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Headless CMS Explained (What, Why, and How)

By Matt Minor on April 19, 2023

Among the many ways you can use Directus to power data-driven applications and projects, a content management system (CMS) is among the most popular.

This is a big deal, because developers are shifting away from using a monolithic, traditional CMS in favor of a headless content management system instead.

In this post, we’ll explain

  • What a headless CMS is
  • How it can provide a better experience developers and editors
  • How a headless CMS is different from a traditional CMS
  • The 5 primary benefits of a headless content approach
  • How three organizations achieved their goals with a headless CMS

What is a Headless CMS?

There are more than 72 million websites that use content management systems (CMS). In recent years, organizations have begun to shift away from using the monolithic systems that became popular in the early 2000s and are instead adopting headless CMS offerings.

In fact, the market for headless CMS software, which was $328.5 million in 2019, is projected to reach over $1.6 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 22.6% from 2020 to 2027.

Why? Because today’s audiences don't just consume the content stored on websites – they use an array of devices digital platforms, and channels to access digital content. What’s more, no one knows what the future holds.

Brands must be prepared to deliver high-quality, omnichannel digital experiences across a growing number of mediums – from apps and kiosks, to voice assistants, VR headsets, digital signage and more.

Traditional CMS can’t accommodate these newer use cases, which is why the move to a headless CMS can provide a better, more efficient and secure way for developers and content editors to manage and move content across devices and channels.

How are Headless CMSes different than Traditional CMSes?

Traditional CMS platforms such as WordPress, Wix or Drupal enable organizations to build a single digital experience, such as a website, using a WYSIWYG editor – "what you see is what you get."

You drag and drop components onto a page to create your layout, then fill them in with copy and images. As a result, your copy, media, design and architecture are all one and the same.

The problem with this approach is that everything powering your website – the copy, media, branding, etc. – is commingled with website code. Plus, everything’s proprietary – you’re building the site within CMS-specific templates, and on the vendor’s tech stack, which may differ from your engineering team’s preference or the business’s requirements.

All of this creates vendor lock-in and makes it impossible to leverage the data and content for other digital channels and experiences.

By contrast, a headless CMS approach decouples the back-end content repository from the front-end presentation layer — the “head.” In the case of a website, everything that’s specific to the website is removed, and you just manage channel- and platform-agnostic data and content.

By separating content creation, management and storage from its presentation, content can be accessed seamlessly through a no-code app and RESTful API or GraphQL APIs, and displayed across an array of channels and devices without having to be migrated or modified in any way.

You benefit from a single source of truth for managing all of the content and data across multiple channels in the organization, and the ability to access it using APIs to power native apps, websites, digital signage, kiosks, or whatever digital experience you’re developing.

You can also pull content into the database through website forms or kiosk registrations, to enrich the existing datastore.

When Does a Headless CMS make sense?

There's a ton of benefits you can see by switching to a headless CMS, from building fully dynamic websites, to streamlined content operations and content delivery.

Here are the five main reasons why we're seeing a headless CMS trend for large orgs.

1 - Provides time and cost savings

With a headless CMS, content can be reused across multiple experiences and touchpoints, so projects can be created and completed much faster. And because you’re not beholden to the CMS’ tech stack, you can build within yours, avoiding costly infrastructure migrations and expensive specialists.

2 - Maximizes flexibility

A traditional CMS requires users to work within themes or predefined templates, and there’s limited flexibility when it comes to customizing the interface.

With a headless CMS, you can create your content structures, own layout and UI, and have complete flexibility in the technology you use. Because content is accessed via APIs you can leverage the latest tools and technologies to deliver content experiences across an array of platforms.

3 - Simplifies workflows

By focusing exclusively on content management, a headless CMS simplifies the backend significantly. A clear "separation of concerns" between the logic and data and the presentation layer enables a cleaner architecture, and you can push agnostic content to different touch-points and devices, without being limited to using HTML.

The full decoupled architecture approach eliminates many limitations of the traditional CMS, enabling you to build a digital experience in any tech stack or framework. This opens the door for less expensive and more performant static site generation (SSG). Even if you're "just" building a website, using a headless CMS leaves the door open to other projects in the future without a full rebuild.

4 - Improves security

Today’s corporate websites often act as portals for customers to access services or purchase products, and as a result, they’re susceptible to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks – malicious attempts to disrupt traffic to a server, service or network by flooding it with traffic.

The way in which a traditional CMS dynamically renders content makes them vulnerable to an attack. A headless CMS, on the other hand, performs most of the content processing on the client side rather than on the server side, so the impact of an attack would be less severe.

Additionally, because a headless CMS interacts with the database via Restful API or GraphQL API, the original data stays intact and unaltered, eliminating the risk of data corruption or loss resulting from human error.

5 - Enables multilingual capabilities

A vast majority of organizations have global audiences, which means they must be able to translate content into different languages in a cost-effective, dynamic way. That’s not possible when using static templates. And, only 30% of organizations integrate their CMS to language service providers or translation management systems.

Modern headless CMS allow authoring multilingual content, and their API-first approach makes integrating with automated translation services possible.

Go Headless with Directus

Directus began as a headless CMS a decade before the term “headless CMS” was coined in 2014.

Directus democratizes data across organizations with an easy-to-use, intuitive platform for technical and non technical users alike. Delivered as a cloud-based service, Directus eliminates the need to architect, provision and maintain your own infrastructure, and because there’s little to no learning curve.

Using the no-code app, you can start creating highly customized digital experiences in minutes, including a fully robust content management system.

With Directus you get:

  • A feature-rich toolkit with frequent updates delivered seamlessly to enhance your experience.
  • Fully customizable interfaces and layouts that provide maximum flexibility and creativity in authoring content.
  • Powerful workflows enable teams to collaborate effectively throughout every phase of the content lifecycle.
  • Multi-lingual support for 50+ languages ensures consistency across geographies using an intuitive localization interfaces.
  • The ability to get up and running and start building digital experiences in literally seconds through our standard or enterprise cloud offerings.

Looking For The Right Headless Content Management System?

Ditch the monolithic CMS or costly headless CMS offerings that put limits on your creativity.

Directus is a better way to design and manage your digital project and skip the backend development hassles.

Ready to learn more?

With over 23 million downloads, Directus is the world's first Open Data Platform for instantly turning any SQL database into an API and beautiful no-code app.

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