How can an eCommerce agency help you go headless?

6 min read
November 8, 2021

Once you decide to go headless, you’ll need specialists for the build, implementation, and maintenance of your new site. These specialists might already exist in-house or you may need to hire specifically for these roles. Another option is using an eCommerce agency to fill this need.

Not all agencies that service eCommerce brands are alike. Though some offer an array of services, others focus on design and user experience exclusively, or development only. Merchants might also tap a marketing agency for SEO, ads, and campaigns that drive traffic. As merchants leverage an eCommerce agency, or multiple agencies, for headless build support, it’s important to vet them for the right experience and expertise through the lens of your brand’s needs.

Every company will have unique requirements or limitations going into a headless build. For example, a company might be flush with development expertise, but need help designing their new headless eCommerce site. It’s important to break out existing roles and functions to analyze what you really need from an agency or from hiring efforts. Key roles include a project manager and a technical lead that can help orchestrate engineering efforts.

In our experience, we’ve found that many merchants tend to underestimate their in-house bandwidth of running their current site while building a new one, which makes agency support for headless builds appealing.

Keep in mind that you will need both a build team and a maintenance team, but they don’t necessarily need to consist of the same people. For example, if an agency does your build, your in-house team can take over afterwards for the maintenance. Agencies can support either or both, but a thoughtful transition plan needs to be top of mind if there’s going to be a handoff of any kind between agency and in-house teams.

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eCommerce agency support: full vs. partial

Deciding to work with an agency doesn’t necessarily mean handing over the reins completely. Again, this is a decision that needs to be analyzed from the perspective of the unique requirements your team is addressing with agency support, be it full-support or partial.

There’s no universal “right answer” to whether or not working with an eCommerce agency on your headless build is the best option, and there are pros and cons to consider. For example, benefits of working with an experienced agency include the expertise of multiple headless builds, a consultative approach, overcoming in-house biases, and premier project management resources.

There can be drawbacks too, such as the pitfalls of tribal knowledge. For instance, if your agency possesses all the intimate knowledge of your headless webstore’s inner workings and fails to pass on that information properly as a result of people leaving the agency or improper documentation, key knowledge loss can be costly and stressful. Also, an agency’s headless build experience may or may not translate to your headless needs depending on the types of webstores they have experience with.

Full-Support of an eCommerce agency

Some companies that have tech-forward leaders, but not the necessary manpower for an in-house build, will use an eCommerce agency for the full implementation in order to access the advantages of headless commerce. While agencies have a reputation for being expensive, in some cases it can be a financially savvy decision if merchants calculate that the costs of hiring and training in-house teams on headless commerce will be more costly.

Additionally, adding an in-house developer does not mean that they will also be consultative. An agency can bring a conscious effort of building things that also benefit SEO, digital marketing, and user experience best practices.

As mentioned above, correctly scoping the handoff when going headless is crucial. For example, it’s important that the agency commits to providing an admin guide or document that a merchant can reference for the business operations that are important to them. For example, the documentation might include how to create a new landing page, where to update the promotion engine, how to add/change a swatch for a product, and more. Keeping the agency on retainer for post-launch questions and help as needed can also be useful.

Partial agency support + In-house development

Strong communication is the number one trait of successful co-development between an eCommerce agency and an in-house team. There needs to be great communication between all the stakeholders involved in the build: the merchant, eCommerce agencies, and crucial vendors involved in the build such as a headless commerce platform like Nacelle. Merchants who don’t have experience working in this fashion can have a hard time doing so for the first time on such a significant project.

This communication includes tightly coordinating the CI/CD process, which refers to the combined practices of continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD), and using automation to make continuous engineering updates rather than rolling out changes manually or in batches.

In-house teams and agencies can also QA each other, but it’s important to define a standard of operation around the definition and implementation of QA so everyone is on the same page from day one.

It’s also important to be mindful of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” For example, one team making an update to the codebase can affect the code that the other team is working on simultaneously. Again, the importance of strong project management and communication can’t be overstated in this scenario.

Another benefit of co-development is that there will likely be a smoother handoff if members of the in-house team are involved with the build and have a consistent, strong relationship with the agency as things are being built and released to the site.

How to assess an agency for headless commerce support

Just like getting a second opinion from a doctor, merchants should consider and vet multiple agencies and ask for recommendations. If you’re using a headless commerce platform like Nacelle, be sure to ask for agency recommendations. We routinely recommend vetted eCommerce agencies for development and/or design support that have experience with headless commerce and a track record of strong communication with all parties involved.

As you assess these agencies and their portfolios, look for headless commerce experience specifically with live merchants and successful Jamstack-based projects. Once you’ve selected an agency, make sure that training is part of the contract and scope. It’s important to understand how the agency plans to document the information that your maintenance team will need to know, including documentation explaining how to operate the code and site after go-live.

Working with Nacelle and an agency for your headless build

Nacelle has a strong agency partner network and will happily recommend an experienced and vetted agency to a merchant who wants to work with one for their headless build. Our network consists of agency partners we trust and have proven results with.

One example is the success of Barefoot Dreams. Barefoot Dreams, a luxury D2C retail and lifestyle brand, doubled its sales, increased site speed by 35%, and increased conversion rate by 64% after going live with a headless PWA and reimagining its user experience and digital content strategy. The team worked with Zehner, a top eCommerce agency in the space, to help them implement cutting-edge technology and a forward-thinking eCommerce strategy. The Zehner team knew the solution: a Nacelle-powered headless PWA using Shopify Plus backend and an overhaul of UX, creative direction, design, and digital content.

Many agencies choose to work with us on headless builds because they realize the extent of undertaking a custom headless build on their own, for individual clients. Partnering with Nacelle allows them to offer clients an upper echelon webstore in a fraction of the time, backed by proven results and robust expertise.

We can empathize with the process and effort involved in building a headless webstore from the agency point of view. Nacelle’s origin story has agency roots. Nacelle Founder and CEO Brian Anderson ran a highly technical Shopify Plus agency at his previous venture where he overcame the uncharted obstacles of creating headless builds for clients.

While Brian’s clients accessed a decoupled frontend and backend, opening them up to fast page load speeds, better KPIs, and an overall better customer experience, it wasn’t a profitable business model because of the extensive ongoing maintenance and oversight required on the backend for each individual client.

The reimagined, profitable business model pulls in digital eCommerce agency partners, or a brand’s existing development team, to scale the delivery and maintenance of the headless commerce solution. The restructured approach ultimately became its own solution and business, known today as Nacelle.

Interested in learning more about working with an agency on your headless build? Join us for an upcoming webinar featuring and Zehner!

Why Q4 is the Best Time to go Headless

Thinking about going headless in 2022?

Q4 is traditionally known for website code freezes to guard against breakdowns during the holiday shopping rush. We’re not suggesting you throw caution to the wind during the busiest time of year. But you can get the best of both worlds—focus in-house resources on your existing site during the holidays, and leverage an agency to do a headless build in the background, at the same time. With this strategy, you can start 2022 off to an exciting start!

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