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June 14, 2021

Navigating the new approaches to CMS — Part 1: The DXP


Summary: DXPs are an ideal solution if you need consolidated content, support, and a variety of features, but they're not for everyone.

The year is 2021. You’re involved in a new digital initiative to “transform the primary online channel as part of an evolving omni-channel strategy”.

You’re tasked with identifying “the platform that will accelerate innovation, reduce content friction, and free marketers from the restrictive paradigm of developer-dependent optimization”.

Huh?

… or, as we used to say in 2007, you’re starting a project to make a website, you need somewhere to stick your content, and you hope to edit it without needing to call a developer.

Keep it simple, silly

Ah, 2007. What a year. Things were a lot simpler back then. Making a website was certainly a lot simpler. Need to manage your online content? Go grab one of the many “Web Content Management Systems” (WCMS).

Like open source? Try Drupal. How about Wordpress? That certainly seems very popular. Bit of a Microsoft geek? Go check out Sitecore, Episerver, or Kentico CMS.

Regardless of the vendor, these traditional CMS platforms — sorry, WCMS— all focused on one thing: making websites. Though they may have had their own lingo for such things, these platforms dealt with pages, page templates, components, media, and forms. All the stuff you need for your website.

Over time, digital marketing and e-commerce features were also bolted on as these tools fought it out to be the “all-in-one” solution for your website needs. Download, install, deploy to a server, and be sure to update it every now and again.

Back to the future

Today, there’s far more choice. Not just in terms of the vendors and platforms, but more fundamentally, with the actual approaches you can take to managing content.

You still have options if you want to take a strongly web-centric approach (focus first on building web pages and then work in your content), or you can start with a more content-centric approach (focus first on structuring your content and then work in how that’s presented on something like a website, app, a whole host of different devices).

The content-centric approach — or “content-first”, as we like to say in the industry — is an approach that really starts to make sense when your content doesn’t just live on your website, or when you want it to outlive your website.

How to philosophically approach content (did I seriously just write that?) isn’t the only consideration you’ll have to ponder with the platforms available today. Where should the CMS live? Should it be on-premise? Should you install it in the cloud? Do you want to go Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and let the platform vendor look after the whole thing? All of these options are available to you.

The paradox of choice

As the CTO of a digital agency (Reason One), I’ve noticed I’m having the “what approach is right for us?” conversation a lot this year. We can see organizations are doing their homework and trying to decipher all the marketing material from the many platforms they come across. As is common with our industry, there’s a LOT of jargon in that material. Terms like Digital Experience PlatformsHeadless CMSContent-as-a-ServiceLow-codeNo-codeDough-code.

OK, so that last one might not exist yet. Mmmm, Dough-code. 🍩

Each and every one of those thingamajigs listed above offers some way to manage content. Not only that, but there are loads of platforms within each and every category. So how do you decide on the right approach for your needs?

In this series, we’re going to look at each one, and see if we can get through the techno-babel and market positioning to the reasons why you’d choose one over the other. For this post, let’s start with…

The Digital Experience Platform (DXP)

What it is

A big platform—from one vendor—that does a LOT of stuff. It’s like a WCMS on steroids. The DXP wants to be your all-in-one solution for managing the user/customer experience, wherever that may be (web, apps, social, in-store).

DXPs combine multiple functions, like the website, content management, digital marketing, ecommerce, digital asset management, and more. APIs provided as part of the DXP can integrate with other platforms.

The DXP and all the goodies it contains. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) provided as part of the DXP can be used to integrate with other platforms used by your organization.

Core functionality will include:

  • All the WCMS stack — a visual way to build websites with templates, components, drag-and-drop, digital asset management (images, documents etc.), search, forms, etc.
  • A built-in digital marketing stack, with more fancy features like automation and personalization.
  • Customer engagement tracking with profiles, management of that data, and analytics.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) may be sprinkled in, wherever it can help:

  • Supporting the work of your team; e.g., ML-driven insights.
  • Enhancing the customer experience; e.g., AI-driven personalization powered by all those customer engagement data.

Why it is

As you can see, content is just a small part of the offering. DXP is what many of the successful traditional WCMS platforms of the early 2000s evolved into.

  • Sitecore went from a CMS to an Experience Platform
  • Kentico EMS evolved to a DXP and renamed itself to Kentico Xperience

As the wonderful world of digital became more elaborate (web, apps, social, etc.), so, too, did these platforms. They understand that digital today is a complex beast. Their solution is to try and take as much of that complexity away by providing the one big platform to rule them all.

