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Digital experience means many things to many people—and that is probably the way it should be as we discuss varying platforms that deliver digital experience.
Changes in work and life modalities drive our expectations. Necessity, as well as the desire for convenience, drives the rate of our adoption. When new channels and faster networks extend the reach of digital experience into our daily routines we accept the changes in stride—it is a sign of digital maturity.
Digital experience is more than a product or methodology. It also encompasses what is delivered to us, what is received from us, and what is learned about us individually and corporately as we live and work.
While we seek to describe digital experience, we hope also to clarify some definitions while highlighting some history and directions in which the industry is heading. The following are some definitions of the platforms that manage the raw materials of our experiences. These platforms enable businesses and creative individuals to build the virtual roadways we travel daily
As networks became faster and storage became cheaper, the expectations of how to present digital experiences soared. Management of text and images became management of text, images, documents, videos, and sound files. Many flavors of content management emerged with both specialization of function and overlap of capabilities. And because of these developments, terminology was apt to become confusing.
The combination of the capabilities of digital systems, advice of industry experts, and ways customers implement and use digital platforms make it difficult to compile a list of universally accepted definitions for the myriad number of digital platforms available.
Consider the acronyms: WCMS, CMS and DXP. If you are a digital marketer or content specialist, you have probably heard at least one of these terms. However, if you were to say you struggle with articulating a definition for each of these terms, you would not be alone. We will try to clarify these terms below, along with listing their differences.
Web content management system (WCMS)—A WCMS is designed specifically for management of webpage content. Some industry experts have written that client demand has shifted from WCM to the broader scope of digital experience platforms, which is likely true. That said, those same experts admit WCM is by no means dead. It may, in fact, be the right-sized solution for some organizations with straightforward web content management needs.
Content Management System (CMS)—As delivery channels of digital content expanded beyond merely web presentation, the definition of content management was necessarily adjusted. The glossary of research and advisory company, Gartner, explains that content management systems “comprise a set of templates, procedures and standard format software that enables marketers and their proxies (e.g., webmasters) to produce and manage text, graphics, pictures, audio and video for use in web landing pages, blogs, document repositories, campaigns or any marketing activity requiring single or multimedia content.”
Most modern CMS solutions decouple content from presentation, making room for integrations driven by one or several application services interfaces (APIs). APIs, plugins and connectors provide connectivity with the various business systems a customer requires and to the various channels that must be served. In the decoupled scenario, content created for your website can be used for virtually any medium.
The typical CMS is used to create, read, update, and delete content delivered through a website and other digital channels. These CRUD capabilities are facilitated with tools for curation and management of content by non-technical users. Common integrations include email, commerce, customer relationship management, digital asset management and others. Analytic tools may be included or made available to measure the effectiveness of the content presentation.
Digital Experience Platform (DXP)—As these connections and capabilities expanded, the focus shifted to the customer journey, the experience that digital presentation provides.
According to marketing research company Forrester, “You can use digital experience platforms to create coherent customer experiences, enable digital operations agility and velocity on modern infrastructure, and fuel insights-led optimization and automation.” Architecture for the construction of the business digital infrastructure may be included in the definition as well.
“Gartner defines a digital experience platform (DXP) as an integrated set of technologies, based on a common platform, that provides a broad range of audiences with consistent, secure and personalized access to information and applications across many digital touchpoints. Organizations use DXPs to build, deploy and continually improve websites, portals, mobile and other digital experiences. DXPs manage the presentation layer based on the role, security privileges and preferences of an individual. They combine and coordinate applications, including content management, search and navigation, personalization, integration and aggregation, collaboration, workflow, analytics, mobile and multichannel support.”
Offering connected customer experiences while gathering actionable customer insights, these platforms should also include all the capabilities and features you would expect from a CMS. The next chapter gives a bit more detail on the differences between a CMS and a DXP as it describes the evolution of the market.
The internet as we now know it reached workplaces and homes in the 1990s, but the beginnings of that concept date back almost thirty years earlier. Fewer and fewer of us can remember green screen terminals in data centers or a time when messaging someone across the globe in real time seemed supernatural.
As an era in the timeline of mankind’s history, the digital age emerged extremely quickly. It accelerated as what was possible became what was demanded and what once seemed miraculous became commonplace. As the internet became a ubiquitous part of human existence, it became evident that there was a need for centralized management of the text and images involved in the creation of websites. Web content management (WCM) became important and those systems ran wild.
