Headless CMS explained: A comprehensive guide

Feb 07, 202410 min read

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Discover how a headless CMS increases your omnichannel engagement. These systems impart flexibility and scalability, helping you improve your performance and make your business more agile. To enhance your business’s digital presence and the value of a headless CMS, schedule a demo today.


You’ll learn about:

  • Traditional CMS combines the front and back end, reducing flexibility.
  • Headless CMS offers decoupled architecture, which increases scalability across devices.
  • Businesses shift to headless for comprehensive omnichannel content delivery.
  • Contentstack, a headless CMS, allows for robust API integration.
  • Headless CMS ensures faster content delivery, better performance, and increased security.

So, elevate your business with a futureproof content strategy.

Keep reading to explore more!

Today, most online businesses have numerous ways and tools to build their website from scratch and deliver content to their customers. From content management systems (CMS) to website builders, there’s no dearth of tools. 

But do you want to distribute your content on your website? If your business believes in the power of omnipresence and wants to entice customers by giving them the same content experience, traditional tools like WordPress or Acquia Drupal won’t serve your purpose. You need a headless CMS like Contentstack.

Today, we discuss what a headless CMS is and why it’s a great alternative to a traditional CMS and explore its advantages and challenges to help you make an informed decision. 

Let’s start!

Headless CMS explained in 2 minutes

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system decoupling the content presentation layer, called the “head,” from the content repository, called the “body.” It separates the information and presentation. Using a headless CMS, you manage all your content from one point and distribute it through any digital channel.

Headless CMS

A headless CMS decouples or separates the front-end and back-end systems, helping different stakeholders in the following ways:

  • Marketers can manage content independently. 
  • Developers can innovate faster and automate changes as per market demands.
  • Customers get content where they want and how they want. 
  • Content creators receive a thoroughly tailored editor with a structured data model. 
  • Content editors can easily reuse content across any device as it is not locked in a specific channel.

Let’s understand it with an example:

When editing web pages in a traditional CMS, you easily change the image, text, and layout using the visual editor. This CMS's content and appearance tie together in a single layer. This architecture of a traditional CMS stops you from showing your website content on your smartwatch. 

That’s where a headless CMS comes in. By keeping content and the front-end presentation layer, you receive the following:

  • Structure the content, categorize it into different provides, and treat them logically.
  • Reuse the structured content through an application programming interface (API).
  • Front-end developers use the latest tools and frameworks based on their preferences to add functionalities and present content to different end users. 

How does a headless CMS work?

A headless CMS works as a content-as-a-service (CaaS) model:

Content creation

Content creators and editors create and manage content on the CMS's back-end interface. This platform helps you manage content without dictating how or where content will appear. 

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.

API-driven content delivery

After creating the content, it gets stored in a database or repository and is easily accessible via an API. Each API endpoint integrates with a RESTful API and GraphQL, making API accessible across different platforms like IoT devices, mobile apps, websites, and other digital platforms. 

Before moving forward, let’s understand RESTful API and GraphQL:

RESTful API (Representational State Transfer Application Programming Interface) allows the content repository and front-end layer to communicate, ensuring content delivery irrespective of the platform.

On the contrary, GraphQL provides a complex mechanism where developers query for certain data blocks and reduce the traffic load, making the process timely and efficient.

Front-end development flexibility

The front-end developer team focuses on the head and manages the content distribution. Developers access this content through APIs. These developers use their preferred programming languages, tools, and frameworks to develop new functionalities and applications and even deploy new channels.

Multichannel distribution

Using this headless architecture, you ensure content from your repository appears as a blog post or article on a web page and native content pieces on a smartwatch. 

With headless CMS platforms, delivering content in a raw, presentation-independent format becomes easier. As a result, you enhance content’s portability and promote an agile and future-proof approach to content management and delivery. 

Components and architecture of a headless CMS

Through these components, a headless CMS provides a powerful back-end system that serves content to any front-end application. As a result, you construct a multichannel, scalable, and flexible content strategy.

Content repository

The content repositories are the databases where you store your content. Every time there is a request from a customer, your content is displayed through various digital channels. These databases store multiple types of content, such as articles, images, and videos, amongst other materials.

