What is a Headless CMS?

One of the top trends in the world of content management is the emergence of headless CMS. In recent years, many organizations have begun evaluating new architectures to meet their content management needs. And emerging vendors have been more than willing to fan the hype around headless CMS. 

But what exactly is a headless CMS? Is it for you? And what’s the best way to get the benefits of a headless architecture without creating unneeded complexity or reliance on untested technologies?

How is a headless CMS different from a traditional CMS?

A regular or full CMS has traditionaly contained two components:

  • The back end: The CMS stores and manages all the content a company has produced. This included all the tools content producers use to create content, the taxonomy and nomenclature of the content and the storage and retrieval of that content.
  • The front end (or “head”): Here the CMS manages the presentation of the content. This includes themes and templates that power the way the content is presented to the viewer. 
Traditional CMSHeadless CMS
Front endIncludedSeparate
Ideal use caseWeb-centric / websiteOmnichannel, API-driven
Developer resources requiredFewerMore
Desired customer experienceGood, less differentiatedHighly differentiated
Control of customer experienceMediumHigh
Typical experience deliveryCMS ThemeJavascript / Node.js
Applicability to experience compositionPossiblePurpose-built
Project scopeFocused, time-boundContinuous improvement

Traditionally, these two pieces of technology have been delivered by a single solution. The most popular has been WordPress, which today powers more than 40% of the web. By delivering everything in one package, content marketers and other content producers were able to easily create content faster and take advantage of a rich ecosystem of themes to create a great customer experience. 

Headless CMS operates differently. It removes the front end entirely. In headless architectures the CMS manages only the back end and exposes APIs to access content. It is then up to the organization to build their own custom front end. Often this means using technologies like Node.js to produce dynamic web pages. Regardless of the technologies, the CMS is not involved directly in defining the presentation of the content.

Pros & cons of a headless CMS

A headless CMS allows for more control and flexibility than a traditional CMS, but it also introduces more complexity. Let’s see if the pros outweigh the cons.

Advantages of a headless CMS

So if a headless CMS is similar to a traditional CMS but lacks a core component, why would anyone want to adopt this? Why is it such a hot topic? There are several key reasons why headless CMSes have become more popular recently:

  • Deeper control of the experience: By necessity, even the most complex theme or template for a web page has its limitations around customizability. By putting full control of the experience in the hands of the developer, headless architectures basically let developers do whatever they want. This can lead to highly differentiated experiences.
  • Flexibility and iteration: Developers can essentially take their pick of front end technologies. They can more quickly make changes in their code based on their analysis of user behavior and potentially iterate faster.
  • Omnichannel support: Customers no longer access content only from websites. They also use mobile apps, IoT devices, smart speakers, digital displays and much more. Decoupled applications can more easily be written with these new user touchpoints in mind.

For these reasons headless architectures have become a favorite of development and other technical teams. Often the adoption of a headless CMS accompanies the growth of development teams and new investments in digital transformation. 

Disadvantages of a headless CMS

All of this comes with a cost. Over the years, a whole ecosystem developed around CMSes. Headless CMSes often abandon years of know-how and rock-solid off-the-shelf technologies in favor of having developers “reinvent the wheel.” This can create challenges around:

  • Complexity: The flexibility of headless deployments also typically means a more complex architecture, with multiple components necessary to build the experience. Each is another piece of infrastructure that has to be designed, managed, and maintained. Failure to do so effectively can cause performance, reliability, and scalability issues.
  • Expense: All of this comes at a cost. Not only is it often expensive to maintain complex environments, but it typically takes more development resources to make changes. Instead of building from off-the-shelf themes, everything has to be built from the ground up.
  • Dependence on developers: One of the reasons CMS emerged in the first place was to reduce dependence on developers. Headless CMS puts developers back in the mix when it comes to relatively simple configuration or customization of the customer experience. But this can create bottlenecks that limit content agility.
  • Weaker tools for content creators: Because new headless CMSes were built with a developer-first mindset, many lacked good and intuitive tools for content creation. This means non-technical staff waste time trying to create the content an organization needs to fuel growth, partially negating the agility promised by many headless vendors.

Each of these is a serious pitfall and why many headless CMS projects ultimately fail to live up to their hype.

To summarize, despite lacking a core component, Headless CMSes deserve the popularity they’ve gained. However, their pitfalls can be deal-breakers for certain use cases. A headless CMS offers deeper control of the user experience, allowing developers to create highly differentiated experiences. But headless CMSes often require developers to reinvent the wheel, abandoning established technologies and creating complexity in the architecture.

So, how can you avoid the pitfalls of headless while remaining flexibile and in control?

How hybrid CMS solutions resolve headless CMS pitfalls

Thankfully, new technologies are emerging that bring the advantages of headless CMS without many of the pitfalls. A hybrid CMS allows for the flexible to build either traditional or headless applications with a single solution. They are built around a central content hub. Required capabilities include:

  • Decoupled architecture: Instead of forcing one model or the other, organizations can build their own front end or use the existing CMS-provided front end. They can even choose to build different experiences using different models—for example, building their website with an existing theme while using an API-first approach for a mobile app.
  • One central content hub: No matter where the content goes or how experiences are developed, it pulls from a single content repository that supports access from REST and GraphQL APIs.
  • Continued access to ecosystem: Years of existing plugins, themes, and templates remain available and can be used where appropriate, without losing flexibility.
  • Superior content authoring tools: Hybrid CMS gives content creators all the intuitive content creation tools they expect from leading CMSes such as WordPress, even if the front-end is something custom.

Note: Read The Forrester Wave™: Agile Content Management Systems (CMSes), Q1 2021 report here.

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How WordPress VIP can help

As part of our Hybrid CMS solution, we’ve released a series of enhancements that enable WordPress VIP to fully support headless deployment models without sacrificing the content agility and enterprise platform capabilities that make us the leading choice of some of the world’s most demanding organizations.

Enhancements include:

  • Support for Node services: Now deploy Node services directly in our WordPress VIP cloud, simplifying the management and reliability of headless applications.
  • Enhanced GraphQL support: Get complete access to everything you need to build rich digital experiences using WordPress and Javascript using GraphQL APIs.
  • Matching of Gutenberg blocks with React components: Access block-level data within content exposed via the GraphQL API. An accompanying NodeJS Quick Start makes it simple to style these blocks as React components.
  • Redis support: Now deploy a custom Redis service within your own private network in WordPress VIP for use with Node apps.
  • Enhanced logging: Enjoy improved real-time application logs and build logs, making it easier to debug your Node apps.

Customers who use these new enhancements still retain access to all content authoring capabilities, including WordPress’ intuitive Gutenberg editor, WordPress themes, plugins, and other technologies. No longer do organizations need to choose between the user experience customization of headless deployments and the content agility and ease of WordPress.

With WordPress VIP, you get the best of both worlds.

Learn more best practices for headless CMS

Explore our Headless CMS Resource Guide for more information and best practices regarding headless CMS. Want to learn more about how people are using headless architectures to drive new and differentiated experiences and how WordPress VIP can help?

Request a demo.

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