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Headless vs. Traditional: Why a Decoupled CMS Might be the Real Winner

If you’re researching the differences between a traditional content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Squarespace, etc., or a headless CMS like Kentico Kontent, Sitefinity, etc., one of your primary concerns is likely - which one is the best fit for your organization? Answering that question requires understanding the common definitions, use-cases, and strengths each provides.    

What is a Traditional CMS? 

A traditional CMS tightly links back-end and front-end as a unified platform.  The database and content are managed, customized, edited, and stored on the same system that presents content to your website visitors (front-end).    

Overall, a traditional CMS relies on offering a simple, one-size-fits-all content management platform that targets organizations with limited back-end and front-end developer resources that value publishing content quickly to a website using modified front-end templates. Traditional CMS’s are ideal for basic company websites, blogs, personal sites, and microsites. 

What is a Headless CMS? 

A headless CMS is a content-only back-end wholly decoupled from a front-end, allowing its content to be pushed via API to any front-end you desire.  Content is created, modeled, edited, and managed within the back-end and simply waits to be delivered via API to whatever device, channel, or UI you want the content to be presented on.  This means the content can be published to any device connected via API (a website, mobile app, or IoT device) and be presented using whatever front-end display is preferred for each. 

Overall, a headless CMS relies on providing organizations complete flexibility on how and where the content stored within the CMS is presented (front-end).  Headless CMS’s target organizations that typically have access to the back-end and front-end developer resources (whether internal or external) value omnichannel distribution of their content (website, mobile app, IoT, etc.) that isn’t restricted by an integrated and rigid front-end interface.  

Headless CMS’s are ideal for large-scale or complex websites that use a variety of front-end architectures (React, Angular, etc.), mobile app and IoT developers, and organizations looking for extreme flexibility in the distribution of their content. 

Headless CMS versus Traditional CMS 

While understanding the definitions of both CMS architectures is critical in understanding which is best for your organization, understanding the pros and cons of each is equally important.  Taking a critical look at both approaches can help make sure you select not only the right solution based on your specific needs but that you’re prepared for what that solution requires of your organization. 

                         Headless CMS Pros                                                             Traditional CMS Pros

* Deeply customizable. The back-end is completely independent of the front-end.

* Omnichannel content delivery.

* Flexible Front End framework options for developers and marketers.

* Scalable adapts to new front-end technology.

* Future-proof due to limitless 3rd-party integration potential.

* Content-First approach to design.

* Takes full advantage of content modeling.

* Easier security.

* Simple to manage. The back-end is connected with the front-end.

* Built-in front-end templates.

* Simplified codebase to maintain.

* Easily preview content.

* Manage back-end and front-end from the same platform.

* Lower technical requirements for implementation.

                              Headless CMS Cons                              Traditional CMS Cons

* Higher technical requirements for implementation.

* The Front-end client must be built separately and is not included.

* Previewing content requires a separate front-end.

* Limitless potential for integrated technologies can cause issues without a strategic approach.

* Requires back-end and front-end developer resources to implement and maintain.

* It can require changes in processes, training, and resources if moving from a traditional CMS.

* Content and design are intermingled and difficult to separate.

* Restricted content delivery (website only)

* Reduced customization, maintenance, and enhancement options.

* Reliant on an integrated framework, not the best available framework.

* Difficult to scale as technologies, integrations, and content-delivery evolve.

* Design-first approach to content creation.

* Security is reliant on the platform.

Who should use a Headless CMS? 

The organizations we’ve seen take full advantage of a headless CMS are organizations that: 

  • Focus on Omnichannel Marketing 
  • Manage large scale websites and digital ecosystems 
  • Utilize JavaScript front-end frameworks (React, Angular, VueJs, etc.) 
  • Maintain or want to build comprehensive external) front-end and back-end developer teams 
  • Develop and maintain mobile apps 
  • Have large distribution networks that require massive content distribution (Publishers, Media, etc.)  

Overall, the primary advantage of a headless CMS is its flexibility.  Content can be delivered to any channel, framework, and device you desire. Developers are provided the freedom to tackle challenges with the best framework and tools available. Content teams can create the best content instead of the content that fits the existing design the best.  Yet, all of this flexibility relies on your organization to leverage this flexibility, requiring new approaches to hiring, training, or partnerships to implement what is required.