The digital age began and there was no denying its massive impact. In ensuing years, smart phones and tablet devices became a popular means to access the internet. At the same time as these devices proliferated, app creation exploded, and search methodologies evolved. Digital experience increasingly became a mobile experience. Some even predicted that websites themselves would cease to exist, but of course, these predictions turned out to be false.
As information became mobile and we all became connected, smart devices and IoT devices began to invade our homes and our lives. Websites would no longer be the only way to interact with the internet, and content for websites needed to be content available to other channels as well.
As we seek to understand the differences between a content management system and a digital experience platform, the differences really are implied in the names. A CMS manages content while a DXP provides a customer experience. For instance, journey mapping is an experience capability, as is the 360-degree view of the customer (promised consistently by DXP vendors).
All DXPs manage content, but it wouldn’t be accurate to assume the content component of a DXP is identical to a CMS. To stand alone, a CMS necessarily must include features handled by other components of a DXP. Conversely, better DXPs employ the concept of composability which allows modularity and orchestration of the DXP components. Also, as you explore specific platforms, you’ll learn each vendor describes their solution with slightly different terminology to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Gartner recently described the place of a digital experience platform in its market this way: “A DXP can provide optimal digital experiences to a variety of constituents, including consumers, partners, employees, citizens, and students, and help ensure continuity across the full customer lifetime journey. It provides the presentation orchestration that binds together capabilities from multiple applications to form seamless digital experiences.
A DXP forms part of a digital business ecosystem via API-based integrations with adjacent technologies. DXPs are applicable to business-to-consumer (B2C), business-to-business (B2B) and business-to employee (B2E) use cases.”
Of course, there are many more digital platforms to consider. Platforms providing digital asset management (DAM), product information management (PIM), and marketing resource management (MRM) manage content in specialized ways, but usually not as the main plumbing within the Martech stack.
Your core business processes will dictate the mix of systems you will employ, but as part of the content management/digital experience ecosystem, these other platforms contribute essential metadata and user access to your content. To facilitate this, integration through connectors, APIs, or plugins will become part of your discussions.
Digital experience matters because life experiences, even the ones we experience face-to-face, have become increasingly more digital. Commerce has experienced a revolution and personalization is an expectation for every online interaction. The workplace has become hybrid, if not fully mobile.
Consider an auto purchase. Today’s educated consumer likely has a pretty good idea of what car they intend to purchase before they ever set foot in a dealership; they know the make, model, color, available packages and financing options before ever speaking to a salesman. Auto brands spend great sums of money facilitating that discovery through digital means. The local dealerships and the salespeople who work for them are armed with mobile capabilities to make the transaction as frictionless as possible online, in the showroom, and on the lot. All that, and we haven’t even touched on the digital technology built into the vehicle itself.
The first DXPs were designed for web presentation only. Initially that was exactly what was needed to allow collaboration of IT and business users, but what was initially empowering became limiting as new digital channels emerged. Modern digital experience requires a portfolio of products and flexible capabilities.
If you are reading this, you are probably hoping to get some confusing verbiage sorted out in your mind. After a short amount of research and maybe a few conversations with vendors, you may start to consider much of the terminology to be jargon or marketing-speak. That is understandable, and sadly true in some cases. Maybe no industry has a greater opportunity or capacity to conflate two languages than this one that by necessity merges marketing with technology. The discussion of architecture of digital experience platforms is one where an understanding of the options really does make a difference, so what follows is our effort to insert some clarity.
The first systems for web presentation consisted of a tiered architecture, including a web interface, a layer for business logic, and a database. Effective for their original purpose, these systems include very large codebases. Although uncomplicated in structure, any changes to the codebase of these platforms require recompiling and testing the entire system. These are single, unified systems that offer customers all components together, but for this reason, monolithic DXPs tend to be inflexible and do not scale well. All monolithic DXPs contain a web application for web presentation of content.
As channels expanded beyond mere website presentations to other channels, there needed to be a means to allow consumers of digital experiences to access their content through any channel they choose. Headless DXPs are a response to the inflexibility of all-in-one monolithic DXPs. RESTful APIs allow developers to connect to systems and share content with other channels so users can access content. All modern platforms provide some headless capabilities through API integration.
A purely headless CMS is API-first, cloud-first, and IT-centric. A pure headless platform includes no stand-alone application for web-browser use (or any other interfaces out of the box, for that matter). This leaves the horizon wide open for the adoption of a best-of-breed application stack, but it also puts developers in the driver’s seat, often leaving business users with limited capability to create content independently.
Most modern CMS solutions provide a web presentation application but also decouple content from presentation. These hybrid systems allow connectivity driven by an API.
