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Headless CMS guide

Headless CMS explained in 5 minutes

Learn what a headless content management system (CMS) is, how headless CMS 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.

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

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.

What is headless CMS?

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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Headless CMS explainer

What is decoupled CMS?

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.

What is traditional CMS?

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.

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. That’s why we’ve designed Brightspot CMS to operate as a traditional, decoupled, headless or hybrid CMS solution.
Image of Brightspot founder and CEO, David Gang
David A. Gang, President & Founder, Brightspot

What is hybrid CMS architecture?

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.

image of Brightspot employee Meredith Rodkey
By Meredith Rodkey
July 22, 2020
Discover why hybrid CMS architecture is the most flexible option for content management, and how it offers the ability to mix presentation choices.

Why choose 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.

Headless CMS graphic

Technical benefits of 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

Benefits of headless CMS for technical teams

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Flexibility
Ability to mix and match front-end content offerings, meaning the best user experience can be delivered across every device, channel and touchpoint.
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Resiliency
Supports organizations in future-proofing their businesses by making it easy to continually evolve alongside technology, no matter what new device or platform emerges.
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Agility
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 e-commerce 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.

Adobe Experience Manager vs. Brightspot: Brightspot company logo
By Brightspot Staff
August 14, 2020
Here are five benefits developers—and, by extension, their projects—get from a headless CMS.

Will going headless lower my project costs?

The answer to that depends on a variety of factors, but in many cases, yes, a headless CMS can help cut costs. If you’re starting from scratch, you may need to invest more up front to make sure you have both the back-end and front-end developers you need, depending on the size and number of sites, along with a technical manager. That said, the up-front cost for a new app is about the same, and a headless CMS can save on long-term maintenance costs because you don’t have to worry about changing the back end every time you add a channel. So, if you expect that you’ll continue to expand your support for different audiences, headless is more cost effective in the long term.

How do I preview content with a headless CMS?

It’s a common concern: If my CMS isn’t rendering the content for final display, will I still be able to review how it looks before publishing? The short answer for Brightspot is yes. The not-as-short answer is that some additional development may be required, depending on your front-end system (e.g. React, Angular) and the channel in question.

How does a headless CMS help content teams?

Apart from happy developers? A headless CMS doesn’t intrinsically deliver editors to publishing Nirvana in and of itself (although we do think Brightspot CMS’ publisherinformed UI has got you covered on that front), the benefits accrue by removing front-end obstacles to getting content published and delivered wherever your audiences are through API-connected endpoints. With the content management framework separated from the content delivery side, editors and publishers can focus on what they do best: storytelling and audience engagement. Other benefits include protection from unhelpful outages and changes downstream on the front end, plus the ability to manage editorial content types, workflows, templates, and more all from within the CMS ecosystem without being reliant on development support or front-end changes.

Adobe Experience Manager vs. Brightspot: Brightspot company logo
By Brightspot Staff
October 27, 2021
Any business using a traditional CMS should at least consider how a headless CMS could simplify and accelerate the way they share consistent content with audiences across multiple platforms.

How does Brightspot headless CMS work?

Brightspot offers automatically generated APIs based on your data models. So with Brightspot's headless CMS solution, there's no need to worry about boilerplate and domain knowledge necessary for building an endpoint from scratch. We offer a relatively hands-off solution, which builds generally useful APIs with some simple configuration, but also an advanced solution where developers can customize their APIs to a significantly granular level, all via data modeling.

This includes a self-describing type system for headless CMS, which enables developers to easily discover what data types and fields are accessible from Brightspot’s Content Delivery API. Developers can then use whatever front-end programming languages and frameworks they want to create a front-end that talks to the headless APIs.

The end result? Write your code once and it can be consumed by infinite mediums.

example of GraphQL code in Brightspot CMS
Brightspot’s view system offers two implementations to output your data: traditional and headless.

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.

Start building in a free trial environment, see a demo or talk to an expert—select one of these paths and start however you would like to!

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More headless CMS resources

Learn the difference between traditional (or coupled) CMS, decoupled CMS, and headless CMS architecture, as well as the pros and cons for each.
GraphQL is the programming language that enables flexible connection with programming APIs that support headless CMS integrations like the one offered through Brightspot.
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Modern headless content management system platforms can give you the flexibility you need to change—but there are four things to consider first.