Headless CMS Pricing - An Overview
Many Headless CMS providers trip clients up with complex pricing structures. This short article seeks to unpack the issue so you can make sense of what is going on.
Co-Founder / CEO
July 17, 2023
Headless CMS Pricing: An Introduction
When it comes to Headless CMSs pricing is excessively opaque and in most instances, a Technology or Development lead or agency will be required to decipher it. Some of the leading vendors employ aggressive price increases based on seemingly arbitrary limits being hit. The jumps between tiers are often significant e.g. 10X price increases, without a commensurate increase in value being offered. Newer entrants, like Contento, tend to offer more accessible pricing tiers and a feature set that aligns with the needs of the vast majority of website requirements.
This blog aims to outline some of the key pricing levers so you can make a more informed decision as to the cost impact of choosing a particular vendor.
Introduction to Headless
But first, a quick reminder as to what a Headless CMS is. A Headless CMS is a modern Content Management System (CMS) that has grown in popularity in recent years. Unlike a Traditional CMS like WordPress a Headless CMS separates the front end and back end rather than offering an all-in-one 'coupled’ solution. This decoupling means that the Headless CMS is the content repository where your website content is managed and maintained. It feeds this content via API to a platform-agnostic front end - or head, which allows your website designer to create the visual front end however they want. There are numerous benefits to this modern approach to web development ranging from:
More secure architecture
Time-saving on workflows
Blazingly quick websites
More scalable solution
Modern tech stack using best-of-breed technologies
Ability to repurpose content for various channels incl mobile app
Headless CMS Pricing
So how do you evaluate the price of your Headless CMS?
Firstly, for those working in non-technical roles, it is important to involve a tech lead in the process. The process is far removed from picking a plan on Squarespace or Wix where the pricing page is relatively straightforward and the cost of getting it wrong is nominal - perhaps a $200 per annum swing at most. On the flip side, for “non-techies” the pricing pages of Headless CMS vendors are extremely confusing with unclear cost drivers. One leading vendor I looked at had 87 rows of features with 3 columns representing the 3 main tiers they offered. Most contained obscure short descriptions like the following (without any tooltips to clarify what the feature actually does) - e.g. SCIM provisioning via IdP?
Secondly, the tiered pricing often contains ratchets that can be triggered based on hitting limits that were simply not obvious when you sign up initially. The cost of an erroneous decision can be significant, especially for those providers with a 10X difference between price tiers. Jumping from $100/ month to $1000/ month is quite the leap and the cost of avoiding the increase is often costly workarounds.
Finally, it is worth noting that when it comes to Headless, the cost of the CMS represents just one element of the overall cost. You’ll need a front-end developer as part of the mix, and if you are re-platforming your CMS / migrating a website from a traditional monolithic CMS like WordPress you’ll encounter additional costs for SaaS applications like Linode, Netlify, and Forge (Laravel).
However, for this article, the focus will be just on the actual Headless CMS cost.
Features that Drive Pricing
So what are some of the main features that drive Headless CMS pricing? The following represent some of the drivers of pricing increases between the various tiers.
1- Number of users
Different vendors have different criteria here, occasionally splitting roles by function or type. The user criterion can also be used as a simple proxy for company size (but is also driven by the fact that more users probably means more support is required).
2- Number of sites
Given that a primary purpose of a Headless is to power a website, you’d expect a site count featuring as a key driver of costs. However, given the omnichannel focus of many leading vendors; phrases like projects, locales, and spaces are often used more frequently as a differentiation criterion between tiers.
This tends to range from community-based support for free tiers, through email support to prioritized support (in some instances with dedicated account managers) as you scale the pricing tiers.
This broad category can cover everything from Single Sign On (SSO) to user credentials (roles and permissions), to SOC2/ PCI DSS depending on the criteria.
5- Number of API Calls
You’ll often find strict call limits in place before overages kick in - with API Requests (per month) and API CDN Requests (per month) representing typical criteria for separating tiers.
6- Asset Usage
Assets represent files stored within the CMS e.g. images and videos, and these are often subject to GB storage limits where exceeding storage limits will trigger either overages or a tier upgrade.
