What Is a Headless CMS? [The complete guide to headless CMS]

How can content producers and developers be freed up, with a powerful and scalable solution to push content out wherever it is needed?

What Is a Headless CMS? [The complete guide to headless CMS]

Chloe Spilotro 01.04.2023

Nowadays companies can no longer rely on just a website as their sole content channel. Consumers are using smartphones and tablets while they’re on the go. Some even have smart devices throughout their homes, from refrigerators to digital assistants, speakers, and sound systems. 

To keep up with this customer demand, brands have been looking toward headless architecture to support them. Headless CMS has been dominating the content management industry in recent years and is forecasted to grow to a market size of $5.528 billion by 2032, up from $752 million in 2022, according to Future Market Insights. Even established traditional CMS vendors like Acquia have recognized the shift and are hopping on the bandwagon. But what is it? How does it work, and what are the benefits?

Our complete guide will provide all the answers.

What Is a Headless CMS?

A headless CMS is a content management system that separates the backend content repository from the frontend presentation layer. Instead, the two layers are connected via APIs, which enables content to be delivered to a website and several other digital channels like the smart devices that continue to grow in popularity. 

Separating the frontend from the backend gives content teams and developers more freedom to operate. They no longer need to be limited in what type of content can be created and where it can be published. Developers, in particular, tend to love headless CMSs due to the freedom it gives them when creating content experiences on the frontend. They are able to use modern technologies and the most popular JavaScript frameworks, which often offer more speed and improved performance.

As technology advances and business needs change, a headless CMS provides the freedom, flexibility, and scalability companies need to maintain their competitive advantage. 

How Does a Headless CMS Work?

To understand how a headless works, we first need to consider how a traditional CMS operates.

The frontend presentation layer and backend content repository in a traditional CMS are tightly coupled. Content is entered into templates and then delivered to a single channel like a website. Platforms like WordPress are the perfect example of a traditional CMS as they make for a great blogger platform but can be complicated to work with when trying to publish content to other channels.

A headless CMS leverages the power of APIs, which transmit data from the backend to the frontend. Content management is handled in the backend as in a traditional CMS, but there is no restrictive template where content must be entered. Instead, developers are able to create custom-built frontend interfaces using different frameworks and technologies so that content can be easily accessed. 

Headless CMS Benefits (Why Use a Headless CMS?)

Omnichannel Content Delivery

The primary benefit of a headless CMS and the most appealing aspect for most companies is the ability to deliver content to multiple channels. That allows businesses to create a seamless omnichannel experience that offers the same high-quality experience no matter which channel a customer is browsing, whether a website, social media platform, or mobile device, or if they enter a store and are greeted with a digital kiosk.

Cloud-based 

Most headless CMSs are also cloud-based platforms that don’t need to be hosted on-premises. Instead, they leverage cloud computing and all of the benefits it provides to improve accessibility, improved collaboration, automatic updates, and better scalability. 

Framework Agnostic

If frontend developers want to use React and various React-based frameworks like Remix or Next.js, they can do so when using a headless CMS. They can also leverage Vue, Angular, and other technologies that fit best for their particular skill set or the project at hand without limitations. 

Scalability

Another benefit of a headless CMS is scalability, as the decoupled nature of a headless CMS makes it easier to deal with spikes in traffic without a dip in performance. Since platforms are often cloud-based, companies can scale more efficiently without needing to purchase more on-premise servers. 

Security

Headless architecture also improves security. Traditional CMSs are usually the targets of distributed denial of service attacks, among other threats. The decoupled architecture of a headless CMS reduces the surface area that these potential threats can target, which increases security. 

Faster Time to Market

Since the frontend and backend are separated, developers can work on the frontend while marketers work in the backend without getting in each other’s way. As a result, marketers can launch campaigns faster, and developers can create new web applications faster, allowing a faster time to market for the business. 

Integrability 

The APIs that connect the backend of the headless CMS to the frontend interface are also useful for integrating with other software in the technology stack. Ecommerce platforms, analytics, CRMs, customer data platforms and more can be easily integrated into a headless CMS.

Personalization

With the ability to deliver content to multiple channels and increase speed to market for different campaigns, a headless CMS can provide personalized content experiences to customers on various channels. 

