Headless vs. Traditional CMS: Pros & Cons with Definitions

DTC eCommerce success hinges on standout content that engages, rather than fades into the background noise. However, content creation is only one aspect of your content strategy.

Your team must rapidly publish, revise, and refresh content in line with evolving consumer and business demands, a task simplified by a content management system (CMS).

With numerous CMS platforms available, the critical decision is choosing between a headless and a traditional CMS. Your business size and objectives will guide this choice, potentially saving time and money.

This article will demystify the differences, pros, and cons between traditional and headless CMSs in clear terms. Let’s get started.

What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

A Content Management System (CMS) is a software platform that allows businesses and individuals to create, manage, and edit digital content on a website. Content is stored and managed in a backend database and displayed to website visitors through a frontend presentation layer using premade templates (i.e., a website or mobile device).

A CMS can be either “monolithic” in its architecture or “headless.” Depending on your business needs, the size of your team, and how quickly your business is growing, one type of CMS architecture may have more benefits than the other.

What is a Traditional CMS?

A traditional content management system ties together both the frontend and backend of your CMS platform. You can think of a traditional CMS as one big system that performs data storage and business logic control (your website’s backend) but also maintains user-experience-related functions (your website’s frontend).

In a traditional CMS, everything is interlocked. Content, graphics, images, HTML—all the parts of managing content, content creation, and content delivery become like single chain links connected together.

Modifying one of the links on the chain can be difficult without modifying the entire chain. With a traditional CMS, content teams often need the support of development resources to edit content, deliver content, and publish content.

The Traditional or Coupled CMS Workflow

Traditional CMSes deliver content primarily for a website-based experience, rather than a mobile or omnichannel one. By leveraging rigid templates or themes for displaying content, traditional CMSes can easily maintain design and content consistency across a website. But this means they also have a harder time adapting to other digital channels. Editing these templates to fit other devices can also be a challenge without the help of additional plugins.

In eCommerce, when new store pages are created with a traditional CMS, the designs and content of these new pages need to be developed for different devices and formats. This workflow would also need to be repeated for each new page created.

As you can imagine, what tends to happen with traditional CMS platforms is that neither side of your DTC store—frontend or backend—gets to have the power they need to perform at their best, because both sides are dependent on the other. Neither the frontend nor the backend is prioritized under a traditional CMS.

What is a Headless CMS?

A headless CMS decouples the frontend presentation layer of your CMS, where content is “presented” to a user, from the backend where content is created, managed, and stored. A headless content management system uses an application programming interface (API) to allow the front and backend to communicate.

Since APIs are adaptable, a headless CMS can present the same content to users across multiple channels while retaining a consistent user experience.

Headless CMS separates everything that lives inside the “head” of your CMS from everything that lives inside the “body.”

Headless CMS vs. Traditional CMS: Pros and Cons

The main difference between headless CMS vs. traditional CMS is their level of flexibility. While a traditional CMS requires your web development team and your marketing team to closely coordinate, a headless CMS empowers non-technical users to update content without worrying about how updates will impact the entire site. Headless CMS can often make it easier for your content team to focus solely on content, rather than the entire frontend of your website.

A headless CMS architecture also allows your developers to work in their preferred frameworks, and can make it easier to bring in third-party applications. Like customer relationship management tools (CRMs) or product information management software (PIMs), to help enrich content even further.

However, headless content management systems introduce more moving parts into your tech stack and require the APIs you choose to have detailed documentation for easier maintenance and integration. In the end, the choice between a traditional CMS vs. headless CMS will likely depend on your business model and your current phase of growth.

Pros of Headless CMS

  • Faster site speed

  • Scalability & flexibility

  • Empowers your developers to leverage the best technology 

  • Empowers your content team to update and publish content seamlessly

  • Better SEO ranking because of canonical structure and site speed

Cons of Headless CMS

  • More expensive to maintain

  • Not connected to as many integrations or systems

  • Because there are more moving parts, there is a greater risk of bugs or breaks

  • Unsupported by a larger company (a traditional CMS, on the other hand, you purchase from a company)

Pros of Traditional CMS

  • Less costly to maintain 

  • Backed by a company 

  • Has more integrations with third-party applications & tools

  • Mostly bug-proof because things are being tested and there is less flexibility overall, which can mean greater consistency

Cons of Traditional CMS

  • Naturally slower load times 

  • Must regularly be updated

  • Doesn’t leverage the latest technology 

  • Rigidity to what you can do with SEO flexibility (specifically to URLS and meta structures)

Which CMS is Right For Mid-Market DTC?

Ease of use is the most crucial benefit to look for in a CMS. The easier it is for your marketing teams to manage content and deploy content updates without the extra support for development resources, the better. That way, each team is empowered to focus on what they do best.

Today, even traditional CMSes and platforms can be more modular in nature. This means you don’t necessarily need a purely headless CMS to leverage some of the benefits of headless CMS.

Create Content Building Blocks with Prismic

Leveraging headless CMS platforms like Prismic or Builder.io allows your development team to create easily swapped-out “slices” of content blocks that your marketing team can then use to quickly spin out new landing pages and product detail pages. With headless platforms like Prismic, content editing can become a more streamlined process.

At Anatta, we’ve supported brands like Aventon to create a more efficient content management process that integrated Prismic into their Shopify Plus build. Now, Aventon is working with a component-based content strategy that cuts weeks off of their deployment time and enables their store content to scale and change as needed for promotions, campaigns, etc.

Deciding Between Traditional & Headless CMS? Anatta Can Help.

Deciding between a headless CMS vs. traditional CMS for your DTC brand? Our team can help integrate CMS platforms into your tech stack and help you determine what CMS will support your business today, and in the future.

Get in touch with our team.

  • avatar
    Nirav Sheth
  • Nirav is the CEO and founder of Anatta. Nirav received his engineering degree in 2006 from George Washington University. Prior to Anatta, he served as founder of Dharmaboost, a software company working with Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard, and New Leaf Paper. He is also cofounder of Upscribe, a next-level subscription software for fast growing eCommerce brands.