What is a headless CMS (and how is a hybrid headless CMS different)

by Jan Schulte, Head of Group Consulting at Magnolia
3D graphic of different electronic devices
Feb 7, 2019 | 7 MIN

The concept of a headless CMS is no longer new, but it is becoming increasingly relevant to enterprise companies—not to mention the marketers, developers, and business leaders within them.

But for what reason?

Statista forecasts that by 2020, 30 billion IoT devices will be operational. By 2025, that number will more than double, reaching the 75 billion mark. That will include smart speakers, sensors, beacons, digital signage, kiosks, VR headsets, and much more.

With so many IoT devices set to emerge, brands are starting to realize that traditional content management systems—those with their “heads” securely screwed on—will fail to keep them, their content, and their digital experiences relevant in the years to come.

That’s because those traditional CMSs were never built to distribute content to touchpoints like smart wearable technology or connected cars. That’s a job for a headless CMS.

What is a Headless CMS?

A headless CMS enables a company to produce content once, and then publish it to any device or touchpoint without restrictions.

This is unlike legacy CMS solutions like WordPress and Drupal, which were designed with rigid, one-way architectures that force brands to publish and present content through templates built for web browsers. While it is possible for these traditional technologies to send content to new channels—like smart speakers for instance—it’s fair to say that they were never built for such purposes.

A headless CMS, on the other hand, doesn’t force any templates or themes (also known as “heads” or front-end delivery layers) onto the content created within it. Instead, APIs (Application Programming Interfaces)—which enable two technologies to communicate—are used to send that template-less content to any device on the market, from smartwatches to virtual reality headsets, and everything in between.

Front-end developers can create templates at will for each device, enabling the company to send content and spread their omnichannel digital experience to new channels. The only problem is, a typical headless CMS often leaves marketers out in the cold.

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Why use a headless CMS?

And this point you might be asking yourself if headless is right for your company. As with any part of your martech stack, how you evaluate a headless CMS depends on your business needs. Let's have a look at the pros and cons of headless CMS.

Headless CMS benefits

  • IoT device & omnichannel ready: A headless CMS uses APIs to connect and deliver content, no matter the channel. Thus, a brand can easily adopt new channels and IoT devices into their connected omnichannel ecosystem.
  • No content duplication: With a headless CMS, marketers can create content once, and then re-purpose it for multiple channels, reducing duplication in the process.
  • Reduced time to market: Because content doesn’t need to be duplicated or re-entered for new channels, time to market is reduced.
  • Less feature bloat: Typically, a headless content management system focuses on being a content repository and content delivery system, offering little else in terms of functionality and additional features.
  • API-driven architecture: APIs don’t just enable the CMS to communicate with the front-end delivery layer, they also allow data to flow in the other direction. So, brands can collect data from all their touchpoints, and use it for personalization or marketing purposes.
  • Security: Headless content management systems typically deliver content through a Content Delivery Network (CDN) instead of sending it directly from the database. This helps minimize the risk of distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack.

Headless CMS limitations

  • Unfriendly to marketers: Without WYSIWYG editing and content previews, marketers won’t be comfortable using a headless CMS alone. In fact this typically creates a "lost in tabs and cockpits" experience that is both frustrating and unproductive.
  • Leads to MarTech bloating: To facilitate a content authoring experience that marketers can use, additional MarTech tools will need to be drafted in.
  • Hidden costs: Replacing a full CMS with a headless CMS can leave many gaps, and not just on the MarTech front. Filling those gaps can get costly.

What is a hybrid headless CMS?

A headless CMS is an excellent tool for developers. They’re able to manage frontend-agnostic content, send content anywhere, and even pull content and data from devices like sensors. But what so many pure headless CMSs fail to do, is give marketers the features and tools they’ve become so accustomed to.

A hybrid headless CMS, on the other hand, blends headless technology with the traditional full CMS experience, giving developers and marketers the best of both worlds.

Content can still be created, distributed, pulled, and re-purposed without limits—and yet marketers can still make use of user-friendly drag-and-drop interfaces, WYSIWYG editing, content previews, author collaboration, asset management, and workflow management.

Hybrid headless CMSs are also referred to as decoupled CMSs, as they “decouple” content from the frontend delivery layer without totally removing the “head” from the equation, allowing marketers to make use of templates and authoring tools when needed.

