What is a Headless CMS?

What is a Headless CMS?

The headless content management (CMS) space has gained traction in recent years, leading to the renewed excitement around a content management model that can help brands handle the relentless number of emerging devices and channels. Old debates about the relevance of headless content management have reignited. But with new jargon, comes new levels of confusion. So, let’s break it down. 

On this page:

So, what is a headless CMS?

A headless content management system (CMS) is a back-end only content management system (CMS) built without a front-end presentational layer.

A headless CMS delivers your content as data that can be consumed by any number of front-end applications or devices, meaning it is fully omnichannel. This flexibility gives content creators the freedom to build any kind of digital experience they can imagine, without being limited by the CMS.

By getting rid of the front-end delivery layer, your CMS is suddenly a content-only data source. It produces content and then sits there. Waiting. 

This is because there is no default “head”. Front-end developers are free to build as many heads as they like…To retrieve the content for each channel - mobile apps, voice assistants, display screens, websites, sms and many more -  the headless CMS responds to API calls.

A headless CMS is perfect for businesses that need to deliver content to multiple devices or platforms, or who want to build their own unique front-end experiences. With a headless CMS, there's no need to worry about compatibility issues or being locked into a specific platform – you can easily create custom experiences for any situation.

  Ecommerce business guide

Download our Headless CMS guide

Find out how a headless CMS can transform how you think about web content, the difference between headless vs traditional CMS, things to consider when choosing a headless CMS, and many more.

What is a decoupled CMS?

Consider headless content management as a sub-set of decoupled content management (as decoupled CMS is headless, and then some).

A decoupled CMS (a.k.a. hybrid CMS), has your content managed separately and is front-end agnostic, just like a headless CMS. Yet, it has front-end delivery tools in the box, like templates for you.

The difference is that the back-end and front-end are not “coupled” to each other through a database like with a traditional CMS. Instead, the front-end and back-end communicate to each other through calls to an API.

So, remember when we chopped the “head” off a traditional CMS to make it headless? Well, imagine the same here, except keeping the head. It’s not attached to the main body as with a traditional CMS - but you aren’t totally left to your own devices when it comes to front-end delivery, like with a headless CMS, either. 

Headless vs decoupled content management platforms - What’s the difference?

A headless CMS has modelling and editorial tools to create and edit content. But the concept of “publishing” content just means making it available via an API. It assumes that you and your nerdy front-end development can handle the rest with whichever frameworks & tools.

A decoupled CMS, on the other hand, doesn’t assume anything. It does everything headless does, but it doesn’t stop there. It also says, “Hey, we’ve got some templating tools here so you aren’t working from scratch.”

That’s just good manners, right?

Blend Interactive CSO, Deane Barker, summed up the difference quite succinctly:

“A decoupled platform is proactive — it prepares content for presentation and pushes it into a delivery environment. A headless CMS is reactive — it manages content, then just sits and waits for some process to ask for it.”

For marketers, this subtle difference can be significant. While the decoupled system uses the templates, WYSIWYG editing and other traditional CMS system tools; many of those tools are not available in headless architecture. However, purely headless systems allow more control over how the content appears on each device. So, more fun for eager front-end developers, less fun for non-tech savvy marketers.

Decoupled vs Headless Content Management: Pros and Cons

  Headless CMS vs Decouple CMS graphic

(Decoupled vs Headless Content Management)

Advantages of a headless platform

1. Front-end agnostic

A headless or decoupled CMS is front-end framework agnostic. That means you can publish content on any device or channel via API calls. Plus, front-end developers are free to use their favorite frameworks and tools.

2. APIs

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) enable two technologies to speak to each other. Both use APIs to connect and communicate with other softwares and channels, allowing for content delivery. But that’s not all. APIs can also be used to send data from those channels, devices, and touchpoints back for processing, analysis, and re-distribution. 

3. Future-proof

APIs aren’t just ready to talk to any existing software or device, they’re prepared to speak to any new device or channel that emerges in 2019 and beyond. Thus, your content will remain future-proof, no matter what innovative device next hits the market.

Disadvantages of a headless CMS

1. No fun for marketers

Robbed of WYSIWYG editing, blogging functionalities and other user-friendly features, marketers, in particular, are left out in the cold until their development team sees to their needs. This isn’t typically a problem for decoupled. 

2. A fragmented tech stack

Removing the ‘head’ simply means having to hunt for further technologies to replace it. This can entail building front-end solutions in-house, or deploying existing third-party tools to plug the gap. Either way, it could get costly both monetarily and through time spent—not to mention difficult to manage. This problem can be partially alleviated with a decoupled CMS, which will bring those marketer-friendly features right back.

