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Guide to headless CMS

Headless CMS solutions are a subset of decoupled CMS architecture. With a headless CMS platform, there is no fixed front end—instead, the solution acts as a content-only data source. This allows developers to use a combination of their favorite tools and frameworks to determine where and how content appears.

Why headless CMS matters?

When it’s time to replatform and implement a modern and flexible content management system (CMS), you’ll be hearing a great deal about “headless” CMS architecture. No longer simply a trend, a headless CMS is a strategic choice for your company’s content, one that affords your content creators and developers greater power, freedom and agility. When determining if a headless CMS makes the most sense for your business, you should first understand its advantages and its challenges, and also consider the other CMS options that are available.

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Understanding headless CMS


The role of a CMS is to create and publish content—along with house design assets (including visual layout and code). Using a traditional CMS means your content is confined to the location locked in to its coding (e.g., WordPress for a blog, or Drupal for a corporate website). You may have a great site, but you lack the ability to share its content in the display you want when a potential customer checks her smartphone or accesses a page on a tablet.

To solve this problem, many organizations are turning to headless CMS platforms. A headless CMS provides only the back end, where content is created and stored. For the front end, your business can use any design that best fits your requirements, and your content shows up accurately across multiple channels—whether it’s OTT, mobile apps, wearables or even voice.

What are the benefits of a headless CMS?

Headless CMS graphic

A headless CMS offers a host of important benefits, including incredible speed, flexibility and much more control over content delivery to each channel/device.

With a headless CMS, the CMS is responsible for back-end functions only, while front-end presentation of that data is the responsibility of your development teams. With a headless CMS, the content published is made available to any application via API data services. This is commonly known as Content as a Service (CaaS).

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Back- and front-end developers can work in parallel. Front end can use various mocking techniques to avoid waiting for a back-end API to be complete, and back end can build out data models independently.
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With a headless CMS, your back end and front end can be scaled independently, meaning if the back end goes down, the front end may continue to appear functional to users if there is cache available.
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Back ends can be scaled to handle creating and serving data, while front ends can be scaled to serve traffic. Headless also allows you to cache your application at multiple layers, optimizing delivery.
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Access to the content is controlled through granular access controls with a headless CMS. Data may be kept internally during the editorial process and later made publicly or selectively available.

Go deeper on headless CMS with these resources

GraphQL is the programming language that enables flexible connection with programming APIs that support headless CMS integrations like the one offered through Brightspot.
Find out everything you need to know about headless CMS architecture and the questions decision makers need to ask when considering headless CMS for their organizations.
In our work with clients and in webinars, we field lots of questions about headless and decoupled CMS architecture. Here are answers to some of the most common.

How headless CMS puts your content front and center

Above everything else, it’s content that motivates initial site visits, downloads, signups and further conversions. Today’s users expect to be able to access content immediately, on any device, in their preferred format.

With a headless CMS, content delivery is paramount. Content and copy composition may be done in parallel with layout and design, or sequentially.

As the number of channels and devices continues to grow, it’s even more important to create content that can easily be personalized, delivered and reused.

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Promotes brand awareness
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Leads to conversions
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Increases customer loyalty

What does headless CMS mean for your business?

For many years, your customers were limited to visiting your website to view and engage with your content. Today, convenience and experience mean that “push-based” delivery—where the content comes to consumers when and where they want it—has changed the architecture of the web.

What does this shift mean for you? It requires you and your front-end team to think about how to deliver great content in a “post-browser world.” A headless CMS can help maintain, grow and engage audiences in real time as those audience members consume and share content in different ways and on different devices.

Why headless CMS is in demand

With a legacy CMS, your content is tied to your design, and that means the latest devices are often unable to read your data. Headless is in demand because, with your content. separated from your design, you can quickly and seamlessly deliver content anywhere, in any way it’s required.

The move toward digital microservices may have begun with the Unix philosophy, but it’s a trend that has only progressed in agility and increased in popularity since then. The natural divide of content and technology responsibilities in a headless CMS lets the microservices shine, while allowing developers to use the latest and greatest tools and techniques available (which include serverless technologies, such as AWS Lambda).

Omnichannel delivery drives today’s consumer experience, and it’s a nonlinear journey. A customer might switch from one device to another, then backtrack or even open two of the same applications at once. Not only does a headless CMS make this kind of journey faster and easier, but it also allows you to capture that experience from end-to-end and find new ways to support it.