The API layer provides connectivity with the various business systems businesses require and to the various channels that must be served. In the decoupled scenario, content created websites can be used for any medium desired. Additionally, these platforms include tools for curation and management of content by non-technical users.
In early 2020, Gartner retired the WCMS Magic Quadrant, replacing it with the DXP Report. “It's not the death of WCM,” said Irina Guseva, senior research director focusing on WCM and DXP for Gartner. “It’s the birth of WCM to a new definition of a content management system.”
Digital experience was no longer simply a website experience. This evolution of content management reflected a change in mindset. Capabilities like workflow, video-embedding, drag-and-drop page building, localization and translation had become expected table stakes. A DXP offered distinct advantages such as:
In 2020, Progress conducted a global survey of over 900 business leaders, web development leaders and application development leaders. When asked about digital transformation, approximately 80% said they had a top-down mandate to become more digital moving forward. Nearly half were assigning urgency to the process, indicating a belief that significant progress in the next 12 months would be critical to business success (see Figure 1).
Yet the same respondents admitted the process faced multiple challenges, including 90% of respondents who admitted to canceling projects in the last year or having them otherwise delayed (see Figure 2).
Regardless of the challenges, the absolute necessity of a robust digital presence should be apparent to any organization wishing to be visible in the business environment in which we all currently compete.
As you explore the DXP universe you will soon realize that each option has strengths in its features set. Analysts write a great deal about the features and capabilities when evaluating DXP platforms. The analysts’ ratings of these features and capabilities are the quantifiable criteria they use to differentiate vendors in their reports.
Reliance on digital experience platforms is growing and the list of features driving the future of digital experience is likely to expand. At present, however, these features hit the charts as the top must-have features.
While a modern CMS manages content, and content management is an integral part of any DXP, content management has a different scope and color when it is part of an experience platform. This is because a CMS, to be a complete system, typically includes some DXP functionality to stand up on its own. Better DXPs will focus on composability of components so the content component of a DXP will be different from a stand-alone CMS, assigning those overlapping capabilities to other modular components such as digital asset management.
AI-powered insights are now in the hands of business users. AI can accelerate testing and ultimately offer suggestions about what content could have performed better rather than merely report what content did perform better.
Actionable analytics provide the ability to assess and continually improve performance through A/B and multivariate testing along with business intelligence integration.
Platforms that provide insight into the performance of your content strategy are available and should be easily accessible to your business users.
Digital experience is a personalized experience. Customers are demanding personalization and will turn away if that expectation isn’t met. Organizations are investing in technology that can provide personalization, but often fail to benefit from that investment. The strategies to be planned and executed before becoming efficient in personalizing customer experience on a large scale can take months or years. The good news is your competition is likely struggling with the same issue.
Hosting options with Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google place the advantages of big data cloud platforms into the hands of small and mid-market organizations where they may never have been available otherwise.
Cloud deployment of your DXP changes more than just the infrastructure of your platform. Operational efficiency, autoscaling, near elimination of downtime risk and insight into the CI/CD processes streamline and optimize the management of your environment, freeing your DevOps team to concentrate on the most relevant (and frankly, interesting) parts of their jobs.
MACH Principles (Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native, and Headless), are getting lots of attention these days, and as revealed by the name, can only be applied in a cloud environment. These are not new concepts but banded together, are important to consider as DXP platforms move toward more composable structure.
Your DXP platform becomes the backbone of your Martech stack as you connect to your existing business systems and introduce modular components to increase the power and efficiency of your solution. Any modern platform offers an API layer to facilitate integration, interoperability, and extensibility. These should be robust and well-documented. However, relying on code-based connectivity alone is no longer enough, and ease of use for practitioners needs to extend to the developers working on your platform as well.
Look for a commitment to developers, such as adoption of the latest front-end development technologies such as .NET Core, which offers cross-platform development and rapid deployment. Look also for low-code and no-code connectivity options that highlight a commitment to providing ease of use for all practitioners using the platform.
Most quality DXP vendors cultivate a marketplace community where developers and technical partners can promote widgets, modules, and productivity tools. Promoting a healthy developer community enables this type of innovation. Anyone evaluating a DXP solution should investigate the developer community and partner channel for this type of synergy.
