Headless CMS: Simple Explanation and Practical Use Cases

Traditional Content Management Systems (CMSs) have completely changed the way that we think about website functionality and purposes. Except for talented backend developers that have spent their entire career learning the code behind websites, most of us think of web design in quite a simple manner.

It goes something like this:

“I want a website, but I need something to store the data and build the website with – a CMS. So, I install a CMS, upload data (images, documents, and text), and the CMS populates that data into my website. Now all my content is organized and designed how I want it in a website format.”

Great! That’s all you wanted, right?

Oh wait – what if you wanted to expand your business’s virtual presence by offering some type of app that’s installed on airport screens? Or you want to start using voice interfaces like Amazon Alexa for product use?

You already built the content – the images, the documents, the database, the text – but it’s only being presented on a webpage. So, you have to go and completely recreate all this content on a different “platform” for each of those presentations. Or do you?

How a Headless CMS Works

In order for this to make sense, we’re going to break down how a CMS works in a super simple way.

CMS Functionality Explanation

Since we’re already talking about heads, let’s just describe the rest of this all as a human body:

The Legs is your editing interface. It allows you to author content, write things, upload images, etc. But when you throw all that content in there, where does it go? Where are your images stored? How much space do you have? When a website user fills out their name, email, and other info, where does it stay? That’s the next “part of the body” – the torso.

The Torso is the database. This holds all of your user data, XML files, documents, images, etc. Essentially, this is where everything is stored. Not much else to describe here. You’re rarely interacting with the database files unless you’re a backend developer. You just need to know that it’s where all of your “stuff” is stored.

The Head can be thought of as the “presentation”. The head is used to take the content you have authored in the interface (the legs), and the information and files stored in the database and present them. How do you present your content with a CMS? The head presents it through HTML on a website! And that’s usually where we stop thinking of it. But as stated above, what happens when you want to repurpose your content for different interfaces – podcasts, voice interfaces, apps, airport screens, etc.?

Traditional vs. Headless CMS Explanation

A traditional CMS gives you the full “person” as one piece – the legs, torso, and head are all packaged together for authoring, storing, and presenting content as a website only. You’ve probably never even imagined the words “CMS” and “website” as mutually exclusive – we always think of them as the same thing.

A headless CMS gives you the legs and the torso (editing interface and database) for content authorship and storage, but “severs” the head off so you can attach as many different content presentation “heads” as you’d like (that’s a little gruesome, but that’s how it works).

So, with a headless CMS, you upload the images, user info, documents, XML files, and everything else just like a regular website design, and then author the content you’d like the present. But instead of the CMS automatically populating that into a website via HTML, you can populate it as a website as well as have the option of repurposing that content for virtually anything else you can think of.

This type of “content repurposing” is done through APIs.

Wrapping It Up

Hopefully our gruesome example of severing heads off bodies helps…? I should really work on a friendlier analogy.

At KudosCode, we work with headless CMSs for our clients all the time. Often, creative agencies want to use headless CMSs for clients but don’t know where to begin. That’s where we step in. We help to bridge the gap between the right brain (the creatives), and the left brain (the developers).

If your creative agency is trying to get started with headless CMSs and this all still seems a bit “fuzzy” to you, please just ask us any questions! We have a ton of experience working with and building through headless CMSs and are happy to help you out!

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