Why Is Headless CMS the Future of Content Management? [The Ultimate Guide 2020]

In spite of its name, there’s nothing frightening about a headless content management system (CMS) and the prediction that it’s going to take over the world of digital marketing.

In this article, we’ll provide the traditional and headless CMS definitions, talk about the prominent features of both types of architecture and discuss their pros and cons for businesses.

The CMS Market: Current State and Predictions

Content management is inseparable from the internet itself and from eCommerce and digital marketing in particular, so CMS solutions represent a huge market segment.

  • In 2018, the CMS market was estimated at $36 billion, and it is expected to reach approximately $123.5 billion by 2026
  • 33 percent of that growth is going to come from North America

Specialists distinguish four key trends that will shape the industry in 2020:

  • Increased AI usage
  • Improved voice search
  • Increased usage of chatbots
  • Increased demand for headless CMS
Read also: AI-Powered Search and Recommendation Technologies 

Since the adoption of headless CMS is among the top trends, let’s analyze the reasons for this trend.

Until recently, developing a comprehensive website would suffice as a content delivery tool.

But today, the diversity of modern gadgets has changed the landscape of interaction channels between customers and companies. Every company should adjust its content management system to the peculiar properties of PCs, tablets, smartphones, wearables and different IoT devices used for content consumption. It is rather complicated, expensive and time-consuming to develop and maintain a variety of client-server applications and provide specialized content for each type of device.

A traditional web-oriented CMS architecture turned out to be too limiting in the new multichannel world.

The limitations that emerged and the demand for more engaging digital experiences across all touchpoints triggered organizations to invent a better alternative — a headless CMS.

Is this type of content management system really gaining momentum now? Using the Google Trends service, we set out to compare the queries for “headless CMS” and “traditional CMS” for the past five years, and what resulted is a chart depicting a significant rise of user interest in the former one.

headless-vs-traditional-cms-photoThe rising popularity of a headless CMS concept is also supported by insights from the research by pupuweb.com:

  • 55% of respondents understand the essence of CMS
  • Of those who understand the headless CMS concept, 86% are positive about the idea
  • 29% of respondents are already using a headless approach and 38% plan to use it in the next 12 months
  • The main motivation for a headless CMS is centralizing content management in one place (48%), followed by flexibility (47%), and building lightweight websites (44%)

How Traditional CMS Works

The architecture of a traditional content management system is based on the tight connection between the backend and the frontend. The backend includes a database with code and plugins that make it possible to store, manage and edit content. The frontend has built-in theme templates and CSS that are responsible for displaying content on your website.

Traditional-CMS-photo

Thus, the content is pushed from the database into a predefined layout, and if you want to make some changes in this scheme, you’ll have to do it manually and revamp the entire structure of your system.

WordPress is currently the most popular traditional CMS in the world, holding a 62 percent market share and powering 35 percent of all the websites on the internet. It includes a database MySQL, PHP code and HTML templates, CSS, JavaScript files that compile a predefined theme.

How Headless CMS Works

The term headless means that the system has no “head,” or its “upper part” — which is the frontend. In simple words, it offers the backend for content storage and management and an API (application programming interface) for connecting the backend to any application frontend and transmitting content to any device.    Headless-CMS-photo

Since a headless CMS has no predefined frontend with standard templates for displaying data, it doesn’t cope with your issues of content layout or page design. What it offers is delivering your raw content from a single backend to multiple devices — desktop, mobile, IoT. At the same time, deploying a new device or modifying one channel does not affect the whole system.

By centralizing and distributing content in a universal format, the system makes it possible to manage all platforms from one dashboard and to have the flexibility to personalize information for each of them. The headless approach allows brands to handle the endless number of interaction channels.

What Is Decoupled CMS?

There is one more type of a content management system known as decoupled or hybrid. Actually, it combines the features of two previous types.

Decopled-CMS-photo

In a decoupled system, the backend is separated from the frontend by an API. So, you have two options: either use out-of-the-box templates for delivering content to the web or transmit your data to other devices via an API.

Features of a decoupled system include:

  • The ability to store, manage and publish content
  • The communication between the backend and frontend through calls to an API
  • A frontend-agnostic system

A headless CMS can be considered as a subset of a decoupled system.

Traditional vs. Headless vs. Decoupled CMS Comparison

Traditional Headless Decoupled
Architecture Backend + frontend Backend + API Backend + API + frontend
Functions Content storage, management, editing, publishing Content storage, management, editing Content storage, management, editing, publishing
Aim devices Web-only Multiple connected devices Multiple connected devices

Pros and Cons of a Traditional CMS

Like any other digital system, a traditional CMS has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are some advantages that make a traditional system so popular.

