What is Headless CMS?

Posted by Paweł Dąbrowski on April 6, 2020

GSD

Co-authored by Brigid Burt

Have you recently heard the term ‘headless CMS’ and wondered what it is?

We’ve got you covered!

A headless CMS is a content repository system that allows control of website content, has no presentation layer and displays data on any device. 

It’s the modern solution to the traditional CMS, which is experiencing some tricky issues time and time again.

Intrigued? Let’s start with the history of the CMS…

ButterCMS 1.png

A Brief History of the CMS - From Traditional to Headless

What does ‘CMS’ mean?

CMS stands for ‘content management system.’ This software application provides easy website management for both technical and non-technical users.

A CMS can be used for blogs, e-commerce, informational websites, and advanced projects. WordPress is an excellent example of a popular content management system.

The idea behind CMS emerged when advanced websites and technologies began to shine through. The average non-technical user needed a simple content creation process that didn’t rely on complex digital knowledge.

In came the mighty CMS, as they allow users to control the website’s content and appearance from a password-protected control panel in an easily digestible way.

So, why does the standard CMS need an alternative?

While it was smooth sailing for many years with the traditional CMS paving the way, technological advancements are starting to create some issues. 

As more people have moved towards mobile devices as their main digital tools, the CMS we all knew and loved began to suffer.

Technical debt started to gather, with years of patches and updates of fragmented codebases and large-scale refactoring desperately needing to be updated. 

While the ‘Application Programming Interface’ (API) became a short-term solution, developers are facing mountains of problems with traditional content management systems. 

Headless CMS: The modern approach

This is where the modern headless CMS comes into play. 

Content delivered on a headless CMS is pure, meaning it can display data on any device since it isn’t permanently attached to a presentation layer. And we don’t just mean mobiles, but voice technology too (Alexa!)

Headless CMS allows you to manage all platforms’ content from one single place.

Graph showing how API can direct content anywhere

What is Headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system that separates the presentation layer (head) and database (body.)

With this new approach, the content stored in the headless CMS acts as a back-end content repository. It delivers the content to the presentation layer of choice via the API. 

This is key when implementing omnichannel strategies as it lets users integrate their sites with other platforms.

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What headless means for non-technical people

Don’t worry about website visitors seeing the switch-over from traditional to headless as there’s no perceived difference between traditional and headless CMS’.

In fact, they’re more likely to see consistent content across multiple platforms. A major win for seamlessly integrating with upcoming digital trends and platforms!

And those working within the project (marketers, copywriters, editors) will see significant improvements in their work processes.

What headless means for technical people

For developers, product owners, consultants - all those who are technically inclined - ‘headless’ refers to the application being built on an external API. 

The main difference between a standard external API provided by a service and an API from a headless CMS is having full control over the content.

Traditional CMS vs Headless CMS

Another difference is the speed at which updates and bugs are fixed - a necessity in today’s market. 

With a headless CMS, the ‘head’ is usually under active maintenance and development, meaning bugs are quickly resolved, and requests handled swiftly. 

With a standard CMS, the development process is much slower and convoluted, especially when it comes to open source options. You have to wait for the following CMS version release to iron out any bugs. 

Whereas the headless CMS can instantly bring in new features and enhancements so your users can enjoy them from the get-go. 

The Traditional vs Headless CMS Ecosystem

Let’s look at the ecosystem behind both and how the headless CMS continues to provide a modern solution in the age of technological advancements. 

Traditional CMS Ecosystem

traditional-cms-illustration.png

Body / Back-end: where you create, manage and store content. All of your authority tools exist on this platform.

Head / Front-end: the layout, design, navigation, and what your audience sees on display. 

Both parts are tightly coupled together and work in tandem to push out content on the web to deliver a good user experience. 

Need a better visual? Let’s think of it as a restaurant. 

Body / Back-end: the kitchen staff and chefs putting the meal together behind the scenes

Head / front-end: the dining area where customers sit, reflect on decor, order, interact with wait staff, and eat. 

Both parts work in unison to deliver a good customer experience.

Headless CMS Ecosystem

headless-cms-illustration.png

With a headless CMS, things are a little different. 

The head (presentation of the site, the layout, design, navigation, etc) is completely separated from the body.

Raw content exists on the back-end, but there is no front-end framework to present it on. 

So, where does the content go? How is it displayed? Does it 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.) This is the engine that drives the content to the place you want it to go.

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Let’s go back to the restaurant:

Customers sit down to order. A waiter takes the order and delivers it to the kitchen staff. 

The kitchen staff cooks and assembles the dishes and the server comes back to deliver the meals to the customers. 

The waiter = the API; they allow the front-end to get what it needs from the back-end. 

But in a headless content management system, you don’t have to be physically sitting in the restaurant to enjoy the food. 

The waiter (the API) can deliver the food anywhere you wish. You’re not limited to being in the restaurant. 

The API can bring the content (and the food) anywhere; a smartphone, Apple Watch, Alexa - not just a desktop.

Why Use a Headless CMS?

With the headless CMS approach, you can optimize for multiple devices using the same technology. And you’ll have a one-stop shop for accessing all the content displayed across these. 

Your developers won’t have to adjust to a programming language they hate, the speed will improve as the lack of ‘head’ results in smaller code, and it’s completely future-focused.

As the digital world changes each year, you’ll be able to adapt to the newest technologies - keeping you one step ahead of your competitors.