Having the ability to push content across platforms has never been more important. It has also never been easier, thanks to the headless concept of unhooking content from design—a true Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model. With Brightspot, for example, we’ll take care of the CMS while you focus on how your content is displayed.

By serving up content suited for specific experiences, a headless CMS also allows you to provide a collective content experience, also known as a “content mesh.” In this scenario, each platform’s strengths can be harnessed, while maintaining a cross-referenced consumer experience. With a traditional CMS, this can be challenging, since there may be several different types of content management at play, each separate from the others. Your developers may become frustrated by the amount of duplicate work they have to perform in order to get the same or similar content flowing to different channels (e.g., a tablet and a smartphone, or a laptop and a smartwatch).

Because headless is designed as content-first and front-end agnostic from the start, it avoids channel-specific concepts like “pages” and tools that work for those (e.g., drag-and-drop functionality). Thinking of content independently of presentation allows you to focus on what you want to say before thinking of how you want to say it.

Brightspot CMS case study: Televisa

Headless CMS in action: Televisa

Televisa, the largest media company in the Spanish-speaking world, decided it was time to replatform at the end of 2017. They sought a new CMS to streamline all back-end functions, enabling them to focus on front-end design. They wanted a solution that would give the company complete control over the look and feel of all of its sites.

Over the course of five months, Televisa’s front-end developers and editorial teams worked side-by-side with the Perfect Sense team to learn Brightspot. After migrating all of Televisa’s content and creating a headless model site launch (Las Estellas), a total of nine sites were replatformed to Brightspot in just five months. A custom-built tool called Style Selector now gives Televisa the ability to preview and control every output of Brightspot code. Today, Televisa manages nine sites—eight of which are headless—from one powerful, multi-site CMS, which saves the organization both time and money.

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Explore more headless CMS resources

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Headless CMS offers a future-proofed framework in our evolving digital age, and the developer flexibility, personalized content capabilities and speedy content delivery offered through headless give companies a competitive edge. Here are 10 things to consider as you consider shifting to headless CMS.
While headless CMS is not a new concept in the digital space, today it’s an increasingly attractive proposition for businesses looking to move their digital transformation efforts forward in an impactful way.
To be successful, brands must provide great digital customer experiences. A headless CMS solution simplifies programming efforts by removing front- and back-end dependencies, freeing up teams to work in parallel on projects that bring quickest value to both customers and the business.
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Learn what a headless content management system (CMS) is, how it differs from traditional CMS architectures and how the flexibility of Brightspot's hybrid-headless CMS approach can future-proof your business.

Headless CMS FAQ

Here are some common questions about headless CMS—and how Brightspot helps solve them.

What is headless CMS?

A headless CMS platform provides organizations with an architecture with front-end flexibility, whether that is a website, mobile application, TV or any end-point that uses APIs to connect with the content repository.

What does headless CMS mean?

Headless CMS solutions are a subset of decoupled CMS architecture. With a headless CMS platform, there is no fixed front end—instead, the solution acts as a content-only data source. This allows developers to use a combination of their favorite tools and frameworks to determine where and how content appears

How does a headless CMS work?

A headless CMS works by connecting the place where contributors author content—the content management system—to the chosen front-end framework through APIs. In the case of Brightspot, two APIs support a headless CMS implementation: a Content Delivery API and a Content Management API.

An important part of understanding how headless CMS integrations work to provide ultimate flexibility for businesses is GraphQL. Known as the querying language that enables flexible connection with APIs to support headless CMS integrations, GraphQL enables content management and delivery to external systems, including third-party syndication.

When should I use a headless CMS?

Despite the popularity and front-end freedom of a headless CMS, it is not for everyone. Let us explain. The best way to think about a headless CMS approach is as a management system that solely looks after your data, and allows you to access that data. Other architecture types that are not headless involve a system that will also render a webpage—or front end. This is explained well by looking at the four main components that make up headless CMS:
  • A database where content and digital assets are stored (back end);
  • A content management back end where content is created (back end);
  • An API that connects the content management back end to any device or channel;
  • The ability to connect to any publishing front end, allowing organizations to have the front-end technology of their choosing.
How technical teams approach headless architecture and which hurdles they’ll run into depend on various factors. What type of web application is being built? What are the dynamics and skill sets on the team? What use cases and requirements need to be implemented? These are all important questions and considerations each team needs to assess and address before taking the leap in choosing which architecture best suits their business needs.

