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Intro to Headless CMSs — For Devs, Marketers, and Everyone in Between

Written by Nouha Chhih in People icon with two silhouettes. Prismic People on November 01, 2021

Let’s face it. “Headless CMS” is a term that's as clear as mud when you’re first discovering these types of tools. And we're here to say, in the words of Taylor Swift, “It’s me. Hi! I’m the problem, it’s me.” It’s true, Prismic has been called a headless CMS in the past (we’re a headless website builder today). That’s why we’re here to try to clear things up a bit.

You're here for answers, so use the table of contents below to jump to the explanation that sounds most relevant and helpful to you.

Tell me as fast as you can — what’s a headless CMS?

Here’s the TL;DR — a headless CMS is a content management system that’s not directly built into your website like WordPress is. Instead, it’s a CMS that’s hosted separately in a cloud, so that the content management interface is developed and maintained by a company like us. From there, developers can use an API to retrieve content from the cloud at any time to make your website complete.

This is a great setup because the CMS no longer limits what kind of technology your website can run on, and content delivered on an API can help your website's performance.

An explanation for developers

Here’s the key thing for developers to understand: with a headless CMS, the front end of your project is not a part of the CMS anymore. A headless CMS has no control over the way the content is presented — it just sticks to what it’s already good at, which is managing and storing the content.

In other words, you don't get a website out of the box with a headless CMS. It might sound like it's a bad thing, but in fact, it isn't when you’re ready to invest in the performance of your website.

Unlike a "traditional" or "monolithic" CMS (like WordPress or Drupal), a headless CMS focuses exclusively on 1) content management workflows 2) content accessibility through code 3) content storage and delivery. That leaves the technology decision for developers, who can determine the most optimal front-end framework for the job.

So what does that mean for your work? It means you can build the front end of the website however you want to, with whatever technology you think is best. Then, in the places you want to include dynamic content (which could be everywhere), you simply set up an API call and utilize the returned data.

When does it make sense to use a headless CMS?

A headless CMS isn’t necessarily for every project in the world. But it plays exceptionally well when a few conditions are met:

  • Performance is a top priority: Everything about the website can be optimized. Because you can choose the fastest technologies and rendering methods for your project, you start with performance as a foundation. Then, naturally, delivering content through an API only helps support that performance further.
  • The project involves building custom design: Often there's no reason to use headless if the same can be accomplished with template-based visual website builders
  • There is a need to regularly create and update content
  • The project contains a reasonably large amount of content: An e-commerce store with 50+ product pages is a good fit; a personal one-page website – not so much

How do you find the best headless CMS for your project?

The world of web development is filled with options. That means that every technology decision depends on a specific project and its goals.

The best thing that you can do to find a good one for your needs is to define the criteria that make sense for you and then do your own research.

Here are some key considerations to get started:

  • Hosting & maintenance. Are you looking for a cloud-hosted tool or do you want to host and maintain the servers yourself?
  • SDKs. Are your preferred tools and languages supported by the CMS?
  • Docs. Is it easy to get started and find your way around?
  • Editing app features. Does it cover the needs of your marketing/content teams?
  • API features. APIs can greatly vary in terms of their functionality, so it pays off to define what you expect from it upfront.
  • Support. Will the people who created the CMS be able to help you if/when something goes wrong?
  • Price. Paid, free, or open source?

An explanation for marketers

You’ve worked hard on creating a brand-new content marketing campaign for your company. You’re feeling confident about the structure, the content, and the way pages speak to your audience. The design is looking great, and you just can’t wait to get those pages published.

Except...your development team is very busy at the moment, and they tell you the campaign will have to wait.

As marketers, we are used to moving fast, but when it comes to managing websites, it seems that we’re hitting a wall way more often than we would like to.

In your search for a better way to manage websites, you might have come across the term “headless CMS.” But what does it mean?

A marketer’s definition of a headless CMS

Headless CMS is a content management system that allows you to easily manage content while giving your developers the freedom to choose any technology they want.

