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How to Choose a Digital Experience Platform in 2019

Aug 12 '19

We’re entering the third age of the CMS—and quite possibly the last age of the CMS. The first age was large, monolithic, expensive CMSs from HP and IBM. The second age was ushered in by Blogger (yes, really), WordPress and Drupal. The third age is the rise of microservices that deliver powerful and fast decoupled experiences. 

We can see it all around us:

Just like in the natural world, ecosystem changes lead to certain qualities being better suited to adapt and thrive. A CMS will no longer be competitive. The third age of the CMS is really the first age of the Digital Experience Platform (DXP). 

DXPs are evolving to keep up with dramatic changes, but there are some DXPs that are better positioned to win in the long run. Here’s the essential information you need to understand DXP and how to make the best investment in your future DXP.

What is a Digital Experience Platform?

Gartner defines a Digital Experience Platform as, “an integrated set of core technologies that support the composition, management, delivery, and optimization of contextualized digital experiences.” 

That definition reminds me of the ten-dollar words enterprise salespeople use to sell you stuff that you don’t need (or house listings on Zillow—effusive natural light, anyone?). But in truth, DXP is a helpful name to describe a simple collection of services. The most common ones being: 

  • Website CMS: The foundation of every digital experience manager is still (and will be for a long time) the content management system. You cannot escape the fact that, as social animals, telling stories is fundamental to the human experience.

  • Analytics: Collecting loads of the wrong kind of data is like having children: They are both great ways to lose tons of money and time, but everyone swears the experience is worth it. Still, how an organization uses analytics is likely the differentiator between good and great marketing teams. Remember, no matter how hard you ignore this fact, you cannot improve what you do not measure.

  • Commerce: From browse-and-buy to narrow use cases, adding commerce experiences is an increasingly common need. This should be no surprise, given the breakneck growth in digital commerce over the last several years, which is only projected to to grow

  • Campaign management: Running large, multichannel marketing efforts. 

  • Customer portals: Think any kind of logged-in user experiences, from account management to more complex engagements.

  • Personalization (maybe): While incredibly powerful and effective when managed well, many organizations do not prioritize staff time. 

  • Digital asset management (maybe): A majority of the organizations we work with don’t currently use a DAM, as marketing teams tend to be siloed and may not prioritize process standardization.

There are plenty of other areas you can include when building a digital experience, but those are the major ones.

But what is a digital experience platform in practice?

A successful DXP in the wild has common attributes:

  • The web team feels empowered, not encumbered

  • Marketing can create new landing pages and content without talking to engineering

  • High developer velocity for when you need engineering

  • The right analytics data is captured the right way

  • Content and commerce backends are decoupled from the experience layer

  • Security—at the edge, in the platform, in the process—is best in class

The DXP Players and Ecosystem

As an organization, the first place you might look when identifying potential DXPs might be the Gartner magic quadrant. Here it is for 2019:

Gartner magic quadrant for dxp 2019

The Gartner rankings are far from unbiased—it can be a challenge for any ranking organization to correctly balance the myriad conflicting perspectives they gather from product companies, system integrators, and end-users—but it remains a useful tool to find the leaders. Like all charts, you want to be in the top right.

But consider this: what are your marketing efforts without content? At Third and Grove, we believe that content is the cornerstone of any digital experience platform, so we think you have to also look at the leading content management systems (CMS) as well. Here is the Gartner magic quadrant for web CMS:

Gartner magic quadrant for cms 2019

Imagine we turn these two magic quadrants into a Venn diagram and refine that list given our relative experience with these platforms, and you get four leaders in the digital experience platform space:

  1. Adobe Experience Manager (AEM): A strong collection of coupled services put together through a series of acquisitions. Closed source, expensive license feeds, and slowest time-to-market of any of the leaders.

