A Content Management System (CMS) is a software platform for creating, managing, and publishing digital content without writing code. For some time now, Traditional CMSs have been the default option for managing content (i.e. WordPress, Drupal, Joomla). They offer a one-size-fits-all solution that marries the front end to the back-end, making it easier to manage an entire website in one place. However, this architecture is restricted to one channel only; websites. This means content creators can't repurpose for an omnichannel experience.
On the other hand, headless CMSs aren’t coupled to the frontend so they can be used to manage content across all channels. A custom frontend can be built specifically for phones, wearable tech, fridges, car tv screens, and any internet of things device, and the marketing team can manage the content from a headless CMS.
This is broadly what’s meant by an omnichannel experience. From a marketing perspective, it’s focused on standardising the customer experience regardless of how they’re dealing with your company. Achieving this kind of streamlined experience with a bunch of different tools is difficult because they each have their own quirks and workflows - which is one of the reasons why headless CMSs are a big deal.
To further understand the differences between the traditional and headless CMSs, let’s look at their architecture and how they work.
Traditional CMS architecture
Traditional CMSs were launched in the early 2000s when web development was still relatively immature. They were introduced to open up the internet to non-technical users by empowering them to publish content/blogs online without any expertise in web development. A user simply logins to their website admin panel, writes a post and publishes it on the web with a push of a button.
A traditional CMS architecture consists of three main components;
- A database where your content is stored
- A CRUD (create, read, update, and delete) interface allows you to manage and edit content.
- A front-end layer that presents your content from the database to a site visitor.
The database and CRUD comprise the back-end layer, which is tightly coupled with the front-end to serve as one functional unit. This is why traditional CMSs are called monolithic (i.e. borrowed from the word monolithe meaning a single block of stone).
The front-end, is made up of templates, themes, and CSS that enables users to build their website without the help of a developer. You can customize the properties of your content, such as font styles, background color, headings, and images.
Some well-known examples of traditional CMS include WordPress, Shopify, Joomla, and Drupal. WordPress, for instance, has a CRUD dashboard for editing content and a MySQL database that stores your content. A PHP application code links the database to the front-end where the content is displayed.
Benefits of Traditional CMS
Low barrier to entry for non-developers
Traditional CMSs have built-in templates to help you design your website without coding. As such, they offer a cost-effective way of establishing your online presence since you don't need to hire a developer to build your site. You can set up everything by yourself.
Easy site management
Traditional CMSs have a monolithic architecture that couples the front-end and the back-end into one unit. You don’t need a developer to integrate them. This means that you have everything in one place. You can manage the database, make content changes, tweak templates and the UI themes and deploy your site easily and fast with zero maintenance cost.
Clear cost structure
Usually, traditional CMSs pricing models are based on features such as custom domain names, hosting, themes, and plugins. With such a transparent pricing model, it’s easy to accurately predict the cost of running a website.
Drawbacks of using traditional CMS:
Limited delivery channel
When traditional CMSs were launched, digital content was almost exclusively consumed via websites and served as static pages. However, with the rise of modern devices such as smartphones, smartwatches, and IoT devices, traditional CMSs with their single connection to a website may be limiting.
Limited UI customization
Although traditional CMSs allow you to design your front-end, you're limited to using the built-in templates and themes. The UI limitation may not be a big deal if you're building a personal website, but it's a significant hurdle for a business that wants its site’s UI to rapidly evolve based on data-insights.
Traditional CMS platforms host content in-house using limited servers due to their monolithic architecture. As a result, handling spiked traffic and scaling as your database grows becomes a challenge. Also, since the back-end and front-end are connected, when one element is affected by downtime, the entire site experiences downtime.
Headless CMS architecture
In a headless CMS architecture, the back-end is detached from the front-end. The back-end is the 'body,' while the front-end is the 'head,' which is decoupled hence the name headless. As such, headless CMS platforms exist as a back-end layer where you can create, store and manage your content. This gives you the freedom and flexibility to deploy your content across any presentation layer. And since the front-end is separated from the back-end (where your content is stored), headless CMSs incorporate APIs that enable you to retrieve your content and publish it to any front-end.
Headless CMSs works well if you’re looking to launch dynamic content with scalability in mind.
It’s a bit tricky to analyse the benefits of headless CMS under a microscope, because they’re part of a bigger MACH (Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native and Headless) architecture. We’ve already written a detailed breakdown on the benefits of MACH architecture and what kind of companies can use it as a growth play, so won’t rehash the same information.
Benefits of using Headless CMS
Headless CMS platforms were introduced to support seamless omnichannel experiences. This means they aren't restricted to any particular presentation layer. You can deliver your content to websites, mobile apps, wearables, and other smart devices. You don’t have to implement parallel CMSs to support various digital channels.
Since a headless CMS decouples the content from its presentation, it gives developers more freedom when creating their desired user experience. They can work with their favorite tools and frameworks to create a personalized user interface and offer consistent user experiences across different platforms.
With a headless CMS, you're working with the back-end only. So, you only have to worry about security in one front, unlike traditional or coupled CMS, where you have to keep your eyes on both the front and back-end. Less entry point translates to better data security.
Fast content delivery
The API-driven model of headless CMSs means that it offers high performance and delivers content faster for an improved user experience.
Headless CMS’ decoupled architecture allows developers to plugin third-party applications to enrich content. You can integrate other systems, such as customer relationship management systems, ERP tools, market automation programs, and other applications.
A headless CMS is a future-proof option as it can be easily adapted to any new technology or changes in user behavior. Besides, it's an iteration of traditional CMS designed to support content delivery to newer front-end layers.
The content stored in a headless CMS isn't dependent on a specific front-end display. In other words, the content is modular, and as such, it can be reused across any touchpoint without duplicating or reformatting it from scratch.