A headless CMS is made up of a couple of parts:

  • the part where your content is stored, organized, and managed
  • a technology that delivers your content so that visitors can see it on your website (something you might have heard a developer call an API, which you can think of as a friendly librarian who will go to the backroom and bring you the book you requested from them).

Traditionally, what you can see (the front-end of your website) and where you store your data (the back-end) were bundled together as part of the same system, which meant that the choice of technology was predetermined by the system you chose. This is no longer the case with a headless CMS.

To get a sense of what possibilities this opens up for you as a marketing manager, we’ll start with a metaphor.

What do website tools and race cars have in common?

Let’s say you want to try car racing. You find a club that you want to join. You are excited but you are still not sure how well car racing is going to go for you. You don’t really want to invest a lot up front, so you pick whichever car is available for you to use so you can test it out. What you’re really trying to do at this stage is just test out the waters and see if car racing is something that will work for you.

And then you start getting more and more serious about the sport, so now you are ready to make an investment and get rid of the things that have been holding you back and limiting your potential. You get a car that is made for you and the type of races you will compete in. In the end you have this car; it’s done, but you can’t really build upon it. If new innovations in car technology happen, you’re stuck with your good old car.

After a while, you are becoming a pro, you have a team that can help you optimize and almost build a custom car for you. You get to pick how it looks, what it does, and how fast it goes. Once the car is built, you are the one who is driving and as you notice the limitations of the car; your team can help you build upon this car and optimize it so it works for you. Even if the car technology changes, your car can change and adapt to it.

Headless CMS is like that last car in this metaphor. It’s flexible, powerful, and made according to your needs.

However, based on where you are today, your resources and the stage of your company’s growth, you might consider some headless CMS alternatives the same way you would start with a simpler car when you’re just starting a new hobby like car racing. Let’s take a look at some of those alternatives.

Headless CMS alternatives

Website builders

Website builders are similar to the first car. They work well for getting started quickly with low support from development team, but they give you the least amount of control over your results and key aspects of the website that can impact performance.

For example, you have almost no control over the technology, how you manage your SEO, what you can do to speed up your site, and so on.

They get in the way of your creativity and, as your business grows, they don’t grow with you.

Traditional CMSs

Traditional CMSs are like the second car. They are your first custom-built website that allows you to manage your own content. You get more control over certain aspects of your website, but when you decide on the solution you want to use, the technology your developer can use is determined by that solution.

As your company grows, you might start to encounter more and more limitations in how far you can push your custom designs, what parts of the site are editable, what control you have over your SEO, how you structure your URLs, how fast your site is, what functionality you can add to your site without relying on too many plugins that impact your performance, and so on.

Hard-coded sites

Hard-coded sites are similar to the third car. Except you are not the one who’s driving — your developer is.

If you ever joined a smaller startup or a company where developers had full ownership of the marketing website as their first marketing hire, you might have encountered a hard-coded site.

So when you wanted to change you’re to your as you spotted a typo on the homepage copy, it was actually your developer who needed to make that change. How frustrating, right?

Hard-coded sites allow developers to have full control over the technology they choose and how they build websites, but they don’t give you the flexibility to manage content the way you want.

Ready to see a headless product in action?

If you learn better by seeing a demonstration, let us show you. Get a demo from our team today.

Bonus: What is a headless website builder?

Prismic’s headless website builder allows you to ship pages faster with a custom page builder that your developer builds for you. Your developers maintain full flexibility and control over the code they use (that’s where the headless part comes in), and you become more independent to create pages the way you want. Instead of having set templates for your pages and having to contact your developer for every little change in the design, your developer creates reusable Slices or blocks that you can mix and match in different ways to create unique on-branded pages like you would with a website builder only it’s made just for you.

Final thoughts

Although a headless CMS requires a developer to get started, it gives you better control over all the elements of the website and will not slow you down as your company grows.

Plus, if you choose Prismic as your next website tool, you get an even higher level of control and speed when shipping your pages.

Nouha Chhih smiling.

Nouha Chhih

Nouha gets excited about pretty much any new and challenging topic you put on her radar. That's how her current obsessions came into her life: namely yoga, growing exotic plants, marketing, and community building. The last two are what she's focused on at Prismic.

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