Headless CMSs, composable DXPs, and all the other buzzwords you can think of, are ushering in a new era of web content management and eCommerce that allows businesses to provide engaging experiences to their customers across any number of digital channels. These modern content management tools enable companies to ditch legacy or bulky monolithic systems and build lean custom tech stacks that provide added flexibility without overwhelming costs.
Yet an often overlooked component of growing headless CMS adoption is the role of digital agencies.
Partnerships between digital agencies and headless CMS vendors are crucial for optimum platform selection, strategy, UI/UX, implementation, and maintenance. . After selecting a CMS, companies seek out verified partners in their area to handle the CMS implementation for them, rather than go through the process alone.
But how do these partnerships come about? And how can digital agencies get ahead when establishing and growing a partnership? To find out, we spoke with Content Bloom and Oshyn, two seasoned digital agencies operating in the DXP landscape, as well as Magnolia, a digital experience platform vendor.
How Agency & Vendor Partnerships Get Started
Who calls first? The agency or the vendor?
Partnerships between digital agencies and headless CMS vendors typically begin with clients needing to solve a problem with their digital experience. They then look for a CMS that could fit the bill. “We usually come in after the client chooses a particular CMS, then they choose a partner. They typically find us when looking for a qualified partner,” said Christian Burne, CTO at Oshyn.
In some cases, a suitable CMS isn’t apparent to a specific client, and it’s up to the agency to find the right fit and then reach out to a headless CMS that can help solve the problem. Tim Schwarz, Head of Partner Management & Technology Alliances at Magnolia, states, “they typically already have a project on the horizon where Magnolia is the perfect fit.” Usually, this is because the prospective client has already chosen Magnolia or the agency partner has learned about them in the market and considers it the ideal fit for its portfolio.
But just because a client comes to an agency with an idea about working with a particular CMS doesn’t mean that it will be the right fit for the agency, either. It also doesn’t mean that a successful project will lead to a potential partnership between the agency and vendor.
Burne explains that the client’s project will often give an idea about which CMS they use, but as the digital agency, they still need to determine what the platform can do out of the box. If it’s a turnkey solution, chances are there won’t be much need for an agency. Additionally, like the developers at enterprise companies, agency developers enjoy working with new and relevant modern technologies and not outdated frameworks and clunky systems.
The Customer Must Come First
Ultimately, the agency’s goal is to solve the client’s problem, and if a partnership can develop afterward, then so be it. “The real focus is to identify the key business problem for our clients and implement solutions to achieve our client’s digital and business objectives,” said Umar Akhtar, New Business and Alliances Director at Content Bloom.
They evaluate different platforms to determine the best-fit technology platform based on what the client needs today and what will serve them best in the future.” This process involves shortlisting a subset of 2-3 technology partners, and sharing detailed platforms, technical and functional requirements, deployment/configuration options, and SLAs,” Akhtar added.
After working with a particular CMS for some time, it’s up to the agency to apply to be a partner based on the guidelines set by the vendor and have discussions with partner program managers to define the partnership properly.
Growing a ‘Headless’ Partnership
After a partnership has been established between the agency and vendor, it’s up to the agency to take matters into its own hands to continue growing with a specific vendor. Leading headless CMS vendors tend to have established partner programs to ensure that both the digital agencies handling implementation and other customer needs and the business searching for a CMS benefit.
“Our Partner Program describes the technology and business aspects of the partnership, including mutual goals we assume, investments on both sides to ensure the agency is enabled to deliver Magnolia projects successfully, and other similar aspects,” explained Schwarz.
Headless CMS partner ecosystems are packed with resources that agencies can leverage for sales enablement and to discover more opportunities from potential clients. Yet, growing a partnership often comes down to two things, cultural fit, and communication.
Cultural fit matters tremendously for any successful partnership, and this is a crucial ingredient for vendors like Magnolia. “What we’ve seen throughout the 15+ years of experience we have on the market is that, besides a strategic and technology fit, a good cultural fit is needed for a successful partnership, so that matters a lot to us,” adds Schwarz.