Hybrid headless CMS benefits

As discussed, a hybrid headless CMS brings all the benefits associated with a headless CMS. Along with all of that, here are the additional benefits you can expect with a hybrid headless solution.

  • Happy marketers: With a hybrid headless CMS, marketers regain WYSIWYG editing, content previews, inline editing, personalization tools, and all the other features they need to work on a daily basis.
  • Unshackled developers: Because marketers are better equipped in a hybrid environment, developers can stop supporting content creators at every turn, and get back to innovating instead.

Hybrid Headless CMS Limitations

  • Potential vendor lock-in: Depending on the CMS vendor, you may experience some level of vendor lock-in, which means you’ll be restricted to using apps and tools developed by the vendor.

To avoid vendor lock-in, opt for an open source hybrid headless CMS with plenty of existing integrations.

Pure headless CMS vs hybrid headless CMS: the showdown

A hybrid headless CMS offers all the same benefits of a pure headless CMS—along with “full CMS” capabilities and features. The same capabilities and features that you’d find in a more traditional CMS.

Furthermore, a hybrid system circumvents the issues—which Magnolia CMS co-founder Boris Kraft has detailed—that come bundled with a pure headless CMS.

For instance, a pure headless CMS typically won't natively provide features like navigation, security, workflow, access control, caching, categorization and link management. Because these features have been stripped away, brands often spent lots of time and money on writing, integrating, and maintaining the features they need just to regain the features their teams have become used to.

This is on top of the aforementioned restrictions that a headless CMS places upon marketing and business users. That includes no WYSIWYG editing, content previews, workflows, and limited collaboration. Additionally, personalization features aren’t always up to scratch in a pure headless environment because you’re totally severing the content from the delivery layer, meaning that you’ll need to rewrite a full personalization content engine.

With these issues in mind, the hybrid approach is the ideal solution when a project requires full CMS functionality and alongside deep REST API access. To cut a long story short, a hybrid headless CMS combines headless content delivery with full CMS functionality, serving both marketers, developers, and the end user who wants experiences across a myriad of channels and devices.

The table below illustrates the key differences between a headless CMS and a hybrid headless CMS.

Hybrid headless CMS in action

Many digital frontrunners have weighed the advantages and disadvantages of headless CMS solutions, and opted for a headless architecture when creating their online presence.

A number of international brands are using Magnolia CMS as a hybrid headless CMS solution. One example can be found in Ticino Turismo, a popular Swiss tourism company.

Ticino leverages Magnolia CMS as a central content hub that unifies and feeds their wide range of touchpoints. For instance, the tourism operator launched a mobile-first website that integrates with interactive elements like the innovative HikeTicino app, along with a number of interactive kiosk displays dotted around the Ticino region, offering an omnichannel customer experience. Publishing content and pulling data from these additional channels was made possible by Magnolia CMS’ headless architecture.

Ticino Turismo’s new website also leverages content personalization, seamless social media integration, and is available in Italian, German, French, and English. Finally, thanks again to Magnolia CMS’ API-first architecture, third-party platforms—like the ticino.ch database and an external geolocation service—were all seamlessly integrated.

Learn more about why Ticino chose Magnolia CMS.

“Going headless” is no longer painful

Going headless used to mean giving up marketer-friendly features and interfaces. It used to mean drafting in countless MarTech tools to plug the gap left by the elimination of those features. But no longer.

The hybrid headless CMS, which stores, manages, and distributes content headlessly without sacrificing features like WYSIWYG editing and content previews, is the perfect solution for brands looking to ride the wave created by the IoT device explosion.

With Magnolia CMS, brands are able to leverage a hybrid headless CMS with automated content tagging and machine learning-powered search. Furthermore, editors can build elegant content for multiple touchpoints using the innovative Stories app, a custom content editor that authors can use to quickly create and publish flexible content in Magnolia.

Is headless right for your company?

By now you have an idea both of what is headless architecture and what makes a good headless CMS. But when it comes to making the decision to go headless, you have to weigh your own requirements carefully.

You may be looking specifically for a headless CMS that is open source, or to integrate with an ecommerce system, or to offer personalized in-store experiences. Look at your business goals and match any technology choices to those.

Jan Schulte

About the Author

Working at the intersection of business and technology, Jan helps Magnolia clients succeed with their content management and digital experience initiatives, framing solutions to their custom challenges and opportunities.