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A Closer Look at Today's Digital Marketing Agency

July 20, 2018

Empowering businesses with marketing expertise and technology like never before

By Jim Panagas

It wasn’t so long ago when, if you needed a new website, you sought out an advertising or creative agency. The team typically consisted of a copywriter, graphic designer, and web developer and together the three of them would build a customized site just for you. Your internal people would make whatever connections were necessary behind the scenes and then, voila, the new site would go live.
 
“Alas poor ad agency, I knew them well”
That was then, however. And this is now. Today, the landscape has changed. Dramatically. Those types of agencies are rapidly becoming an anachronism. As Shakespeare might have put it if he were observing the business community in 2018, “Alas poor ad agency, I knew them well.”
 
The world of business and marketing is no longer just about websites. It’s about building an expansive digital landscape that includes email campaigns, customized landing pages, digital billboards, webcasts, social media, video assets, and much more. It’s about reformatting your marketing content and delivering it to an ever-growing, omni channel retail environment that began with laptops, tablets, and smart phones and now encompasses video screens in cars, on appliances, in elevators, at the gas pump, and beyond.
 
Technology heavy agencies led by seasoned business leaders
Yesterday’s advertising and creative agencies have given way to the leaner, more technology savvy digital marketing agency. Yes, they have a solid understanding of business and marketing. But more importantly, they have a working knowledge of the phalanx of marketing technologies that are out there, from Adobe, Oracle, Sitecore, and Kentico to Marketo,  Salesforce, and every conceivable variation in between. And they know how to make the two work together in order to make a business more successful.

Digital marketers interviewed for this article (l to r): Vince Mayfield of Bit-Wizards; Brant Cline of Blue Modus; Jeff Mihalich of Code Summit; Rob Bean of Refactored Media; and Bruce Williams of Thunder::tech. Watch the video at https://youtu.be/N82CrWuP730.

The creative agencies of yesteryear were often focused on individual deliverables:  A website.  A brochure. An advertisement. A direct mail piece. Or maybe a campaign. Rather than recommend a point solution, today’s digital marketing agencies are more interested in providing a more expansive and far reaching marketing solution.  
They take the time to understand what’s going on with a business at a fixed point in time. They look beyond what a business may think it wants (“I need a new website”), and instead focus on what’s best for the overall business (“What’s really going on here? What’s the root of the problem?”)
 
Why is that? Because these digital marketing agencies are often led by seasoned business leaders with decades of experience. They have worked in corporate America. They are big picture thinkers and strategists. And they now have working for them some of the best technologists in the business.
 
 Getting a 360-degree view of your business
“We’re here to understand the business problem,” explained Vince Mayfield of Florida-based Bit-Wizards. “We want to understand how a business makes money, determine what needs to be done, understand any overriding concerns, and apply the right technology.” He continued, “we determine the right solution and then we deliver it, from start to finish. We want to be a full-service partner.”
 
That’s something that sets today’s digital marketing agencies apart – their dedication to being a “one stop shop” that can assemble a complete marketing solution without going outside for any additional expertise.
 
Digitally transforming businesses leads to more customers, more sales
“We are able to take a lot of different technologies and apply those across the needs of the business. And those needs are more customers and more sales,” commented Jeff Mihalich of Ohio-based Code Summit. “That’s what businesses are looking for today.”
 
“We have always been a technically focused agency,” concurred Brant Cline of Denver’s Blue Modus. “We have people on board doing design and strategy, but a lot of our focus has been on getting the execution and implementation right. We’ve become experts at building a multi-platform eco-system and linking it to other corporate stack systems such as CRM and ERP.”
 
“We offer all of the necessary services – communications, creative, development, and digital strategy,” offered Bruce Williams of Cleveland-based Thunder::tech, “as we focus on the digital transformation of companies.”
 
Searching for a digital marketing agency? Here’s a short checklist
Marketing savvy – check. Technology savvy – check. But there’s a third component present in today’s digital marketing agency that shouldn’t be overlooked. And that is the ability to serve almost as a business psychologist, developing a deep understanding of what makes each business tick and what sets each business apart.
 
