A Beginner’s Guide to Headless CMS
This beginner’s guide to a Headless CMS helps to illustrate why they are taking off as a popular Content Management System choice by a growing number of companies.
Co-Founder / CEO
June 16, 2023
A Content Management System (CMS) is what is used to build and manage a website. Traditional CMS like WordPress have been popular for many years, but in certain use cases, they are not a good fit for managing a site and in recent years a ‘new kid has emerged on the block’ in the guise of a strangely named category called Headless CMS [What is a Headless CMS?].
It represents a different approach to managing websites, and this beginner’s guide is designed to help explain what it is and why it is so popular.
But first a caveat. Headless CMS is a technical term and it is a technical concept with developers leading the charge as early adopters. Visit any website from the leading Headless CMS providers and your average non-technical user will find the content inaccessible, and won’t be able to ascertain what is unique about the offering. This is a key point - most of the content written on the topic to date is very ‘developer centric’ and those in content creation, marketing, and leadership positions have generally been neglected. However, there are multiple stakeholders involved when it comes to evaluating a new CMS for a business and they also need to understand the concept without being bamboozled by tech jargon. This guide has been written by a non-technical writer with a non-technical user in mind, and it will thus be pitched at an introductory level. So hopefully this piece goes some way towards redressing the balance.
Finally, when it comes to selecting a new CMS - it is very much a ‘horses for courses’ selection. Traditional CMSs work well for the majority of use cases including basic websites (perhaps simple blogs), whereas any discussion related to Headless typically relates to commercial B2C and B2B SaaS websites where the requirements are a little more complex.
An Introduction to Headless CMS
Traditional CMS: The dominant historical approach to website building has been the use of ‘website builders’ where the front-end and the back-end are tightly aligned. When you ‘log in’ you can typically make adjustments to both the content and the front-end visual design in one place i.e. accessible via a single interface.
Headless CMS: A Headless CMS splits this in two, with a decoupled approach where the Content Management System (or Content Platform) acts as a separate content repository focused exclusively on ‘managing the content’. The front-end design is separate and is based on ‘consuming the content’ via an API leaving developers to use whatever framework they so chose to design and build the website.
In short, you are contrasting a traditional “all in one” approach with limited customization capability with a decoupled “best of breed” approach where different elements are tightly integrated via the use of API’s. The argument for Headless challenges the long-held assumption that an “all-in-one” platform that houses both the content and the design is the optimal way to build a site.
So what has changed?
New technologies have helped spearhead the shift, married to more sophisticated requirements as companies grow and scale, alongside a growing list of issues with the traditional incumbents.
As we'll explore in the next section these “push and pull” factors have led a growing number of developers to conclude that a Headless CMS offers a viable option for their specific use case.
How does a Headless CMS differ from a Traditional CMS?
The following represents some of the key differences between the two contrasting approaches:
1- The Content and Presentation Layers are Separate
When you log in to a traditional monolithic CMS like WordPress, Squarespace, or Wix you can manipulate the design (which is often based on a template) as well as the content. On the other hand, a Headless CMS acts more like a content repository with the front end (website design) being managed via separate front-end technologies and applications. This separation means a marketing team can focus exclusively on ‘managing the content’ without having to worry about how it will be presented in the front end. Like many of these points, there are some nuances, as many Headless CMSs include a visual preview capability but this is designed more to preview content than to set design elements.
2- One Use Case v Multiple Use Cases
A traditional CMS assumes one use case - the build is the website, whereas a Headless CMS is designed to facilitate omnichannel delivery, so the same content can be used on everything from a website to a mobile application to an IoT device. This partly explains its rapid adoption amongst B2C companies as they look to manage content consistently in a world where the number of ‘heads’ has moved beyond just a website to include mobile applications, IoT devices, and even billboards. Primary resultant benefits include a reduction in errors (no more conflicting or outdated content) as well as the reduction in duplication of effort as the same content does not need to be updated separately in different repositories.
3- All in One v API Lead Approach
A Headless CMS leverages the power of APIs where best-of-breed solutions are used to create the ‘end product’ whereas a traditional CMS has a tightly coupled architecture where the content and the presentation layer are intertwined. Often the capability of an all-in-one solution is extended by the use of plugins that undertake specific functions but some limitations impede the design capability.