Where there can be confusion in the marketing babble

What’s the difference between a Digital Experience Platform, and a Digital Experience Stack?

The word platform relates to a product built by a single vendor that’s doing everything. You might also see these being called closed Digital Experience Platforms.

The word stack however, is often used in marketing materials when referring to many platforms by different vendors that are brought together to do all the same things as the all-in-one. Somewhat confusingly, you might also see these being called open Digital Experience Platforms.

Yes, I know — there’s that word platform again. How can it be both things? The general rule of thumb is if you read “stack” or “open DXP” then what’s being referred to isn’t an all-in-one approach to managing digital experience, but rather an approach that uses a bunch of different platforms. We’ll explore this approach in more detail in Part 2.

It’s in the cloud. So it’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)?

  1. If you mean it’s not available for on-premise installation, the software was built from the ground up to only run in the cloud, and it’s available in a multi-tenant subscription based model — then, nope.
  2. If you mean the software can be installed in a cloud platform like Azure, AWS etc., and the vendor who made the software offers a managed service (where they install it and look after it) for a monthly fee — then, yes.

It might seem like a subtle difference, but the implications are important. With “proper” cloud native SaaS (1), new features are released to the platform without you (or your digital agency, if you use one) having to play any role in that.

With a DXP installed in the cloud (2), even though it may be managed by the vendor, there’s potentially going to be work by whoever did the implementation—which means additional cost—when it comes to upgrading and updating custom code.

How come the DXP marketing brochure also says “headless”? Isn’t that a different thing?
Many DXPs not only let you configure web page templates and components, but also render the actual web page when a user loads it in their browser.

Rendering the website is still a core responsibility within the DXP.

Headless CMS platforms don’t render the website—hence the name headless. They provide APIs so content can go anywhere.

DXP platform vendors can see that the market likes this approach, so although DXPs and headless CMS are two distinct things, you’ll now see DXPs packaging “headless APIs” as part of their offering.

These APIs are typically add-ons, though, and they aren’t as robust as APIs from native headless CMS platforms—yet.

The DXP might still have an option to render the website. APIs used for interoperability are being updated, or built anew, to work with a headless architecture. Here, any consumer (website, app, etc.) can get to content via an integration with the DXP's APIs.

The all-in-one includes [feature X], but it also integrates with a 3rd party that does [feature X]. Why?
A big marketing narrative for DXPs is “we do EVERYTHING”. At the same time, platform vendors are aware that you’ll have other tools in your toolbox. Doing everything means playing nicely with other tools.

This is why you’ll see DXP marketing highlighting how these platforms also integrate with your “digital landscape”. It’s not so much the integration angle that confuses people, but rather when they integrate with something they also profess to excel in.

  • Why does the DXP integrate with tools that offer the same functionality as the DXP?
  • Isn’t the DXP meant to offer a leading version of this feature?
  • If not, why did I invest in this DXP if we’re going to go with other technology?

What the DXP is good for

  • Consolidating as much of your digital toolkit into one platform. You’ll get the benefit of pre-existing integrations between the core features of content, marketing, and custom engagement tracking (potentially e-com, too). Why such good integrations? Because the whole thing is built by the same vendor.
  • You’ll also get the benefit of consolidated support and training from one vendor. With that in mind, you definitely want to do your research on how well they treat their customers.
  • Given their background as traditional WCMS platforms, DXPs have very mature features for managing the web channel, which — let’s be honest—is still likely the primary channel for, well, pretty much everyone. If you’ve a marketing team that thinks pages, templates, components, and must have an intuitive visual drag and drop experience, then the editor experience in DXPs will be familiar and likely pretty compelling.

When to avoid the DXP

  • You have a small budget for your digital project — these things aren’t cheap.
  • You don’t need many of the features. If you’re not going to use ~70% or more of the functionality, then consider another approach.
  • Your company really likes to innovate, and when it comes to digital, it moves a little faster than most. For example, if your marketing team likes to change the tooling they use a few times a year, then being “all in” with one DXP isn’t going to be an option.
  • You need to get to market fast, or you’re just looking to prototype an idea. This isn’t your tool.

DXP examples

Here are a few platforms on the market today (all links open in separate windows):

Looking to find out more about DXPs? Check out this category over at g2.com.

In Part 2, we’ll look into headless CMS and an approach that intentionally uses multiple platforms to manage the digital experience.