What is a Headless CMS? A Quick Guide 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?

What is 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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Curious to learn more? See the custom page builder in action.

Watch a video