Adobe Basics: What is headless CMS?

Quick Definition

A headless content management system, or headless CMS is a back-end only content management system that acts primarily as a content repository. It makes content accessible via an API for display on a wide variety of devices, without the need for a built-in front-end or presentation layer. The term ‘headless’ comes from the concept of chopping the front-end (head) off the back-end (body).

What is the difference between a traditional content management system and a headless CMS?

Unlike content delivery with a traditional CMS (also known as a “headful” CMS), a “headless” CMS allows you to create content once and reuse it everywhere, delivering the same experience quickly and easily to any channel via a single push.

How does a Headless CMS work?

Headless CMS works via APIs. Content is created in the headless CMS. This same piece of content is then rendered for all relevant channels via an API for each application.

For example, a furniture retailer is running a promotion on a red armchair. The photograph, product details and promotional information are created in the headless CMS. It has been agreed this product promotion will be placed on the website and shared with the market via Facebook Messenger; email; WhatsApp; Apple Watch and social channels Twitter and Facebook. Using APIs for each of these applications, the promotional information will be extracted from the headless CMS and quickly and accurately distributed across each of those communication channels in the correct format.

What are the pros and cons of using Headless CMS?

CMS helps businesses offer content in multiple mediums to reach users on the device they’re using at the time. This is critical for businesses producing high volumes of content who also consider outstanding customer experience a high priority. However, there are advantages and disadvantages depending on the type of business you’re operating:

Pros of using Headless CMS:

  1. Choice - developers can define the content and the structure within the headless fragment, using the development frameworks they prefer
  2. Speed to market - low code and no code content delivery APIRs allow you to push the same piece of content to multiple channels at once, meaning less time for development teams to manage infrastructure.
  3. Future proof - headless CMS helps you keep up with the pace of developing technology. You don’t need to worry about your content being compatible with a new platform or device. By using an API, your content will be ready to deliver on any platform, app, or device.
  4. Better customer experiences - when your marketing team doesn’t have to create new content for every platform, you can publish and update content across channels and platforms simultaneously and in real time, leaving marketers to focus on creating memorable and personalised experiences.

Cons of using Headless CMS:

  1. Development cost - while the lack of a front end presentation layer means more flexibility, it comes at an additional cost. Without the presentation layer that comes with traditional CMS platforms, developer time will need to be spent on creating it.
  2. Upfront cost - The upfront cost of implementing a headless system that will affect ways of working for multiple significant stakeholders can’t be ignored. It’s a significant investment in your longer term competitive advantage.
  3. WYSIWYG - The simple WYSIWYG editor is often a key component of traditional CMS software, but since headless CMSs are decoupled from the front end, those building blocks may not exist. Without such an editor in place, developers will need to build tooling that replicates this functionality for non-technical users like the marketing team, otherwise there will be an overreliance on IT staff. The other solution is to consider a hybrid CMS solution.

Should you consider headless?

The drivers for going headless will be different for developers; IT and business users such as marketing or legal. Wherever you sit, the following points cover the primary reasons to consider going headless:

  1. You want Omnichannel experiences - since a traditional CMS’s purpose was to manage content for websites, but modern consumers interact with information across so many other channels now, you need a CMS that delivers cross-channel for your audiences.
  2. Save time - You only need to create and upload content once on a headless CMS. The API the does the work to translate that content to the right format for each application or platform, saving time reproducing content each time.
  3. Decoupled front and back end - Traditionally CMSs have tightly integrated front and backends, meaning that the content presentation layer can’t be separated from the content marketing. This makes building out a unique customer journey that changes in response to customer needs more challenging. Headless separates the two to create complete flexibility.
  4. Talent retention - great tech talent is hard to come by. Using headless gives developers far more freedom and flexibility to work under the latest frameworks, giving them plenty of technical development opportunities which are critical for retention.
  5. Future proofing - implementing headless enables the business to be agile enough to handle any future developments, trends, or integrations.

Which departments will benefit from Headless CMS?

In many cases it’s developers who will have the most interest in headless CMS in the early stages. But stakeholders for headless will include IT and business users such as marketing and legal.

For developers:

For IT:

For Business Users (ie. anyone creating any type of content):

Introducing Adobe Experience Manager

Adobe Experience Manager Sites can address your current needs for headless content management while building a foundation for future growth. Experience Manager Sites is a modern, cloud-native content management system that gives you a full combination of rich headless capabilities, comprehensive traditional CMS modes, and powerful single-page application (SPA) tools to deliver immersive experiences everywhere.

Developers get full flexibility to deliver content headlessly, while marketers can accelerate content velocity to more channels, maximise reuse, and ensure tailored experiences.