, or various promotions displayed in the context of the application.
Omnichannel content delivery scheme

Produce Content in the Cloud, Export It Anywhere

In some cases, you may not be able to use the content API to serve the content directly as you may already have existing customer-facing systems in place. You can still use a headless CMS to collaborate on the content and then export it to other systems using a custom integration.

  • Preparing content for your website before a traditional CMS is fully set up
  • Handling the transition to a headless CMS
  • Managing content for your mobile application that uses a mobile back end as a service (mBaaS)
  • Creating content for a knowledge base
Produce content scheme

Summary

Traditional content management systems were built for rendering content as websites. However, the new era of virtual reality, bots, and digital assistants has created the need for the ability to display content on any device. 

And that is where headless CMS comes in handy. It makes the presentation layer much more flexible as it just provides the content through its application programming interface, API. 

It is, however, necessary to differentiate between a true headless CMS that was designed with a headless or “API-first” mindset from the very beginning versus an “also headless” CMS where the API was an afterthought.

Where to Go Next

If you want to learn more about headless CMS architecture, multichannel content management, and what functionality best headless CMS should provide, download the Ultimate Guide to Headless CMS.

Headless CMS guide

If you’re ready to give headless CMS a try, start your trial with Kentico Cloud and test it out as the free headless CMS.

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