“It’s important when working with customers to truly understand what drives their business,” explained Rob Bean of Denver’s Refactored Media. “I always try to look beyond the project that they are initially asking me about. If you can understand what’s driving a business, you can much better understand how the solution or the job they are asking you to do fits into the whole of their business.”
 
Bean went on, “We like to establish some empathy with the customer. We want to understand their business, what drives them, what keeps them lying awake at night. We want to go where the pain is, where the challenges to the business lie. That enables us to strengthen businesses from the inside out.”
 
Doing what’s best for the customer
I caught up with the many digital agencies cited in this article at a partners meeting in Cleveland. Why were they all there? To learn from one another. To share best practices. To become better business people.
 
“Sure, many of us consider ourselves to be a one-stop shop,” noted Brant Cline of Blue Modus. “But sometimes we know we have a partner that has a particular expertise that we want to bring to the table. So rather than trying to do it ourselves, we collaborate with them. We are happy to partner where it makes sense and combine our strengths.”
 
Doing what’s best for the customer – that’s why today’s digital marketing agencies are flourishing in today’s fast-moving digital economy.

Digital marketers interviewed for this article (l to r): Vince Mayfield of Bit-Wizards; Brant Cline of Blue Modus; Jeff Mihalich of Code Summit; Rob Bean of Refactored Media; and Bruce Williams of Thunder::tech. Watch the video at https://youtu.be/N82CrWuP730.
 
About the Author
Jim Panagas is the Director of PR & Analyst Relations for Kentico Software, a leading provider of CMS technology. A seasoned marketing and communications professional, he has invested 25 years in the technology industry and spends a lot of time with digital marketers. His current assignment is educating the market about digital experience platforms including Kentico EMS and Kentico Cloud.

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How to choose the right technology for your next CMS project

July 11, 2018

How to choose the right technology for your next CMS project

By Petr Palas

Having spent over 15 years in the CMS world, I can say this industry never gets boring. In fact, it’s been evolving even faster in the recent years. With all the emerging devices, frameworks, APIs and cloud options, there’s always something new to learn. The question every developer asks: How do I choose the right technology for my next CMS project, and what skills should I learn?

#1: Traditional or headless CMS?

Headless CMS has been a controversial topic for developers in the past two years. That’s no surprise given the disruptive potential it has for the whole CMS industry. However, is it the right choice for everyone?

Regardless of the controversy, it seems that developers find the concept very attractive.

According to the State of the Headless CMS 2018 survey conducted by Kentico among almost 1,000 CMS practitioners earlier this year, 29% of respondents who know headless CMS have already used one and additional 38% plan to use it in the next 12 months.

When do you plan to use a headless CMS? (n = 526; only those who knew what headless CMS was were asked this question)

Those who already used a headless CMS are highly positive: 63% love the idea of headless CMS, and 30% say “I like it, but it has its limitations.”

With this sentiment, it’s very likely we will see strong adoption of headless CMS in the nearest years, and developers should start paying attention to this new phenomenon.

#2: Which languages and frameworks?

Becoming fluent in some language or framework requires a significant time investment.

In the world of traditional CMS, the choice of CMS is often connected with the programming language you prefer.

That’s something that becomes irrelevant in the world of headless CMS, as you can use any language to call its API.

These are the most popular languages and frameworks used by CMS developers according to the State of the Headless CMS survey:

Technologies used by developers (n=526)

JavaScript is — unsurprisingly — a clear winner. On the back-end side, PHP is the clear winner — again, no surprise, given the size of the WordPress and Drupal community.

However, when we look at developers who already use headless CMS, node.js wins over PHP:

Technologies used by those who already use headless CMS (n=137)

What it means for you: PHP may lose its traction as people adopt headless CMS. Thus, sharpening your node.js skills may be a more future-proof investment.

#3: Self-hosted open source, managed hosting, or SaaS?

Other choices developers must make are “Which CMS hosting model should I choose?” and “Should I go with an open source or commercial solution?”

Traditional CMS combines its own code and the front-end presentation written by the developer in a single monolith. Its architecture requires that you have a high level of control over the CMS code and its hosting environment. That’s why developers have historically preferred to host the CMS themselves.

