Understanding Headless CMS Tools for E-Commerce Businesses

Understanding Headless CMS Tools for E-Commerce Businesses

It goes without saying that content plays a critical role in the success of every e-commerce brand. You can have the best product in your industry but still get lost in the crowd. Content differentiates.

Modern e-commerce platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce, and Magento provide solid tools for creating and maintaining product description landing pages that include rich media. They provide easy-to-use, but admittedly basic functionality for creating blog and other page content.

But sometimes, that's not enough.

Some stories need to be told through deeper, richer content. Some brands have a significant catalog of content and rich media, and therefore require more robust tools for managing these digital assets.

What's a Content-Driven Brand to do?

Well, you could choose to launch (or re-launch) your brand on a "content-first" e-commerce platform like WooCommerce or Drupal Commerce, built on top of WordPress and Drupal (respectively).

WordPress and Drupal are, first and foremost, content management systems (or CMSs). As such, they provide more robust tools for creating content, managing editorial and publication workflows, and curating rich media assets such as large photos and video catalogs.

The e-commerce features provided by WooCommerce and Drupal Commerce are quite robust. In fact, given certain use cases, these e-commerce platforms are stronger than competitors like Shopify and Magento.

That said, it's rare that one platform will exactly serve all of your content management and e-commerce management needs. Is there a good solution? Or do you just have to compromise?

The Future Is Includes Headless

As we described in our last blog post, Human Code just relaunched its website using Gatbsy and Contentful — the latter being a "headless CMS."

A headless content management system, or headless CMS, is a back-end only content management system built from the ground up as a content repository that makes content accessible via a RESTful API for display on any device. The term “headless” comes from the concept of chopping the “head” off the “body” — Wikipedia

In addition to headless CMS solutions, we are seeing the development of a new breed of e-commerce tools that are also headless. Headless e-commerce solutions allow you to manage your product catalog and "back of the house" tools (like fulfillment) in one place, while you present highly-customized product discovery and checkout experiences to your online customers.

How Do Headless Content Management Tools Fit into E-Commerce?

As mentioned above, there are many applications for headless CMS solutions in e-commerce:

  • You could use a headless solution to manage rich content that you then inject into your e-commerce store (say, Shopify) to enhance your product discovery experience.
  • You could leverage the robust content editorial workflow tools of a CMS like Drupal or WordPress to ensure that content describing your products has been deeply vetted and proofed before publishing it to your product descriptio pages.
  • You could use a headless CMS to cross-publish and syndicate content on other platforms, or to share promotional content with affiliate networks and influencers.
  • Finally, you could use a combination of a headless CMS and custom checkout pages (generated on top of a headless e-commerce platform) to create one-of-a-kind e-commerce experiences that make your products standout.

When Else to Consider Headless Paradigms

Headless CMS paradigms (and by correlation headless e-commerce solutions) can also provide a bridging step when migrating platforms and selecting new technologies.

Before the dawn of headless, adopting new platforms for content and e-commerce management required massive change. They generally included huge data migrations and front-end redesigns.

By decoupling front-end tools from back-end tools, headless solutions provide more flexibility and smaller steps for adopting new technologies.

Furthermore, if your content is currently locked up in an older CMS product, you might consider working with a developer to convert that older system into a headless CMS, so that you can focus on a front-end redesign, before considering a migration to a more modern front-end.

For example, if your content is locked in an older version of Drupal (say, Drupal 7.x), you might be able to expose that content to a static site generator like Jekyll or Gatsby to create a new front-end experience.

Choosing the Right Headless CMS for E-Commerce Experiences

At this point, there are many headless CMS tools on the market. They each have pros and cons, depending upon how your integrating them into your e-commerce toolbox. Below are our three favorites:


With the release of Drupal 8, Drupal is a fully headless CMS. It's an open source product supported by tens of thousands of software engineers around the world. It's written in PHP in the Symfony Framework. It powers some of the largest websites in the world.

What we like about Drupal is that it is more than a content management system. Particularly compared to tools like WordPress, Drupal is a content-driven web application framework. It benefits from thousands of free extensions ("modules" in Drupal-speak).

That said, Drupal applications can get big and cumbersom really quickly. There's an art and science to building robust, secure, sustainable solutions with Drupal. Drupal developers often joke that the platform is "free as in kittens." Sure, it's open source. But it requires a lot of care and maintenance. Then again, sometimes, you need the flexibility and extensibility that Drupal does so well.


Ghost CMS is one of the the new kids on the block. Founded in 2013, it's been designed from the ground up with modern technologies and software paradigms in mind. It's build on Node.js, with inherently makes it highly performant. There is both an open source verion of Ghost you can install and customize on your own. Or, you can go with Ghost Pro, which is a fully-hosted version.

We like Ghost for its modern tooling. Since most of the front-ends we build on top of headless CMS platforms are built with Javacript (either React or Vue), we like that Ghost is also written in Javascript. (Node.js is a backend implementation of Javascript...) It just cuts down on clutter and improves maintainability.

Ghost is really picking up steam, with close to 2MM installations. It also powers a growing number of enterprise content sites.


Contentful is a fully-managed, "software as a service" (Saas) headless CMS tool. With strong funding, it's arguably the leader when it comes to pay-as-you-go SaaS headless CMS tools. Contentful provides a great content creation experience. (In fact, I'm writing this blog post on Contentful right now. Boom!) It also provides incredibly robust APIs and webhooks that allow it to plug into other solutions and tools.

The only drawback to Contentful that we see, is that it can get pricy depending on the features you need. For simple solutions, it's actually free. (We use the free plan for this website.) However, if you want to create and maintain a number of different user access roles and publication workflows, you are stuck signing up for their "Large Space" plan, which starts around $850/month.

Still, there is a ton that you can do with their free and entry level plans. And $850/month for an enterprise tool might actually be less expensive than hiring an engineering team to maintain an open source solution for your business.

Where to Go from Here?

In short, if you're interested in exploring how headless content management might enhance your e-commerce brand, give us a shout. There are a lot of subtleties here, little gotchas, and huge opportunities. Even if you're not ready to adopt a headless solution, we can help you determine how and when it might fit into your longer-term roadmap.

It’s simple. Fill out this form and you're off to bigger and better things with a free consult — with a real human.
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