Additionally, partnerships can’t just be one-and-done events; otherwise, the chances for growth for both parties become limited. “Usually, we have a regular cadence with our partners so nothing is a surprise,” explained Akhtar. Weekly meetings facilitate information sharing and make it easier to identify opportunities to collaborate so that requests from potential clients can be quickly handled.
Potential Challenges to Be Aware Of During Vendor & Agency Partnerships
Like any other relationship, partnerships between digital agencies and headless vendors won’t always be smooth sailing. Some of the potential challenges that might arise and ways to solve them include:
Defining Goals & Proper Communication
Both agencies and vendors need clear goals about what they want to achieve when working together for a partnership to be successful. According to Akhtar, not defining a go-to-market strategy or objectives can be a recipe for failure. “This can drain the partnership and have a negative impact leading the partners to lose momentum and focus, so commitment and execution from both sides is crucial to a successful partnership,” he said.
Additionally, the working relationship between a CMS vendor, agency partner, and client can be inherently complex. “Lines are not always clear, especially in terms of responsibilities between partner and vendor, so it takes good communication, trust and alignment of expectations,” Schwarz adds.
Keeping Up With Partnership Requirements
Once you become a headless CMS agency partner, you must do some work to maintain your partnership status. If you work with several vendors, it can be challenging to do so. “Keeping up with the partner level compliance tier requirements for each partner is important - for example number of certifications and hours of training,” adds Akhtar. He points out that Content Bloom uses a task management tool to monitor and track partner-level compliance tier requirements.
Much Enablement Required
The promise of headless will see many more businesses flock towards headless CMSs and agencies to implement them. However, sometimes clients need convincing, and some agencies may need to be aware of what it takes to accomplish a successful project. “People have different understandings and expectations, and can sometimes underestimate a headless project, especially if we talk about enterprise-grade needs,” Schwarz points out.
New Partnership Growing Pains
Another challenge agencies face is implementing a headless solution or partnering with a vendor for the first time. Training can help to overcome potential roadblocks, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. “Those first 2-3 implementations on a new platform are hard. More than just working more hours, it means being over budget, unhappy customers, a below par end result,” Burne warns.
Ultimately, being comfortable with a new headless CMS can take around three implementations for any agency. Burne also recommends that vendors allow agencies to share their experiences with each other to provide a better customer experience. This can be particularly useful for agencies that serve different regions to avoid the idea of “training your competition”.
What Digital Agencies Need to Do Next
Establishing your digital agency as one that can successfully perform a headless CMS implementation will be vital as companies look for ways to enhance the digital experience. Here are a few tips for capitalizing on being a headless CMS partner.
1) Continue Building Expertise
The content management space continues to evolve, and new technologies and concepts are continually being developed. Leverage the training programs and certifications vendors provide to build expertise for your own developers and sales teams to ensure that you can effectively serve new and existing clients.
2) Form More Partnerships
As the MACH architecture trend picks up pace, we’re going to see more vendors either working together officially, or being bridged by customer or agency-led integrations or plugins. So whether you’re a vendor or an agency, now is the time to get acquainted with as many players in the space as possible.
Cold emails are good, but a face-to-face meetup is always better. Vendors often have events to promote their platforms and highlight partner accomplishments. Attend virtual and in-person events in your region to network with vendors and other agencies to learn more about the CMS platforms and discover use cases where your expertise could be required.
3) Demonstrate Thought Leadership With Content
Having your logo on the partner page of a headless CMS vendor or being listed in their partner directory can help give your agency a seal of approval for potential clients, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you have to woo them.
Focusing on producing content that establishes your agency as an expert in the headless CMS and DXP space can go a long way to reassuring both partners and clients.
Concepts such as headless architecture, composability, and MACH are still new to some businesses, so it’s up to you to educate them about what it means for them and how they can capitalize. It also helps when clients can quickly find agencies in their region with content and expertise around the specific problems they want to solve, whether in the form of blogs, whitepapers, social media content, podcast interviews, or case studies.