Centralizing your content in one place ensures greater control and helps you update and spread it across multiple channels and platforms. This ensures consistency and easy access for content creators and customers alike.

Back-end-only CMS framework

The back-end-only content management system stores and handles content. By focusing on content management, this framework provides accessibility without worrying about the content’s design and presentation.

A headless CMS helps content creators curate and manage their digital assets by offering a separate back end.

API layer

The API shares information between the content database and the presentation layer. In a headless CMS, the API layer consists of RESTful APIs and GraphQL. As a result, you establish a connection between a content management system and a front-end system.

Security layer

The security layer is another vital element of a headless CMS, which prevents unauthorized persons from accessing the content database and protects it from cyber threats. Depending on your headless CMS, you get basic authentication, encryption, and access control protocols.

Benefits of a headless CMS

After understanding what a headless CMS is, its working, and its architecture, let’s understand the value of implementing a headless approach in your business:

Provides flexibility across multiple platforms

With a headless CMS, you distribute content across different front-end frameworks. This helps you provide cohesive user experiences across channels like the web and mobile apps.

By separating the back-end content management from the front-end aspect, you modify and adjust the content delivery plans based on changing customer needs.

Headless CMS allows you to create custom layouts for various devices. It even integrates with other technologies, giving your business agility.

Enhances customer experience and omnichannel connectivity

With the centralization of content in a single location, a headless approach ensures uniform messaging across every channel. This ensures an omnichannel strategy.

Additionally, a headless CMS enhances brand consistency and ensures customers enjoy a smooth, personalized digital experience.

By switching to a headless CMS, 35% of marketers feel a better user experience, and 43% think they are less reliant on IT.

Using a centralized content approach, you track and analyze customer interactions and gather insights that shape your content strategy according to the customer and business needs.

Companies adopting a headless CMS can streamline their workflows, reduce duplication of efforts, and improve overall efficiency in content management.

Futureproofs your digital presence

With headless CMS, you leave behind traditional and old-school technology to create an exciting new technology catering to your customer and market demands. These content management systems ensure content creators and marketers stay ahead of the curve.
This helps you create quality digital content without the constraints of specific presentation layers. 

Reduces development time

Thanks to APIs, developers today use any front-end tool, such as Javascript frameworks or static site generators like Gatsby. This means your developers don’t have to learn a new programming language. Allowing developers to change or replace these tools differentiates a headless CMS from other traditional CMSes.

Developers change their framework without worrying about how the presentation layer looks. Because of this, developers reduce the development time and focus on the task at hand. 

Let’s understand with a case study:

How did Contentstack help ICE reduce its development time?

ICE faced a challenge with Kirby CMS, which didn't allow stakeholders to update content directly. This resulted in developers spending more time on managing content instead of innovation. ICE needed a more autonomous CMS to empower stakeholders and free up developers for strategic projects.

Contentstack emerged as the solution because of its API-based, headless design. This design provided version control for easy content rollback. With an intuitive user interface, stakeholders could be onboarded quickly. Contentstack also offered flexible development environments and content scheduling capabilities, saving staff time.

Implementing Contentstack made content updates 30 times faster, reducing the process from 30 minutes to 30 seconds. It also reduced development tickets by 40%, freeing up developers. 

Kevin Yang, Senior Manager of Digital Experience at ICE, said: 

“We cut out 40% of our tickets by having a CMS where other users can make updates to the website. That 40% is so valuable for us, so we can focus on revenue-driving initiatives and find new ways to get users to engage with our web properties to get more leads in the pipeline for sales. It is a huge advantage for us!”

Read the complete case study here.

Makes your system secure

A headless CMS is more secure than traditional content management systems because the back end is separate from the user interface. As a result, the user interface is less exposed to external attacks. 

The API-first approach ensures authentication and authorization procedures for accessing digital content and protecting sensitive data.

Furthermore, because you develop the front-end environment independently, it helps you implement custom security measures depending on the requirements of the user interface. 

This kind of headless CMS architecture creates an additional layer of security, protecting your content against unauthorized access and cyber threats.

