What is a headless CMS

August 24, 2021 | Peter Vanwyck

If you are in the market for a content management system (CMS), chances are great you have heard the term headless or decoupled floating around. Companies like Sitecore, Kontent.ai and Contentful leverage this form of content management to the maximum and are joined by brands like Drupal, which have been around for a bit longer. But what is it exactly?

In this insight, we will explain to you what it is and why it can bring enormous benefits to you and your business. First up: the concept of headless and why it is a little like your phone charger. You heard that right, your phone charger.

Person drinking from coffee sitting behind a desk

A CMS like a phone charger

In the old days (think Nokia 3310 and older), every mobile phone had its own charger. It consisted of a socket plug, a cable and a phone connector. If your battery was dying, you had better find that exact charger or all hope was lost. Fortunately, mobile phones have evolved a lot since then. So did chargers. They still consist of a socket plug, cable and connector (wireless charging aside), but their design is much more flexible.

Phone charger

Say, you are at a friend’s house and your phone is running out of battery. No worries: just use your friend’s charger, which has the exact same connector. Your friend has an iPhone and you have an Android? Still no problem, just use your own cable and plug the USB end into his charger. Say you and your friend forgot your chargers and are on holiday in … New Zealand? Even now, this is not a problem. Find any Kiwi charger and plug your cable into its USB end. Or even better: sometimes you can plug it straight into an electricity socket that has an USB port. It is really that easy. In short: it does not matter anymore which phone you use. You can charge it anyplace, anytime, thanks to the flexible design of modern chargers.

How does this apply to websites?

You are probably wondering what this has to do with websites. Let us look at how they are built and everything will become clear.

Most websites have a front-end (HTML, CSS and Javascript) and a back-end (a content management system, such as Drupal). The back-end manages the content, while the front-end displays it in a visually attractive way to the visitor. Up until a few years ago, the front-end was dependent on the backend. The CMS provided the HTML code, which was then made visually attractive by the front-end.

Since the good old days, websites have evolved a lot. We now have a bunch of different front-end technologies (like Vue, Angular and React), all with their own benefits, specific accents and requirements. In order to use them, your CMS needs to provide compatible HTML. Considering that front-end technologies pop up like mushrooms, this can be a challenge, to say the least.

If we can find a way to send content from the CMS to the front-end, without the front-end being dependent on the CMS-specific HTML, we have the robustness of any CMS we prefer plus the freedom of using any front-end technology we like.

New York Subway

Introducing: headless

Yup, you guessed it: that is exactly what happens with a headless CMS. In this concept, content is exposed by the CMS through an API. Sounds too technical? Let us try this again:

Remember the phone chargers we were talking about earlier? Think of a headless CMS as the charger, the API as the universal USB plug-in and your front-end technology as the cable. They all lead up to your phone, which in this case is the final website. Just like you provide your phone with electricity through a flexibly designed charger, you can feed content to your website(s) and even any other digital channel you want, through a flexible headless CMS.

Fun fact: did you know for example that the real-time digital signage boards in the NYC subway are powered by Drupal?

The advantages of a headless CMS

Content as a service

Think outside of the page-based mentality. Separate content management from content display. Front-end is no longer dependent of your back-end.

Unleash your front-end developers

They are free from CMS constraints which ensures their creative vision can be realized.

Change the look, change the experience

Redesign or re-skin an experience without worrying about the content in the CMS.

One CMS, multiple channels

Content can flow from the CMS to multiple channels such as websites, apps or digital signage.

Future proof

Your back-end is ready for when the next front-end technology pops up (which is now… and now…. aaaaaand now).


If there is one thing you should remember about headless CMS'es, it is that it is a back-end technology capable of exposing its content flexibly to just about any front-end technology through an API. This allows you to work with the technologies, both on back and front-end side, that suit you best.

At The Reference, we work with a variety of headless CMS solutions, ranging from Kontent.ai, to Contentful and Headless Drupal. Feel free to reach out to see if this approach suits your business.

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