Marketing

The CMO’s Guide to Headless CMS

For time-pressed CMO’s Headless CMS’s are likely to become more popular in the years to come. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages will be key.

Alan Gleeson - CMO Contento

Alan Gleeson

Co-Founder / CEO

November 21, 2022

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6min read

The CMO’s Guide to Headless CMS

A Head of Marketing or Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) is a difficult role, particularly for those working in B2B SaaS. I should know - having acted as a permanent and fractional CMO for several venture capital-backed SaaS companies spanning the past decade I have the scars to prove it!

The challenges are numerous, often compounded by the need to operate with significant resource constraints (especially in Europe), be that in terms of personnel or marketing budgets for most pre-Series B companies. An ever-growing “to do'' list and inputs from “all and sundry” as to how you should do your job. Is it any wonder the average tenure for most CMO’s in SaaS companies is under 2 years?

The span of areas you need to cover also makes it a difficult job, with different roles demanding a range of skill sets depending on the context of the role. Team size, marketing budget, and lifecycle stage also influence where you need to focus. Tackling everything from attribution, to lead generation, to resourcing to retention, to name but a few “jobs to be done” contribute to the challenging nature of the role. That is before I even get to dealing with the ‘tech stack’ - the technology needed to run the department. The infamous Scott Brinker, Marketing Technology Landscape 2022 map documents a mere “9,932 solutions” in his list of technologies used by marketing teams.

A major consequence of the world I have just described is that it can be very difficult for marketing leaders to “go deep”, be that on selecting a new solution or getting to grips with applications already in situ. The same issues afflict junior marketers who also tend to get pulled in many directions, and thus can struggle when faced with so many competing demands on their time.

So what has this all got to do with Content Management Systems (CMS)?

A CMS is a bedrock for any B2B SaaS business. In many cases, the marketing leader will have inherited a CMS decision made by a predecessor and thus in many instances is likely to look at an upgrade. Similarly, most growing B2B SaaS companies look to re-platform or redesign their sites every few years, with an investment raise or new hire often acting as a trigger to act. Another major common trigger is problems with the existing CMS, with WordPress often being cited as a solution that struggles to scale.

Depending on where you are on your SaaS journey (often aligned with investment raised from Seed through to Series D / exit) the optimal choice of CMS will vary.

  • Early-stage companies may build on WordPress, Squarespace or Wix.

  • Series A companies often turn to the likes of Webflow.

  • Series B are considering Headless CMS solutions in greater numbers.

Of course, there are such a huge number of CMS’s on the market the above is for ‘illustration only’ and there are many instances which ‘buck the trend’ with some early-stage companies starting with Headless CMS’s and some Series B companies sticking with WordPress.

Hence most Heads of Marketing or Chief Marketing Officers will likely make a call on a new CMS during their typical two-year tenures in the hot seat. Rolling out a new CMS (often accompanied by a redesign) tends to be a “big project” and thus are both resource intensive but also demanding in terms of the “jobs to be done”.

When it comes to picking the new CMS (or deciding to stick with the existing one) the stakeholders involved will typically include the CTO and CEO. Similarly, the decision can be outsourced to a design agency that makes the call in consultation with the function leads.

This can be particularly challenging for CMO’s. Many will not be “that technical” and they are being tasked with a fairly major purchase decision. The array of options is considerable and time is in short supply. So what to do?

A default decision is often to go with what they know best, be that WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, Webflow, or many other popular options that they may have encountered earlier on in their career with smaller companies. However, as companies grow and scale, it becomes obvious that these solutions are not a good fit for the growth aspirations of many of these SaaS scale-ups.

Headless or Traditional?

The first decision point is whether you want to consider a Headless CMS or not. Your CTO will likely be an advocate as the Headless CMS world has been largely ‘tech lead’. However, a consequence of this origin is that many of the leading Headless CMS sites are inaccessible to the majority of CMOs. It is simply not that easy to understand how they are different from the traditional approach - the language on these sites is often too technical for most CMO’s to easily understand.

In short, the main difference with Headless CMS’, is that instead of an all-in-one solution, the front end and the back end are decoupled. This means designers and developers can focus on building (and designing the front end) and the marketing team can focus on “the content” in the back end.

However, the motivations for choosing Headless are numerous and include several drivers from both sides. An increasing number of users are frustrated with their existing solutions, be that how difficult they are to use, security vulnerabilities due to a reliance on plug-ins’ or the need for external developers on retainers, as well as sites becoming slow and clunky. Headless CMS websites on the other hand tend to benefit from various attractive features including :

Enhanced Security

The attack surface for a headless CMS is smaller than a more traditional monolithic CMS due to the separation described above.

Empowered Developers

Developers are not constrained by templates and can bring together best-in-class applications, tools, languages, and frameworks that meet their needs.

Empowering Marketing

It goes without saying it is not zero-sum. A Headless CMS also empowers marketeers from Day 1 and helps ensure that they can focus primarily on the key part - the content.

Blazingly Quick Websites

Utilizing cutting-edge tools like the JAMstack and JavaScript frameworks can produce pages that load quickly and perform well in Google Lighthouse test resulting in both improved usability and SEO.

For a full list of benefits this article is instructive: What are the Key Benefits of a Headless CMS?

In summary, a traditional CMS enables non-technical users to generate, manage, and edit content for websites. The architecture of a standard CMS is rigid and monolithic, forming strong connections between the front-end templates and the back-end administration, and databases. To extend the features and functionality of a website, a traditional CMS often uses a plugin structure which can become unwieldy over time. Headless CMS is a modern approach that decouples the front and back ends leading to a range of benefits from security, to scalability to speed improvements. Major brands like Accenture, Adidas, Conde Nast, Costa, Deliveroo, eBay, Figma, IBM, McDonalds, Netflix, Nike, Pizza Hut, Shell, Sonos, Toyota, and Walmart have already made the jump to Headless.

Choosing from Headless CMS Providers

If you decide that Headless is a route you want to go down there are a range of options to choose from. Navigating the various options can be challenging which is why agency recommendations or Word of Mouth recommendations are important.

For those working in B2B or SaaS, Contento, a cloud based Headless CMS represents a viable alternative to the market leaders. As we describe in our article - How is Contento Different? we have developed an application that has all the table stakes features of the other providers, within the context of a solution designed primarily with the needs of CMOs in B2B and SaaS companies at the forefront of all design decisions.

Summary

The reasons an ever-growing number of companies are choosing Headless CMS solutions are wide and varied and include benefits relating to site speed, security, ease of use, and design flexibility. To date CTO’s have been the primary drivers of the selection choice in many instances. For time-pressed CMO’s Headless CMS’s are likely to become more popular in the years to come. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages should help CMOs make more informed decisions as to whether or not it is a route they want to explore.

Alan Gleeson - CMO Contento
Alan Gleeson

Co-Founder / CEO

Alan Gleeson has 15+ years extensive B2B SaaS experience working with several VC backed Startups & Scaleups in the UK, US & Ireland.

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