In case you haven’t been paying attention, content marketing is the future of doing business, and if you are not in the game yet, it’s high time you jumped into it straightaway. According to HubSpot, almost 70% of businesses are into content marketing to improve their brand presence and ensure business growth. And to power this enormous task, one needs a highly proliferate CMS. If you have ever built or owned a website then you will have, in all probability, used a content management system or CMS as it is commonly referred to. CMS, as we all know, is that indispensable application on which you can create and manage all your web content in one place. Architecturally speaking, it comprises of a backend in the form of an admin panel to add, edit or delete content, and a frontend or user interface for delivery of all your website content across various devices. The whole process is something that can be achieved without hiring the services of someone to manage and maintain your websites, someone typically known as a webmaster. It goes without saying therefore, that a CMS seems like something that would perfectly serve the requirements of a blogger or someone who wants to build a website with minimum investment. That minimum investment, of course, would be the money spent on a hosting plan and a server.
The great CMS race
Things got really interesting thereafter, when Drupal was introduced to the world in January 2001 as a free and open-source CMS written in PHP that facilitated website customization with hundreds of themes over and above the normal features that already existed. This made it much easier for people (read amateurs) to create websites, even if simple, without spending a fortune on designers and developers. Then in 2003 the internet industry witnessed the birth of what is easily the most popular CMS ever – WordPress. This is the free and open-source CMS written in PHP that is used by over 60 million websites across the world. So, they must be doing something, right? What makes WordPress so very popular is its inventory of thousands of themes and plugins, multilingual features and a host of other useful features that take customization to a whole new level. In fact, website development took on a new turn with the arrival of WordPress and hasn’t looked back since, paving the path for future popular CMSs like Joomla, Magento, Wix and Shopify among others.
Enter the headless CMS
But as if that was not enough, the buzz over WordPress and its tribe of CMSs had not even faded out when a new kind of CMS showed up to make its presence known. Headless CMS, as the name suggests, is a backend exclusive system minus the frontend, where the backend is considered the body and the frontend its head. And thus, the name headless. So, what really is this headless CMS and how is it different than traditional CMSs like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and their ilk? To answer that question, we’ll have to dive straight into the functioning of a headless CMS.
What is a headless CMS and how does it work?
For all those who came in late, traditional CMS platforms have been in existence since the mid 90s, prominent among them being FileNet, Interwoven, Documentum and the very popular web-based CMS Yahoo! GeoCities, the last version of which was unfortunately shut down in 2019. Then came the new league of more powerful CMSs led by WordPress with enhanced features that I’ve already mentioned. Now, the architecture of a traditional CMS is, so to speak, quite simple in its approach. There’s a backend, which besides functioning as a user interface for the creation and modification and publishing of content, also doubles up as a repository for all your website data, including all your design assets. The frontend is the interface that will distribute all the submitted and published content to devices on which your website can be accessed by the users. This methodology shows an essential interdependence between the frontend and the backend.
Sidestepping, or rather leaping forward, from this principle is the headless CMS, which totally diminishes the need for a frontend. This CMS basically comprises of a backend system and an application programming interface (API) where the website data, including content, is stored and through which they are distributed. With the removal of the frontend or the presentation layer and the introduction of the RESTful API, developers have been given the distinct advantage of being able to create, read, update and delete (CRUD) content simply through the backend, across multiple channels or omnichannel to be precise. Omnichannel is a multi-channel content management strategy that provides content to customers across multiple points of contact for optimal user experience. With this API-based CMS approach, now you don’t have to be bothered with where you are providing your content, since the content can be accessed on any platform.
Headless CMS on the rise
So, what makes headless CMS so very popular? Well for starters, the birth of headless CMS was a result of the need for a solution to the vociferous appetite of the digital age, in which end users constantly demand more improvements and businesses strive to provide exactly that through customized content across multiple channels. These channels include laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones, smart watches and even information kiosks. The possibilities could be endless here as we speak, considering the speed at which the digital industry progresses these days. At this point I would like to rationalize this increasing popularity by detailing the clear edge that headless CMS has over traditional CMSs.
Headless CMS vs traditional CMS
A headless CMS has some very distinct advantages over a traditional or monolithic CMS. This can be better explained by outlining the features of a headless CMS.