Pros:

  • Simple setup and usage — all components for content creation and publishing are coupled in one place, so the system is easy to set up, and a friendly user interface enables seamless usage
  • Clear pricing — you use one system with one account and pay for it without additional charges
  • No dependency on developers — the system is written in one language and can be controlled by one technical specialist, while marketers use templates for delivering content and don’t need developer assistance
  • Low barriers to entry for developers and content creators

However, these advantages can be outweighed by the following disadvantages.

Cons:

  • Website-only content — you won’t be able to seamlessly use the same content for mobile or IoT devices without APIs
  • Limited creativity — since there is the dependency on the layout templates, you can create only standard presentation and user experience
  • Complicated redesign — making changes means modifying the whole system, which is time-consuming and expensive

Pros and Cons of a Headless CMS

Now, let’s take a look at some advantages in favor of choosing an alternative system without a presentation layer.

Pros:

  • Omnichannel experience — you can distribute content across various platforms from a single backend
  • Flexibility — without built-in templates, developers and marketers are free to choose technologies for creating unique user experiences
  • Scalability — since the backend and frontend are decoupled, you can customize and upgrade your digital assets without affecting the performance of the whole system
  • Easy redesign — making some changes doesn’t mean redesigning the whole system
  • Time-efficient — you can quickly deliver the same content to numerous touchpoints and make changes without additional expenses

So why use a headless CMS? You should also understand the disadvantages of this system.

Cons:

  • No content previews — there’s no opportunity to easily preview content before it goes live. To overcome this, you should use third-party tools.
  • Dependency on developers — marketers have no visual tools for creating page layout by themselves, so they should work closely with developers (by the way, a decoupled CMS doesn’t have such a drawback)
  • High costs — the implementation and maintenance are rather expensive because of the fragmented technological stack

Should You “Lose Your Head”?

It’s highly significant to choose the appropriate content management system for your project that will meet all the requirements and generate profits.

Your decision should be based on the three most important considerations:

  • Product specifications
  • Technical abilities of the team
  • The needs of end-users

Below, you can see some ideas that may help you match your project with the appropriate CMS.

Use a traditional CMS if…

  1. Your website is simple and out-of-the-box templates will be sufficient
  2. You don’t have a large team of developers
  3. Your budget is limited
  4. You don’t need to cover multiple channels for delivering content
  5. You want to have full control over the content, from creation to displaying

Use a headless CMS if…

  1. You need to communicate with your users via multiple touchpoints
  2. You have a large team of developers or you can afford to attract third-party specialists
  3. You want to use a variety of technologies for creating your product
  4. You want to create a unique user experience
  5. You need a scalable solution because you are planning to expand your project in perspective

“There is no way to expand your existing content to different applications with all-in-one solutions. With a headless CMS, it’s really easy for developers to build applications for all platforms, and they can use whichever language they’re most familiar with.”

Martins Laucis, Internal Product Lead at CodeControl

Sitecore — a Vivid Example of a Headless CMS

The term “headless” has only recently become a buzzword, but the idea and implementation of such an architecture have been in existence for quite a long time. Sitecore is a vivid example. This CMS originated as a headless or decoupled system: the content management layer was separated from the abstract layer and they communicated via an API. However, Sitecore creators have never highlighted this headless approach since it was taken for granted.

Currently, due to the hype surrounding a decoupled architecture and its benefits, Sitecore positions itself as a hybrid-headless CMS.

In Sitecore 9.1 and further, a range of services, including JSS, SXA, Sitecore Services Client API and others come together under the name of Sitecore Omni and represent the middle layer between the backend and frontend.

Read also: Sitecore 9.2 [Detailed Update Overview]

Sitecore Omni provides the following opportunities:

  • Create content once and display it across all devices and channels
  • Get scale, flexibility, and consistency with extractable, decoupled content
  • Embrace new channels such as IoT, VR, AR, and others to grow your business
  • Leverage advanced features such as personalization, testing, and analytics

Thus, getting the full power of the Sitecore Experience Cloud and leveraging open-source frontend frameworks, e.g. JavaScript-based React and Angular, you can create unique personalized omnichannel experiences for your customers.

Why Are the Scales Tipping in Favor of Headless?

Growing customer expectations together with the development of IoT and connected devices resulted in the increasing demand for multichannel interactions between businesses and clients. More and more brands strive to publish their content on every type of smart device possible in order to reach a wider audience, and a traditional CMS is of no assistance in this case.

The situation triggered the creation of decoupled and headless content management systems that can ensure flexibility, scalability and quicker integration with multiple platforms.

We can also talk about a new evolving term — Content as a Service (CaaS) that refers to any digital information created independently of the place it will be published. Consequently, a headless CMS serves as the main tool for delivering such content for consumption to numerous people via numerous channels.

If you would like a consultation on the topic, feel free to contact our specialists.

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About the author

Natallia Sakovich
Natallia Sakovich

A copywriter at SaM Solutions, Natallia is devoted to her motto — to write simply and clearly about complicated things. Backed up with a 5-year experience in copywriting, she creates informative but exciting articles on high technologies.