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What is a Headless CMS?

Read about headless content management systems, the difference between headless CMS and other types of content management systems, and tips for using a headless CMS.

Most organizations have so much data, so many documents, and so many online channels that it's hard to keep track of it all. It's enough to make you lose your head! But sometimes, at least when it comes to content management systems, that can be a good thing. Read on to learn about headless content management systems and how they can work for you.

What is a content management system?

A content management system (CMS) is a type of content repository designed to create, store, manage, and publish content on a website, app, or another place online. A CMS unifies content in a single location, simplifying editing, searching, and data sharing while making it easier to present content in any format.

What exactly does a CMS do?

Create content

The back end of a CMS is where users create content. This includes documents, photos, videos, text, and other materials that can be sorted, designed, formatted, and previewed. Some CMS programs have templates and other tools to help.

Store data

CMS programs hold large amounts of content, structured in a way that makes it easy to search for what users need. And since storage space can become a problem for organizations with a lot of data, cloud-based systems offer storage space that can scale with need.

Manage content

With CMS programs, users have many options for managing content. Content that has been sorted, organized, or defined by certain relevant properties is called "structured content" and it's one of the things a CMS excels at. Structured content is more accessible, consistent, and easy to publish.

Publish content

When you're ready to display content on your website or app, a CMS program works with a front-end content delivery application to publish the relevant information. And because everything is stored on the back end, you can manage content and make changes as needed.

How does a content management system work?

Understanding what goes on behind the scenes can be useful when evaluating what kind of content management tools are right for you.

Content management back end

This is where the behind-the-scenes work of a CMS software application happens: content creation, management, editing, searching, and everything else that makes sure your organization's content is organized and accessible.

Application programming interface

Also known as an API, this connects the back end to the front end. Users can interface with the CMS from other applications and websites, access its functions, and publish the content in a way that makes the most sense for the digital experiences they want to create for customers.

For example, if you want to publish your latest press release, stored on your CMS, to your website, an API allows you or your programmer to connect to the CMS, find the document, and publish it.

Content delivery channels

A final step is to take the materials that are stored and managed in your CMS and put them out in the world. This is the stage where your website goes live or your online store opens for business.

Three types of content management systems

CMS platforms aren't one size fits all. Read on to learn about the different types and each of their benefits and drawbacks.

Traditional (or coupled) CMS

In a traditional CMS, the back end (where content is created, stored, and managed) is linked (or coupled) to the front end so all of the elements of the CMS work together. When any content is added, adjusted, or deleted on the back end, the changes take place within the same system that is delivering content to end users.

Traditional CMS software does have some advantages. It's simple and easy to use for those without extensive programming knowledge. These CMS programs offer easy access, customizable templates, and a "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) editor, so no knowledge of coding is required.

Decoupled CMS

A decoupled CMS combines features of both headless and traditional CMS platforms. The back end and front end are not linked, but the front-end delivery system—or presentation layer—operates in a predetermined way to work with the back end. Even though the two parts of the system are independent, it offers some of the benefits of a traditional CMS—like easy-to-use templates—but also offers a bit more flexibility.

Headless CMS

A headless CMS, on the other hand, decouples the front end and the back end entirely. Programmers work on content creation, management, design, and storage and then deliver web content to multiple digital platforms in a highly customizable way.

Managing unstructured content—content that does not have a predetermined structure or format, such as text, images, and videos—is also more flexible. That is, it can be stored in various file formats and re-used as needed.

You may have heard about static site generators, which have some similarities to headless CMS systems. While they also create websites that work independently from the back-end system, they're more appropriate for small sites without significant amounts of data or updates, while a CMS can operate more dynamically with larger amounts of information.

Benefits of a headless CMS

While each type of system—headless, decoupled, or traditional CMS—has advantages, headless systems have grown in popularity because of the following reasons.

Flexible development

When the back end and the front end of your CMS are decoupled, it becomes easier to deliver content to multiple channels and can be customized for different uses and platforms. Moreover, developers can use the programming language and tools of their choice, even adding custom code. This is one major advantage that improves their productivity and enables them to deliver high-quality websites and applications.

Reusable content

Because headless CMS software allows programmers to publish to any front-end digital channels, web content can be reused on multiple platforms like mobile apps or an online store.

In addition, document management is a critical component of many headless CMSs. Businesses often have many digital files like PDF documents, Word documents, images, and more. A good headless CMS offers the ability to store, manage, and use these files in whatever format makes the most sense.

