Traditional to headless CMS — why and how

  • How an organisation suffering from the limitations of a traditional CMS could transition to a headless one.
  • What areas in the organisation this change affects and how
  • What technical capabilities are needed in order to do this
  • How to not fail when doing a transition like this

You will hear if traditional CMS causes you pain

Today’s omnichannel digital experiences require the development and marketing teams to be increasingly agile, and deliver value to customers at an ever-increasing pace. Because the traditional CMS’s are large monolithic systems originally designed to do a great job in static desktop content, creating new kinds of content or interactive experiences can often require so much time and effort that teams start to resort to different workarounds: using landing page tools, hiring 3rd party agencies to create separate websites, setting up other CMS systems to offer a solution that wasn’t included in the capabilities of the original CMS.

How headless CMS changes the way we work

I won’t describe in detail how headless CMS is different from a traditional one, as there’s plenty of these comparisons already, and most of them are biased towards one or the other. This comparison from CMSWire nicely summarises the pros and cons of both in an agnostic way, which I can fully agree with. The main difference is that headless CMS has no head: it’s decoupling the end-user’s presentation from the content itself. In practice, this means that it comes without a front-end, which in turn means that you need more effort from development teams at the beginning for building it. And no service is ever done until it’s dead — it needs continuous development effort to improve it and create new components for editors.

Is my organisation ready for headless?

Probably not, since you’re reading this article — but you can become ready! The shift to headless means that the nature of work will change for many people. Some may like it, some may not, and doing this phase wrong is usually the biggest reason for failing to adopt a new CMS. In order for this transition to be successful, everyone’s needs and concerns need to be heard and addressed. As always, the best results are achieved when creating change together.

Content authors

Creating and editing content in a headless needs a different approach than traditional CMS. You’re not editing individual pages anymore, but instead creating reusable content that gets linked or referenced to multiple different places. It requires a different mindset, and is technically more complex. In order for a large amount of content to be manageable, the setup and content structure needs to be carefully designed together with content creators, designers and the developers who are implementing the system. Biggest pitfall here tends to be that developers first set up the system, build some visual building blocks with designers, and then hand it over to editors to use. This is a sure way to lose editors’ engagement and it leads to issues down the road.


Marketers are often the group struggling most with traditional CMS, so they have a lot to gain here in terms of getting more flexibility to building compelling content. But in order to enable them to create visual and interactive content, these building blocks need to be designed and developed, as traditional CMS doesn’t offer front-end out of the box. So ensure your marketers are on board with planning the transition and prioritise their needs among others when roadmapping the trip.


They are the ones enabling this transition, as headless CMS requires a lot of development effort at the beginning to create the head matching your company’s brand and style. Developers usually also embrace this change, as it lets them use the modern front-end technologies best fit for the team, and build pipelines where tests and deployments can be automated to multiple environments. But as mentioned, do not let developers alone drive it, because content creators are the ones who need to manage the large amount of content every day. Even after the initial setup is ready, it’s important to ensure close and continuous collaboration between developers, designers and content team, in order to fulfil the content creators’ needs and build more blocks/components for them to use.


Finally designers get to use their creativity to the fullest, without the limitations imposed by the page structure or theming system of a traditional CMS. But now, instead of designing pages, designers need to start designing blocks or components, which adapt to different forms depending on whether it’s shown on mobile web, a hybrid tablet app or a desktop-like kiosk vending machine. A good practice here is to move towards using a design system, where visual components can be demonstrated and shared easily within an organisation so that each team doesn’t need to create their own. Designers have a big role to play here.


If you have a multilingual site, chances are you’re either using a localisation agency or have some in-house translators or multilingual editors localising the content. In case your translators will access the CMS directly, you trust them, and you can provide training for them, you are good to go. In other cases, ensure your translation agency can integrate to the headless CMS, or be ready to develop custom import/export scripting tools and perform manual hassle every time a translation batch gets created.


A CMS in many companies has deep roots around the organisation, so it touches the work processes of a large number of people. Transitioning to a headless CMS causes major changes to the ways how people work, and it can also require changes in the personnel, so these should not be taken lightly. In order to ensure a successful journey, it’s best to involve your people from the content teams, developers, marketers and designers into designing the new CMS setup together. Facilitating workshops at the beginning, where everyone’s needs get taken into account, and ensuring a continuing collaboration between designers, developers and content creators when the new system has been taken into use, are the only ways to ensure a successful transition.

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Columbia Road

Columbia Road

Nordic digital sales consultancy. We help companies get more revenue and more customers in the digital era.