Insights | By Howard Tiersky

5 Hot Tips for Selecting an Experience Management Platform

Digital old-timers refer to them as Content Management Platforms but as they have expanded their capabilities, and marketing budgets, they have been re-monikered Experience Management Platforms. 

EM platforms are the server-side technologies that enable teams to publish content to a web or mobile site, create rules for personalization, integrate outside feeds or capabilities, and measure the results.  There are hundreds of options on the market. Leading players include The Adobe Experience Manager (AEM), Sitecore, Drupal and even WordPress. 

If you are suffering under an early generation of CMS or possibly even still without any publishing system, it’s time to consider the benefits of moving to a modern Experience Management platform.  The good news is that there is an assortment of riches out there to choose from, and rarely will there be only one "right" choice for your company. However, implementing, customizing and migrating your content to a new platform is a substantial undertaking and one you probably won't want to repeat for at least five years, so it’s worth taking some time to make a quality choice.

At FROM we've been through this process with dozens of clients so we have deep knowledge about all the major packages and have seen a lot of pitfalls and best practices along the way as we've watched and participated in so many selection processes.

1.     Know your digital destiny.

 
If IT is driving the selection because it’s time to replace deprecated technology, that's fine, however they may be largely focused on the needs of today. EM platforms need to be selected with equal focus on where you are headed next. If you aren't sure of the answer, then before embarking on a selection, a digital strategy must be developed to define how digital will play a role in driving your business over the next few years. We like to focus on 3 years as a target because less than that tends to be very tactical, and too much more than that is unrealistic to plan for in the rapidly-changing digital landscape. While it’s important that your strategy consider your current and future offerings, customer segments, competitors and digital trends, we have found that it’s possible to drive a high-level strategy in as little as six weeks. If your strategy reveals future needs for a new level of customer personalization, or integration with commerce, or Internet of Things connectivity, these can be important considerations in selecting your Experience Management Platform.
 

2.    Don’t be fooled by "all in one" solutions.

 
Most great experience management implementations integrate many technologies together for diverse capabilities ranging from ad-serving to social features to personalization, AB testing and gamification. Some vendors have tried to differentiate themselves by acquiring a range of different companies with different technologies that integrate with their core product and offering them under a unified brand. One of the key reasons software companies do this is the "checkbox" phenomenon in package selection.  Some buyers define the requirements for their platform and then go look for platforms that "check all the boxes" for what they need - social listening, Multi-variate testing, etc. and prefer products that check more of the boxes. While this may sound sensible, in fact its misguided.
 
The problem with this mindset is that in many cases we find that even when purchasing one of these platforms a given implementation may be better served by integrating various third-party tools rather than those the software company has acquired. Company X may "include" as a separately priced option an AB testing tool with their product, however it might not be the best AB testing tool for you and it’s no great effort to integrate any one of a dozen good AB tools that are available. The irony is that in some cases these "bundled" products are still quite obviously separate software packages that have separate interfaces and effectively act no differently than they did when they were sold by different companies.
 
Bottom line, its fine to buy bundled offerings if they make sense but creating your Experience Management Platform is less about picking one brand but rather about assembling the set of technologies that will serve your needs the best.
 

3.    Consider headless.

 
A major trend at the moment is for enterprises to implement "headless" content or experience management platforms. Classically, CMS platforms allowed authors to create content and then the platform would publish the content out as HTML pages utilizing whatever theme or page templating system had been constructed within the CMS.  This had advantages and drawbacks, the greatest drawback of which is that you are giving up control of the precise HTML that will be received by the browser. In some cases this is fine, but for web sites that have very precise responsive requirements, or have very sophisticated UI, or very picky developers, this can be a frustration.  

In some cases this is fine, but for web sites that have very precise responsive requirements, or have very sophisticated UI, or very picky developers, this can be a frustration.