However, headless CMS comes with a very different architecture: it strictly separates the CMS back-end and presentation layer.

This separation allows vendors to provide headless CMS in a true multitenant SaaS model and lets you focus on developing your website or application using its REST or GraphQL API.

Interestingly, most developers (63%) still prefer a self-hosted open source model even for headless CMS so that they can retain total control over the CMS and avoid vendor lock-in.

While there are some good reasons for choosing such a model in the traditional CMS world, I believe that the benefits of the SaaS model will prevail as companies explore more agility and lower maintenance costs.

Which of the headless CMS models do you prefer? (n=430)

#4: Monolith or microservices?

With a traditional CMS, you use the CMS as a platform and build your website on top of that. At first glance, this makes perfect sense because you get a lot of out-of-the-box functionality, which means that even a less-experienced developer can quickly build a sophisticated website.

The problem is that your code is tightly coupled with your CMS, which means that you can’t use a different programming language and that the CMS might not work well with the latest front-end frameworks. And, when you decide to move to another CMS, you typically have to rewrite your code from scratch.

That’s why developers increasingly prefer a microservices architecture where CMS is just one of the services they use.

They combine their own microservices and third-party APIs, such as SendGrid for emails, Auth0 for authentication or Stripe for payments. It gives them more flexibility and independence on other solutions and vendors. On the other hand, this approach may require more coding and stronger development skills.

It’s no wonder the headless CMS becomes so popular among developers who use microservices. According to the report, 30% of developers already use microservices, and those who do are twice as likely to be already using headless CMS (39%) than those who don’t (19%).

Do you use microservices to build your applications? (n=711)

The move toward the microservices architecture also has a significant impact on how you think about your career development: In the past, you needed to learn the specifics of a CMS and how to develop with it.

In the API-first world, such knowledge becomes mostly irrelevant as you only need to learn relatively simple APIs.

My advice: Instead of learning a specific CMS, invest your time into understanding the microservices architecture and improving your development skills.

It’s all about mindset

The CMS market is in the middle of a major technology transition. It moves from web-first, on-premise, monolithic CMS towards content-first, cloud-first, microservices-oriented model.

Making the right choices in this transition is not easy. At the end of the day, the deciding factor isn’t the technology itself, but the innovation appetite of you and your clients:

If you want to play it safe and failure is not an option, you will most likely choose a traditional model.

If your goal is to gain a competitive edge by developing some innovative projects, you will choose the headless model.

There’s no single answer for every project — you need to choose the combination that works for you and your clients.

From the career perspective, however, there’s no point to wait — make sure you’re on top of the latest trends. If your clients or employer aren’t ready for this, build some innovative side project to keep your skills up to date.

If you enjoyed this article, please clap it, share it or post your comment below.

If you’re not sure whether headless CMS is right for you, see my previous Hacker Noon article:

Moving to a Headless CMS? First Change Your Mindset!
If you do not change how you think about content, your headless CMS project is destined for a failure.hackernoon.com

Do you think about building your own CMS? Read this first:

How I built a CMS, and why you shouldn’t
In the past 15 years, I’ve written five Content Management Systems and built a leading CMS software company. Now let me…hackernoon.com

Full disclosure: I’m the founder of Kentico Software, a leading CMS vendor behind Kentico Cloud, the cloud-first headless CMS. Although I wrote this article with the best intentions, my view may be biased.

You can download the full version of the State of Headless CMS 2018 report at https://kenticocloud.com/state-of-headless-cms-2018 (direct download, no forms).

No rights reserved by the author.

Like what you read? Give Petr Palas a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.

Petr Palas

Founder and CEO @ Kentico. Revolutionizing the CMS industry with Kentico Cloud, the cloud-first headless CMS.

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Headless | The View from the Trenches

July 09, 2018

By 

Rick Madian, Digital Strategist at MMT Digital, a Kentico Partner

The web content management landscape has been steadily shifting over the last few years. The introduction of headless (or to be more specific, API-first) content management systems has moved the goalposts. Headless CMS is nothing new – most have been around for a few years – but the last two years have seen a spike in interest and adoption.

