Photo of a headless man
Business & Strategy

What is a Headless CMS?

Mar 22, 2021

The content management landscape has been altered considerably over the last few years. While traditional CMS platforms like WordPress and Drupal continue to power many of today’s websites, the influx of new and emerging channels has seen a new type of CMS establish itself.

In major countries throughout the world, there are at least seven connected devices per household, according to Statista. With consumers demanding content be delivered to mobile devices and tablets, digital kiosks and a host of other smart IoT-embedded devices, the headless CMS has risen to prominence to shoulder the load.

But how does a headless CMS differ from a traditional CMS? What are the benefits for businesses that want to adopt this technology? And what are some of the challenges that they will need to overcome? We’ll delve into those details and more, but first, a brief overview of how content management systems work and a definition of a headless CMS.

How Content Management Works

In a traditional content management system, both the content management and content delivery aspects of the system are tightly coupled together. What does this mean exactly?

Content management refers to how content is handled on the backend by creators, editors, translators and anyone involved in a content or marketing team. This includes content creation and editing, managing content taxonomy, content versioning, translation, content workflows, security and publishing.

On the other hand, content delivery refers to the content presented to visitors on a website or other channel. This is what end users can see after content has been published.

Headless CMS Explained in 2 Minutes

A headless CMS is a backend-only content management system without a content delivery layer. The “head” that is connected to a website or other frontend channel is removed. Instead, a headless CMS exposes content through APIs in a consumable format to build websites or apps through various frontend frameworks, including .NET, Java, PHP and JavaScript frameworks such as React or Vue.

Unlike a traditional CMS platform that restricts developers to a specific template or method for presenting content, a headless CMS is frontend agnostic, allowing it to serve content to any desired device or channel. A headless CMS can help you send content to mobile devices, IoT devices, and other platforms using the same API. Whereas legacy CMS platforms such as WordPress and Drupal are ideal for delivering content to websites, the changing landscape of the internet and the content that is consumed means that a headless CMS can provide more flexibility for organizations.

Benefits of a Headless CMS

Headless CMS platforms are becoming increasingly popular, especially in the enterprise landscape, and there are some specific benefits of this type of CMS architecture. Let’s take a look at them.

Decoupled Architecture

Since the frontend delivery and backend content management layers are not tightly coupled together, a headless CMS can provide more flexibility to teams, enabling marketers and developers to work independently. This allows them to make changes to the frontend part of the website or other channel where content is being displayed to users and not worry about affecting the backend.

Frontend Agnostic

Since organizations aren’t limited by the frontend templates and tools of a legacy CMS, they can choose to connect to whichever channel they want and use the frameworks they’re most comfortable with to build digital experiences.


While many current popular technologies such as smartphones, tablets and even digital kiosks are becoming more commonplace, there is still room for improvement in areas like AR, VR and other emerging technologies. The channels where customers view content can change quite rapidly, but since a headless CMS connects to these channels using APIs, it isn’t affected by such changes.

Challenges of Using a Headless CMS

While there are several advantages to using a headless CMS, there are some challenging disadvantages that organizations need to consider.

Marketer Restrictions

Headless CMS platforms don’t provide marketers with the templates, WYSIWYG editors and other tools that make their lives easier when it comes to creating and editing content that they might have been used to with a traditional CMS. Instead, they sometimes need to rely on developers to make simple changes to the content on their websites.

Content Previews Disappear

Headless CMSs can deliver content to multiple channels, but many cannot preview content for these channels. As such, content creators may be left scratching their heads and wondering how a particular campaign will look on these alternate channels.

Headless CMS vs Decoupled or Hybrid Headless CMS

While a headless can provide increased freedom and access to a wide array of channels for content delivery with the help of APIs, it can leave marketers struggling to create the content required for these channels.

The answer is a decoupled or hybrid headless CMS. A decoupled CMS carries the same functionality as a headless CMS and provides the templates, preview functionality, and overall marketer-friendly tooling as a traditional CMS. This provides the flexibility to deliver content to new and emerging channels without handicapping the people creating and managing that content.

Headless CMS in Action

Streamlining Audio Digest’s Buyer Experience with Episerver Commerce

Audio Digest suffered from a complicated buyer’s journey that left visitors frustrated and limited conversions. The medical education company needed to redesign its user interface and provide relevant content to customers at the right time.

By building a new platform on Episerver, they were able to deliver an integrated content and commerce experience across the web and mobile devices. Plus, they can continue to deliver content to more channels in the future without needing to rebuild the entire platform if they desired. Read more in this Audio Digest Case Study.

Oshyn: The Partner In Your Headless Journey

When Audio Digest needed a way to improve the customer experience, they came to Oshyn to help them do it. Oshyn has extensive experience delivering dynamic customer experiences with the help of marketing technology like a headless CMS.

Implementing a new CMS can be challenging without the right partner. So we integrate ourselves into your team and partner with marketing, user experience, and IT to make sure when you go headless, you don’t lose your head.

Want to learn more about a CMS implementation process? Read our blog on Sitecore Implementation 101.