Headless CMS explained in 5 minutes


Learn what a headless content management system (CMS) is, how it differs from traditional CMS architectures and how the full flexibility of Brightspot's hybrid-headless CMS approach can future-proof your business.

A headless CMS is a content management system that consists of an editorial back end but no fixed front end, where content is distributed via an API to any number of end-user interfaces.

A traditional CMS relies on a static output for content, or an end-user interface such as a website or a mobile app—making up the “head”—but a headless CMS opens up the possibility of displaying content in any number of formats, be it a wearable device, website, mobile app or eCommerce platform.

The benefits of a headless CMS are numerous, and headless systems are thought to offer the most adaptability in an ever-changing digital era. Developer flexibility, personalized content distribution and speedy content delivery make up just some of the advantages of headless content management systems.

In this article, we’ll explain the differences between a headless, traditional and decoupled CMS. We will also outline the benefits of a headless CMS and let you decide whether a headless approach is best for your business.

Headless CMS vs. the rest: What are the different CMS architecture types?

First, it's helpful to know how headless content management systems differ from the main types of CMS architectures.

Headless CMS architecture: What is it?

A headless CMS offers complete content freedom by removing the presentation layer entirely. Instead, a headless CMS delivers content as data outputs, usually via JSON. The system is back-end only, meaning it has an editorial interface, but no end-user view. (Note, this relates to where the content is consumed on the front end; content creators using a headless CMS like Brightspot do have the ability to preview the layout and user experience before publishing to a live site.)

The absence of a presentation layer opens up to complete front-end freedom—there’s no specific delivery environment or language needed to distribute content. Finally, starting with a headless CMS system makes migration to another platform much easier.

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Decoupled CMS architecture: What is it?

A decoupled CMS offers more flexibility than a traditional CMS—a coupled CMS, in other words—as to how your content is delivered, but there is a clear separation between the content and presentation layers. In other words, developers can make changes to the back end that will not directly impact the front end.

A quality implementation will allow developers to make changes to the back end content in parallel to the front-end distribution. The result makes it easier to update and maintain, and faster to launch. A decoupled CMS also enables easier deployment than the traditional style, and requires less reliance on the development team to launch new experiences.

While the back end and front end are separated in this system, the front end is usually locked in to a specific content delivery programming language (for example, React). This allows the back end and front end to connect and function as one entity.

Traditional CMS architecture: What is it?

A traditional CMS manages your entire content library and web application end to end, and usually dictates the technology used throughout—from the creation and storage of content, to the presentation of that content on your web properties.

While this type of CMS offers a full-stack solution from content management to output, it offers little technical flexibility. As the data and presentation layers are tightly bound, there’s often less freedom to distribute content elsewhere. If you’re considering a traditional CMS, it’s important to note that any future migrations to a new system would require a complete site rebuild.

Hybrid CMS architecture: What is it?

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.

The Brightspot Solution
Of the different types of CMS architectures, headless CMS offers the greatest flexibility and control over how and where your content appears. The Brightspot CMS's hybrid-headless CMS flexibility, however, goes a step beyond by allowing businesses full front-end freedom choice by allowing you to publish how and where you choose.

Why choose a headless CMS?

Headless CMS is a modern architecture that allows technical teams to be digitally nimble and adapt to the evolving demands of new technology, devices and content formats. An open-ended front end can also clear your business runway when new opportunities or goals arise that require a shift in your distribution strategy.

What are the technical benefits of a headless CMS?

In a headless model, your team chooses how to format content and where content can be displayed. Developers enjoy more flexibility in the way they code content and can focus more on building experiences rather than managing output inefficiencies.

With a back end that edits and stores content and only an API to deliver, your content can appear on any number of channels such as:

  • Wearable devices
  • Ember
  • OTT
  • Mobile apps
  • Web properties
  • React
  • eCommerce platforms

3 benefits of headless CMS for technical teams

Ability to mix and match front-end content offerings, meaning the best user experience can be delivered across every device, channel and touchpoint.
Supports organizations in future-proofing their businesses by making it easy to continually evolve alongside technology, no matter what new device or platform emerges.
Separation of the presentation layer from the platform lets teams move faster, while separation of content and presentation helps authors and developers work independently, accelerating time to market.

By opening the possibilities for your content display, you allow your business flexibility and control that a traditional or decoupled CMS may not.

For example, an eCommerce company may need to manage multiple websites and display inventory across multiple platforms. Rather than coding that content on each individual site or platform, one back-end source stores the content and sends it via API to the intended platforms, packaged for the site or platform’s specifications.

One change at the source—your headless content management system—is then reflected across all sites and platforms, rather than having to visit each site or platform to update content or product information. If you’re building a new site or display output, your content can be modified to meet that new site or platform’s needs rather than built from the ground-up each time.

Headless CMSs are ready to support technologies that will become popular in the future. Some companies are already pushing the limits of content delivery by incorporating more IoT devices, augmented reality, virtual reality and more. A headless CMS built upon powerful APIs will be more easily integrated with the newest technologies that come out, and companies will be poised for quickly taking advantage of new audience segments.
Kaya Ismail, CMSWire

To summarize, headless CMS benefits include:

  • Front-end freedom
  • Less tech debt
  • Less headaches for your developers
  • Fast and easy content delivery at scale
  • Expanded range of possibilities for content
  • No vendor lock-in for front-end displays
  • Ultimate control over your content
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Headless CMS summary

While a headless CMS approach may still feel new for some teams, many of the most innovative companies globally rely on this open-ended approach to future-proof their business. A headless CMS balances the need for control with the possibility for exploration into the unknowns of our technical future.

At Brightspot, we prioritize front-end freedom of choice. We designed Brightspot CMS with all three CMS architectures in mind to cater to the needs of any content creator. The results: more flexibility, less strain on your development team, and more valuable content experiences for your brand.

Watch Omavi Walker, Senior Software Engineer at Brightspot, give a live demonstration of the full flexibility of headless CMS and GraphQL powered by the Brightspot CMS.


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