Looking for statistics on adoption rates, it is fair to say that these statistics are thin on the ground so it is great to see this report from Kentico which provides some interesting insights into the trends and views in the market. With that in mind, I wanted to add to this overview with our own MMT Digital view on the rise of the headless from the perspective of a digital agency operating on the front lines. I’ve pulled out some of the key headlines and included some advice and recommendations along the way.

 

Coupled, hybrid and headless

A good starting point is to get our language straight. There are lots of terms bouncing around, from coupled through to headless. To help frame this post, let’s quickly summarise the three key terms.

By “coupled” we are talking about the traditional and arguably monolithic, content management systems that tie the front end to the content, taking control or at least heavily influencing the presentation layer.

By “hybrid” we are talking about those approaches, typically driven from the traditional content management systems, where management functionality is separated out from the presentation layer and served up through stateless APIs (or other methods) to multiple channels. You can achieve this with many of the traditional content management systems out there.

And, by “headless”, we are talking about the API-first content management systems, effectively content repositories that provide APIs to allow content to be delivered to any channel.

 

Competition in the market

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an ever-increasing number of API-first content management systems emerging onto the market. These range from cloud-based, SaaS offerings such as Kentico Cloud through to self-hosted, open source offerings, typically developed by agencies and one-man bands.

The next few years will be interesting as the various vendor’s jockey for position in this space. We can expect to see a number fall by the wayside, most likely due to low adoption rates, lack of investment or poor positioning. Many of the API-first platforms are all doing the same thing which is a different ball game to the traditional CMS where the competition often lay in the rich feature sets and added extras (e.g. Digital Experience Management or Digital Marketing). The winners will be those with the robust roadmaps, strong positioning and cleanest implementations of features and APIs.

However, the traditional CMS can’t be overlooked. It’s easy to think that they will simply fall at the feet of this new generation but for many of these traditional CMS, they have been plotting their own route into this space. Some, such as Kentico and its Kentico Cloud product, have moved into space with a separate headless offering while others, such as Sitecore, Episerver and Drupal, are adapting their own platforms to move into this space. Arguably, the latter is headless solutions as the presentation layer is separated out allowing you to distribute to multiple channels but, since they are to a degree still the monolithic solutions of old (lots of features for all kinds of jobs), it is easier to think of these as simply hybrid.

It will be interesting to see how these solutions fare over the coming years – particularly as their current licence models aren’t necessarily geared towards modern architectures in the same way as API-first solutions.

 

CMS Selection

CMS selection is an interesting one. Reviewing Requests for Information and Requests for Proposal from the past three years, there have been plenty containing feature matrices of such magnitude that even Everest seems a trifle in comparison. For traditional CMSs, this is often fine. These CMSs are crammed full of features. However, when you move to API-first, that feature matrix becomes a little redundant. These systems aren’t crammed full of features since they serve a specific purpose – to curate and serve content.

As a result, we have started to see a change when it comes to those clients embarking on the CMS selection journey. Those matrices will occasionally pop up but, more often than not, these matrices are moving aside as businesses start to grasp the capabilities of headless CMS and the accompanying microservices-based architecture.

Feature matrices aside, another aspect to CMS selection is that of cost. Arguably, the initial investment in traditional CMS is lower as you are typically investing in one platform to rule them all. With the headless CMS approach, there is not only the subscription but also the cost of the infrastructure, service layer and additional systems required to deliver certain functionality. However, this is a short-term view. To truly consider cost, we need to take a long-term view and factor in upgrades, maintenance, patches. It is at this point that the headless CMS and its accompanying eco-system comes into its own offering a more competitive longer-term cost.

The headless approach is a shift in mindset and not necessarily an easy shift. Traditional content management is ingrained in the market and full education on headless takes time. But, over the coming years, I’d expect the figures in the Kentico report to creep up when it comes to both knowledge and adoption.

MMT’s recommendation is to think through your CMS selection criteria. Do you really need a long list of features? Based on experience, I would argue that this is probably not necessary. To allow for the inclusion of headless/API-first CMS, take a different approach and think about practical, everyday usage scenarios, e.g. common tasks, potential scenarios. And think through the long-term investment into the platform. You will need to factor in initial investment, infrastructure, upgrades, maintenance and ongoing fees.