  2. Bloomreach: Same tight coupling as AEM, but with fewer digital experience tools built into the platform. 

  3. Sitecore: Same tight coupling as AEM, but with fewer digital experience tools in the built into the platform.

  4. Acquia Drupal: Fewer digital experience tools built in the CMS, but fully embraces open architecture as its core product, Drupal. Acquia is the only truly open-source platform in this group.

How do you decide? Here’s how the major players stack up against the five most critical considerations:

 

 

Time-to-market

Ease of platform extension

Cost

Commerce Capabilities

Adobe Experience Manager (AEM)

👎

 

AEM generally has the slowest time-to-market of any of the leaders

👎

 

Companion tools for needs like marketing automation, digital asset management, and analytics are tightly coupled to the platform

👎

 

AEM is generally the most expensive implementation effort of the leading DXPs

👎👍

 

Rich commerce functionality provided by a tightly coupled solution provided by core AEM platform (Magento); support for other platforms is less clear

Bloomreach

👍👎

 

The core platform is open-source, but the ecosystem is much smaller than Acquia Drupal, so the benefits from reusing community contributed extensions are limited 

👎

 

DXP toolset is tightly coupled but less feature-rich than AEM

👍👎

 

Implementation costs are generally consistent with Acquia Drupal, the value leader, but platform users will pay non-trivial license fees

👍

 

No core solution offered, but it is compatible with most leading platforms

Sitecore

👍

 

Time to market is generally consistent with Acquia Drupal

👎

 

DXP toolset is tightly coupled but less feature-rich than AEM

👍👎

 

Implementation costs are generally consistent with Acquia Drupal, the value leader, but platform users will pay non-trivial license fees

👎👍

 

Rich commerce functionality provided by a tightly-coupled solution provided by Sitecore

Acquia Drupal

👍

 

As the most open-source of the leading platforms, adopters of Acquia Drupal benefit from a massive collection of free extensions that can be used in lieu of custom code development

👍

 

Acquia Drupal, by necessity and culture, is engineered from the bottom up to be an open platform 

👍

 

No licensing fees, a large module ecosystem to use and adapt rather than build and ideate, and generally lower technical debt, which reduces implementation budgets 

👍

 

Uncoupled from the core product but with a built-in integration framework for leading platforms like Magento, Shopify, Elastic Path (headless), and BigCommerce

Let’s explore some of these considerations in greater detail.

Six Considerations for Your DXP Evaluation

The most important part of these considerations is to ask each question in terms of current needs AND future needs! Picking the right DXP means you’ll have the right choice today, and still be happy in three years, five years, dare we say it—10 years—down the road.

Do you need Content + Commerce?

Mashing content and commerce the wrong way is a great way to accumulate technical debt, fast. To bring content and commerce together, you need to decide on:

  1. Which commerce platform you’ll use

  2. Whether you will integrate the commerce system side-by-side with the content layer or go headless ( this is critical)

There are many leading client platforms right now. Here are some of them:

  • Magento: Full code control, open-source, enterprise-scale, PHP

  • BigCommerce: Enterprise SaaS, less expensive, less flexible

  • ElasticPath: Leading headless API commerce platform, best for narrow shopping use cases

  • Acquia Commerce Connector: Compelling for large scale Drupal + Magento or Hybris

  • Shopify Plus: Leader in SaaS commerce goes enterprise

  • Hybris: If you use SAP, this can make sense. Otherwise, use Magento.

If you have a traditional browse-and-buy experience (think J. Crew or Patagonia), we recommend any of the leading cloud providers that have a lower total cost of ownership and foster your team’s innovation with high developer velocity. For more information on selecting a commerce platform, check out our article on third-wave digital commerce platforms.

Does the platform support your unique creation, curation, review, and publishing needs?

Complex organizations have complex content needs. Here’s a favorite example: We have a client that can’t make changes to their site without first getting approval of the content changes from the federal government of Mexico. 

Many organizations will need legal, product, and other departments to review content changes before they are live. And many organizations have a variety of business units, each with their operational and regulatory needs. Don’t forget about multilingual operations, which impact performance, editorial workflow, and translation integration needs.

