Headless CMS has been a rising trend – and popular buzzword – in digital content management for several years. The Wikipedia definition of a “Headless CMS” is succinct and accurate and provides the technical reader with an adequate explanation.
"A headless content management system, or headless CMS, is a back-end only content management system (CMS) built from the ground up as a content repository that makes content accessible via a RESTful API for display on any device.
The term “headless” comes from the concept of chopping the “head” (the front end, i.e. the website) off the “body” (the back end, i.e. the content repository)."
A full appreciation of the business significance and the need for headless content management system warrants a more thorough discussion. For a closely related topic, please read the article on Decoupled CMS.
What is a Headless CMS?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a mad rush towards building websites. For businesses and individuals alike, these websites were the very first foray into any kind of digital presence. Websites back then were comparatively simple, typically displaying static content – mostly words and some intermingled graphics – and acting as an electronic billboard of sorts. For kicks and some retrospective, here is an example of what a popular, state-of-the-art website looked like at the beginning of the new millennium (remember Blockbuster?):
Courtesy of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine
Almost everyone used one of two browsers (Internet Explorer or Netscape) on their PCs to peruse websites such as the one above. Individuals with rudimentary technical skills could set up a basic web presence in a matter of hours, while a small team could produce a Blockbuster-style homepage in a week or two. Given all this was an original and exciting new trend, the results would consistently delight audiences and provide a company with an instant advantage over their “offline” competitors.
It is debatable what counts as the first software to manage web content, but there is an industry consensus that the first generation of content management systems gained popularity in the mid to late 90s. Since the world was much simpler back then, a content management system or “CMS” didn’t really have to worry about being able to do very much. Simply allowing someone to package and publish content onto a website was enough to hit the mark, while scale, security and the idea of mobile content consumption weren’t considerations that mattered back then.
Architecturally, this resulted in the adoption of web content management solutions that were highly tuned to be very good at one thing: getting content on the web quickly and efficiently. From a usability perspective, the environment heavily favored tools that were straightforward to use, tightly integrated and streamlined. The CMS implementations of this first generation iterated quickly to improve the user experience and make content management achievable for more and more people.
Some of the very first web content management tools of note were IBM’s FileNet and Vignette Story Server, which laid the foundation for what was to come next. These content management systems excelled at the creation of websites, firmly establishing the world’s first digital channel (i.e., the Web) as a vehicle to distribute digital content to growing online audiences.
Learn more about the history of content management systems (CMS) and the rising popularity of a headless CMS.
The Rise of WordPress and Drupal Content Management System
Quickly after the dawn of the World Wide Web, the first blogs began to appear and content production surged. For bloggers, the more turnkey a CMS, the more attractive it was. WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get”) editing became a popular content management system feature because it allowed for faster website creation and a quick and simple QA process for published content.
Along with WYSIWYG, open source content management solutions like WordPress and Drupal helped the CMS become a mainstream technology. They contributed significantly to CMS innovation and helped galvanize developer communities who, over the last few decades, have created literally tens of thousands of modules and plugins – all enhancing and adding features around the core functionality of a CMS.
Meanwhile, commercial CMS vendors like Interwoven, Sitecore and Adobe were highly successful in offering their all-in-one product suites to enterprises. With better software scalability and the ability to secure and support a content management system environment, they were able to provide the average business a safe path onto the web.
CMS Moves From Single Channel to Omnichannel
In the previous section, we described the golden years of the Content Management System industry. A lot of websites and content were created, there was a ton of innovation and a lot of money was made.
Unfortunately, as more and more browser versions and device form factors appeared on the market, WYSIWYG began to struggle guaranteeing content fidelity across the many hardware and software combinations, which impacted both open source offerings and commercial vendors. What looked “pixel perfect” on a Windows 98 PC running Internet Explorer 5 almost never looked quite right on a Windows XP PC running a different version of Internet Explorer. Add into the mix workstations running Linux, Unix or OS/2, and you quickly ended up with WYSINWYG – What You See Is Not What You Get.
Then, along came mobile and made things exponentially worse.
