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    What is a Headless CMS: a Visual Guide

    Last updated: January 31, 2024

    In today’s fast-paced digital age, content management systems (CMS) have become essential tools for efficiently managing and delivering content across various platforms. Among the various CMS options available, the concept of a headless CMS has emerged as a powerful and flexible solution.

    Headless CMS in 30 seconds

    What is a CMS?

    A content management system (CMS) is a software platform that enables users to create, edit, organize, and publish digital content, such as articles, images, videos, and more.

    CMSs have long been the backbone of digital content creation and delivery. Traditional CMS platforms, including open-source solutions like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal, have been popular due to their ease of use and integration of content creation and presentation.

    Here's a visual representation of a traditional CMS:

    Diagram of a traditional CMS

    A traditional CMS operates as a monolithic application. All of the different functions, such as content creation, storage, and delivery, are tightly integrated into a single system. Users use a WYSIWYG editor within the admin interface to create and oversee content, which is subsequently transformed into a responsive user interface that adapts to various devices.

    However, the tight coupling of content creation and presentation in traditional CMS brings about several challenges. One of the main issues is the lack of flexibility when it comes to delivering content across websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, smartwatches, and any emerging technologies.

    Each platform often requires specific content formatting and delivery mechanisms, which means content must be managed separately for each touchpoint. This not only creates inefficiencies but also leads to maintenance problems and inconsistencies in user experiences. The need for a more flexible approach gave rise to the concept of CMS with a headless architecture.

    What is a headless CMS?

    At its core, a headless content management system decouples the content creation and presentation layers. Unlike traditional CMS platforms, a headless CMS does not enforce a specific front-end presentation (the "head") for displaying content.

    Instead, it provides APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that help developers fetch from a single content source and deliver data to any desired front-end, such as websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, and more. Moreover, the headless CMS often provides both RESTful API and GraphQL API options, ensuring versatile and efficient content fetching capabilities.

    Here's a visual representation of a headless CMS:

    Diagram of a headless CMS

    In contrast to traditional monolithic setups, a headless CMS adopts a composable app approach. In this approach, various functionalities such as content creation, external integration, and delivery function independently yet cohesively.

    Users engage with a simple data editor to efficiently create and manage content. This content then undergoes a seamless transition into content APIs, which can be used by a technology of choice.

    Headless CMS: an analogy

    Think of a traditional CMS as comparable to purchasing a frozen pizza — it's convenient but confines you to ready-made choices. In contrast, a headless CMS is like having a fully stocked kitchen complete with fresh ingredients at your disposal.

    Visual of the pizza analogy for a CMS

    Imagine crafting not just a pizza, but also experimenting with gourmet pasta dishes or crafting delectable calzones using different techniques and flavors from the same box of ingredients. Such is the potential of a headless CMS.

    How a headless CMS works

    A headless CMS functions through a straightforward yet powerful process.

    1. Content creation and management: Content creators and administrators use the headless CMS interface to create, edit, and organize content, including text, images, videos, metadata, and other media assets.
    2. API-based architecture: The headless CMS stores content in a database and exposes it through APIs, so developers can programmatically retrieve structured content, such as JSON or XML.
    3. Front-end development and consumption: Developers build front-end applications that interact with headless CMS APIs so that the front-end can retrieve and display content based on design and user experience requirements.
    Visual of connecting one content API to multiple apps

    Benefits of a headless CMS

    Using a headless CMS comes with a plethora of advantages:

    1. Future-Proofing: The decoupled CMS nature provides easy adaptation to emerging technologies and changes in the digital landscape.
    2. Flexibility: Developers can implement unique user experiences using any tech stack; next.js, gatsby, vue.js, or react, to name a few. This allows for more creativity and customization.
    3. Better Performance: Thanks to optimized front-end design, API-driven content delivery, and integration with CDNs (Content Delivery Networks), sites and apps using a headless CMS improve loading times.
    4. Scalability: Independent scaling of front-end and back-end ensures better performance and handling of traffic spikes.
    5. Collaboration: Content creators and developers can work independently, promoting seamless collaboration and faster iteration cycles.
    6. Content Reusability: A single content repository enables repurposing content across multiple platforms and devices, such as websites, mobile apps, smart devices, and more.
    Visualization of the 6 benefits of a headless CMS

    Who's using headless CMSs

    Headless CMS is embraced by diverse industries and organizations that value agility, customization, and seamless cross-platform content delivery.

