At neta, we help companies craft workflows for their digital presence (among other services), and this has brought us in contact with a wide range of Content Management Systems, or CMS. Over time, we have witnessed steady changes both in how they work and, more importantly, how people think about them.

CMSes have shifted from all-in-one products to a bundle of services, culminating in the rise of the “headless” CMS that completely divides content from its presentation. This technological shift, combined with a significant change in how editorial teams think about content, has made us rethink how we choose the technology we use to build platforms. Teams are more comfortable than ever before with thinking about their content as data, and now want their content to be available in more places than just their website.

A Brief History of CMSes: From Systems to Services

The beginning of the CMS industry on the web started with all-encompassing application systems. Adobe ColdFusion and IBM’s Lotus Web CMS were among the first wave of enterprise content management systems to spin out of the tech giants. WordPress led the second wave in 2003, which would become ubiquitous on the web today. These tools wrapped together everything you needed to get started on the web into one package: running a server, creating a content database, creating a tool to manage the database, and the actual website from that content. Instead of all those decisions, the CMS shipped you a complete tool to hide away those complexities.

Headless CMS Architecture And Developer Convenience

The industry has changed a lot over the history of CMSes, more so in the intervening 18 years since WordPress’s release, breaking apart the pieces of CMSes into individual services. As a result, every single step has become easier to manage:

Running a server: it has become less common to run your own physical server, instead spinning one up in the cloud through one of the “serverless” tech giants: Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.
Creating a database: The rise of serverless allowed databases to also be hosted in the cloud and managed as a service with tools like MongoDB and Fauna.
Managing the database: New web standards in application programming interface (API) design like REST, coined in 2000 and booming in the 2010s, and GraphQL by Facebook over 2015-2018, have made communicating between servers and databases easier for humans to understand.
Making a website: Perhaps the most rapidly changing technologies of all of these. There are an endless number of tools to build CMS-backed websites that are both performant and robust: NextJS, Nuxt, and 11ty are a few of our favorites.

All these advancements together have made it possible for a single developer to click together a database to store content, an API to manage it, and a website to use it. This is what “headless” CMS means: decoupling the services that make up a website and CMS, creating a more flexible solution. This headless CMS architecture is easier for developers to maintain while also reducing development time. Nowadays the convenience factor promised by all-in-one CMSes like WordPress has become less clear for developers.

Innovative Content Database Workflows

Even more exciting are the superpowers that come with a headless CMS. Instead of being mere page builders, the modern headless CMS treats all content like data. Meaning that your CMS can have definitions for Pages, Products, Campaigns, and more, all sitting together and interrelated with each other, able to be pulled into any website or application you need. That content database information, such as Products or Pages, can be pulled into your website via a headless ecommerce API, updating your in-store kiosks from the same CMS that runs your website.

Increasing Familiarity With CMS Architecture

The idea that content is just data is becoming the norm. Content editors are gravitating towards CMS trends that allow them to more easily pull content into whichever format they need, whether that be a marketing landing page or a product entry. As businesses familiarize themselves with the latest trends in CMS architecture, they are also becoming more familiar with the terminology. The term “headless ecommerce API” would have been incomprehensible to most 4 years ago, but is thrown around in marketing and campaign planning meetings today.

We are always hesitant to reach for new tools, and that’s something we take pride in. For all of the think pieces written asking “is WordPress dead?” the platform still powers about 40% of the internet and is the most familiar content editing experience by a mile. But this shift in technical understanding has allowed us to reach for new tools when building web platforms. Both businesses and content editors have a much better understanding of the web and how it works, far more than when WordPress was created, opening up new possibilities.

How Covid-19 Has Changed Business and CMS Trends

Developer convenience or even data-driven superpowers have not been the final push to rethink our CMS choices toward headless architectures; it’s been COVID. Covid-19 brought unprecedented challenges across industries, especially those in retail who saw a decline in foot traffic to their brick and mortar locations due to lockdowns. Many businesses made the decision to pivot their focus to the web, whether that meant opening an online store or switching to online services such as telemedicine or online learning.

This shift caused the familiarity of technical systems to skyrocket in recent years out of pure necessity, a direct result of how Covid-19 has changed business structure. Covid-19 will have a lasting effect on CMS trends and CMS architecture for years to come. In addition to the added understanding businesses now have, all of the technological advancements of CMS architecture have made it easier than ever to build a website and a CMS to power it. Anyone building a business today will immediately understand the value of a robust digital architecture for their company, and this focus has led them to reach for new ways of doing things.

The Takeaway

As people who build tools and platforms, we have a responsibility to craft comfortable and easy-to-use tools for our teammates. The best CMS framework is the one your content manager enjoys and feels autonomous using. In the past, that responsibility has led us to reach for familiar monolithic content management systems like WordPress, in spite of growing technological developments to make more powerful headless architectures. But we see a change happening in how editors and marketers think about their content as data that is making them willing to abandon the familiar content management experience.

The time is ripe to talk with your team about the superpowers that an API-powered headless CMS can bring to their workflow. Headless ecommerce APIs allow products to be pulled into any platform they are needed in. Headless CMSes allow marketing campaigns to live centrally and power content on a website and social media at the same time. Technological and social understanding of the web has risen to new heights to make a headless CMS architecture the right choice for many teams.