What actually is a headless CMS?

What is a headless CMS?

More and more companies and administrators are choosing a headless CMS when selecting a suitable editorial or content management system. We explain what a headless CMS actually is and name the advantages and disadvantages of this “headless” CMS variant.

The basic tasks of a content management system have actually hardly changed for years: Content production and website management, as well as delivering content at the right time to the relevant target group via various channels. Content management or editorial systems manage, maintain and organize content distribution – even without programming skills or IT knowledge. However, it is not that easy to identify the “right” CMS: What do I want? What do I need? Which bundle offers the best setup? Should it be a “traditional” content management system – often referred to as a monolithic, regular or coupled CMS – or rather a so-called headless CMS? The last one is gaining in popularity, because it is the answer to the fact that people now consume content on the Internet in a different way.

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Headless CMS versus regular CMS

The usual content management systems link a backend, i.e. a collection point for articles, images and other media, with the frontend, i.e. the platform where these are played out. This is often a website. These content management systems make it easy to edit and manage content via “what you see is what you get”, or WYSIWYG editor for short. You load texts, images or videos into the CMS, arrange them and see directly how the finished website looks: The CMS automatically displays the data maintained in the backend within the frontend. However, content is no longer only played out on websites. There are now a variety of other media and display types, such as apps, smartphones, wearables or VR applications. If you want to feed these parallel with images, text or videos, then the classic CMS approach requires a separate content management system for each medium. The content cannot be managed centrally for different target media. And this is exactly where a headless CMS comes in.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS architecture is in principle similar to the traditional content management system in its substructure. However, the headless CMS is a pure backend content management system. And this explains the name: The headless architecture separates the “head” (backend or content catalog) from the “body” (frontend, i.e. the website editor). Templates, page structure and design are completely irrelevant here for the time being. What remains is “pure” content. The system administrator is responsible for the frontend. A “headless” editorial system basically fulfills one task: the centralized storage and provision of structured content.

This means that the simple creation and preparation of content, for example in the form of blog posts, does not work as simply. This may be a perceived disadvantage or weakness due to the effort and know-how involved. However, by decoupling the content management system from the “presentation layer”, a front-end developer can use any technology he is familiar with without any restrictions. According to taste and preference. For example, a new product in an online store can be entered equally for the website and for the app. Similarly, it is much easier to optimize the page speed for Google.

A REST API serves here as an interface between “Headless CMS” and the (various) front ends of the output media. Here, the reactive content management system waits for external requests (data accesses). The so-called Content Delivery API (CDA) then organizes the data transfer of the corresponding content to (almost) any output medium. However – and this has to be taken into account and accepted – it is not possible to create a microsite at short notice. You always need a specialist colleague to make the necessary adjustments.

Conclusion: For whom is a “headless CMS” worthwhile?

Headless CMS are therefore primarily worthwhile for companies that also want to consider different output media in their content strategy. For the regular use case of a company website or a company blog, the classic variant of a CMS is often still recommended. However, for those who rely on a multi- or omnichannel strategy in their content plans and want to combine media such as website, blog, apps and others, it is worth taking a look at a headless CMS. Because it saves a lot of work with different channels, since you can concentrate on playing out the content and the content itself only has to be provided once centrally.

Advantages of a “Headless CMS” at a glance

  • Unrestricted focus on content and reduced complexity
  • Platform independence and cross-platform support
  • Optimized content distribution and omnichannel marketing
  • Professional localization
  • Easy coding and “Developers First”
  • Free choice of technology or programming language through REST API
  • More creative freedom for frontend developers and (web) designers
  • JAMstack (development with JavaScript, APIs and TML-M) is supported
  • Dynamic data and content creation

Disadvantages of a “Headless CMS” at a glance

  • More effort for administration (headless CMS usually cannot manage page structure etc.)
  • No frontend: each medium needs its own software to display the content
  • No “WYSIWYG”: pages have to be programmed and set up, no templates or similar possible
  • Microsites and similar “fast projects” must be programmed individually
  • Higher programming effort for single frontend solutions
  • More effort for playout due to multiple frontend solutions


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