If a customer can’t find you, you may as well not exist. Search engine optimization, or SEO, is somewhere between a science and an art. It is also a bit of a sport since much of SEO strategy is anticipating unannounced changes to search engine algorithms. Businesses live and die by their search ranking, so it is imperative that your DXP has tools to aid in this process. Look for a DXP that allows you to control canonical URLs for content pages, and to change default URL format for dynamic content items. Modern platforms also include the ability to create an XML sitemap file with URLs and additional metadata to inform search engines about the site, its pages, and its content. You will also want to have functionality for mobile formats, Open Graph settings and automated generation of metadata.
Even if customers find your web presence, they won’t stay long if your site is difficult to navigate. Search indexes allow you to define different sets of content to be searched by the visitors on your website. Most DXPs come with site search services such as Lucene, AzureSearchService or ElasticsearchService.
Probably more than any other capability that defines a digital experience platform is the ability to comprehensively and seamlessly orchestrate and evaluate the success of the customer experience. DXPs do this programmatically and intentionally with content and connectivity through multichannel presentation of your brand's message.
In order to manage the customer journey effectively, DXPs must provide a means to manage customer profiles securely for activity behind a secure and authenticated login. Self-service capabilities can only be supported if users can identify themselves with confidence knowing their data and interactions remain secure and private.
Of course, each platform is somewhat different and the composable nature sought by all vendors means there will be other capabilities you will encounter that you may desire based upon your organization's needs. The following may be offered by your vendor, but certainly should be considered as you evaluate your requirements:
The transformative power of digital experience has changed the customer experience in every industry, but to varying degrees.
For healthcare, the customer experience is a patient experience. Ironically, in an industry that performs technological wonders daily, the adoption of true DXP customer experience has been slow. The traditional patient experience involves long hours sitting in a waiting room and filling out paper forms held together in a clipboard. Doctors’ offices also seem to be one of the final vestiges on the fax machine. The reaction to a global pandemic both revealed the shortcomings and accelerated the adoption of digital experience in healthcare. Telehealth, chat, and patient portals, if integrated properly, all show great promise in coming years.
National governments, local governments and public sector organizations serve communities that require timely, relevant information consistently and constantly. Security is primary, ease of use is essential, and personalized content discovery through global search can all be delivered with the capabilities DXP solutions provide. Furthermore, the ability to integrate with key systems and self-service capabilities provide an almost endless horizon of opportunities.
Teaching has become a more connected experience, as more and more universities and schools are switching to remote education or taking a hybrid approach. Although great advances have been made, many higher education institutions continue to search for ways to replace legacy content management systems or integrate with multiple existing websites used by various departments.
Higher education providers can create and deliver content through a centrally managed hub and simplify management via unified technology in multi-department scenarios, address complexity and increase internal agility.
Rising customer standards, investor expectations, compliance, performance, and security are the soaring requirements for digital experiences provided by financial services firms. Integrating disparate systems, guaranteeing uptime, and managing secure data transfer and storage are some of the challenges.
Web and mobile banking applications are primarily used as marketing or transactional vehicles. The ability to customize and personalize the experience and integration with custom backend or third-party systems and industry-specific tools can facilitate removing impediments and help achieve business goals for financial websites and portals.
Utility organizations have made advancements in digital over the past few years and have leveraged it as a key competitive advantage. Companies need a platform that is easy to use, flexible and scalable. Customers expect interactions with your company to be frictionless, enabling them to take key actions without ever leaving the same online experience.
Associations face unique challenges delivering content and streamlining the experience, ensuring members find the right content while educating and helping members ask the right questions. To achieve this, associations need platforms that easily support optimized site search, personalization, and multichannel management.
Interested in learning how other associations manage their own digital experiences?
Progress Sitefinity provides content management and digital experiences with ease-of-use for all practitioners, connectivity for your business integration needs, a decoupled CMS for headless experiences, and a state-of-the-art developer platform utilizing .NET Core. AI-driven recommendations with Sitefinity Insight, Azure cloud deployment, and integrated chatbot capability with NativeChat also arm you for success and scalability.
Progress is the experienced, trusted provider of products designed with you, our customers, in mind. With Progress, you can build what you need, deploy where and how you want, empower your customers, then manage it all safely and securely. That way, you achieve growth even faster. We launch into your challenges and inspirations like they’re our own—because they are. As proactive problem solvers, we are invested in your outcomes, helping you drive faster cycles of innovation, fuel momentum and achieve your goals—with confidence.
Is your organization looking to create its own digital experiences? Contact us to learn more.
Get started with the Sitefinity DXP
J.D. Little is a Senior CMS Market Strategist, a creative communicator, an educator and an advocate for change. Beginning his career in traditional media technology, he has been helping business leaders navigate the waves of disruptive innovation for more than 25 years.
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