Why The Category of Headless CMS Has a Marketing Problem?

Alan Gleeson
7 min readJun 27, 2023

Headless CMS is a strange name for a fast growing category. In this short article we outline some of the resultant issues and suggest some more appropriate names for it.

Headless CMS: An Introduction

In recent years Headless [What is a Headless CMS?] has emerged as a popular way to manage content and build websites. However, this developer lead approach has a marketing problem. The concept can appear alien to non-tech people and as a result, it is failing to communicate the value to other stakeholders involved in the purchase decision. As this article explores it is long overdue a rebrand.

Traditional (Monolithic CMS) vs Headless CMS

For many years traditional (or monolithic) content management systems (CMS) like WordPress (an open-source CMS first released in 2003) or Drupal have been the primary means by which content is stored and rendered online. These website builders have enjoyed unparalleled success, with WordPress powering an alleged 40%+ of all sites globally.

However, in recent years WordPress has become increasingly unpopular with many developers due to a host of WordPress issues ranging from performance issues (due to website bloat amongst other things) to security concerns and scalability issues. While this sentiment is not universal (in part due to the size and influence of the WordPress community and ecosystem), those developers looking to run highly performant commercial sites are increasingly looking for alternative approaches when considering their options.

Chief amongst them is the category of Headless CMS, a growing category that powers an ever-growing number of commercial websites ranging from e-commerce sites to media sites to those with ‘omnichannel friendly’ requirements.

What is a Headless CMS?

A Headless CMS refers to the decoupling of the front-end and the back-end of a website such that the design layer and the content layer are separate, as distinct from the all-in-one approaches of traditional CMS. The Headless CMS refers to the back-end or content repository where content creators manage and maintain content which can then be fed to various ‘heads’ of front-ends via APIs. These ‘heads’ could range from websites, to mobile apps, to billboards. It is thus headless in that it can serve content to multiple heads.

And herein lies the issue.

Both the name and the explanation are not that intuitive and serve to confuse many people as to what it actually is.

This is not helped by the main Headless players who have focused primarily on messaging that is designed to convince one dominant persona — the developer (or tech lead), to the neglect of the other stakeholders typically involved in the purchase decision (ranging from the CEO to the CFO to the CMO). Are these other time-pressed decision makers really expected to quickly and easily understand the benefits of composable architecture, data lakes, and webhooks?

Most of these managers will be familiar with the WordPress brand, but probably won’t have heard of the brands providing a Headless CMS solution which means you are on the back foot from the get-go. Thus, if Headless seeks to ‘cross the chasm’ from ‘early adopter’ status to ‘early majority’ it needs to appeal to a broader non-technical audience.

This very issue is one we at Contento, are acutely aware of, and thus explains some key differentiating factors we embrace as one of the emergent solutions in this space:

  • We have non-technical writers writing much of our content to try and ensure it is clear
  • We value equally our marketing and content creators rather than treat them as second-class citizens
  • We have doubled down on usability so these same content management personas can navigate the UI/UX without needing developer support.

In short, we believe there is enormous opportunity in educating non technical buyers as to the value of this approach for scaling companies — but we feel it needs to be rebranded (or repositioned first). So what accounts for the growing popularity of Headless?

What are the Benefits of a Headless CMS?

There are a number of benefits of Headless that have lead to a growing number of companies adopting the technology for managing their websites:

1- Omnichannel Capability

As the demands for omnichannel have grown a structured content lead approach is perfectly suited to these demands and thus has been a key driver of early growth.

2- Performance Capability

If you are looking for fast website speed; then a static site generator, married to a Content Delivery Network (CDN), and Headless CMS is a tough architecture to beat for speed.

3- Strong Security Credentials

A Headless CMS reduces the attack surface by separating the backend from the frontend, eliminating potential vulnerabilities. With no built-in templates or plugins, they are thus less prone to security issues found in traditional CMSs.

