What is a headless CMS?

Sep 29, 20239 min read

Talk to an expert

about something you read on this page

Contact an expert

Headless CMS has been a rising trend — and popular buzzword — in digital content management for several years. The term CMS stands for content management system. This article explains what the headless CMS offers, its benefits, and the type of companies going headless. It demonstrates how the digital content apocalypse led to the shift from old-fashioned content management systems to modern headless ones.

Headless CMS explained in 2 minutes

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system that arranges and controls content without an associated front end or presentation layer. The headless CMS is not only decoupled; it resides as an API-first CMS where all your content and assets are stored. You can use a content API to share your content on different platforms. These platforms include your website, mobile apps, email marketing, and CRM.

A headless CMS is an essential element of composable architecture and digital experience platform (DXP), a modular framework of customized software solutions. The headless CMS has an API for the front-end code to retrieve data from the back end. Since they are separate, the back end can make updates without affecting the front end or user experience.


Benefits of headless CMS

The benefits of a headless CMS are immediate and compelling:

  • Instead of implementing 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 content source, 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 modern platform 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's report, "The Forrester Wave for Content Management Systems 2023"), enterprises and their IT departments have taken note. While many websites continue to be well served by the traditional CMS architecture, digital business leaders want to benefit from the improved time to market, the compelling economics, and overall efficiencies that headless content management systems offer.

The headless CMS approach is quickly becoming a crucial component of the new Digital Experience Platforms (DXPs) generation. DXPs go significantly beyond web content management to create rich, engaging experiences for audiences across a multitude of channels. And what WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get”) was to the CMS of the 90s, the headless CMS has become for DXPs and future generations of content management.

A full appreciation of the business significance and the need for a headless content management system warrants a more thorough discussion. For a closely related topic, please read the guide on What is a decoupled CMS?

Overcome traditional CMS issues with Contentstack: Are you tired of slow development times and rising costs due to legacy monolithic suites? Contentstack offers a modern, component-based solution designed for the needs of today's enterprises. Discover agility and improved ROI. Request a demo to learn more.

Why do you need a headless CMS?

The headless CMS is an essential piece of technology because we live in an omnichannel world. The content enterprises create for their website must also appear on apps, integrations, newsletters, and more. Managing a duplicate copy of that content for multiple channels is a terrible, inefficient nightmare.

If your company updates how it describes a product, that update shouldn’t be copied and pasted into 20 different systems. You should be able to make the update in one centralized location and push the change out to all places where it matters.

That’s the power of a headless CMS.

It is one central source of truth for all your company’s content and assets. It gives you one place to manage, edit, update, and publish that content.

How composable architecture can get you where you want to go

Consumers and users have more touchpoints than ever. Today, running a successful business is not just offering products on multiple channels such as your website, stores, and Amazon. It's more about having a deep customer understanding and orchestrating relevant experiences at the right place and time, regardless of the channel and the touchpoint.

Tomorrow's industry leaders understand the need for business agility that can rapidly transform new opportunities by opening new sales channels and creating new services. A composable architecture — or microservices architecture — delivers this level of agility and scalability. It is based on different services and features divided into agnostic building blocks that can operate independently.

A headless CMS is well-suited to composable architecture. In a headless CMS, the decoupled front and back end allow content to be reused across multiple channels and devices without rebuilding the entire app. This flexibility gives developers greater control over how content is presented and makes creating seamless user experiences across channels easier.

CMS confronts multifaceted digital content consumption

While numerous online platforms have been developed using conventional CMS like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla, the advent of the headless CMS presents substantial advantages for businesses expanding into new markets, introducing new products and integrations, or merely engaging with clients across various interaction points on multiple platforms and devices. Headless CMS has significant advantages over traditional CMS systems that the latter cannot achieve.

If we compare the headless CMS with a traditional CMS side-by-side, headless offers some significant advantages that are impossible through most traditional CMS systems.


Who uses a headless CMS?

Beyond the theoretical, many industries and verticals have embraced the headless CMS as a central platform that powers their digital experience across all devices and platforms. Headless CMS enables businesses to engage with clients on a large scale, swiftly react to new market possibilities, and simplify content processes to maintain uniformity while preserving flexibility.

Some of the industries using a headless CMS include:

Sports teams

Sports teams can build an omnichannel fan engagement platform powered by a headless CMS. By marrying content with personalized data, teams can help fans feel more connected than ever to the players they love most.