Drawbacks of a Headless CMS (Things to Consider When Choosing a CMS)

While a headless CMS provides several advantages, some potential drawbacks must be considered.

Need Developer Support

Since a headless CMS removes the frontend, you need more developer resources to create frontend interfaces, perform integrations, and perform other maintenance. 

Pure Headless CMS Limits Marketers 

When using a pure headless CMS, marketers may find themselves limited in what they can do without developer assistance as these headless platforms lack the user-friendly interface with WYSIWYG editing and drag-and-drop tools found in a traditional CMS like WordPress.

When to Use a Headless CMS? (Headless CMS Use Cases)

If you’re considering changing to a headless CMS, there are a few use cases when it makes the most sense. 

You Want to Embrace Modern Frontend Technologies

JavaScript is the most popular frontend language, and numerous libraries and frameworks are developed every year. Jamstack and other modern frontend approaches are also only possible with a headless CMS. If your development team wants to take advantage of these latest technologies, having a headless CMS is essential. 

You Need to Integrate With Other Systems

Martech stacks are exploding as brands need eCommerce platforms, CRMs, analytics tools, personalization engines, and many other tools outside their CMS. A headless CMS makes integration with these tools far easier through APIs.

You Want to Create Omnichannel Experiences

If your customers want content delivered to their mobile devices, not just their desktops or laptops (Hint: they do), then a headless CMS is necessary. No matter the channel or interface content can be delivered there using a headless CMS which allows brands to create omnichannel experiences that attract and engage their customers. 

Zesty.io: The Best Headless CMS For Enterprises

A headless CMS offers so much to the modern customer experience, particularly for enterprise companies that need increased scalability and freedom. But given some of the drawbacks, brands may also need more time to choose a headless CMS over a traditional platform. 

Zesty.io offers a hybrid headless CMS and digital experience platform that enables companies to take advantage of the benefits of a headless CMS without the drawbacks that might restrict them. 

For Marketers

On-page visual editing and built-in preview environments are available as well as direct publishing to live sites and applications. Leverage WYSIWYG editing and other user-friendly features marketing teams grew accustomed to with a traditional CMS.

For Developers

By coding with Zesty’s simple-to-learn Parsley language, it’s possible to reduce development time by 54%. Choose your favorite framework, whether Next.js, Svelte, Vue, or something else, and integrate with Zesty easily. Zesty also allows you to leverage templates to simplify coding needs and reduce the need for constant tweaks by giving marketers the tools they need to edit content. 

Technology company Jackpocket, a 3rd party lottery app available in the United States, needed to do away with its custom website to reduce developer workload, improve SEO and meet its marketing goals. By opting for Zesty, they could revamp the web experience and deploy content up to 90% faster. Site traffic also grew 4X since adopting the headless CMS. 

Read more about Jackpocket in our case study: Like Winning the Lottery: Jackpocket Selects Zesty.io to Supercharge Content Production.

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The Future of Headless CMS

Technology keeps leaping forward, and the demand for content on multiple channels and devices keeps growing exponentially. In 2017, Deloitte’s Global Consumer Survey comprised approximately 53,000 respondents across 33 countries and six continents. It covered multiple devices including smartphone usage and IoT applications. Results noted that two-thirds of adults have access to a tablet, while smartphones are ubiquitous throughout 81% of the population. Add to this list of tech advancements: bots, digital assistants, virtual reality and augmented reality, and you begin to realize that website content has become a smaller piece of the multichannel pie.

Today, for brands and marketers to be effective in reaching their target audiences they need to interact with users across all the channels they frequent. Marketers who are only publishing to a handful of channels are missing an opportunity to reach and engage their intended audience. A headless CMS enables marketing and development teams to collaborate in a rapid production environment, and publish content to every point on the communication continuum. The old adage, “fish where the fish are” comes to mind, as long as you’re attracting them with the “right bait.” Headless CMS is the right bait.

Experience a Headless Content Management System, Join Zesty.io.


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Chloe Spilotro photo

Chloe Spilotro

Account Executive, Zesty.io

Hooked onto the platform since first using it through the Zesty.io Incubator Program at the University of San Diego. Passionate about all things marketing, IoT, and helping businesses leverage technology to grow and become major players in their industries.... Learn More

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