1. Headless CMS offers flexibility and ease of operation, while saving valuable time:
As an API-based CMS it gives you the flexibility to choose your desired programming language, such as PHP, Java and Ruby, and create your own frontend without the need to depend on any proprietary software. This in turn lets you complete your tasks faster by sourcing out the same content as many times as you wish through multiple programming methods. This would be particularly interesting for those who are thinking of refurbishing their website or application. Under normal circumstances, i.e. using a traditional CMS, this task would involve redesigning the whole thing while staying within the ambit of the same language to do the coding and development. While if you were to resort to a headless CMS, your developers could avoid redesigning and redeveloping the entire website by refreshing only the needed area of the website/application using the technology that they are comfortable or familiar with. What's even better is that the content and developer teams will be able to work in tandem without coming in each other's way, since developing at the frontend would not halt content creation in any way, thereby saving precious time and dollars in marketing.
2. It offers a single point of control:
One of the obstacles that website owners using traditional CMSs faced was the obligation of organizing and managing content individually for different digital platforms. Using the same content multiple times for multiple platforms meant multiple coding because it was all done around the pages. This challenge and the need for a centralized system struck a chord with stakeholders, especially because it was a tedious process of duplicating content from one platform to another. A headless CMS is particularly instrumental in this situation as it takes a content-first approach that is custom constructed to enable reuse of the same content throughout multiple platforms from a single point – a centralized content management system. With this single-point oriented CMS, developers could break character and just had to structure the content according to their types – blog, CTAs and so on, making it much easier for the creation and editing of content as a multilateral approach for multiple channels. This in turn would lead to the consolidation of a brand’s stability with a faster and more convenient content management methodology.
3. It is fully future compliant:
One of the biggest advantages of using a headless CMS is the ever readiness for the future that it offers. In the event of a website redesigning and redevelopment project in the future, you wouldn’t have to follow the traditional protocol of refreshing the entire CMS to implement a new design. The API-based approach of a headless CMS makes it better equipped to adjust to any technological changes in the future. With all the content being structured in one place independent from the presentation layer, your website is literally future ready to add more channels and/or digital platforms for your content to be seamlessly accessible on them. This allows you to integrate your existing content to a future project without the need to go through any technical alterations in your CMS. Not only is this method much faster, it’s a step in the right direction of cutting down on extra expenses in hiring designers and developers. It's like using the same daily/monthly pass to use across multiple transportation systems like trams, buses and subway trains, if it makes any sense.
4. It takes on an omnichannel methodology:
Do you recall the days when a desktop computer was the sole medium through which you could access the internet? It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to point out here that anything new and interesting on the internet would mean groups of two or more huddling in front of a single desktop to digest the content. With the arrival of laptops, a compact and more convenient channel became available to serve digital content to the users, one that you could carry around with you. From thereon, it was just a series of successive platforms like smartphones, tablets and smart watches that passed on the baton to each other. For the end users, excitement and expectation kept them engaged as one unanimous thought ran through their minds – what next? For the companies behind these websites and applications (web & mobile), it meant weeks of brainstorming to make the user experience even better every consecutive time. With so many different channels of content distribution, managing content individually for individual channels was not just time consuming, but quite expensive as well. A headless CMS, with its omnichannel approach, tackles this challenge by facilitating seamless and uniform distribution of content across all possible digital channels, even including AI technology based virtual assistant devices like Siri, Cortana and Alexa.
5. It spreads a cloud of security over your content:
Security has always been a major concern for website owners, with scary stories of websites getting hacked due to security lapses and ultimately leading to complete loss of data and even worse. Now, that is the sort of catastrophe that could befall you when you use a traditional CMS. With a headless CMS on the other hand, there is no question of any lapse in security since there is no database at all. No database for your content, no security threat – simple. Let me explain further. Under the headless CMS architecture, content is typically delivered through a content distribution network (CDN) and not through a database as is the case under traditional CMSs, thereby diminishing the chances of security threats. Moreover, the APIs through which the content is provided are read-only in nature, adding an extra level of security for sensitive data. Also, you have the option to secure your content by using authentication or encryption services to cut off any form of access to it externally.