4- Scalability and Flexibility

A Headless CMS offers both scalability and flexibility advantages as a marketing team can work efficiently on content, while the front end developers can work simultaneously on page design elements. The developers can also choose their own preferred frameworks and tools resulting in a highly flexible architecture.

5- Future Proof

As a new approach that consists of multiple elements all joined together via API, it means that vendor lock-in becomes a thing of the past.

For a more detailed analysis please visit this blog: Key Benefits Headless CMS

Companies recognize returns to digital performance yet struggle to maintain high performance as content and products proliferate. Pressure to meet customer performance expectations will drive companies to consider shifting towards headless CMS solutions, which support faster load times by decoupling content from product and other website inputs.

Source: The Software Foundations of Our Personalized Future

What is Headless also known as?

While Headless CMS is the name the category is best-known by, some of the following names are also used on occasion:

  • Content platform
  • Content repository
  • Content-as-a-Service
  • Decoupled CMS
  • API-first CMS
  • Composable CMS

What does not help is that some vendors refer to their offering as a Composable CMS, with others as a Content Platform, hence serving to further muddy the waters. Again, these are all very technical terms that can often confuse the reader, as they refer to relatively obscure technical ideas in stark contrast to the simplicity of a term like “website builder”. However, shifting to one of these is unlikely to make a major difference as a ‘rebrand exercise’.

The Role of G2 and Capterra in Naming Categories

When it comes to Software Categories, the leading source of category names are G2 and Capterra. In the early days before a category is established software vendors approach these providers looking for them to establish a new category (which includes naming it) especially when the industry has not aligned on one. At present, G2 refers to the category as Headless CMS Software, and Capterra refers to solutions as being Headless CMS Platforms, which indicates that the category has already formed and aligned on this as the default category name. Is it too late to change?

Time for a New Name?

To really ‘capture the imagination’ the Headless CMS category needs to be renamed. When mentioned in public, it currently needs to be accompanied by an explanation. This explanation then tends to focus on the API-first nature of the application, as well as the decoupling of the front end and the back end. Putting the two together, does not adequately explain what it is in true layman’s terms.

What Viable Alternatives Exist?

Perhaps a more accessible phrase would be simply a Modern CMS or Next Generation CMS. These would, in my view, help to reach a wider audience and help vendors encourage a broader set of stakeholders to actively consider the category. I guess the challenge with these is they too will become dated at some point with the next phase of CMSs. But at least we can kick the can down the road and let some future vendors worry about that.

In terms of describing what it is then, perhaps the description focuses on the separation of the content from the part of the site you can see so the Modern CMS focuses on content management, and your developers design how the content renders when viewed online.

Contento — Powering B2B SaaS & Technology Websites

Finally, a note about Contento a modern CMS designed for B2B SaaS and technology websites. One of our motivations for building Contento was that our technical co-founders could see the overwhelming advantages of Headless as an attractive CMS for growing technology companies, but recognized that the opportunity in the space was to do a better job communicating the value to non-technical decision makers, while also striving to build a solution that a marketing team could use without needing to defer to developers for every minor tweak to the site that was needed.

Contento.io — Asset Manager (Light Mode)
Contento.io — Live Preview (Dark Mode)

Summary

The phrase ‘Headless CMS” refers to a fast-growing category of Content Management Systems that are powering a growing number of commercial websites. However, we contend that the fact it is a developer-lead category has meant that to date the narrative is excessively tech-centric meaning it is difficult for non-technical users to grasp the concept. In an increasingly time-pressed world, where a decision as to a choice of Content Management System will often include CMOs, CEOs and CFOs the category needs to modify its language so these personas can more readily grasp why this shift to Headless is attractive in the right use case. Could this blog act as a catalyst for change? Who knows? But at least if it acts as a conversation starter we can do a better job of outlining why modern content management systems are becoming so popular.

This article originally appeared on the Contento blog: Headless CMS — A Marketing Problem

--

--

Alan Gleeson

CEO and Co-Founder of Contento — a modern Headless CMS. B2B and Tech Marketing Consultant. Based in London. Passion for #SaaS . https://www.contento.io