In a headless configuration, the CMS/Experience Management platform is still used by content authors to create and edit content, route workflow approvals and such. However, a separate hand-crafted set of page templates, built by developers, pull in that raw content via a web service and do the formatting to HTML to send to the browser.  You might be thinking this sounds like a lot more work, and it can be, however building the templates within an Experience Management platform can also be a lot of work and when outside the platform you often have more control and flexibility because you are working with the "raw" code.  There are other benefits to a headless implementation as well such as reducing the cost of software licenses if you are using a commercial product.  In any case this is a topic that warrants its own article due to its depth but being clear about whether you want a traditional "headed" platform, a headless one, or a hybrid is an important decision when selecting a platform, as some excel more in one model than the other, and some work well for both.

4.    Open source has no sales force.

 
We are fans of some of the leading commercial Experience Management platforms and for example recently completed work with the Avis-Budget IT team on a highly successful implementation of the Adobe platform for Avis Rental Cars.  However, there are also fantastic options in the open source space right now. In the most recent Gartner and Forrester rankings of Experience Platforms, the top 3 platforms included at least one open source option.  Open source software, of course, is software created by communities of volunteer developers, usually all around the world, without a profit motive or a corporation behind them, and is generally free to use, in contrast to commercial platforms which can often be high six or low seven figure price tags for multi-year contracts.

In the most recent Gartner and Forrester rankings of Experience Platforms, the top 3 platforms included at least one open source option.

Many of the most popular and widely used technologies in the world are open source including Linux, Apache, Drupal, WordPress and the Android OS for mobile phones. There are pros and cons to using the most popular open source Experience Management platforms like Drupal or WordPress. One of the benefits include thousands of free "plug in" modules that integrate with many third-party technologies and add features to the platforms such as rotators, calendars, personalization, translation, etc.  Another benefit is the fact that the code is freely available and changeable so you are never blocked from enabling a capability because your software platform "doesn’t support it yet."  Additionally, development resources for open source platforms are plentiful and are often far less expensive than resources to do the same work on proprietary commercial platforms. There are also some downsides such as lack of formal support infrastructure and "nobody to sue" if something goes wrong.
 
For the purposes of your selection you may very well want to look at both commercial and open source platforms. The important thing to remember is that they are not competing on a level playing field. Commercial packages that cost six to seven figures generally have very well trained sales teams who will fly out to meet with you, give you a great demo and even build you a free prototype of how your site would look using their software. They will court you and take you to lunch in search of that high dollar value contract. There is nothing wrong with this and hopefully the level of attention and care you get in the sales process reflects something about the level of support you will receive as a customer (though caveat emptor on that).  

But in the case of open source, nobody stands to profit from your decision (except possibly you) and so no fancy salesperson will show up at your door. You can download the software for free and install it and play to your heart's content, but the ownness is on you. OR, you can work with an agency or integrator who has expertise with the particular open source platform who can help you properly evaluate it. Even if you wind up paying that agency a small fee for that service it may well be worth it if it turns out the open source platform is a good choice as you won’t be paying software licensing fees if you select open source.
 

5.    Seek to Unify Across Business Units and Touchpoints

 
Whatever your digital strategy may be, the expectation of customers today is a consistent experience across your brand and touchpoints.   While a common software package is not sufficient to achieve this goal, if all your different divisions use different back-end software, and you use different tools to manage mobile and web content, the goal is made more difficult. If you are considering a replatform for one area, sometimes it can seem more expeditious to just deal with an isolated part of the company rather than trying to "boil the ocean" and deal with the whole enterprise. You have to weigh that balance, however each time you invest in piecemeal solutions you are further calcifying a disjointed experience rather than moving the enterprise towards the kind of digital experience unification that is the hallmark of successful digital brands. It’s not necessarily essential that all parts of an organization replatform at the same time, but if you can get consensus on a platform that everyone will move to eventually then the investment in your "partial" replatform is a step towards that future unified experience, whenever it might be completed.
 
 
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Well that's five tips! We have dozens more but you probably need to get back to work. If we at FROM can be of any assistance in the development of your digital strategy, selection of a platform, implementation or optimization please give us a shout!

 

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