Simultaneous access by multiple users

Headless systems are good for collaborative authoring. Developers can work separately on the front end and the back end, without affecting the content on the presentation layer. Plus, web developers can use whatever programming language and tools they prefer, without being dictated by the platform.


Each part of your CMS can grow, change, and scale separately. If you want to add another web server or do a complete redesign of your website, you can—without having to change the whole system.

Furthermore, many headless CMS programs are hosted in the cloud, meaning they can scale more easily and access larger storage capacities that can grow with your customer base, web content, and traffic.


Because your content isn't linked to a specific front-end presentation layer, it's easier to adapt as technology changes and your business grows. Whether new web pages or innovative mobile apps, the headless approach allows you to publish all of your digital content with the newest, most advanced technology.

How to choose the best CMS for you

Depending on the size of your business and how much digital content you have, there's a perfect system out there for you. Here is a list of questions to help you think about your organization's needs and decide which solution will work best.

What level of data security do I need?

While all CMS systems are designed for managing content, you should also keep data security in mind. Looking for CMS software that offers enterprise-grade security (a robust security system that allows you to manage who can access and edit various types of content) is important. Many headless CMS platforms offer group-based permission systems so you can customize your security protocols.

How many different groups of users will there be?

A headless CMS can be accessed by people in many different user roles in a variety of ways because it's independent of the presentation layer.

Maybe your organization has a large staff of developers, marketers, and content creators or maybe it's a one-person operation. Knowing how many people will need to use the CMS and their level of technical knowledge will guide you to the right system.

How easy is it to create, edit, and manage content?

Every step of the way—from creation to publication—you want a system that balances robust features with ease of use. In addition, you might want a strong support community.

Some CMS platforms offer documentation, forums, and support from the vendor, as well as a vibrant community of developers and users who can provide guidance and support. This is especially important if your business is small and most of your employees have limited technical knowledge or aren't able to do things like add custom code.

Another option to consider is a web content management system, which is designed specifically for web content and will meet the needs of most organizations that don't require custom functionality, high performance, or speed.

What CMS platform functions should I consider?

Every content management application is a bit different and may offer more customization or support in different areas. Think about your business's needs and consider the following CMS tasks:


Most CMS platforms have good search functions. Because they manage a lot of information, it's important to be able to find that information wherever you have content stored.


Look for revision features and revision control to record and save versions of content as it's being edited. That way you can always see what's been changed and go back to a previous version if necessary as you revise your web content.


Intuitive indexing is a process where the system automatically assigns metadata or tags to content. Instead of requiring manual tagging, the system determines tags by analyzing the content itself. In addition to improving accuracy, it also enables structured content and data to be sorted and searched efficiently and effectively.

Legacy electronic documents

As technology changes, it's easy for systems to become outdated. Rather than re-creating content, a good CMS will allow you to manage legacy documents (digital documents that were created using outdated or unsupported software or file formats) easily.

How big is your website and company?

Do you need multiple web pages, social media coordination, and e-commerce capabilities? Or does a simpler approach make more sense?

If you have a small organization, you may prefer a program with custom templates and full template support features, allowing anyone to create professional-looking websites and applications. While headless CMS programs can have templates and template support, it's less common than in traditional systems and the templates may be more focused on back-end format management.

Is the platform SEO friendly?

Getting a lot of relevant traffic to your web presence requires paying attention to search engine optimization (SEO). When users search for "best wedding cakes near me" you want the results from the major search engines to feature your bakery near the top.

A good CMS will have SEO features that monitor your web traffic, page hits, and other vital data from the initial publication of your site so you can make changes in real time.

What technology is it built on?

While some of the details of these systems can get quite technical, there are a few things to keep in mind about what to look for if you don't want to write all the code yourself.

An open-source CMS is ideal for anyone who wants access to the source code. It's more flexible and cost-effective but doesn't have to be complex. For example, WordPress is a popular platform because it's easy to use and WordPress plugins allow you to add functions to your site and increase its usability.

On the other hand, closed-source CMS programs often provide more customer support and the proprietary coding is managed by the company so you can focus on your business.

Every organization wants to give its customers the best digital experiences possible, which can perhaps be facilitated with a headless CMS that can create, store, manage, and publish data.

With this information, when you're looking for the system that's right for you, you won't be in over your head!

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