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Working with a “headless” CMS

Jasper Steenweg
Jasper Steenweg
Integrations Director
7 min read
1 April 2021

A Content Management System (CMS) is more than just a tool by which to organise a website. Instead, it is part of the larger digital landscape which lays the foundation for creating a personalized customer experience. One of the predominant trends of today is the use of a headless CMS. When investigating whether a headless CMS is right for your organisation, it’s useful to look at its advantages and disadvantages compared to a classic CMS.

What is a headless CMS?

Let’s start with the basics. The term “headless” comes from the analogy of cutting the “head”, which is the front-end in this scenario, from the “body” which is the back-end. Essentially, a headless CMS views the front-end and back-end as separate systems and focuses only on the back-end. Because of this, content is disassociated from its presentation layer, meaning marketers don’t have to mill around in code and can easily create content and then reuse it on any current or future channels such as a website, an app and a smartwatch, to name a few examples. Also, developers can create new digital channels and experiences without being tied to any framework or language. The CMS delivers the content raw via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to any channel available, such as websites, apps, IoT devices, digital kiosks and so on, to create an omnichannel experience. It’s similar to a database which serves your content, via an API, to any channel such as website, app and so on, that may depend on it. Similar to database tables, a content model is a core concept of any headless CMS, that when defined, gives structure to the data. 

The advantages of a headless CMS

A headless CMS has numerous advantages which make managing content across different delivery formats easier. From lower operating costs to an easy setup, here are a few benefits of using a headless CMS system:

  • It’s flexible: Content editors can work with whichever headless CMS they like while developers can build the front-end using their preferred language and the two can be connected simply by using APIs. This gives both marketers and developers full flexibility and can enable more creativity.
  • Faster time-to-market: A headless CMS system promotes an agile way of working. Since content creators don’t have to worry about the presentation aspect of the content, this can speed up the production process. Simultaneously, developers can work on their projects. This means companies can roll out updates without compromising their website performance. 
  • Extra security: Given that a headless CMS separates content production from distribution this lowers the risk of a denial-of-service attack. Also, the API used to provide content can be placed behind one or more layers of code making it less vulnerable to attacks.
  • Stability: An established headless CMS system will generally be well tested, stable, and bug-free. It will save you the stress of writing a custom user interface for data input, much like a classic CMS will.

Headless vs. classic CMS

So far, a headless CMS seems to have many advantages over a simple database, but what sets it apart from a classic CMS? The answer depends on what you are trying to build. If your brand is building a website, then a classic CMS could be a good choice as it will allow users to access it directly and preview any changes while editing the data. If you are dealing with a classic open-source CMS you will perhaps be able to alter it and install custom plugins to allow more functionality.

But what happens when you want to build a complex platform? For example, say you need to build multiple websites and a mobile application for both Android and Apple which in turn share data with the website. Hypothetically, this might even involve additional services that run on Linux and Windows servers. And what if you want to support third-party developers? This is an over-exaggerated scenario but the point is that a classic CMS would fail to deliver in this scenario. However, a headless CMS would provide these features because of the API which acts as a connector between your various platforms and your content.

The downsides of a headless CMS

While boasting many advantages, a headless CMS is not perfect. It might make some scenarios more complicated to deal with, such as testing new features without affecting live environments, or the fact that data exists on a server that you do not control are just a few examples.

  • Testing difficulties: For example, testing code for various environments (test, integration, production) may not be as straightforward on a headless CMS because many of them do not support this feature. It’s likely that there will be a single environment and one set of data. This causes issues when developing new features or changing existing ones forcing companies to adapt their current data models. Some headless CMS products on the market may include rudimentary tools for duplicating data and allowing one to access it separately from the original. However, when making changes to content models or the data itself and the time comes to release the new feature, developers often face problems in propagating those changes back to the original environment without damaging it or causing data corruption. Thus, manual data model adjustments will need to be done using a headless CMS.
  • Always online problems: Despite the benefits of a constant online presence, it can be a problem when your client software loses access to the internet. Unless you put in a lot of effort to cache your data and properly synchronize any changes with the headless CMS, it may cause a lot of headaches when the various mobile apps, services, and applications come online and start injecting old data into the existing system. 
  • Data behind a paywall: Paid headless CMS products might require companies to shell out a monthly subscription. However, if you stop paying, your data may no longer be available. This might be avoided if you are using a free product but free products often have a stigma of being of lower quality due to low incentives for developers to maintain and update them. In most cases, it will be possible to retrieve data via support staff but unless you pay a subscription fee, your API access is going to be blocked

Is a headless CMS right for me?

The answer to that question depends on your needs. A classic CMS system might be a better option for brands looking to develop a simple website. But if you want to customize your website or want to add functionalities which a classic CMS does not offer, then a headless CMS might be better.

However, if neither of these options perfectly fits your company’s needs, don’t fret. Download our whitepaper which can help you find a CMS that will fit your unique needs and specific business goals. With strategic considerations, insights from field specialists and hands-on best practices, you’ll find everything in this whitepaper to kick-start your CMS selection.

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Integrations Director

Jasper Steenweg