 

Client-side adoption

Moving further downstream from CMS selection towards the practical application of headless, businesses are already moving in that direction – some faster than others. It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a lift and shift. Businesses often have lots of systems built on a particular infrastructure (or infrastructures) that may be tightly coupled. Shifting all of them requires careful planning.

The key ingredient here is the service layer. Elements need to be separated out and the service layer is used to power all manner of digital experiences and channels. It can be tricky to get right and we have seen good and bad implementations. It’s not cheap by any means but if implemented correctly, can give you big rewards further down the line – flexible architecture, access to the latest technology, improved performance and speed to market.

As a result, what we have started to see is an increase in experimentation. Businesses are using headless CMS to power microsites and campaign sites to enable them to understand the architecture they require and to start creating earlier versions of their service layers to aid them in forecasting expenditure and effort.

Whether you opt for a hybrid CMS or a headless CMS, this is arguably one of the most important elements to get right. Get this right and you provide a solid foundation for the future. Get it wrong and you could be inviting further rework. Be incremental in creating your service layer, adding to it piece by piece as you uncover the elements you need.

 

Developers

Developers, on the whole, love headless. And why wouldn’t they? The separation of concerns and the flexibility that headless offers give them free rein to embrace modern front-end frameworks and patterns to deliver more sophisticated and engaging experiences across a range of channels. They have full control over the presentation layer so, client budget permitting, the sky is really the limit.

It’s no surprise that this is reflected in the report and we’re seeing similar trends here in the market. Increasing numbers of developers are diving into the API-first world which in turn has a knock-on effect for recruitment and retention within businesses – both agency and client-side.

For agencies, this is a tricky one to manage as they need to ensure they have developers with the right skillsets. The signs are pointing to the headless and hybrid approaches as the future (for now at least) but coupled CMSs are not going away just yet. There’s a balancing act to maintain here while we strive towards that future.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand to wave here. This hinges on business decisions made on future architectures and development approaches plus, for agencies, new business and marketing activities. Start the conversation now – how could a microservices architecture benefit the business (or the client if you’re an agency), what impact does this have on current business operations and what effort/budget is required.

 

Editors

While developers welcome and embrace the move to headless, the same can’t be said for content editors.

The traditional CMS encouraged editors to think of content as content that would be pushed out onto a website and, as a result, all the text and media was architected in the form of pages. The move to hybrid and headless CMS steps away from that notion (in general as there are situations where you may use either of these approaches to deliver simply a website) towards thinking of content as essentially raw text blocks. The content you are creating is material that could be used on a website, an app, a smartwatch, through voice, through VR, etc.

Some editors are taking to this like a duck to water – especially those who already have experience of solutions such as GatherContent where content is treated as content with no ties to a particular channel. For others, it is a step into the unknown – much like it was in the early days of web content management.  

If you are moving to headless CMS, don’t underestimate the time needed to train and support editors during this transition. Headless CMS removes in-page editing (and in some cases the WYSIWYG editor) which can be a daunting scenario for editors. With carefully structured processes and frameworks which they can follow as a guide, the transition can be made as painless as possible.

 

Summary

The perception of headless on the whole has been very positive from all quarters and the benefits that an approach like this yields, when implemented properly, are clear to see – speed to market, ability to innovate with fewer constraints, flexible architecture, ability to engage with the latest technology, ability to reach different channels and access to a larger developer pool.

If you are considering a move to this approach, I would urge you to take heed of the areas I have highlighted. To get this right, the move should be careful and considered so you can make the most of the opportunity.

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Rick Madigan

Rick Madigan is a Digital Strategist at UX, design and build agency MMT Digital. Starting life as a Project Manager, Rick has worked within the digital sector for many years on a range of CMS-based and bespoke digital projects for national and international businesses. As a Digital Strategist, Rick works closely with clients across the business to develop and implement digital strategies that transform business performance. In recent years, Rick has taken a key role in supporting innovation strategies within clients, helping them to embrace new and upcoming technologies and trends, while also consulting on best practice for GDPR readiness and compliance.

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