At a minimum, you are going to need a DXP that supports storing revisions of content, tracking future revisions (so an editor can store a proposed new version of a live page without impacting the live page), custom notifications for workflow changes (so others in the content curation flow can be notified automatically when they need to take action), scheduled publishing, scheduled content state changes, and multilingual support throughout all steps in this process. For multilingual operations, you will need to ensure your DXP supports not only tracking content in other languages, but also, crucially, locales. Remember, you may want to track a version of your page in French for Haitian users and a separate French page for users in France.

Does the platform have the analytics you need?

Data can tell you any story you want. To tease out the truth, or at least the truth most helpful to you, you have to have a goal in mind. Ensure that you map out your analytics requirements and goals thoughtfully first, then look at potential analytics solutions. If you start with the tool first, you are only going to answer the questions that the tool is best able to answer.

Keep in mind that even with a closed DXP provider like Adobe, you can still use Google Analytics, which your team might be more comfortable with. In most cases, a closed DXP will limit your integration options, but this isn’t the case for analytics (almost a saving grace, but not quite enough).

Does the platform have strong support for regulations?

A confluence of recent events — the Edward Snowden revelations about domestic spying, the Wikileaks saga, Facebook being used as a tool by foreign governments to influence U.S. elections, and the Equifax security breach — have focused attention in the United States and Europe on the need for greater privacy regulation. The next decade will undoubtedly see new regulatory schemes and laws.

Think beyond GDPR, HIPPA, FERPA, various state and local data privacy rules, and website accessibility guidelines (very importantly, rather recently). Given the current and likely future needs, you want to make sure your platform is flexible enough to not create problems down the line with new compliance needs.

All platforms can be made to be compliant, but the project will vary in effort and support from the platform. For example, Acquia Drupal has the strongest (and oldest) commitment to WCAG/ADA support (the best we've seen). This support has been built into the platform for almost a decade, years ahead of most companies even allocating budget to compliance. This commitment is increasingly valuable, as lack of website accessibility creates real litigation risk for organizations.

How will your future needs be met? 

Last year, data scientist Aaron Baughman used machine learning with one of the most powerful computers in the world, IBM Watson, to go undefeated in his fantasy football season. Think about that for a minute. Machine learning, a relatively newly available approach to solving tricky computer problems, has democratized so much that it can be used by a hobbyist for the (admittedly noble ) aim of crushing his friends at fantasy football.

What will the next five years bring? For the last 20 years that has been an absolutely thrilling question to ask, and it remains so. The point is, make sure your platform is flexible enough to handle what’s ahead. To paraphrase Don Rumsfield, what should worry you most are the things you don’t know you don’t know (the unknown unknowns). The very architecture of an open DXP embraces this unknown future by offering a flexible set of APIs that are designed to support the use cases that we don’t yet know will be necessary tomorrow. 

We’ll end with this: Does the platform spark joy?

 

marie kondo meme

 

Stay with me on this.

Look, I understand that digital experience platforms are not about to make a debut on HGTV. Still, we are a full 20 years into the modern Internet. That is an entire generation, time for those that graduated college at the start of the modern digital era to now be in control of multinational organizations. Some of the greatest fortunes in the history of our species have been created in the last 20 years, dwarfing the comparable wealth of the last 2,000. Digital platforms have evolved through at least three major eras, with each wiping out and laying waste to the last. Sure, the underlying technology has changed, but since 1999, has the customer experience of a website really gotten any more complex than it was?

As the underlying technology of these platforms gets commoditized, what becomes valuable is the customer experience, and in this instance, I’m not talking about your customers. I’m talking about the people that have to use a DXP to do their jobs. Which (finally) leads me to my point: For any DXP platforms to thrive, they are going to have provide such incredible ease of use that they spark joy.

Yes, technology is still hilariously complicated, but it won’t always be. And that new horizon is not as far off as you think.

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