Agencies: How to Avoid the Pain of a Headless Deployment

Like many new CMS cycles over the years, some early adopters have paid a price for poor deployments. However, as the category has matured there are still some issues to be aware of. This short guide shines a light on some of these helping you to mitigate the risk when transitioning to a headless-backed website.

Alan Gleeson - CMO Contento

Alan Gleeson

Co-Founder / CEO

May 16, 2024

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5 mins read

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The emergence of headless has been a welcome addition for many web development agencies. A brand new tech-led approach that heralded new beginnings. Instead of being late to the party building traditional monolithic websites in a saturated space, they had the opportunity to differentiate their offering, while also being early to the party

They also had the opportunity to increase their wallet share, after all many of the resultant benefits of headless were of most appeal to larger enterprises, who were less price sensitive. 

What was there not to like?

However, despite the apparent attractions, it has not been all plain sailing.

In this short article, we outline some of the issues these web development agencies (and freelancers) had with headless and describe what lessons need to be learned from the experiences of these early adopters.

Some Issues

1- Reliance on Senior Devs

Firstly, as a more technically sophisticated approach, and the fact that it is a very different approach to building websites, compared to the traditional approach, agencies quickly realized that they needed to put their more senior developers on headless projects. One obvious implication is that build costs increased significantly.

2- Challenges Trying to Replicate WordPress

The majority of headless CMS websites tend to be switcher plays, where the client has an existing live site. For mature sites, it is common that the wider marketing function will have extended the capability via Plugins. It is rare for clients to want to tear everything down and start again. The net result tends to be a long list of features and functions that are requested. Invariably they are not as easy to deploy as a simple WordPress plugin.

3- Site Migrations and Switching Costs

Many of the sites being migrated are mature sites. They may have grown over several years, and will thus have many pages (as well as different page types). Migrations are often not straightforward and carry some risk, so again senior technical resources are needed. 

4- Vendor Selection

For agencies new to headless they have an array of options to choose from. Invariably most select one of the market leaders (those with heavy VC backing). However, as many find out to their cost most are ill-suited for clients especially when the primary goal in most cases is to manage a marketing site. 

5- Issues with the Market Leaders

Naturally, many of the market leaders have strong brand awareness within the category. However, scratch beneath the surface and it is evident that there are issues that are negatively impacting agencies e.g. price gouging allegations, CMS vendors including new feature releases in enterprise tiers only etc

6- The Perils of Open Systems

The majority of headless CMS are open systems - championing the versatility of headless and omnichannel. However, this makes it more difficult to build websites. The absence of conventions means lots of decisions are being taken that can cause downstream problems:

  • How do you create a marketing website?

  • What do you call a heading field in the CMS?

  • How do you structure content types against URLs and how does that map to your front-end framework?

7- The Learning Curve

Finally, many of the headless CMS market leaders are beginning to show signs of bloat. Flush with VC cash and a market getting increasingly crowded, adding more and more features has become the norm further adding to the complexity. The net effect is a very steep learning curve, which makes it difficult to switch out from leading to its own form of vendor lock-in.

In short, the implementation of the first tranche of headless CMS-backed sites has not been without their challenges, in part due to how the CMS has been designed but also due to how the sites have been built by developers “learning as they go”.

So why would you still consider a headless CMS site given all these issues?

The good news is that many of these issues are now more manageable with some of the newer solutions on the market.

The drivers to move remain compelling. With a mix of push factors away from monolithic offerings like WordPress and the pull factors associated with the security improvements, and performance enhancements of headless, the direction of travel remains one way. Towards headless.

Why Do You Need to Consider Newer Solutions?

So why consider some of the newer solutions?

Software evolves quickly, and many headless CMS solutions are now approaching 10 years old. That is a lot of time (especially for VC backed companies with big teams) to add lots of features. Too many features from our perspective.

We’ve also learned a lot in the intervening years and a consensus is emerging that many of these pure headless CMS solutions have significant drawbacks, leading in part to the recent strategic debates about there being a ‘race to the middle’.

Later market entrants, like Contento, which was founded in 2023, is well placed to ensure the mistakes of the early leaders were not repeated.