Advantages of a Headless CMS

  • You can utilize the same content across many platforms without starting again from scratch. You have a single repository of content on the back-end for unlimited channels. The API does the heavy lifting for you, so your content can be accessed from any endpoint.
  • It’s future-focused. Need to display in a chatbot or an Apple Watch? Or are you thinking about future virtual reality experiences? Headless CMS keeps pace with emerging technologies since the content is stored as raw data and can mold into whatever is next.
  • You’ll have a happier developer: They are free to work with whatever programming language they choose and are not tied to a specific CMS framework. 
  • Goodbye redundant templates, themes, and styles: You can make it entirely yours; 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 requires less code. This creates faster page load speeds, which are great for your SEO. 
  • Enhanced security: The publishing platform can’t be accessed from a database, so your chances of being a victim of cyber attacks go down. 
  • Lower costs: Headless CMS is cheaper as you don’t have to pay for a full database set-up, background job processing software, search engine, or the developer resources required to maintain and update the CMS so your apps don’t break
  • Compatibility: From one place, you can control all the content displayed on all devices. 
  • Reduces time to market: You can release your websites faster and make amendments quicker.
  • Easy deployment: The deployment process is fast since you don’t need to hire a DevOps expert.
  • Processes are more straightforward with a headless CMS: it simplifies each part for everyone.
  • Full control over content authorization, with a roles and permissions system.

Core advantages for marketers

With a headless CMS like ButterCMS, the marketers can create content just once and replicate this across platforms; without worrying about administration issues or technical aspects. 

There’s a handy text editor too so the text can be formatted correctly, focusing on the user experience.

The intuitive user interface helps to select and create content at scale, making it a much more seamless experience for everyone involved! And as the marketer has more tools at hand, there’s no longer the need for designers to make content updates. 

Each content section, page, or layout can be adjusted to fit the marketer’s preference or brand guidelines as they can directly choose which components they want to use when building. This is simple and doesn’t require any coding knowledge.

With ButterCMS, the marketer can focus on what they do best (the content) rather than the layout.

Core advantages for developers

There’ll be no more back-end restrictions or obstacles because of a given programming language. 

Developers can use the tools they love and focus on building beautiful interfaces without worrying about performance issues. And they can breathe a sigh of relief as there’s no longer a need to maintain, update, or keep a CMS secure - ButterCMS does it for you. 

Your app will never be down because of your CMS again.

Creating different content delivery channels has never been easier than with ButterCMS as it integrates with every developer tech stack. 

Core advantages for users

User experience will be uninterrupted, faster, and more responsive. 

They can use the same application across different channels.

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Common Applications & Use Cases of Headless CMS

Headless CMS, like ButterCMS, can be utilized in various applications. Here are the most common:

Standard websites: You can build a website using whatever technology you like best, the one you feel most comfortable with. There are no limits because you’re working with an API. If the technology can send HTTP requests and parse the responses, you can use it successfully with your headless CMS.

Web apps: You can build a modern web app using any of programming languages and frameworks. 

Websites created with static site generators: With tools like Jekyll or Gatsby, you can generate static websites that don’t require access to the database. These can be hosted on any server without any cost. This kind of website is popular amongst developers, and the usage of the headless CMS API should be no problem. 

Native mobile apps: Most native mobile apps connect with some back-end application, so there’s no reason why you can’t use the headless CMS API.

HappyFresh.com is a great example. They implemented ButterCMS’ to power their mobile app for ordering groceries, covering multiple countries and languages with ease.

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

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

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

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

Take Eola.co, which quickly launched beautiful, insightful, and high-quality blog posts with great SEO through ButterCMS. Their content works well across multiple platforms.

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: You can configure a custom set of SEO fields for different content. It can handle locations, media content, app store listings, and more. 

Key.me took full advantage of this when they moved to ButterCMS. They built a stellar back-end to define content regions and help scale their SEO landing pages.

A Heads-up on Headless: Things to Keep in Mind

Ultimately, using a headless CMS means you can grow your business quicker and with greater flexibility. 

More customers can be reached across a plethora of digital means - no matter what the next trend is. 

But, for those who are accustomed to traditional CMS, here are some things you may lose when you switch to headless:

Preview option on ButterCMS is enabled

A live preview of your content: Some Headless CMS’ don’t let you immediately preview your content when you update it. If this is important to you, select a headless CMS that offers 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 set-up: They create the front-end layer and connect the back-end 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 your channels are custom-built by your designers and development team.

Getting Started on Headless with ButterCMS

ButterCMS is an API-first headless CMS created by developers and perfect for building CMS applications and websites in any programming language. 

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

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

See our dynamic solutions to see how we fit your business, and check out our integrations here.

Conclusion: The Headless CMS is the Future of Content

With digital changing rapidly and beyond ways we could only ever imagine, it’s vital for CMS’ to keep up. And with ButterCMS, we do just that. 

Headless CMS provides the best tools for content and software creators in the modern world. By using ButterCMS, every user can be proactive and seize every opportunity to serve content on a new platform or device as soon as it’s available. 

For the first time, content quality is as important as its availability. 

It’s good to have experts who take care of the business logic for your application, but it’s better to have them and pay less. Outsourcing is the key to outstanding performance and lowers costs, with ButterCMS being the solution. 

Having a well-maintained back-end for an application is more affordable with a headless CMS. With ButterCMS, you can rest easy knowing you’re in the right hands with opportunities around every corner.

And you’re future-proofed, no matter what the next wacky innovation is - interested to see how this will work for your next project? Try ButterCMS for free here.

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Paweł Dąbrowski

Paweł is a self-made writer of the digital era, IT samurai and problem solver who loves Ruby. He writes for human beings and computers at pdabrowski.com and focuses on soft skills in the software creation process.

ButterCMS is the #1 rated Headless CMS

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