How to: get started with a headless CMS

by Hang Tian
Published on October 2019

“Alexa, what is a headless CMS…?”

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a growing presence in all of our lives, whether we like it or not. From waking up with Alexa, to getting to work with Siri and checking your emails with Cortana, IoT is everywhere in our daily routines.

The growing presence of IoT is an opportunity for businesses and brands to broaden and deepen their reach to consumers. With homes and offices hosting over 40 million IoT devices by 2022, the potential for brands to reach their audiences has never been higher. But how do you capitalise on this new technology? And how can companies effectively manage all their marketing content so it can be used across multiple digital platforms?

A headless CMS meets this challenge, by providing a more flexible option for developers and marketers to be able to create specialised content for different devices. Unlike a traditional CMS, the headless variety decouples the front end from the back. The front end refers to everything that users see and interact with virtually within a browser or application. The back end, meanwhile, refers to the server, application, and database which is ‘behind’ the front end, storing all of the information for the front end. By separating the front end from the back, the front end becomes interchangeable, opening up different options for front end development.

How does it work? (the technical bit)

You are probably currently using a traditional Content Management System model offered by providers such as Sitecore, Umbraco or Kentico, which has the back end and front end coupled together into one single application. The back end is a content repository, and the front end is a content delivery application which will present the back end to users through different devices.

This is where the ‘headless’ part comes into play. Imagine having the front end, i.e. the website, as the head, which is chopped off the body, i.e the back end content repository. The separation is what makes the CMS ‘headless’, as it is either completely decoupled from the front end or loosely coupled with it.

A headless CMS doesn’t concern itself with the presentation, site structure or design, instead, it stores its content in pure format. The bridge that connects the back end and front end is through APIs, like XML or JSON over RESTful communication.

Why choose a headless CMS?

There are several benefits of opting to go headless:

Cutting down delivery time: you can have a dedicated backend team focusing on getting data from the CMS and sending it via API in JSON or XML format, while the front end team can retrieve the content through API and display it in the right style for each platform. Meanwhile, content editors can create universal content which can be made available across multiple different platforms via a centralised content management system. This saves time, as it means there is no need to create individual content for each type of device.

Flexibility to update your platform’s look and feel easily: having the back and front end decoupled in a headless CMS means that because an API delivers content from the CMS to the presentation layer, the front end team can change the presentation at any time with their preferred front end technology such as React or Angular. This means content that lives in the CMS can be presented in multiple channels, with a completely different purpose and look and feel.

Flexibility: headless gives developers the ultimate flexibility to innovate, using their preferred framework and technologies for their development.

Security: using a Headless CMS reduces the risk of security attacks. The CMS is completely separate (decoupled) from the user layers, which means that the CMS can be hidden.

Have we whet your appetite for a headless CMS yet? You may want to consider some of the following points before taking the plunge:

  • Have you got the right skills in the business? A completely separate CMS and front end requires a wide knowledge base and expertise from the team using the systems.
  • Have you got the resource capacity? Not all functionalities come out-of-box. The CMS in a headless context doesn’t deal with the presentation layer and will require developers to build functionalities such as navigation and breadcrumbs in a website, as well as the relationship between the multiple items in the CMS and the content structure in the website. 

If your answers to the above questions were ‘yes’, you may want to start looking at a few of the headless CMS options on the market. Here are just a few examples, along with some of their key features:

  • Kentico Kontent: content performance insights, build in content calendar, APIs, A/B testing.
  • Zesty.io: template and page building, workflow management, automated and advanced SEO, as well as built-in staging environments and custom content models
  • Contentful: API driven headless CMS, with a RESTful API that gives developers full programmatic control of content, digital assets and translations.
  • ButterCMS: custom page types, relational content modelling, webhooks, CDN support, multi-site support, testing environment and an admin interface that can be easily customised.
  • ContentStack: content previews, collaboration, asset management, workflow management, and versioning.

There are countless headless CMS options which will all offer different features, so make sure you understand what your requirements are and choose one that suits your business needs. While going headless isn’t a requirement for everyone with digital assets, if you’re needing to spread your content across multiple different platforms it could save you time and provide a more flexible front end solution. Let Just After Midnight know if you have any questions about choosing or implementing a headless CMS, and see how we can help you.

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