If you dabble in content management systems (CMS), you have probably heard the term “headless CMS” popping up in conversations or being thrown around in discussions a lot lately. While it’s being called a lot of things — from a buzzword to a “storm in the CMS-teacup” — it’s not a short-lived trend. Especially when you consider that it’s not entirely new.  

Yes, headless CMS has its roots in decoupled CMS, the content marketing architecture that fell out of favor with developers as new technologies rushed in. And, it's becoming an increasingly popular content management model for businesses and organizations as their need to manage the seemingly interminable number of emerging devices and channels grows in leaps and bounds. 

But why is it called “headless”? That’s because, if you imagine a traditional CMS as a metaphorical “body,” the front-end components would be the “head”. Cut off the head and what you have is a headless CMS. 

What is a Headless CMS, Really?  

When stripped down to its simplest form, a headless CMS is merely a content management platform separated (or decoupled) from content delivery and presentation capabilities of a traditional CMS platforms. In other words, a headless CMS is like a traditional CMS, but without the option to present the content to the end user on a web page. You can simply create, read, update and delete the content through an API (application programming interface). 

But wait…even though we have lumped headless and decoupled CMS together so far, there’s a slight different between the two. A decoupled CMS includes some useful front-end delivery tools such as templates and advanced drag-and-drop content modeling features. Also, unlike a traditional CMS, the back-end and front-end in a headless CMS are not “coupled” to each other through a database. Instead, the front-end communicates with the back-end communicate via an API. You could think of headless CMS as a subset of decoupled CMS.  

Going Back in Time 

From the static HTML webpages of the late 90s to the early 2000s, when the first CMS solutions started appearing, the world of website development has seen many changes. As the technology advanced, the need for control over content and access to databases, editing tools and workflows grew. Around the late 2000s, web platforms in multiple forms — simple blogging platforms to large, complex systems — started popping up. These platforms continue to help businesses operate successfully in an increasingly digital world by utilizing back-end features and maximizing the scope of engagement with users. 

With the lines between digital content and the physical world constantly fading in and out, websites are no longer the ultimate solution in serving user needs. There’s an influx of systems — like mobile apps, IoT, wearable tech, virtual reality, smart TVs, etc. — that are defined by their own infrastructures and architectures.  

This is why traditional CMS that focuses on web browser delivery is no longer enough. There are so many digital channels and devices that we need to consider. Organizations need solutions that can help them deliver content beyond websites, across all these channels and devices. And, that’s where headless CMS comes in.  

Factors Driving the “Headless” Revolution 

Among drivers of the headless trend is the Internet of Things (IoT), connecting billions of devices that request content from a CMS. Another factor is that brands increasingly need mobile applications that can utilize their web content to reach the mobile consumer base. Managing all these sources of content and sharing amongst them from one unified system provides more organization and reduces rework and is where headless CMS finds tremendous application. A third factor driving the headless CMS trend is personalization; more and more consumers expect a personalized experience from brands, and a headless CMS solution can allow personalization to be applied to all content, regardless of delivery. On a traditional structure, each application and CMS must implement the marketing personalization plan, but on headless, it can be done much more quickly. 

However, one of the biggest drivers of headless CMS are the front-end developers who would prefer to create applications without having to know all of the different content infrastructures. This can pave the way for an agile work process where developers and content creators can work simultaneously and independently of each other.  

Is Sitecore the “Original” Headless CMS?  

Having built many robust enterprise solutions leveraging Sitecore’s Experience Platform, we love its rich CMS. The CMS is the heart of the platform and enables organizations to engage with their customers across the entire digital experience lifecycle.  

Sitecore has never called their platform a “headless” CMS but its native architecture has always required a clear demarcation of content, layout, and presentation layers. As Lars Neilsen, one of Sitecore’s founders, puts it:   

“Sitecore has never marketed itself as “headless,” because, as we have always separated content from presentation, we thought of “headless” as a commodity. No big deal. It wasn’t until recently, when some in the industry incorrectly concluded that our content, layout, and presentation layers were coupled, that we felt the need to clarify our headless approach—which has been in existence well before “headless” was even a term.” 

In a world where consumers are making use of more devices and channels than ever before, businesses are looking for ways to delight customers by delivering the much-desired omnichannel experience. Headless CMS could be the simplest way to do that. But whether it’s the right approach for your business is a different matter altogether and probably a subject for another post. We’ll save that discussion for another day. 

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