As an aside, two other pricing elements to be aware of are:
An overage clause is the combination of a fixed base fee (say monthly subscription) with extra charges kicking in when a customer's usage surpasses a predefined threshold but does not trigger upgrading to the next price tier up.
2- Fair Usage Policies
These clauses are designed to protect the vendor and tend to flag if the use of the CMS is outside the range of what is deemed acceptable. For example, if someone sets up a free trial account and quickly exceeds defined limits.
Navigating Pricing Complexity
While these represent broad categories, you will often find that sitting beneath these categories can be up to 10 separate features which will be available in some tiers but not others. This can lead to a matrix where you are trying to choose between almost 100 different parameters that influence the pricing tier you fall into, many of which won’t be that clear. Do buyers really have the time to parse through all these variables when trying to make a decision?
Instead what often happens is the Headless CMS is tested for free, the site commences on one of the lower price points and before you know it something triggers a price increase. Of course, when the price ratchet is in the region of a 10X increase (as it is with some vendors) problems occur.
So how do you navigate the pricing complexity of Headless vendors?
Firstly, it is worth noting that some of the vendors have moved upstream and are positioning themselves as Enterprise offerings. These vendors are naturally the more expensive ones and they are focused on Fortune 500 level companies. You’ll spot this when they describe themselves (in job adverts or on marketing materials) and with the logos they feature on their home pages. You’ll also spot it via the ever growing number of features appearing on the price page (especially those in the most expensive tier column) as they attempt to move their average contract value (ACV) up.
Software review sites also help to signal pricing levels as they will typically allow you to search based on segments. For example, G2 enables you to filter vendors by company size (from Small Business to Mid Market to Enterprise). Again this can be used as a proxy for pricing levels.
The social web can also be used to identify which providers are incurring the wrath of developers based on pricing practices (review sites like Capterra, can also shed light on pricing). By way of an example, a blog by Jon D Jones, a well-known British programmer wrote a blog on the topic of Contentful CMS pricing:
The reason for this guide is that when a few of my clients have had to go from the free pricing model to the paid pricing model, some people can get a bit grumpy. The typical scenario when this happens is just after the initial build. Initially, Contentful is identified as a great platform and the free pricing tier gives the client everything they need. Shortly after releasing the website, the client asks for some bigger and better capabilities on the site. Even though you might have made them aware at the start of the process of the limitations of the free pricing plan, they can get an unhappy shock when the costs increase. If a client is unaware of what they may need to pay in the future, this can lead to tensions and awkward conversations.
— Source: JonDJones
He goes on to add:
Unfortunately, there is no small step up from the free pricing model to the next level. Some companies might be big ballers and this price hike might not be an issue. For a lot of companies, the Contentful pricing jump might come as a shock.
As mentioned above context is everything though, and as one of the market leaders in the Headless CMS space, Contentful is primarily targeting enterprise clients, and thus pricing sensitivity (and negative reviews) related to pricing are primarily from smaller business users.
In summary, navigating pricing is not straightforward when choosing a Headless CMS. A good starting point is your own context - are you looking to source a modern CMS for a small business or enterprise client? What expectations do they have about the budget? Once clear on these you can shortlist a small number of vendors and use the above ideas to de-risk the decision from a pricing point of view.
Contento is a Headless CMS that is designed with the needs of marketers front and center. We feel that the pricing approach in the category is too complex and makes it difficult to price with confidence, something that is particularly challenging for agencies involved in website projects.
We don't have 10X price tier ratchets, and seek to present more reasonable pricing tiers without trying to overwhelm our clients with ever-growing lists of features that can all drive price increases.
While most Headless CMS vendors have confusing pricing pages, the main takeaways from this guide are as follows:
Most suppliers entice you in with a Free trial (but that often has limited functionality)
As the market matures different vendors are targeting different size businesses so ensure you align with one that is a fit for your own business size
10X ratchets between pricing tiers are common so you need to assess in advance what criteria are at risk of tipping you into a higher tier - think about what your requirements will look like one year down the road
Newer entrants tend to be more competitive on pricing and more flexible when it comes to price tier ratchets.
Over time more established players look to flesh out the feature set to justify a higher per user wallet share so they can increase their Average Contract Values (ACV)