What Is Headless CMS? A Simple Guide for Marketing Teams

Posted by Brigid Burt on March 11, 2021


The digital marketing landscape in 2021 is moving at a breakneck speed. New technologies emerge that create ever-expanding ways to reach and attract new customers beyond traditional website touchpoints: from mobile apps and wearable devices to voice-controlled digital assistants and chatbots. 

Heck, even virtual reality experiences are knocking traditional marketing off its feet.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is here to stay.

Cover Image: What is Headless CMS? Simple Guide for Marketing Teams

If you’re a content marketing strategist, chances are you’re likely just trying to keep your head above water and looking for someone to throw you a life preserver. 

Maybe you’ve quickly realized that your content management system (CMS) does not fit this new digital reality.

Consumers are looking for new experiences beyond reading content in front of their computer: They want content to travel with them wherever they go.

How can marketers constantly create content, package it for one marketing channel, and then painstakingly repackage it for every new gadget and application that exists?  

If our digital experiences are changing, shouldn’t our way of managing content change with it?

Why Headless CMS Is Right for Marketers

You’ve probably been introduced to the term Headless CMS — either by way of your developers who are pleading with you to change your CMS, or by way of your own Google search. 

Chances are, you’re confused and maybe even terrified. The term “Headless” reminds you of a Frankenstein creature taken straight out of a science-fiction script.

Headless Content Monster

So, what is Headless CMS and why are we talking about content as a removable body part? 

Don’t worry, we’ll explain this metaphor later.

In this blog post, we’ll take some of the mystique out of Headless CMS and make the learning process easy to understand. We’ll explain why Headless CMS is the future of content delivery, and why you should care.

We hope that this guide will enable you to take a Headless CMS approach for content delivery.

See How ButterCMS Helps Companies Take Control of Their Content

Wrapping Your Head Around Headless CMS

Before we start explaining the path to Headless CMS for your content management strategy, let’s quickly break down how traditional content management systems like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla operate.

The Traditional CMS Ecosystem

For people who don’t have coding skills, web development is made possible through a content management system. 

Writers, editors, and marketers create, edit, manage, and publish content through a few clicks of a button without having to worry about writing HTML, CSS, or JavaScript. 

They have templates, built-in themes, and plug-ins at their disposal to control the design of the website. 

This all happens within a single application. It’s a one-stop-shop for website creation. 

To understand the headless concept, we have to get a little technical, but we’ll make this part as painless as possible.

A traditional CMS is made up of two parts. This is where the head and body metaphor comes in:

  • The back end (body): the place where you create, manage, and store content. All of your authoring tools exist on this platform.
  • The front end (the head): the “look and feel” of your website: the presentation that your audience sees on display — think layout, design, and navigation.

Traditional CMS - Illustration

These two parts are tightly wound together (the official term is “coupled”) and work in tandem to push out content on the web to deliver a seamless user experience. 

Traditional CMS has been the de facto CMS for well over a decade since WordPress emerged on the scene. That’s why people often refer to traditional CMS as “legacy” CMS, or “monolithic,” because everything is put together in one place.

The Restaurant Analogy

Need a better visual? Code Analogies breaks it down beautifully by describing the inner workings of a restaurant:

  • The behind-the-scenes kitchen staff putting the meal together is the back end.
  • The dining area where customers sit, take in the décor, order from a menu, interact with the wait staff, and eat is the front end.

When customers sit down at the table, the wait staff at the front of the house and the kitchen staff at the back of the housework in unison to deliver a seamless restaurant experience.

undefined undefined
Back End Front End

See How ButterCMS Helps Companies Take Control of Their Content

The Headless CMS Ecosystem

Now that you understand the front end and back end of a traditional CMS, it’s going to be easier to learn Headless CMS.

In Headless CMS, the presentation (the head) is completely separated (imagine we remove the head). Raw content exists on the back end (the body), but there is no front-end framework to present it on. 

Headless CMS - Illustration

So where does the content go, and how does it get displayed? Does it just walk around like a headless robot?

The simple answer: It can go anywhere you want it to go. 

Content can be delivered on multiple front-ends through an API  (Application Programming Interface).

The Power of the API

We won’t dive too deep into the world of APIs, but put simply, an API enables two different applications to talk to one another.

In the context of Headless CMS, it’s the engine that drives the content to the place where you want it to go.

Still not clicking? Let’s go back to the restaurant analogy:

Customers sit down at a table and order from a menu. A waiter at a restaurant takes the order and delivers it to the kitchen staff. The kitchen staff cooks and assembles the dishes, and then the server comes back out to deliver the prepared meals to the customers.

The waiter acts as the link between the customer at the front of the house and the back kitchen staff. An API, then, is essentially the waiter that allows the front end to get what it needs from the back end.

