Understanding coupled, decoupled, hybrid, and headless CMS platforms

A group of people in a conference room discuss different types of content management systems

With companies going digital and content becoming a core asset, the demand for a content management system (CMS) has increased exponentially. According to a study conducted by Data Bridge Market Research, the global enterprise CMS market is expected to reach USD 109.66 billion by 2025 and grow at a CAGR of 16.8%i.

Advantages of a CMS

  • No requirement for coding knowledge. You don't have to possess technical prowess to manage the documents in a CMS. Even a non-technical person in your team can use it easily. A CMS uses templates, so anyone can create, edit, and distribute the content quickly. Of course, there will be certain areas where you would need some level of technical assistance to manage the system without any hassles. However, with some training and documentation support, your team will be able to maintain the CMS efficiently.
  • Facilitates role-based access to team members. CMS allows businesses to assign specific roles to specific team members. For example, a manager might have the admin rights to add, delete, and edit a file, while a team member would have limited access such as just adding a file to the system. Similarly, you can restrict access to other members who are not a part of your project. By assigning roles to team members, you would have better control over your documents and each member would know what is expected of them.
  • Makes website management and optimization easy. A few CMS platforms, such as WordPress, offer plugins that can help your site rank well on search engines. They allow you to include web page titles, meta descriptions, alt tags, and other elements that are required to optimize the website. And the websites are optimized continuously, so even if the algorithms change, the website will continue to be ranked in search engines.
  • A perfect fit for organizations of all sizes. Whether you are a part of a large enterprise or a startup, the flexibility and ease of use makes CMS a perfect solution for organizations of all sizes. It gives you the control to add and manage content on your website without extra effort and assists in driving traffic to your website. A CMS is also cost effective, so you don't have to rely on web designers or developers to make changes to your website. You can do it yourself.
  • A unified dashboard for anytime access. A CMS reduces your dependency on the IT department. You don't have to wait till you are in the office to make changes to your content. It gives you access to a unified dashboard that can be accessed anywhere, anytime. So, you can access your documents wherever you are and make real-time updates whenever you want.

Emerging requirements in CMS

Although a CMS offers support to companies in managing their content, using a legacy CMS could make the marketing and sales efforts of a company obsolete. In one of the interviews with App Developer Magazine, Sasha Konietzke, CEO of Contentful, explained that a legacy CMS does a good job as long as content fits into a predetermined template, follows a predetermined workflow, and developers don't use it to build anything different. The challenge arises when companies look at using a CMS to iterate their content in real time based on customer feedback. A legacy CMS may not have the capability to support content iteration in real timeii. Another challenge that companies face is integrating the CMS with other business applications. A recent survey by information management association AIIM revealed that over 79.3% of the respondents complained about the lack of integration between their company's CMS and core business applicationsiii. With businesses scaling up and the number of content assets growing, managing the content and being agile while delivering it to the customers can be a challenge for companies using a legacy CMS. As Sasha said in the interview, "Many realize how dated and ineffective their CMS is, but don't realize there's a better option in content infrastructure until they've seen it in action." It's time for companies to identify the need for a change and choose the right CMS to manage their ever-growing content assets effectively and respond to customer's needs quickly.

How to choose the right CMS for your organizationiv

To understand which type of CMS would fit your organization, you must know the different architectures of CMS: coupled CMS, decoupled CMS, headless CMS, and hybrid CMS. We will walk you through each of them so you can make an informed decision.

First, let's understand what coupling means in CMS. Coupling is the relationship between the authoring tool and the content delivery of the live site.

What is a coupled CMS?

A traditional or coupled CMS is the most typical form of CMS platform. Leading CMS platforms such as Drupal, WordPress, Joomla are based on a coupled CMS architecture. In this type of architecture, the backend administrative portal and code base is coupled with the front-end display and functionality. So, while the developers and content managers work on the back end of the system and the end user interacts with the front end of the website, they are essentially viewing and using the same system. The authoring and delivery part of the system is the same. A coupled CMS is perfect for companies that do not look for high-level customizations in their websites since the UX/UI within a coupled CMS platform is limited.

Traditional CMS: content and code are managed in a database, then content is displayed on a webpage

Pros of coupled CMS

  • A coupled CMS does not require extensive investment in infrastructure; most of them need just a hosting account.
  • It is easy to set up and deploy.
  • Because they are simple to manage, it is ideal for single sites.

Cons of coupled CMS

  • A coupled CMS is not as secure as other architectures. Hackers could enter the back end of the admin portal and that could pose a potential risk to the front end of your website.
  • Customizing the front end of the website can be a challenge with coupled CMS because it provides limited options to customize the UX/UI.
  • Scaling the infrastructure is a challenge as it depends on database scalability.

What is a decoupled CMS?

