Headless Content Management Systems

What is a headless CMS?

A headless content management system (CMS) is a digital content platform in which the back end (where digital content is created) is decoupled from the front end (where the content is presented). 

This differs from the traditional CMS model, in which the back and front ends are delivered together in a single solution (also known as single-stack). Headless CMSes require an organization to build its own custom front end, rather than displaying content using a CMS-provided front end.

When front and back ends are decoupled, developers have greater control in building the user experience. They can serve content from one back end to multiple platforms, including dynamic web pages, mobile apps, IoT devices, smart speakers, and more.

The advantages of a headless CMS

Headless CMS is more complex than traditional CMS, which can increase costs and dependence on developers. Still, there’s a reason headless is increasing in popularity. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Greater control and customization: Even the most sophisticated theme or template has its limits. Headless architecture removes these limitations and gives developers full control, so they can create highly differentiated user experiences across any type of platform.
  • Flexibility and iteration: Developers can use any front-end technology and make quick changes in code to enhance website performance and user experience.
  • Omnichannel support: Users can access an organization’s content on any type of platform, including IoT devices, smart speakers, digital displays, and more.
  • Data ingestion and use: Headless architecture allows websites to ingest content or data from multiple sources and present it to users, without making a stop at a CMS database.

WordPress VIP’s headless WordPress hosting offers all of these advantages, with the added benefit of superior content authoring tools, continued access to plugins and themes, and a user-friendly, central content hub that supports access from REST and GraphQL APIs.

Can WordPress run as a headless CMS?

Yes, WordPress can be headless or single-stack.

Organizations running WordPress can enjoy the best of both worlds, by building their own front end or using the existing CMS-provided front end. They can even build different experiences using different models. (Like building a website with an existing theme, then using an API-first approach for a mobile app).

Here are just a few features and benefits unique to headless WordPress on WordPress VIP:

  • Bundled components: Headless WordPress, CMS plugins, API packages, and databases are all bundled into a single headless hub for instant deployment, which saves organizations time, resources, and money.
  • Next.js Quickstart: Our sample skeleton code helps you save time, ensure performance, and focus on your unique content and development needs—rather than tedious technicalities.
  • Hosting of node.js applications: Node.js applications are a key component of many headless CMSes. WordPress VIP offers a secure, high-performance platform for Node.js applications, reducing the number of suppliers and services that can cause failures and time-consuming troubleshooting.

Unlike most headless CMSes, headless WordPress VIP is built with content creators in mind. It provides a user-friendly, central content hub with intuitive content creation tools and continued access to existing plugins, themes, templates, and more.

Companies like Al Jazeera, TechCrunch, Fortune, AccuWeather, and Quartz all run on decoupled WordPress, giving them a powerful, easy headless solution without added complexity.

Should I use a headless CMS?

Headless CMS helps organizations deliver highly customized content across multiple platforms, but it comes at a cost.

It may be time to adopt a headless CMS if:

  • You need to ingest data and present data from multiple sources, and then present it to users without making a stop at your CMS database
  • You’re already consuming content on multiple types of platforms (you’ve already adopted headless architecture!)
  • You have unique experience needs across multiple channels

On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t use a headless CMS if:

  • Your developers aren’t trained in modern JavaScript frameworks
  • You’re running a straightforward marketing site
  • You need to spin up and down sites for events, product launches, etc.
  • You’re on a budget

Ultimately, if you have to ask yourself if headless CMS is right for you, your organization probably isn’t ready for the added complexity and expense. 

How to choose a headless CMS 

If you’ve determined that your organization has the bandwidth, developer experience, and budget to adopt a more complex headless CMS, you’ll still want to do your homework to determine the best fit for your needs.

Here are some questions to compare headless CMS solutions:

  1. What problem do we need to solve? Keep in mind: headless architecture doesn’t always lead to better performance. If you’re after speed or security, optimize your WordPress codebase before adopting a decoupled approach.
  2. What additional resources do we need to go headless? Decoupling requires a development team skilled in modern JavaScript frameworks. Do you have this type of team in place? Or will you need to hire new developers? How will your DevOps team manage separate repositories for your WordPress installation and your front-end application?
  3. Where will you host your decoupled front end? Headless CMS requires a new hosting solution for your front end. Before you invest, determine where you’ll host and how you’ll ensure performance and integration.

Is a hybrid CMS approach right for you?

For organizations that aren’t ready for the complexity of headless, a hybrid approach may be the best route. WordPress VIP’s hybrid option combines the out-of-the-box functionality of a single-stack CMS with the flexibility of headless, allowing organizations to seamlessly build dynamic content experiences at scale.

With hybrid architecture, organizations can build their own front end or use an existing, CMS-provided front end. Content pulls from a single repository that supports access from REST and GraphQL APIs, and content creators maintain access to existing themes, plugins, and templates.

A final word on headless

With WordPress VIP, you don’t have to choose headless or single-stack architecture. Our single content hub powers traditional, headless, or hybrid deployment. No matter the path taken, it’s all managed from a single administrative console that helps optimize the impact of digital experiences. 

Learn more about WordPress VIP, the agile content platform that helps content teams move both faster and smarter to drive more growth.