4- Locked Down Environment v Developer Flexibility
A traditional CMS is more constrained when it comes to what you can and can’t do. Websites built using a Traditional CMS are often based on templates and the ability to add custom code can be limited. With a Headless CMS, the developer has a lot more control over the build and thus can pick their preferred tools, frameworks, and programming languages themselves.
5- Performance v Convenience
In some ways, the trade-off relates to the convenience of an all-in-one solution versus the performance gains you can derive from a Headless based architecture (although some WordPress developers may dispute this performance point).
How does this play out in the ‘real world’?
WordPress is by far the most dominant CMS platform - in fact, it is often the only CMS the average person can recall unprompted. It has a rich ecosystem of developers and entrepreneurs who represent staunch defenders in debates as to its suitability for all use cases. On the other hand, more agnostic developers feel that it is no longer a good fit in many commercial instances and represent those adopting a Jamstack Headless CMS approach to web development.
Jamstack is an architectural approach that decouples the web experience layer from data and business logic, improving flexibility, scalability, performance, and maintainability. Jamstack removes the need for business logic to dictate the web experience. It enables a composable architecture for the web where custom logic and 3rd party services are consumed through APIs.
— Source: Jamstack.org
Issues with WordPress include:
Security Vulnerabilities - overuse of plugins of unknown provenance
Performance Issues - speed can suffer on maturer sites with website bloat a common problem
Usability Issues - some non-technical users find the UI/UX difficult
Inflexible Themes - non-technical users can struggle to customize themes
Maintenance Issues - Updates can cause compatibility issues and users fear breaking the site
In short, it goes back to the use case. There are Pro’s and Con’s with all CMSs on the market. However, for commercial websites which have more specific requirements than a simple brochure wear or blog site, Headless has emerged as a popular choice due to some of its resultant benefits.
Headless CMS - Key Features
There are several key features to be aware of if you are considering moving to a Headless CMS website including:
1- Separate Front-End and Back-End
The Headless CMS acts as a content platform and an API is capable of feeding ‘multiple heads’ be they websites, mobile applications, or billboards.
2- API Lead Approach
Unlike a traditional CMS, a Headless CMS relies on APIs to bring best-of-breed solutions together.
A Headless CMS is built for scalability and is designed for sites where content creation consists of multiple contributors, and traffic is growing on the back of a significant content creation lead approach (common with most B2B SaaS startups).
4- Highly Performant
A Headless CMS can be a highly performant way to manage a website as the underlying architecture is based on the use of Static Site Generators (SSGs) and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) resulting in blazingly fast websites when deployed correctly.
5- Reduced Attack Surface
All leading Headless CMSs offer robust security measures that contribute to a reduced attack surface and provide enterprise-grade protection. These security measures help safeguard your CMS, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access or breaches by hackers.
Benefits of a Headless CMS
So what are some of the resultant benefits of re-platforming your CMS and migrating to Headless?
A Headless CMS is a more flexible approach as you are not constrained to the same extent as is the case with a traditional CMS. You can also reuse the core content delivered across multiple platforms and channels.
As your B2B SaaS website grows, and more people join the team, the content engine will scale up as more content is created to try and increase traffic to generate greater numbers of leads. Similarly with B2C sites, marketing activities also tend to ramp up over time leading to increased traffic which a Headless CMS can handle without compromising performance.
3- Improved User Experience
A Headless CMS lead approach empowers both the content creators in the marketing team, and the designers and developers to craft beautiful pages designed to convert.
4- Future Proofing Your Site
A Headless CMS is a technology-agnostic approach which enables new technologies to be adopted without major changes to the architecture being needed. It also gets around vendor lock in as the architecture means you can swap different elements as needed.
5- Parallel Development Leads to Faster Deployment
In a Headless CMS setup developers and content creators can work independently and simultaneously reducing dependencies and leading to faster release cycles.
When to Use a Headless CMS?
So what are some of the things to think about when evaluating whether or not Headless is a route you want to take or not?
As mentioned earlier, Headless is best suited to commercial websites where there is some complexity compared to a basic website.
2- Internal Capability
A Headless CMS will need a developer to configure it and also front-end designers to create the design. It is not well suited to companies with no internal developer capability.
3- Growth Phase
If the company is growing and there are several team members in the marketing function they can take advantage of the increased capability.
4- Desire for Enhanced Performance
If you have a high-traffic website and want to eke out every gain possible, a Headless CMS can result in enhanced performance delivering an exceptionally fast website.
