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Headless Content Management Systems on the Rise

clock-iconSeptember 16, 2020

The management of online content is a constantly evolving field. Yes, traditional CMSs have enjoyed a primary position for years among website owners and designers. But headless content management systems are now on the rise and becoming the main choice for many people. What is a headless CMS? Why is it on the rise?

Content is the cornerstone of digital experiences

Content has always played a crucial role in digital experiences. The content becomes ever more relevant and meaningful as customers and prospects interact with your brand across more and more touchpoints and devices. That content needs to be consistent and served to the right audiences and at the right time.

You are seeing businesses taking a journalistic, storytelling approach in conveying the value they bring. It's not just what you are doing, but more on why you are doing it. Your audience, their challenges, their place in the customer journey, when, and how they serve the content all play a massive part in your business's success.

So all companies have kind of unintentionally become publishers in addition to their core product and service offering. These days, each brand needs to find its voice and articulate it clearly to its target audiences via multiple channels on different devices. The one goal they all need to have in common is to deliver an impeccable customer experience from the very first touchpoint to the end…well, not the end, but a repeatable cycle where customers come back for more time and again.

Customers want content that is available on a myriad of devices and platforms. No longer is the customer journey separated into siloes – it's complicated, across multiple channels where customers consume content on a host of different devices. It also needs to be easily shareable, consistent, and targeted to them. The ultimate goal of every content strategy is to personalize the entire user experience and bake personalization into the whole content delivery cycle.

Decoupled CMS


In the web publishing world, decoupling the content from the technology is a big trend hence the rise of decoupled CMS, also known as a headless content management system. By the way, this type of content management system may also be marketed as content as a service. The terms "decoupled CMS", "API-first", and "headless CMS" may be used interchangeably as well.

As the axis of power has now shifted to the customer, organizations selling products or services, become consumer-centric. Customers want intuitive experiences to find the content they're after quickly. They expect the same level of service and customer experience from a brand regardless of location and device they are accessing the content.

For organizations, managing content published across different channels – websites, apps, email campaigns, smart TVs, etc., a digital experience platform (offering integrated content management, e-commerce, and personalization services) hosts all content in one place. It makes it available to these different channels, in different contexts and formats.

Create once, publish everywhere

Described as a "technological shift," the embedding of content in JSON payloads (traveling along HTTP tubes) has an outsized impact on how we think about digital content and surrounding workflows.

Almost ten years ago, National Public Radio's (NPR) Daniel Jacobson guest blogged at about their approach, summed up in the acronym COPE, which stands for "Create Once, Publish Everywhere." In the article, he introduces a content management system that provides the content to multiple digital interfaces through an API — not through an HTML rendering machine — as most CMSs at the time did.

All monolithic CMS systems still do until today. The notion of a "headless CMS" or a "decoupled CMS" is born. As opposed to XML, JSON has become the dominant format for transferring data over APIs, including the internet of things and other systems outside the web. Exchanges with chatbots, voice interfaces, and even software for prototyping are done in JSON.

In essence, a headless content management system is a setup that structures content without the constraints of the web. Making content available through an API gives you the flexibility for how and where you want to display and use your content. Things will be handled properly in the back end and the front end won't severely affect the content delivery.

Since the content is handled swiftly and efficiently in the back end and is decoupled (hence the term decoupled CMS) from the front end or the presentation layer, this makes for a more flexible and multi-purpose content management system.

A headless content management system thus becomes the perfect companion of the most popular Javascript frameworks, such as React and Vue. And they are an ideal match for managing content on JAMstack websites. More than their lack of front end rendering capabilities assess headless CMS systems for what their real capabilities are - a way to work with structured content.

In a structure, you define yourselves based on your content needs. Arrange content according to a page hierarchy where you are free to structure content the way you see fit. In other words: Create Once, Publish Everywhere. If you just have to update your product description once — in one system — and it updates wherever your product is exposed to the user, that's an advantage.

The true from the fake


It's when the fakes start emerging that you know a tech trend has begun to get traction. Established vendors suddenly realize that customers have started asking for this new thing they don't offer. In response, they give their products a buzzword-compliant makeover — but without fundamentally changing the underlying technology.

Such statements like - "Being an open-source platform; WordPress offers great flexibility to create any kind of website. Using WordPress as a headless CMS allows you to create the front end of your web application using any web technology and manage its content using one of the most popular CMS. Use WordPress headless CMS to manage your content using Rest API." Can you use WordPress as a headless CMS - sure. Should you? No!

Next-Generation CMS characteristics and capabilities

The most innovative CMS vendors today either have or are working on the development of next-generation CMS capabilities to help their customers: optimize content for growth and revenue, go to market more rapidly and efficiently, and understand the "why" of what they're doing (i.e., practitioner insights). The following are just a few of these capabilities that serve as differentiating points as you select your next-generation Headless CMS or Decoupled CMS.

Framework freedom

"Ease of integration among front end components" is the most important characteristic when selecting a solution. A major draw of headless CMS is that you are not locked in, and this should apply to the front end frameworks as well.

Ensuring that the headless CMS can work with multiple frameworks - React, Angular, Ember, Vue, etc. - helps you two-fold. One, you know, the headless CMS is built to adapt to whatever app/screen/touchpoint comes next without sacrificing the back end efficiency and real-time delivery of content. Two, you open up the pool of talent and can entice top developers who want to work and experiment with the latest API-first frameworks.


A headless content management system needs to not only play nicely with your presentation layer frameworks but also integrate with backend systems when it is time to deliver content. API support across both external and internal applications is critical to building that unified digital agenda.