6. It is tuned for scalability to give growth to your business:
If we have learned anything from the internet industry, it is that the appetite for digital content never gets fulfilled. With newer channels of content consumption rising every now and then, the challenge to fulfil this appetite is a serious one. And since time is money, the only way you can reduce investment is adopting a really fast and effective method to overcome the challenge. Headless CMS can really rise to the occasion by offering the much-needed scalability to deliver your content across multiple channels quickly and effectively. When you use a headless CMS there won’t be any pause for website maintenance if you decide to redesign it, considering the fact that there won’t be a frontend that the backend would depend on. The API construct of a headless CMS ensures uninterrupted scalability and speed by giving freedom to platforms like data centers (e.g. cloud computing), CDNs and servers to communicate smoothly. This directly translates to work efficiency and business growth.
7. It is easy to learn and use, and very cost-effective too:
By now you must be wondering about the difficulty level of learning to use a headless CMS, even if out of curiosity and especially after I presented some strong cases to go for it. In which case, you would be delighted to hear that learning to use and manage a headless CMS is fairly easy and quick. You don’t need to be armed with a lot of technical know-how just because it is a step ahead of a traditional CMS. Your headless CMS will not be carrying the weight of a lot of technical elements, making it light and simply for the purpose of content storage and creation. In fact, that’s why they call it a pure content CMS. Moreover, you will have the freedom to include only what’s essential for your business. This makes your headless CMS very clean and easy to manage. And while we are on the subject of management, a headless CMS will give your respective departments the freedom to work independently. Content and site functionalities can be created by the respective departments without waiting for the conventional green signal from the developers, which saves precious time that can be utilized in other projects. Interestingly, it even removes the need for a big team, nor does it require the team members to be experienced or trained in every CMS known to man. The flexible nature of a headless CMS allows one to apply their own set of expertise making it highly cost-effective for any kind of business.
8. It is microservice architecture compatible:
For those in the business of application software development, this feature comes across as a huge benefit. But first, what is a microservice architecture? Microservice architecture, or microservices as they are commonly known, is a step forward from service-oriented architecture (SOA) with a string of coupling based services arranged together to create an application software. These coupling based services are independent of each other in nature, i.e. different programming languages and databases, and can be deployed independently as well. Each service is a like a part of business functionality that can be arranged with other complementing parts to complete the set within a layered architecture. These services are finally connected to your application through their respective APIs, which can be as many as are required for the task. The whole procedure is quick, smooth and gives you some buffer time to make detailed reviews in case you require any further changes. And making changes is a piece of cake too, since you can make changes only to the service that needs one and not to the whole lot.
5 popular headless CMS platforms to test the waters
Now that I’ve got this little spiel on the many benefits of using a headless CMS out of the way, let’s move ahead and introduce you to five of the most popular names in 2020. I will also elaborate on the features of each of these CMSs, along with their price tags to make it easier for you to make a choice. Oh, and just FYI, there are free trial versions for most, if not all of them.
1. Butter CMS
In their own words, this API-first CMS based out of Chicago is all about flexibility that solves all your content requirements. Introduced in the year 2014, Butter CMS boasts of some very innovative features, a few of which I would like to list out here.
Flexible content modeling – With this feature content management can be a breeze through easy composition and reordering of page layouts, building of pages according to their types, creation and updating of product information using a sub-feature called collections, and automation of blog posting using a pre-built blog engine.
Fast content update – A built-in SEO for better optimization of blogs, revision history for content changes, “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) editor for HTML-free content updating, content scheduling and content localization to make your app truly global are the highlights of this feature.
Media library – This feature enables multiple audio file hosting, tag filtering for quick search of media files, content editing within the browser itself and data delivery through the Amazon CloudFront CDN.
Multisite – It makes multiple content of your website possible in one place through the multisite dashboard.
Butter CMS offers a free trial version, besides flexible pricing plans to suit your business requirements.
With over 2000 paying customers and a $80 million Series E funding (inching closer to a $1 billion valuation) to its credit, Contentful is a serious contender in the headless CMS race. This 7-year old German API-driven CMS company is said to be a pioneer in the headless CMS revolution and has an impressive list of customers including Aldo Group, Heineken, Spotify and Bang & Olufsen. As a CMS that was built by developers for developers, the cloud-native based Contentful offers several useful features that include:
Full programming control of CMS using RESTful APIs built on JSON schema.
