What the Heck Is Headless CMS?

What the Heck Is Headless CMS?

If a phrase ever conjured up an image for me, headless CMS is it. (Bloody-stumped torso, if you’re wondering.)

Sorry for that visual, friends. That’s ba-SCUSTIN, as my 3-year-old would say.

But moving past the off-putting name, headless CMS is a technology that marketers should familiarize themselves with. We’ll go a bit more in-depth later, but essentially, the chief benefits of the headless CMS approach are improved management of omnichannel content and more flexibility in creating unique front-end digital experiences (I know, I know, I sound fancy).

The technology is definitely experiencing a surge, fueled by evolving customer expectations and digital habits as well as the accelerated era of the IoT, with its massive proliferation of devices and channels.

In fact, a market study by Dublin-based Research and Markets forecasts that the headless CMS market, valued at $328 million in 2019, will reach $1.6 billion by 2027.


So who’s ready to wrap their heads around headless CMS? We really want you to keep a good head on your shoulders about this topic, so moving forward …

Okay. I know you can’t stop laughing your head off at these amazing Dad jokes (wah-wah), but now it’s really time to dive head-first into headless CMS.

Headless CMS: what it is and why it can be great

So first of all, as the title of this post so eloquently asks, what the heck is headless CMS?

A headless CMS solution separates the presentation layer – the way that content is displayed – from the back-end content repository, or storage layer. Content and digital experiences are managed on the back end and delivered via APIs to any channel or device.

Because headless CMS solutions aren’t tightly coupled with hard-to-change templates (like a traditional CMS), they give frontend developers the freedom to execute on their own (or a marketing team’s) vision of what the digital experience should be.

On the other hand (or should I say, neck?), traditional CMSs couple the system’s back end to a front end (the “head”), which controls content presentation. You might also hear these systems referred to as “monolithic CMS” or “coupled CMS.” Think of platforms like WordPress, Drupal or Joomla – they include front-end templates and themes that control the way content displays to users.

These traditional CMSs have been rock-solid for years, but they do present limitations for organizations wanting to quickly deliver branded content to customers who are now just as likely to consume content on a watch or a smart speaker as they are on a desktop, mobile and tablet.

We need to mention de-coupled CMS, too

You may also have heard the term de-coupled CMS bandied about in the headless conversation. Actually, headless CMSs are a subset of de-coupled CMS solutions.

Like headless CMS, a de-coupled CMS solution still splits back-end and front-end functions, but comes with templates and tools – an optional head, if you will – that can assist with content creation.

Benefits and use cases associated with going headless

Generally speaking, a headless CMS can more seamlessly deliver the right content at the right time. And it will automatically optimize that content for whatever device your user fancies at the moment. Obviously a pretty important goal for any marketing team, yes?

Here are some other more specific challenges that going headless can solve:

  • Ya know, I really want to think outside the template here. We did mention this, but it’s worth reiterating: headless provides the flexibility to create front-end experiences beyond the constraints of traditional CSSs and theme templates that traditional CMSs lock developers into.
  • Can I manage content from just one place, furtheluvvagod?? Headless does make it possible to manage content across a large range of channels from a single dashboard. Yep. Update a product description, and instead of copying and pasting that change in dozens of systems, you do it once, resting assured that it’s optimized for every viewing environment.
  • I’d like a side of future-proofing, please. Because headless CMSs come with a suite of APIs, they can easily integrate with third-party technology, giving your tech stack the legs it needs to keep up with future developments and emerging frameworks. (Uh, just how many body parts are we gonna mention in this post … ??)
  • I wanna beat the pants off my competitors! Because headless eliminates the hoops you typically need to jump through to publish content, you gain a ton of speed and velocity in getting campaigns to market – to all your channels, ensuring consistency of message and brand.
  • Help! We need a digital transformation – but we’re drowning in legacy apps. This is an issue to common to large enterprise organizations, such as financial services companies. Headless CMS can be more cost-effective than traditional when it comes to creating a richer user experience, complete with personalized offers and messaging served up cross-channel.

What to think about if you’re considering going headless

Before falling head over heals for headless, marketers have some thinking to do.

Major drawbacks of headless CMSs include:

  • Loss of the visual editing layer. This can leave marketers feel like they’re flying blind. Some upskilling in coding may be needed to navigate this learning curve and truly reap the content management benefits. Finding a headless CMS platform with an intuitive interface and features specific to marketers can help minimize the pain here.
  • Reliance on developers. This con goes hand-in-hand with the pro of putting control over designing front-end experiences into the hands of developers. It does, as might be expected, increase marketing’s dependence on developers. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it can create bottlenecks in the process if your organization just doesn’t have the resources to throw at this.

Can your organization ride out the potential pitfalls associated with headless CMS? And will the resulting improvements to the customer experience (and other benefits noted above) be worth the significant cost outlay of essentially scrapping your current system and starting over?

In some cases, yes – for example, marketing teams in industries like ecommerce, online retail, online media, healthcare, or financial services. (It doesn’t hurt to have robust IT support, either.) For others – especially for marketing teams responsible for a small website and limited in the scope of channels – perhaps not.

Players in the headless CMS space

Feeling like a broken record here, but, as is typical of martech solutions, the market is super-crowded with headless CMS options.

If you like endorsements by well-respected industry leaders, CMSWire notes that the following five headless CMS solutions are recommended by across the board by Gartner, Forrester and G2:

ButterCMS and Magnolia are two other top vendors in the space.

Worth a postscript: WordPress, which according to 2021 data from W3Techs powers nearly 40% of all websites, has a de-coupled CMS solution intended to combine the customization freedoms of headless with the content creation agility of a traditional system, as does Drupal.

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