    1. Developers and agencies: Web developers and digital agencies often use headless CMS because it allows them to build custom front-end digital experiences for their clients. They have the freedom to choose the best technologies for the job and create highly tailored and unique websites or applications. They can also optimize better for SEO.
    2. E-commerce businesses: E-commerce platforms often use headless CMS to manage product information, marketing content, and other relevant data. With a headless CMS, they can easily deliver content to multiple channels, such as websites, mobile apps, voice assistants, and other devices to deliver excellent customer experiences for the end user.
    3. Media and publishing companies: Companies that handle a large volume of content, such as news outlets, blogs, and magazines, use headless CMS to streamline their content management processes. The decoupled architecture allows them to distribute and reuse content across various platforms efficiently.
    4. Marketing teams: Marketing teams can use headless CMS to manage marketing content, landing pages, and promotional material across different platforms without relying on IT teams for implementation.
    5. Mobile app developers: Headless CMS helps mobile app developers to manage app content without needing frequent updates through app stores. The same content can be delivered to users in real-time without requiring app updates. Learn how Builder can help you streamline your workflow for getting high-performance mobile apps to market faster. Get started with Builder for Mobile Apps
    6. Many others: Headless CMSs are popular in many industries such as education, government agencies, startups, and virtually anyone with sites and apps to maintain.

    Tip: Visit our Swift hub to learn more on integrating for mobile apps.

    Traditional CMS versus headless CMS in a snapshot

    Traditional vs headless CMS diagrams annotated
    Traditional CMSHeadless CMS

    Content Presentation

    Frontend is tightly linked to backend

    Content is separated from presentation

    Technology Stack

    Uses a single technology stack

    Provides APIs for content delivery to any technology stack

    Development Freedom

    Developers work within the CMS's framework

    Developers choose their technology stack

    Performance

    Monolithic nature may lead to performance issues

    Separation enhances performance

    Scalability

    Scaling may be constrained by the CMS

    Can handle increased traffic and content

    Content Updates

    Backend & Frontend updates often interdependent

    Content is separated from presentation

    Time to Market

    Template-based approach can be time-consuming

    Faster as developers work in parallel on frontend and backend

    Omnichannel

    Requires extra effort to deliver content across channels

    Content can be easily distributed to multiple channels

    Use Cases

    Well-suited for simpler websites or blogs

    Suitable for complex, dynamic, and omnichannel projects

    Maintenance & Upgrades

    More centralized but may be harder to upgrade

    Easier to maintain and update due to separation

    Drawbacks of a headless CMS

    One major challenge of a typical headless CMS is the lack of a visual interface for finding and editing content. This can create difficulties in:

    1. Locating the required content to edit
    2. Intuitively previewing and editing your content
    3. Making non-trivial changes without needing engineering assistance and deployment
    4. Testing and personalizing content

    Read more on the problems with a headless CMS.

    Fixing the drawbacks with a Visual Headless CMS

    To overcome these challenges and improve user experience, a new type of headless CMS has emerged. Known as a Visual Headless CMS, it provides a visual, component-driven approach for creating content experiences.

    Diagram of a Visual Headless CMS

    Key features of Visual Headless CMS

    A Visual Headless CMS includes all the features of a regular headless CMS, and also includes features that take the user experience to the next level.

    Drag-and-drop Visual Editor

    A Visual Headless CMS gives users a way to effortlessly drag and drop content elements, such as images, text blocks, videos, custom components, and more to create captivating and dynamic web pages.

    Tip: Learn more about Visual Editing.

    Integrated Approach

    Developers and designers find their perfect playground, as Visual Headless CMS offers the flexibility to blend visual building with coding for ultimate customization.

    One-Click Experimentation

    A Visual Headless CMS streamlines the publishing process, enabling swift delivery of new pages, A/B tests, personalization, localization, roles, and permissions.

    Full control over content workflow

    With visual tools, content creators can preview their changes in real-time, simplifying collaboration and streamlining the review process.

    Here’s a snapshot of the capabilities of a headless CMS versus a Visual Headless CMS

    Headless CMSVisual Headless CMS

    Visual Editing

    Offers a basic, form-based content creation interface

    Provides a feature-rich, drag-and-drop content editor

    Live Preview

    Lacks the ability to preview content in real-time, with some (limited) exceptions

    Gives an instant preview of edits and changes on a live page

    Collaboration

    Limited collaboration, requiring business teams to depend on developers for significant features

    Facilitates effective real time collaboration among developers, marketing teams, and designers

    A/B Testing

    Requires developer involvement to create and deploy tests

    Enables easy A/B testing with analytics, without developer intervention

    Personalization

    Requires developer involvement to create and deploy personalized variations

    Empowers personalization by leveraging customer data and targeting specific user groups with tailored content

    Visual Headless CMS impact on code

    With a Visual Headless CMS, the overall structure is the same as any other headless CMS — content is fetched as JSON and rendered within your stack.

    The key difference with a Visual Headless CMS, is you get first-class integrations for your choice of framework that let you reduce code clutter and embrace a more component-driven flow as shown below:

    Comparison of simpler code with a visual headless CMS vvs a typical headless CMS

    Ultimately, this helps developers avoid hard-coding layouts and component compositions — the CMS handles that while developers focus on components.

    Builder.io Visual Headless CMS

    At Builder.io, we offer a powerful combination of user-friendly visual tools, collaboration-friendly features, and efficient publishing capabilities. We have a Google Chrome extension to easily help you with content editing within the web browser, along with a Figma plugin to make a smoother transition from design to web page. You can incrementally adopt our Visual Headless CMS or rebuild your frontend from scratch.

    Get started free

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