Customizable UX to help create all kinds of content, including rich text, dates, location and JSON snippets.
Enterprise-level security for low risk and quicker building, testing and deployment of software.
Global outreach using Single Sign-On (SSO) based on 2FA, SAML 2.0 and SCIM integration.
Fully extensible platform to build modern stack websites.
Easy integration of Contentful with any API service through native integration of apps with third-party software and webhooks.
These are just some of the features of Contentful, which only keep growing with the addition of more new features. At present, Contentful offers three plans, including Community (perpetually free), Team ($489/month) and Enterprise (paid but customizable) to choose from.
Founded in 2018, Contentstack is a San Francisco-based API-first headless CMS provider whose list of customers include some big players like Cisco, Ellie Mae, Miami HEAT, Riot Games, Shell and Walmart. In 2019, Contentstack raised a whopping $31.5 million Series A funding from investors that include Insight Partners, Illuminate Ventures and GingerBread Capital. The company promises better and easier content management with a CMS that is cloud managed and mobile optimized. Some of the features of the Contentstack CMS include content preview, automated content publishing, advanced image management, digital asset management, versioning and rollback, unlimited content environments, and grouped content releases. Check here for a more detailed look at the entire list of Contentstack’s features.
Contentstack is so confident of its benefits that it even has an ROI calculator to show you how much you can save if you use their CMS compared to what you’re using presently. Contentstack’s pricing plans start with a 14-day free trial to try all its premium features, besides a business and enterprise plan.
Miami-based DotCMS introduces itself as a provider of a hybrid CMS – a headless CMS with all the features of a traditional CMS. Meaning, it can offer you a headless CMS, a traditional CMS or a combination of both, whichever meets your requirements the best. One of the highlights of this company’s achievements is the development of their single-page application (SPA) editor, which they call Edit Mode Anywhere. Here's a look at some of the features of this Java-based open source CMS.
The ability to publish both static and dynamic content simultaneously, besides content versioning with a feature called TimeMachine.
Omnichannel management from a centralized platform to ensure operational consistency.
Simultaneous multiple deployment of data on cloud (both private and public) as well as on-premise.
Push publishing, a feature that lets you schedule publishing of content and even entire sites to CDNs.
Four Eye Approval and AI Translations are two features that were designed to help you build multi-step workflows.
Created by Sacramento-based software company Blue River Interactive Group (Blueriver in short), Mura CMS was introduced to aid developers, content managers, marketers and IT professionals in their projects. The services that they offer have been broadly categorized under three proprietary features – Mura DXP, Mura Core and Mura X. let’s look at what each of these features does.
Mura DXP – This feature is typically designed for content managers to make life easy for them. Highlights of this feature include WYSIWYG editor, multichannel preview, content versioning, content attribution, content expiration/notification and dynamic/live content audit.
Mura Core – This feature allows content managers to provide content driven experience across various channels. With batch publishing and rollback you can stay well ahead in the omnichannel game.
Mura X – If you’re a marketer, then this is just the right feature to transform your website into a veritable personalization platform. With this feature you can personalize content according to user avatar, purchase stage and user account, besides triggering experiences via content consumption.
Mura CMS is available in Basic, Premium and Platinum versions, prices of which can be requested through a quote.
Other than these five popular headless CMSs, there are many more options to take your pick from, based on you budget and requirements. To name a few more, there’s Cockpit CMS, Cloud CMS, Core DNA, Directus, Prismic, Craft CMS and Zesty.io, all of which come with varying plans for varying needs.
Headless CMSs are not just way ahead of traditional or monolithic CMSs, they are also built to help you face any unforeseen scenarios in the future. Not to mention, they reduce operational time and organizational expenses, and help you reach out to your customers faster and in an all-encompassing manner. In my book, those two reasons are enough to take the leap from a traditional CMS to a headless one, if you haven’t yet. All you need to do is make a detailed research of the headless CMSs available in the market and choose the one that best complements your business vision.