What are headless or hybrid content management systems?8 min read

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Headless and hybrid content management systems are software that serves as a repository for textual and other digital content that includes an application programming interface (API) that allows that stored content to be distributed to a variety of platforms. “Hybrid” systems have some of the characteristics of headless systems and some of those of “traditional” content management systems.

Most of the content management systems (CMSs) businesses use today were originally built for a single purpose — delivering content to a desktop web browser. Looking closer, WordPress — the open-source platform now used for everything from e-commerce to massive corporate sites and owning 65% of the CMS market — was built in 2003 as a blogging platform, competing with names you rarely hear today outside of a historical discussion.

WordPress has nearly singlehandedly democratized web publishing and has remained incredibly versatile, in part
because of a developer ecosystem responsible for nearly 60,000 plug-ins. But that is also a weakness for WordPress. Bolting-on functionality inevitably results in code bloat, and this vast ecosystem of plug-ins brings with it many security vulnerabilities. Combine this with the increased focus on site speed spurred by content consumption on mobile devices, along with marketers’ need to deliver content to more platforms than ever before, and you’ll understand why many are looking for an alternative to traditional content management systems.

With a value proposition similar to a customer data platform or a digital asset management platform, the headless CMS serves as a repository for all of a company’s content — mostly textual, but also including images and other formats. It’s meant to be the “single source of truth” for content marketers.

The COVID pandemic taught marketers an important lesson about being responsive and agile. Businesses that were quickly able to identify and adjust to shifting societal conditions and consumer sentiments have been the most successful at riding out the storm.



What headless and hybrid CMS platforms do

As a marketer investigating headless and hybrid solutions, how do you distinguish one solution from another? One thing to consider is the way the CMS was developed. Because of the growing interest in headless, some companies with their roots in traditional CMSs have developed their own headless options — what you might refer to as “hybrid.” It may be truly headless, or effectively offer the same benefits, but it could also simply be a traditional CMS paired with an API.

Regardless, most headless or hybrid CMS vendors offer the following core features and capabilities:

  • Interface for inputting textual content and images.
  • Account permissions and governance to permit collaboration, editing and approvals.
  • Templating and layout capabilities, with some form of preview typically available.
  • APIs and out-of-the-box connections to “head” solutions and other content sources.
  • Starter apps and SDKs to speed onboarding and testing.

Vendors begin to differentiate their platforms by offering more advanced features, sometimes requiring additional investment, which include – but are not limited to – the following:

  • Full-fledged Digital Asset Management (DAM) capabilities that extend the CMS’ flexibility into other forms of media.
  • Integrations with Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) to enable personalization and segmentation.
  • Integrations with B2B Marketing Automation platforms to facilitate lead generation and nurturing with customized content.
  • Plug-ins and extensions offering shortcuts to functionality like search, analytics, optimization and translations.
  • A well-developed, active community writing and sharing extensions via some sort of marketplace.

Let’s take a deeper look at the capabilities of a headless or hybrid CMS.

User interface

The main purpose of a content management system is to give content creators an interface for inputting their content — you could use Google Sheets or Github if you didn’t care about that. However, the user-friendliness of this type of offering varies significantly.

Because the Headless phenomenon began as a largely developer-driven movement aimed at enabling the more flexible, fast and secure delivery of sites, the interface design for marketer and content creator input may be an afterthought in some systems. Most providers, however, have worked to carefully balance the needs of developers and marketers.

Permissions, collaboration and workflows

As with traditional CMSs, you’ll see some providers offering different user interfaces and permissions for different roles within the marketing organization, sometimes building in capabilities that allow for collaboration, editing and approvals before something is published.

Some include the ability to @mention other users, make notes on individual fields and collaboratively resolve issues before an item is published.

Templating and layout capabilities

Vendors vary when it comes to how content templates and layouts are handled, though many vendors offer interfaces where higher-level employees can create templates for various content types that can then be deployed for content input.