Eyeballs moved from browsers on PCs to browsers on smartphones. Then, they moved to apps. In a relatively short period of time, we went from a single channel – the Web – to a nearly infinite number of digital display devices. Beyond phones and tablets, digital content proliferated across electronic kiosks, in-seat dashboards and jumbotrons. More recently, augmented and virtual reality, voice interfaces and chatbots have been added as important content channels. In order to find and engage critical audiences – including customers, partners, and employees – organizations and brands must have a presence on all of these digital channels.
Read more about omnichannel content and the impact it has on digital experiences.
Learn the top 5 ways in which headless cms architecture advances innovation.
CMS Confronts Multifaceted Digital Content Consumption
When it comes to adding complexity to the world of content management, mobile devices and apps aren’t the only trends to blame. Content itself has morphed from being simple, generic and static to being rich, highly contextual and dynamic.
For starters, content today includes a mix of video, audio and many other formats. Content sources are as varied as the content formats themselves, with the CMS often bringing together information stored on-premises (e.g., in an old ERP system) as well as in the cloud (Salesforce, Marketo…). In order to personalize content, it is blended with realtime information about the person consuming it, taking into account their location, profile, preferences and behavior, such as a recent purchase.
Being able to act as the digital content hub for a variety of data sources and delivering a personalized, content-driven, engaging experience is required to meet the elevated expectations of today’s audiences.
Headless CMS Content Management to the Rescue
The solution to making this possible is as simple conceptually as it is beautiful architecturally. Instead of prescribing upfront where and how content can be displayed, any and all assumptions about the latter’s presentation are dropped. A traditional content management system mixes content with code to prescribe how the content is displayed. Here’s a typical CMS user view:
While this works if there’s just a single destination, in our new paradigm, instructing how things should be displayed varies so much across all the different endpoints, it no longer makes sense to hardcode them alongside the content. A superior approach manages the content separately from associated logic and presentation code. With content separated from code, the former can now be delivered in a destination-neutral fashion using, you guessed it, APIs. Content delivered via an API in a platform-agnostic format such as JSON is parsed and interpreted differently depending on where it ends up on display.
So… What Is (And Why Do We Need) Headless Content Management System?
This is where we close the circle with our Wikipedia definition. Let’s call the part of the CMS that cares about the presentation the “head”, akin to how we care about the presentation of our own, physical heads.
Decoupled CMS and Headless CMS Architectures
By removing the head, what remains is a head-less CMS that manages content without any bias towards where and how the content should be published. Of course, we still want our content to look great. A headless CMS simply separates the concerns of managing content from concerns of presenting it and removes this outdated interdependency.
The benefits of a headless CMS are immediate and compelling:
- Instead of having to implement multiple, parallel content management system instances, e.g., to support web and mobile channels, a single headless CMS instance can serve unlimited digital channels.
- A single source of content, such as a product description for an online catalog, can automatically adapt to its publishing environment and present itself optimally for its destination.
- The separation of code and content in a headless CMS makes life easier for content editors, who can ignore the code and exclusively focus on the content they are responsible for.
- Developers, meanwhile, can use all the latest tools and frameworks to bring content experiences to life on any and all modern platforms, without being locked into a proprietary language or other limitations of a particular content management system.
- Content delivered via APIs is significantly easier to integrate, manipulate and distribute, reducing the time it takes to create content-driven experiences, including sites and apps.
Ever since leading analyst firms identified the headless CMS trend (such as Forrester Research with its eponymous report on The Rise of the Headless CMS) enterprises and their IT departments have taken note. While many websites continue to be well served by the traditional CMS architecture, digital business leaders are drawn to the improved time to market, the compelling economics and overall efficiencies that headless content management systems offer.
Looking ahead, the headless CMS approach is quickly becoming a crucial component of the new generation of Digital Experience Platforms (DXPs). DXPs go significantly beyond web content management to create rich, engaging experiences for audiences a multitude of channels. And what WYSIWYG was to the CMS of the 90s, the headless CMS has become for DXPs and future generations of content management.