3. No content previews

If you do manage to get your marketers back on track by drafting in third-party tools, they still won’t be able to efficiently use a headless CMS, as they won’t be able to easily preview content before it goes live.

Advantages of a decoupled CMS

1. All the benefits of a headless CMS

Decoupled gives you the same advantages you’d get with a headless CMS — and more.

2. Optional front-end templates

A decoupled CMS will likely provide you with templates to help launch sites/pages quickly &to give your developers a start on front-end presentation layers they wish to build.

3. All the tools marketers love

A decoupled CMS doesn’t just give marketers their templates back, it also provides WYSIWYG editing, content previews & additional content publishing tools. 

Why headless and why now?

Let’s circle back to the comment I made earlier about the headless space gaining traction. The reason for the surge in the hype surrounding this species of content management (& by definition, decoupled content management) is because multi-channel publishing is increasing in complexity.


Interest in headless cms interest growing chart from 2017 to 2021

As we move deeper into the era of IoT, publishing to a handful of channels is no longer cutting the mustard. Large brands want the power to publish their content anywhere — because new channels and devices are popping up faster than you can say Content-as-a-Service. Speaking of which…

What’s API-first and a headless API?

When headless CMS platforms touts themselves as being API-first or API-driven, it’s referring to the fact that they use APIs to deliver content. An API-first platform is essentially a synonym for either type of CMS. 

Headless APIs (sometimes called Content API or REST API) are particularly useful for pushing content to a native app, such as an Android or iOS app. It can even be used to deliver content to commerce systems, such as a POS and voice-activated applications. 

With a Headless API, you can specify content types & fragments that you want to push to the device or touchpoint of your choice.

What does front-end agnostic mean?

The term agnostic in the world of computing refers to a piece of software that is “compatible with many types of platform or operating system”, according to Oxford Dictionaries. 

Again, we’re dealing with a synonymous term for any content management system. Because APIs are involved, the front-end delivery layer could be anything you desire, from a smartwatch screen to a virtual reality headset, thus making your content front-end agnostic. 

With a headless CMS, developers create their own front-end presentation layers in line with the device they’re trying to send content to.

A Decoupled platform is also front-end agnostic. They do provide a set of front-end templates and editing tools for building web applications out-of-the-box. You also have the option to create your custom front-end presentation layers to work outside of the framework laid out by the vendor.

Does a headless CMS help with omnichannel marketing?

Headless and decoupled CMS give marketers the ability to deliver omnichannel customer experiences.

Omnichannel marketing enables brands to deliver a seamless & integrated experience across all touchpoints; preventing a disjointed customer journey when the customer switches from one device to another. Omnichannel marketing is different to multi-channel marketing. The latter operates through each channel separately, without connecting the experiences together. 

1. Faster to market

Consumers have now become used to getting what they want at speed— including new experiences on new devices. 

With a traditional CMS, brands need to draft in developers to build custom integrations and platforms to present content on the new channel. Headless CMS means developers can deliver content via API calls to the device or touchpoint; allowing focus solely on UI and end-user experience. This greatly decreases the time to market when a brand wants to adopt a new touchpoint into its omnichannel experience. 

  Ecommerce business guide

Download our Headless CMS guide

Find out how a headless CMS can transform how you think about web content, the difference between headless vs traditional CMS, things to consider when choosing a headless CMS, and many more.

2. A flexible technology stack

With  headless CMS, APIs are used to integrate with any third-party tool, allowing marketers & developers to switch between tools/adopt new technologies. This ensures that they’re always using cutting-edge technology in all areas of the business.

For example, you can have one tool that provides marketing automation, another tool that will help deliver experiences to smartwatches and a subsequent tool for taking payments from voice-activated applications. All of these tools can be integrated & accessed via from-scratch CMS. 

Plus, if you begin to face problems with a tool, you can swap it out for a different one, resolving the issue. 

3. Deliver more personalized experiences 

A report by Business2Community shows that 56 percent of consumers are more likely to buy from a retailer that offers personalization. The same report also shared that a staggering 74 percent get frustrated when they see content that does not match their interests.

While a headless CMS doesn’t necessarily promote personalization in and of itself, it does open the door to its same brand of commerce, enabling brands to deliver personalized shopping experiences to IoT devices and smart displays. 

Some headless CMS providers, like Core dna, have engagement tracking and analytics that can monitor customer journey through different touchpoints. With this information, you can deliver personalized content at different stages in the customer journey, thereby improving the likelihood of conversion.

Rob Lawson
Rob Lawson

A Digital Marketer who believes clear messaging in customer language supported by appropriate imagery, video and copy will express a brand to the market successfully. Getting clients to stop talking about themselves and their products is the tough part.

Previous PostHeadless CMS Use Cases
Next PostB2B eCommerce Replatforming: The Complete Guide