Read: Miami HEAT Delivers Realtime Personalized Digital Experiences with a Headless CMS


Air carriers face some of the most complex content requirements of any industry. Their teams manage critical, real-time communications, global content translation and localization, plus an omnichannel presence that spans hundreds — if not thousands — of individual customer touchpoints. Across owned web properties, mobile apps, email, third-party search sites, and physical displays, a headless CMS enables clear, consistent, and simplified communications that are always accurate and up to date.

Read: Icelandair Irons out Integration Issues and Improves Automation and Workflows by Moving to a Headless CMS

Financial services

Customers in the financial service sector rely on real-time content to inform some of their most important life decisions. They also demand personalized content that helps them navigate complex processes and make smarter financial decisions. Firms need the flexibility to innovate while maintaining a rock-solid, reliable foundation for managing content and how content is personalized and presented to each customer.

Read: Ellie Mae Increases Content Delivery and Decreases Development Costs with a Headless CMS

Online retailers

In online retail, the customer experience is king. Customers quickly criticize brands that fail to meet their needs — or even introduce a tiny amount of friction into the buying process. Headless CMS allows online retailers to form 1:1 connections with customers, tying marketing and product content into customer purchase history and other data to deliver a truly personal shopping experience at scale.

Read: PhotoBox Streamlines Content Publishing with Contentstack’s Powerful APIs

Beyond these four core sectors, we also see many companies in other industries using a headless CMS to build a modern tech stack that marries flexibility, speed, innovation, security, and reliability.

These industries include:

  • Companies in gaming and media
  • Technology corporations
  • Retail industry
  • Travel and transportation sector
  • Sports industry
  • Financial Services

See all of our composable case studies by industry.

Contentstack: A Leader in CMS Performance. Experience the strength of Contentstack, a standout performer in Forrester's Q3 2023 CMS report. Contentstack simplifies your digital experience with our back-end extensibility and global deployments. Request a demo to learn more.

Headless vs. legacy CMS

The headless CMS is a relatively new technology. So, what’s driven the need for a new way of building and managing website content? What’s gotten us to this point where headless technology is poised to dominate the discussion about content management?

Following the early years of the Internet, the CMS emerged as an essential tool that allowed businesses to manage their website more easily. Some of the first web content management tools were IBM’s FileNet and Vignette Story Server, which laid the foundation for what would come next. These content management systems excelled at creating 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.

Shortly after that, blogging became popular, and some of the most well-known CMSs emerged into the market — Drupal, WordPress, et al. 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 QA process for published content.

But, this class of CMS has been confronting an existential challenge in the modern world. Connected devices have driven an explosion in the number of channels, screens, and formats for content. Any single piece of content can be re-structured and deployed in dozens or hundreds of contexts across many devices.

WYSIWYG editors are just not built to handle this level of complexity. Legacy CMS solutions handle 1:1 content deployment to a single web page. These systems can't handle the omnichannel world of mobile sites, apps, touchscreen displays, Alexa integrations, and smartwatch apps.

All of this presents a significant challenge for organizations that are using 20-year-old content management system technology. Where once it was advantageous to optimize for a single digital channel, this highly streamlined CMS architecture is insufficient for a world where content must be available on many digital channels. From a technical perspective, the old model of intermingling content with the instructions for presenting it (i.e., HTML / CSS / JavaScript / etc.) falls short. Using this model, you can’t limit or control content because you don’t know where your digital content will surface next.

Learn more

Schedule a free demo to see how Contentstack's headless CMS can help your brand deliver exceptional customer experiences.

To understand how companies use headless, read our guide on "Headless CMS: History, benefits, use cases and more."

Our pioneering headless CMS empowers creative professionals and modern developers to deliver composable digital experiences at uncompromising scale and dependability.

About Contentstack

The Contentstack team comprises highly skilled professionals specializing in product marketing, customer acquisition and retention, and digital marketing strategy. With extensive experience holding senior positions in notable technology companies across various sectors, they bring diverse backgrounds and deep industry knowledge to deliver impactful solutions.  

Contentstack stands out in the composable DXP and Headless CMS markets with an impressive track record of 87 G2 user awards, 6 analyst recognitions, and 3 industry accolades, showcasing its robust market presence and user satisfaction.

Check out our case studies to see why industry-leading companies trust Contentstack.

Experience the power of Contentstack's award-winning platform by scheduling a demo, starting a free trial, or joining a small group demo today.

Follow Contentstack on Linkedin

Talk to an expert

about something you read on this page

Contact an expert

Related Articles

Here are other CMS articles we think you'll find useful.