Content delivery needs data from third-party tools, such as Marketing Automation and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, and the content management system you chose needs the APIs to do so. A CMS with full API support integrates nicely with the backend systems required to run your business while giving your developers and marketers a safe space to experiment with the experience.

  • Business level enablement: API level interoperability alone is not enough: A CMS needs to enable business users to interact with and benefit from third-party tools through seamless integration. That is interoperability from a business user perspective with minimal to no IT involvement, for example.
  • Microservices-based architecture: This architecture must support scaling and extension when needed, forming an agile digital marketing technology ecosystem.

Preview and Editing


The actual problem with a CMS' headless delivery, especially in the case of Single Page Applications (SPA), is that when content is stored separately from its presentation, marketers lose the ability to see how unpublished material will be presented live.

When you lose the ability to preview content, the What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editing tools go along. When it comes to previewing within the CMS, an API can wrap each component in meta-data to show where it begins and ends. These meta-data tags create a map that your frontend framework, such as a SPA, can determine the order of components and the content that goes in them.

One API creates a map for the live site, and one API establishes an outline for the "preview site," which is allowed to view unpublished content.


Choose an extensible content management system with APIs that can imbibe 3rd party data (CRM, DAM, Marketing Automation, etc.) and use the combined data to feed personalization efforts.

With the proliferation of digital channels, this personalization needs to happen at the core of the experience - the content management system - as opposed to each frontend application handling customization in a data silo.

To do this, a CMS needs to have native, component-based personalization that occurs on the server-side. That way, relevant content is determined by the CMS before it's sent to the frontend via the API map mentioned above. Every channel can pull from - and contribute to - the same pool of data and your visitors get a consistently relevant experience across every interaction.

  • Cloud and SaaS Scalability: The advent of cloud and SaaS models have enabled lower-cost models through subscription fees and fewer capital costs, more rapid set-up and deployment, greater accessibility by developers and application users, more accessible application of software upgrades, more significant software ecosystem integrations and increased scalability.

MAJOR PLAYERS in the Headless CMS market

It is not the intention of this post to be exhaustive when it comes to headless cms vendors. But we would like to highlight the significant players, open-sourced or closed sourced.

The most popular open-source solutions are Strapi and Directus

Strapi is an open-source headless CMS that empowers engineers to design, manage, and distribute content anywhere.


Because of the many available field types, you can define the Content-Type Structure based on your specific needs, including Text, Date, Password, Media, Number, and Relation. Furthermore, it allows you to edit the code to fit API to your needs.

Auto-generated documentation, the capability of integrating with other frameworks, and available Plugins databases make it one of the most popular open-source headless CMS of 2020.

Directus is great headless CMS for projects that entail customized databases. The open-source software is free without any limitations or licenses. Using Directus, all system data is stored separately. Therefore, customers can have full control over the schema, managing the existing databases. Tracking the data and the possible rollbacks dis-allow the loss of data.

Directus proposes an automatic and straightforward interface for which no training is required. Each interface enables to manage content based on an extensive diversity of data such as colors, ratings, currencies, and locations.

In the closed sourced solutions, Contentful, Prismic, and GraphCMS are worth mentioning.

Contentful is API-centric. As a developer, get your data in and out of the Contentful platform using API calls.


Contentful is a headless and decoupled solution for managing content. No matter what platform you're developing for, your data will always show up as JSON in a heartbeat. Contentful is a hosted solution. In our case, this means that when you use Contentful, your data is stored, processed, and later served to you and your users via our reliable CDN.

Prismic is a Content Management System, a tool for editing online content, an API CMS, a content platform, and a disruptive content-as-a-service digital experience.

The tool allows you to choose the technology, framework, and language and, after that, easily manage and deliver the content. It supports native integrations with eCommerce platforms such as Shopify and Magento.

Scheduling and previews, multi-language, full revision history, and dynamic layouts are some of the features that make Prismic accessible.

GraphCMS offers a headless CMS for users who want to build a GraphQL content infrastructure for their digital products. This CMS is API focussed from the ground up, allowing creators to define the structures, permissions, and relations for the API parameters. Managing the content is convenient through GraphCMS, as users make use of the same text editors and asset workflows without requiring any pull requests.


By using GraphQL, the same process made around 10x more efficient from the development perspective. Connecting the CMS to any other platform is very simple because of the API-driven development by the GraphQL API.

Enterprise-grade security protects everything that users build and store. It also offers scalability by removing bottlenecks so that users can create and deliver content without worrying about the server. The GraphQL API ensures that the development is multi-platform, and apps can be built for mobile, web, IoT, and VR, among other high-tech platforms.

WebriQ vendor of choice

Sanity is a headless, real-time CMS where the editor is an open-source React-based construction kit, and the backend is a graph-oriented cloud datastore with a globally distributed CDN. The Sanity Studio is an open-source CMS built with React.js.


It offers rapid configuration and free form customization. As long as it speaks HTTP, you can connect your services, frontends, apps, scripts, or devices to Sanity APIs. Query your content with GROQ or GraphQL. You can do real-time mutations and patches with powerful write APIs.

Sanity offers the following functionalities:

  • Complete structured content model
  • Access control
  • Version Control
  • Document Management
  • Rich Text Editor
  • Multi-language Support
  • WYSIWYG Editor
  • Drag and Drop Editor
  • Content Blocks
  • Live preview & editing

Why Headless CMS now?

There will always be disruptive technologies that will change the CMS playing field. There is no doubt that AI and machine learning will play a massive role in the future of content management. The primary goal is to build the best digital experience platform with omnichannel delivery that is secure, scalable, and as future-proof as possible.

By allowing you to integrate with new technologies and applications as they come on the scene, a headless CMS is likely to be the longest-lasting solution in content management history.