Cons of a headless CMS

While a headless CMS offers numerous advantages over its predecessors, nothing is perfect. Here are some challenges of using a headless CMS solution:

Complexity to integrate with the existing tech stack

As a headless CMS is responsible for content storage and delivery, it should integrated with other systems like e-commerce platforms, customer relationship management tools, and marketing automation software. This integration process often leads to additional costs and technical complexities you need to address.

Challenging for content creators and editors to use

The absence of a front-end is a turn-off for content creators and editors who might be more accustomed to the WYSIWYG editors(What You See Is What You Get) interfaces provided by traditional platforms. 

A headless solution requires more customers to understand how content will appear across different fronts, possibly demanding training. These platforms lack a WYSIWYG editor.

Headless CMS vs. traditional CMS

A traditional CMS couples the front-end and back-end systems, whereas a headless CMS decouples them.

A disadvantage of a traditional CMS approach is that it prevents large and small businesses from having a multichannel presence.

A mobile app, IoT devices, smart watches, desktops, and digital signage cannot equally read and display the content when the presentation layer is made only for the desktop website.

Traditional CMSes like WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla are monolithic CMSs.

Headless CMS V Traditional CMS

On the other hand, in a headless CMS, the structured content remains the same. Still, mobile phones, desktops, smart watches, and wearables are responsible for presenting the content. Typically, in a headless technology, developers do not code. Instead, they use the API and code in some other framework of their choice. 

Contentstack is a leading headless CMS that helps you become scalable and flexible.

Here are some other comparisons of traditional and headless CMS:

Traditional CMS

Headless CMS


Tied front and back ends

Separated front and back ends





Template approach

Full developer flexibility

Content model

Built for a single-page

Building blocks for many products




Back-end system




Very high up-front cost

Quick proof of concept


Limited growth



Higher load times

Lower load times




Supported devices





In the cloud

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.

Why are businesses transitioning from traditional to headless CMS?

Businesses are slowly moving from traditional to headless CMS models for several reasons. 

  • Increased demand for omnichannel content delivery: End users now expect a seamless user experience, whether using a smartphone, website, or smartwatch. This is where headless CMS solutions help you. On the other hand, traditional CMS platforms, with their front-end dependencies, often struggle to offer such an agile approach.
  • Faster technology adoption: The rising technological innovation leads to new devices and platforms. A headless CMS helps you adapt your content to these new platforms without overhauling your entire system.
  • Improved performance and lower website loading times: Headless content management systems serve the content via an API without any presentation overhead, resulting in faster content delivery. This increases your customer retention, especially for customers with shorter attention spans.
  • Increased security: Decoupling the CMS from the front end is an added advantage. This security framework prevents your platform from cyber attacks.


What are the three benefits of using a headless CMS?

A headless CMS has many advantages. With this platform, developers can choose the programming languages and frameworks. Companies can publish content across different platforms from a single source. Finally, its API architecture ensures scalability.

What is the difference between headless CMS and traditional CMS?

A traditional CMS integrates content creation and presentation using predefined templates. This shapes the content appearance on the front end. On the other hand, a headless CMS separates the content layer from the presentation layer. It uses APIs to deliver content to various front-end systems.

Is a headless CMS only an API?

A headless CMS is not only an API because it requires APIs to execute the functionality. As a headless CMS is a back-end-only CMS, it allows content to be accessible via an API.

Is headless CMS bad for SEO?

No, a CMS does not negatively affect your SEO. SEO features and integrations are also available in headless CMS platforms. It improves SEO by providing high-speed load times, leading to higher-performing websites. It also makes URLs customizable and renders structured data support.

Is headless CMS faster?

Yes, a headless content management system is faster in content delivery due to its ability to distribute content in real-time through APIs and webhooks. Its integration with frameworks that support static site generators leads to faster load times and improved website performance.

Learn more

A headless CMS brings agility and flexibility to your business. These platforms create digital narratives that resonate with your audiences across all digital touchpoints. Adopting a headless CMS is a strategic move and is essential for companies looking to provide seamless content experience to their customers.

Are you ready to see how a headless CMS helps you manage your content? Schedule a free demo to discover the power and flexibility of headless CMS for your business. 

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.

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