5- Content Engine
Many B2B SaaS companies employ an inbound marketing strategy which is content lead. This places a heavy focus on content generation, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and multiple actors working in partnership to publish and promote the content.
6- Omnichannel Requirement
Some of the early adopters of Headless solutions were companies who wanted a ‘single source of truth’ for their content and wanted to feed ‘multiple heads’ with content. Create content once and use it everywhere.
7- Bleeding Edge Design
First impressions count, and as a company grows the ‘template based’ look and feel, can often be at odds with the visual identity. A Headless CMS sits outside of the presentation layer, and front-end designers can design a beautiful site without being subject to any constraints be they template-based or otherwise.
8- Avoidance of Vendor Lock-in
Some websites want to avoid being locked in to one vendor who has pricing power and leverage as the website grows. A Headless CMS helps avoid vendor lock-in given it is an API approach based on a range of different providers that can be switched in and out on an “as needed" basis.
9- Developer Involvement
A final sign to watch out for is whether or not a developer is needed to make content updates to your site. This is a far from optimal use of high-value resources and a sure sign that a Headless is worth evaluating.
In short, Headless CMSs are increasingly popular across a swathe of industries, both B2C and B2B where these factors are valued.
How to Choose a Headless CMS?
Choosing your Headless CMS is a difficult task as there are so many parameters to consider - open source vs closed, hosted vs non-hosted, the visual editing experience, the user interface, etc
The following represent some areas that can help inform which solution to choose?
1- Ask the Agency
If using an agency for the build they may have a preferred vendor they are familiar with.
2- Seek a Word of Mouth Recommendation
Using contacts in your network familiar with web design should help steer you in the right direction
3- Use BuiltWith.com
Use this free tool to identify the CMS being used by some of your favorite sites.
4- Use review sites like G2 and Capterra
Review sites help assess the elements popular Headless CMS are valued for.
5- Use an industry-specific niche provider
The emergence of vertical SaaS solutions from the likes of providers like Contento (B2B SaaS focused Headless CMS) and Chartmogul (B2B SaaS focused CRM) represents an emergent trend. Does your industry sector have an industry-specific provider? If yes, it is worth adding them to the shortlist of vendors alongside those names you’ve obtained from the above sources.
The Importance of Content Management
Before you implement a new Headless CMS it is important to familiarize yourself with structured content and content modeling. A significant benefit of a Headless CMS is that content can be reused and repurposed - making the content highly adaptable.
This approach also minimizes content duplication and the associated costs of managing multiple content sources.
Getting Started with a Headless CMS like Contento
Contento is a Headless CMS that has been developed to meet the needs of a narrower use case than most CMS’s. While most CMSs (traditional and Headless) tend to be ‘horizontal offerings’ and use case agnostic, Contento is built specifically for the needs of B2B SaaS and technology websites.
So while it has all the table stakes features you’d expect from a leading Headless CMS, the narrower use case is designed to ensure the feature set better meets the needs of our target audience than a more general open-box approach from a horizontal provider.
We have thus focused in particular on several needs we find that are typical for this niche.
A strong focus on SEO - not a plugin or hidden tab, but ensuring that great SEO is built in as a core part of the feature set
A genuinely intuitive UI/ UX that is designed to meet the needs of digital content creators and the marketing function. All too many Headless applications cater excessively to the needs of developers without taking into account those who will be entrusted with managing and maintaining the site once live.
By assuming the use case is a B2B SaaS or tech website we can set the application up specifically with this use case in mind so workflows follow naturally and common B2B SaaS website tasks are baked in, be that managing form submissions, or social proof from 3rd party vendors like G2 or Capterra.
Like all Headless CMS solutions, there is a Free Trial for users to ‘lift the lid’ and to use Contento to assess the feature set and UI themselves.
While Headless is a technical concept with a strange name, the easiest way to think about it is a separation of the design and the content. This goes against the grain as historically many website builders merged both core tasks. We are very much in ‘division of labor’ territory where the two core activities are decoupled which allows for the benefits of specialization in economic terms. In practical terms, there is a lot more nuance.
At its core though is the sense that a modern tech stack based on APIs is a more appropriate route to go down than the more traditional all-in-one approach that has been the more popular one. Like many contrasting approaches both can happily co-exist, and as mentioned above Headless is best suited to a small segment of the overall CMS market, albeit the niche with the deeper pockets.