If headless CMS architecture is a fit, it needs to be implemented correctly (of course) to bring to life its intended benefits. This requires an experienced team to ensure the back end and front end are well planned from the beginning, so they can sync up seamlessly later. Keep in mind, the freedom that teams enjoy when using these systems means that they are responsible for writing, debugging and maintaining everything that their rendering systems require.

Is a headless CMS faster than other CMS options?

With a headless CMS, you can publish your content to multiple platforms and devices quickly, making immediate delivery choices depending on the brand experience required. The ability to produce content and make front-end changes simultaneously saves you time and money—which can accelerate projects by weeks or even months.

Your content teams can work faster, freed from time spent formatting content for different platforms and devices. Your developers can make rapid enhancements and updates, improving productivity and allowing for more effective use of stored data without risk of instability or performance issues. Your users will have a smoother and more interactive experience due to boosted load speeds and streamlined connectivity.

What are the benefits of headless CMS for technical teams?

Headless is the most developer-friendly of CMS options. With a headless CMS, your development team can create a custom front end that works for your project, your brand, your company and your end users. Developers can use any of their favorite frameworks and tools and are not limited by the back end of your CMS.

Is Brightspot a headless CMS platform?

Yes, Brightspot is headless, but that's not the end of the answer. At Brightspot, we believe in front-end freedom of choice—to be able to choose the architecture that best suits each individual organization’s unique needs.

Meaning? Brightspot CMS is naturally headless, but users determine how they want to use the platform to create digital content experiences. Brightspot provides the only evolved CMS platform that is front-end agnostic with an extensible architecture that is API-first so that users can publish how they want—headless or decoupled—all within the same environment.

Are other headless providers an API-first CMS platform?

No, most headless CMS platforms on the market are API-only platforms. This means that the burden of developing the features and capabilities to create, develop and publish content rest squarely with the user.

In today’s digital economy, Brightspot recognizes that all businesses are content businesses—all organizations must communicate and reach audiences by creating and publishing unique content. In that sense, while not all businesses may see themselves yet as a content business, all businesses leverage content as a vehicle for communicating and engaging with their stakeholders—customers, partners, employees, and shareholders.

What is GraphQL? And why does it matter for headless CMS?

GraphQL is a query language for APIs and a runtime for fulfilling those queries with existing data, providing an alternative to the traditional RESTful style of web services. Whereas RESTful style tends to have looser guidelines for how an API should be structured, GraphQL strictly structures the communication between the client and the server, irrespective of the specific data models used. GraphQL’s self-describing type system enables automation in the case of changes to the content data model.

Is a headless CMS more secure than other CMS options?

Headless CMS platforms allow easy and secure third-party integrations and protect against security risks. Since the front end and back end aren’t linked, no one can access the content publishing platform from a CMS database. Your system is less likely to experience a DDoS attack and be rendered offline or unable to access systems and network resources. Your headless CMS can tightly secure any administrative or data-holding areas because it is completely separate from the displayed website. This even gives you the ability to restrict IP access to the CMS.

Consider this example: A popular method of hacking a website is through SQL injections—but headless CMS systems combat that by running on a server without SQL or even without being connected to SQL. When a developer creates a unique CMS from scratch, nothing about that CMS is a known entity.

What is a traditional CMS?

A traditional—or coupled—CMS tightly links the back end to the front end. Content is created, managed and stored, along with all associated digital assets, on the site’s back end. The back end is also where website design and customization applications are stored. This content management back-end and database is bound within the same system that delivers and presents content to the end users’ respective devices.

What is a decoupled CMS?

In a decoupled CMS environment, the back end and front end of a website are split—hence “decoupled”—into two unique systems that are managed separately. One system handles content creation and storage, while the other is responsible for taking that input and presenting it to the user through a chosen interface.

What is meant by hybrid CMS?

Decoupled and headless architectures have paved the way for the hybrid model. With a hybrid CMS architecture, organizations and publishers have the ability to mix presentation or front-end choices. The hybrid approach offers an environment that allows users to deliver different experiences to a browser window or a device, where both decoupled and headless CMS architectures can be combined.

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