How Contento Helps?

Contento has significant advantages over many of the early Headless CMSs. In short, it has a second-mover advantage that enables them to learn from those that were the early pioneers. It is also clear that a lot of the early vendors got it badly wrong. 

  • Most were VC-backed, funded when interest rates were negligible. 

  • Most went on hiring sprees and got into a feature race which has led to a situation now where many of the early players are overly complex, almost impossible to use and thus create significant problems for users. 

  • VC pressure to grow has also led to pricing opportunism, with two of the leaders frequently being accused of price gouging with hidden 10X ratchets commonplace. 

Contento has approached the space from a different angle. 

1- Optimize for Marketing Websites

What if we take an assumed position? 

What if we assumed the primary use case of a headless CMS being used in the context of a marketing website (instead of offering a “blank box” where devs have to set everything up from scratch, including content models and things every website needs like SEO, URL management etc)?

This simple assumption is very powerful.

The feature set can support this dominant use case resulting in an ability to bake in lots of features that all of the other ‘omnichannel’ and ‘head agnostic’ solutions will naturally lack.

2- Deliver a Clean UI/ UX (Admin panel)

Again this may seem like a basic point. However, the majority of headless CMS are built by developers for developers. The marketing function (the very same team entrusted with maintaining the suite) often plays second fiddle and can struggle managing overly technical interfaces. With Contento, “less is more” with many features turned off (or hidden) so the marketing user is not overwhelmed.

3- Provide Starter Kits

Starter kits offer a fast track way to get started without needing to reinvent the wheel. These starter templates give you a complete skeleton data model on which you can base your site including a blog through to a full marketing website.

4- Offer a Library Capability

Finally, the library capability is designed to enable agencies to leverage previous builds on future site development be that in a ‘clone site’ capability or the ability to save your commonly used content models. We also have a range of pre-built content models you can use from our own library. 

5- Supply Docs and Guides for Junior Devs

Contento has built out the docs section of its site with Junior Devs in mind. These help junior developers to learn by doing, without becoming overwhelmed by the steep learning curves synonymous with the more complex CMS offered by others.

In summary, the net effect of these decisions is you create the environment for junior devs, to learn headless by actually building websites. Not only is it a safe environment, but they learn by doing and learn the basics of headless builds without having to confront the steep learning curves of the incumbents.

Key Message

So what is the main point?

The key message is that the ‘obvious’ option is not always the best. 

The ‘obvious’ option is to pick one of the leading headless CMS vendors.

It reduces the search costs and decreases the odds of a bad decision.

However, while a major brand may appear more defensible, they are not a great fit for building a marketing website. 

Adding a non-market leader like Contento is a much more sensible option and a more solid foundation on which to build your agency business. With a solution like Contento, there are several benefits including:

  • Easier platform with which to learn Headless

  • Intuitive CMS without feature bloat

  • Starter kits which save time (and reduce the amount of decisions needed)

  • Easier platform to bake in repeatability 

  • Significant cost savings due to faster build times (with junior devs)

  • Price point that lines up with your customers actual needs

  • Limited training requirements for clients

Adding these together and you facilitate more junior devs working on the build, while simultaneously saving time leading to a lower build cost, which opens the market to a wider range of clients.

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Many of the first tranche of web development agencies had painful introductions to headless. For most it was a switcher play (headless is not a good fit for most “first website” builds). Like any switcher play, there will be many resistant to change. Especially the users who can often be neglected in CMS selection discussions (it is usually a tech lead decision). 

For those looking to make the move now, agencies are better equipped to manage the transition. However, all too many still default to the market leaders. It remains an easy decision for them to take, and one that is defensible. 

However, a bolder decision to look outside of the market leaders could deliver a much better, more sustainable result. Pure headless CMSs as offered by the category leaders are not a good fit for agencies building predominantly single-channel marketing websites. 

Later entrants like Contento, with an assumed position that you are building a marketing site, represents a more viable option for those willing to consider alternatives. Marrying faster dev time, and enabling junior devs to play meaningful roles you can drastically reduce the build costs, bringing a lot more clients into play.

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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