APIs and out-of-the-box connections to head frameworks

It’s the nature of a headless or hybrid solution to offer access to content through APIs, so this is a universal capability. It should be noted, however, that all APIs are not equal. While a REST API has become standard for nearly every martech application, many developers don’t consider it adequate for a headless CMS. That’s because its structure is fairly inflexible and queries often deliver too-much or too-little data. A newer entrant to the space, GraphQL, is more flexible, allowing more specific queries that deliver more granular results. This efficiency reduces the load on the web server and therefore results in a faster experience.

Many solutions offer pre-built connectors that make it easier to start with some frameworks than others. Additionally, developer documentation may favor certain implementations, making it important for potential adopters to get a sense of the community that exists around each prospective solution.

Starter apps

Most vendors in the space offer example applications and websites as models that can give developers a head start to learning and deploying solutions. The number and variety of these starters differ from vendor to vendor, though many popular frameworks are likely to be represented.


Explore capabilities from headless and hybrid CMS vendors like Magnolia, Arc XP, Acquia and more in the full MarTech Intelligence Report on these content management platforms.

Click here to download!


Benefits of headless and hybrid CMS

Modern marketers are called upon to deliver coherent, customized and compelling user experiences to more devices and platforms than ever before. The growth of mobile devices, especially, makes delivering those experiences well synonymous with delivering them quickly. Headless and hybrid content management systems can help marketers in this pursuit by providing the following benefits:

  • Faster, higher-performance websites with better Search Engine Optimization. Traditional CMSs have become a pain point for marketers seeking to speed the delivery of their content — especially on more bandwidth-constrained devices like smartphones. With Google penalizing slow-loading sites by ranking them lower in search results, failing to achieve speed benchmarks can have serious revenue implications. Adopting a more modern headless or hybrid architecture that shifts the computing heavy-lifting to earlier in the publishing process — well before the end-user device requests the content — can improve speed, and with it, revenue, dramatically.
  • Ability to deliver a better user experience. Beyond the speed improvements offered by headless and hybrid CMSs, they also allow developers to tap into more modern programming languages and frameworks. Additionally, developers can be more creative and craft solutions that are more tightly tailored to your business needs, rather than being constrained by the limitations of a traditional CMS.
  • More security and stability. Traditional CMSs deliver websites from a single server, or a few redundant servers. With the headless and hybrid approach, content can be delivered from a highly distributed content-delivery network, meaning that the site is never down. Reducing the number of plug-ins and software, both of which are regularly updated, simplifies your infrastructure and reduces the number of vulnerabilities your team will need to deal with.
  • Easier delivery of content to new and emerging platforms. The number and types of digital devices — from desktop computers to in-store kiosks to VR headsets — is inevitably going to continue to grow. Rather than develop an entirely new CMS to deliver content to these new device types and apps, a Headless or Hybrid CMS allows brands to utilize the existing content repository with a new Head designed for that particular form factor. This also saves the ongoing time and resources that would be required to copy content from one platform to another when it’s meant to be delivered to multiple destinations. It would also unify analytics so the task of evaluating the ROI delivered from a single piece of content could be done on a single platform.
  • Enhanced ability to reuse and repurpose content, leading to greater ROI. What a Digital Asset Management system can do for visual content, a Headless or Hybrid CMS can do for textual content — it can serve as the single source of truth for brands’ content strategies. With tagging and other capabilities build into these platforms, it becomes easier to find, reuse and repurpose pieces of content for other devices and locales (sometimes automatically), resulting in greater revenue driven from the initial investment in creating each piece of content.
  • Fostering a modular, more agile approach to content. While it’s difficult to quantify, another benefit of these systems is that they encourage marketers to think about content in a more granular and agile manner. The more flexible architecture and general approach enables regular learning and iteration, and may help marketers gain a different perspective.

About The Author

Pamela Parker is Research Director at Third Door Media’s Content Studio, where she produces Martech Intelligence Reports and other in-depth content for digital marketers in conjunction with Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and Digital Marketing Depot. Prior to taking on this role at TDM, she served as Content Manager, Senior Editor and Executive Features Editor. Parker is a well-respected authority on digital marketing, having reported and written on the subject since its beginning. She’s a former managing editor of ClickZ and has also worked on the business side helping independent publishers monetize their sites at Federated Media Publishing. Parker earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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