Here's a nice video from MuleSoft that succinctly explains this concept: 

In a Headless Content Management System, we’ll take the restaurant analogy one step further:

You don’t have to be physically sitting in the restaurant to enjoy the food. You can have the food delivered from the back kitchen to your own home or anywhere you please by way of a delivery driver.

Similarly, an API can deliver content anywhere it needs to go. In a Headless Content Management System, it’s not limited to one front-end presentation.

Translation: You don’t just have to present content on the web. Thanks to the API, you can deliver it wherever your audience is: on a smartphone, on their Apple Watch, even on Alexa.

Headless CMS API - Illustration

Benefits of Using Headless CMS

Now that you have a better understanding of Headless CMS, what does this mean for you as a marketer?

  • You can push content across many platforms without having to repeatedly build things from scratch: You have a single repository of content on the back end for multiple and unlimited channels. The API does the heavy lifting and allows you to access your content from virtually any endpoint.
  • It’s future-focused: Need to display things in a chatbot or on an Apple watch? Or are you thinking about the future of virtual reality experiences? Headless CMS keeps pace with emerging technologies since content is stored as raw data and can be molded into whatever is in store for the future.
  • You’ll get a happier developer: They are free to work with whatever programming language they choose and are not tied to a specific CMS framework.
  • Goodbye templates, themes, and styles: You don’t have to be restricted to predetermined design and can let your imagination run wild.
  • Responsive layouts: You can optimize the same text and images differently for many platforms.
  • Speed: With no head, the CMS has smaller code and a lighter load to carry. This creates faster page load speeds, which are great for your SEO. 
  • Enhanced Security: The publishing platform is not accessed from a database, so your chances of being a victim of cyber attacks go down.

Use Cases for Headless

If you constantly need to reach your customer: Headless CMS can push messages out faster to any platform. This is vital for airline and financial industries who need to reach their customers at crucial moments.

If you need to support an omnichannel experience: Headless CMS can push to newer formats like experiential promotions, retail pop-ups and kiosks, and third-party partnerships on any platform.

If you’re rebranding: Migrating content will be easy for your developer as they’re not locked into one look or style. They can work with any marketing stack.

If you’re adding a blog to your website: You can add it without losing your layout presentation. The content can easily plug into your design.

If you need to keep your data secure: Developers steer clear of WordPress because it’s vulnerable to hackers and requires security updates. Thanks to the API, Headless CMS is generally more secure if you want to protect sensitive data.

If you want to expand SEO beyond blog post ranking: Headless CMS allows you to configure a custom set of SEO fields for different content types. It can handle locations, media content, app store listings, and more.

A Heads Up on Headless

Headless CMS ultimately allows marketers to grow their business fast and with greater flexibility. More customers can be reached on multiple platforms, and it’s also prepared for any future device it faces.

However, if you’re a marketer, like a pair of new shoes, it may take some time to break into if you’re accustomed to traditional CMS. Some things you lose with Headless (besides the head):

  • A live preview of your content: Some Headless CMS systems don't let you immediately see how your content will look when you update it. If this is important to you, be sure to select a Headless CMS that has live previewing as a feature. ButterCMS has a great preview feature that allows you to preview changes in the same window where you're editing content.
  • You need a developer for the initial setup: They create the front-end layer and plug the back-end in via the API. Once your system is configured, you’re free to go about your day-to-day updates and tasks that would otherwise require a developer. Over time, Headless CMS typically requires less involvement from your development team.
  • No more cookie-cutter templates: All of your templates for all of your channels are custom-built by your development team.

Getting Started on Headless with ButterCMS

ButterCMS works with any marketing tech stack so you can work with virtually any developer who’s familar with Headless CMS.

We’re also marketer-friendly, providing a powerful WYSIWYG editor and friendly user interface that allow you to create fully-functional SEO landing pages and flexible page layouts.

ButterCMS Edit Page UI.png

Our powerful global Content Delivery Network (CDN) works to keep your images, video, and audio loading fast with zero maintenance on your end.

See our dynamic solutions to see how we fit your business.

Wrap Up

With technology progressing at warp speed, marketers face new challenges to reach customers. Your content management system should in turn be dynamic and not stuck to one framework.

Thanks to the API, Headless CMS can drive your content anywhere your customer travels so you can catch them at the right time and at the right place.

In a sea of constant change, Headless CMS is the life raft that will help you smoothly navigate the omnichannel waters of tomorrow's digital marketing. Switch to ButterCMS today and you’ll never struggle to keep your head above water.


Receive tutorials, informative articles, and ButterCMS updates to keep your work running smoothly.
Brigid Burt

Brigid Burt lives in Chicago and has been a professional writer and editor for over a decade. She loves writing about content for ButterCMS and sharing her ideas with anyone who will listen.

ButterCMS is the #1 rated Headless CMS

Related articles

Don’t miss a single post

Get our latest articles, stay updated!