Unlike a coupled CMS, the decoupled CMS uses separate infrastructure for authoring and delivery. An API connects the back end and front end of the CMS. So, when a developer or content manager creates or edits the content in the back end, the decoupled CMS uses APIs to deliver it to the front-end device. A decoupled CMS will work wonders if you are planning to build an application or if your project requires a multi-channel distribution for its speed of disseminating content across websites, apps, and devices. With users using a variety of devices with different screen sizes to interact with websites, a decoupled CMS helps in delivering content across different devices seamlessly. Economist, a leading weekly magazine, used Drupal's decoupled CMS architecture to filter news across the globe and create a morning shot of news called Espresso to give readers information relevant to their interest. The architecture enabled Economist's editorial team to create content and set up a workflow that included creating automatic issues, getting content approvals, and disseminating content on a tight deadline. By using Drupal's interface, the team was able to minimize errors and quickly create and publish new issues with quick links to edit articles. When the Espresso app was launched, it was downloaded a whopping 340,000 times in the first month post-launchv.

Decoupled CMS manages content in a database, then delivers it anywhere using an api

Pros of decoupled CMS

  • Decoupled CMS delivers content faster than coupled CMS due to its architecture.
  • It is more secure. You can publish files on third-party destinations and conceal the back end of the website, making it difficult for hackers to attack your website.
  • Software upgrades affect only the CMS application, not the live website.  Even if the back end experiences downtime, the front end continues to operate without any hurdles.

Cons of decoupled CMS

  • A decoupled CMS is more complicated to configure and deploy than a coupled CMS. You have to custom build them.
  • There could be high upfront costs associated with developing the front end of the system. 

What is headless CMS?

A headless CMS has been in the news for quite a while due to its unique architecture. A headless architecture completely separates the admin from the front end, enabling the developers to create customized front-end experiences that can be deployed to different platforms through an API. To put it in a nutshell, headless architecture gives you greater control on how your content is displayed. Gadgetopedia simplifies it even further by calling it a CMS that has editorial and management features, but no delivery featuresvi. A headless CMS works well for enterprises that have multiple domains as it helps in managing the content efficiently.

How a headless content management system can deliver content anywhere using an api

Pros of headless CMS

  • A headless CMS allows your developers to innovate and experiment; they can modify the front end without modifying the back end of the website.
  • Because the content is delivered through an API, the content can be delivered seamlessly to any device. They are ideal for businesses that want to deliver content to an app, kiosk or for virtual reality (VR).
  • It allows you to choose the front end or technology of your choice.

Cons of headless CMS

  • A headless CMS can be more expensive than other CMS options, as you have to pay separately for the CMS, developer, and the infrastructure to run your site and app. You may also have to pay an ongoing license fee for this technology.
  • If your organization uses more themes than customized designs, then a headless CMS might not be the right choice for you. Headless systems do not offer any themes to choose from, so you will have to build the front end from scratch.

What is a hybrid CMS?

When a Canadian entertainment company wanted to redesign their website and make it more responsive without rebuilding their back end, they used a hybrid CMS to create a responsive solution that was deployed entirely through the front end. The hybrid format enabled the developers and editors to create, format, manage, and deliver page-driven content to different platforms using APIs. They were able to save time and money as they did not have to build the website from scratchvii. So, what exactly is a hybrid CMS? A hybrid CMS combines the presentation layer of the coupled CMS and the headless architecture to offer a multi-channel experience to users. Simply put, it is a headless CMS with a front end. It is perfect for companies that manage multi-channel content.

The benefits of a hybrid CMS, which combines features of traditional and headless systems

Pros of hybrid CMS

  • A hybrid CMS can be called a marketer's best friend because it provides a user-friendly interface along with the content publishing environment, which includes WYSIWYG editing. Marketers don't have to rely on developers to build web pages or structure content for different devices.
  • With a hybrid CMS, you can connect and share content across multiple sales and marketing applications such as CRM and Salesforce. You can also integrate it with other enterprise tools such as Google Analytics and Slack.
  • You can create all your content in one place and deliver it to different channels such as website, mobile apps, etc. This helps in offering a seamless experience to the customer.

Cons of hybrid CMS

While you can pull content from a CMS repository by merely adding a REST API, the process is not as simple as it looks. To distribute content to different channels, you need to manage your content in such a way that you can retrieve all the data in a structured manner as coupled CMS does not support structured content model.

Final thoughts

There has been a shift in the way users consume content. From interacting with static websites, users have come a long way and prefer to receive content across multiple devices. The increasing competition in the CMS ecosystem has led the companies to include features such as personalization and artificial intelligence to enable organizations to offer a better customer experienceviii.

When choosing a CMS, analyze what kind of architecture would best suit your business needs. If you want a CMS platform that's straight forward, less expensive, and easy to deploy, then a traditional coupled CMS will be perfect for you. However, if your objective is to offer a seamless omni-channel experience to your users across different platforms, then a hybrid CMS would be a better choice.

Ensure that you choose a solution that is scalable according to the growing demands of your business because the CMS you choose today will determine how people will view your brand in the future.

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