The only drawback of using a headless CMS is that you'll need a developer to handle integrations and the UI. This can increase the overall of your project.
Traditional vs. Headless CMS use cases
You may want to use a traditional CMS if:
- You want a simple website that gets the job done. In other words, if you’re working on a small project whereby your highest priority is usability with minimal personalization, a traditional CMS will serve you just right.
- You have a limited budget or limited access to developer/technical support. It offers out-of-the-box templates and themes to help non-developers set up your website and publish content.
- Omnichannel experience is not part of your business model.
Use a headless when:
- You want to separate your website’s tech stack from your content. This helps improve content delivery speed. Besides, headless CMS is an independent, self-contained content repository; you can change your tech stack whenever you want without breaking anything.
- Offering omnichannel experience is part of your business model. Headless CMSs allow you to deliver content to users via multiple touchpoints.
- Your project involves working with consumers' data, and as such, you can't afford to compromise on security.
- You plan on integrating various systems to improve your website’s functionality.
- You’re building a new MACH application and want easy content management that doesn’t need a developer to be involved.
Factors to consider when choosing a headless CMS
If you’re planning on switching to a headless CMS, there are numerous options available on the market. Some of these options include Contentful, Strapi, Storyblok, and Contentstack e among others. While they all have the same architecture and the associated benefits, they differ in features and add-ons. As such, be sure to consider the following factors when shopping for your next headless CMS:
Your business needs, or what you intend to achieve using the CMS, should guide your purchase decision. What do you hope to get out of a CMS? A good place to start is by defining the key pain points that aren't being addressed in the current system. Most importantly, involve your team – marketers, content creators, and developers – in your decision-making. Take notes of the critical features and nice-to-haves add-ons they're looking for in a headless content management system. Their list of needs will give you a clear roadmap toward the ideal CMS you should purchase.
To make it even easier, it's a good idea to classify the list of requirements into two categories – idiosyncratic and priority requirements. The former refers to company-specific requirements that a CMS should have. For example, if your content needs to be translated into multiple languages, you should look for a CMS that supports internationalization. Priority requirements, on the other hand, refer to the essential functionalities a CMS should fulfill. For example, the CMS you intend to buy should have media editing tools if you are dealing with multimedia content.
Headless CMSs tend to be more developer dependent than traditional CMSs due to their open front-end architecture. But developers aren't the only ones using the CMS in your organization. Ideally, you want a headless CMS that's intuitive for everyone on your team. So, when making your purchase decision, you need to account for both technical and non-technical users in your team.
The good news is that most headless CMS vendors offer a demo account. You can use the free account for your typical CMS tasks and evaluate how efficiently it gets the job done. Everyone on your team should be given an opportunity to get hands-on running the demo account and form an opinion from their experience.
Our team are partners with Contentful and Prismic, and both headless CMSs are excellent at what they do. However, they’re proprietary and the codebase can’t be extended by our engineers.
Most of the time this is a benefit. It means the engineering teams behind the CMS will take care of issues and ensure the product stays stable. However, there are sometimes when even these super flexible CMSs don’t meet the requirements.
One example is being able to manage Shopify products from the same place content is being written. This isn’t a feature offered natively by any headless CMS. The only way to do this successfully is work with an open source CMS like Strapi and add build this functionality in.
If your team’s requirements for content management are complex and unique, then an open-source headless CMS like Strapi might be the best option.
Tech stack Compatibility
It's crucial to ensure a headless CMS is compatible with your existing tech stack. The best way to verify if a CMS is compatible is by checking the vendor's website. Under documentation, you'll find all the supported software development kits (SDKs); verify if there's an SDK for your tech stack. For example, if your website is built using .NET, you want to use a CMS that offers an SDK for. NET. Otherwise, your developers will be forced to build everything from scratch, which is time-consuming. In extreme cases, you might even be forced to train or hire developers with the right skills to maintain your CMS.
Besides your list of requirements, your budget greatly influences your CMS purchase decision. For starters, you should define how much you’re willing to spend on purchasing a CMS. It can be quite challenging to find an ideal CMS that meets all your needs without exceeding your budget. You may be forced to either increase your budget or go for the essential features and functionalities and forego additional nice-to-haves.
Most headless CMS have a tiered price structure – basic free tier, standard, and premium tiers. Usually, the difference in price between the paid tiers is the number of users, supported content types, and API calls, among others. Determine which features are a priority to your organization and choose your plan accordingly.
Technical and sales support
Even though you have an in-house development team, you may still require technical support from your CMS provider. Therefore, ensure the headless CMS you’re about to purchase has a comprehensive knowledge base on their website and a convenient communication channel where you can reach out to customer support. A good CMS should have email and phone support. Also, established headless CMSs usually have detailed documentation and a large community of users, which is helpful if you run into problems when using the platform. So, be sure to check a platform's maturity.
Frequently asked questions
What’s the difference between a traditional CMS and headless CMS?
The main difference is that a traditional CMS has a monolithic architecture that combines the back-end and front-end. Conversely, a headless CMS separates the front-end and back-end, allowing you to deploy your content to multiple channels.
Is a headless CMS better than traditional CMS?
A headless CMS is better than a traditional CMS since it supports an omnichannel experience. It's not restricted to one front-end/presentation layer, thus enabling you to reuse your content throughout multiple devices and platforms.
A headless CMS offers great flexibility and agility to businesses looking to deploy their content faster and provide personalized customer experience. It's also a great alternative for future-proofing your business, thanks to its support for omnichannel experiences.
At the same time, traditional CMSs still have their place in the CMS market as they offer a great starting point for small businesses aiming to deliver their content to a single platform. Traditional CMSs are also easier to manage and less dependent on developers, saving you time and money.
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