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What is a Digital Experience Platform (DXP)?

CMOs want it. CTOs think it’s the best thing since the cloud. But CIOs are worried about security. Will DXPs actually become a thing, or will they be a fad that disappears altogether?

At Acquia, we believe in DXPs — we even define ourselves as the open digital experience company. We bet that you’re going to hear — and use — the term “digital experience platform” (DXP) frequently in the next two to three years.

Let’s begin with the basics, so you can decide if a DXP is right for your company and how to get started with one.

What is a DXP?

Ask 100 people what a digital experience platform is and you’ll likely get 100 different takes. Even industry analysts like Forrester and Gartner define a DXP slightly differently (I just reflected on Forrester’s Q3 2019 version last week). 

Here’s how Gartner defines it: an integrated set of core technologies that support the composition, management, delivery and optimization of contextualized digital experiences. DXPs place a high degree of emphasis on interoperability and cross-channel continuity across the entire customer journey. The purpose of a DXP is to be the central technological foundation for the digital customer experience aspect of digital business.

Forrester has a similar but simpler definition: Software to manage, deliver, and optimize digital experiences consistently across every phase of the customer life cycle.

We’d like to simplify further: a DXP is a collection of products that all work together to help organizations deliver an exceptional digital experience to their customers. 

Some of those products are complex and some are simple. Some impact what a customer sees when visiting a web page, and some work behind the scenes to collect, store, distribute and analyze data. Not every organization needs every DXP component, so the most useful pieces vary, but the major components include:

  • Web content management
  • Commerce applications
  • Website personalization
  • Campaign management tools
  • CRM
  • Customer data platforms
  • Analytics + machine learning
  • Digital asset management

CMS vs. DXP

Content Management Systems (CMS) have grown in sophistication, but a CMS is not a digital experience platform. The real secret to grasping the difference between a CMS and a DXP is distilling the focus of each platform.

To do so, we can compare the acronyms:

  1. CMS - Content Management System
  2. DXP - Digital Experience Platform

One focuses on the content creation life cycle; the other one focuses on the entire user experience. Which do you think will naturally create a unique, beautiful and engaging site?

When you look for a CMS, you focus on needs like the ease of editorial experience, multilingual support and Google Analytics integration. These are all important considerations for a DXP, but these are more about operational efficiency than revenue growth.

Let’s be clear that content management is the foundation of every great digital experience, but delivering content to the right person at the right time requires an additional set of capabilities.

To execute an effective digital strategy, you must expand your scope and look at all of the points of customer engagement to identify where those touchpoints work and where they don’t. You need to think about what it is like for a customer to get the information they need to make a purchase, as well as what the experience is like for that customer the day they make a purchase, six months after they sign a contract or a year after they stop using your product. 

When you stop talking about editing content and start talking about the user experience, it becomes very clear where the opportunities for digital investment lie. And they are often beyond pure content management.

Open vs. Closed DXPs

There are two main approaches to DXPs

  1. Open DXP: A foundational platform that serves as the connective tissue of digital experiences by integrating multiple products from multiple vendors together so they can work as one.

  2. Closed DXP: A one-stop-shop that has all major DXP components developed and maintained by a single provider with limited integrations with other applications 

We’ll expand more on open vs. closed DXP in another article but here’s the most important takeaway: Organizations who already own multiple DXP products will benefit more from an open DXP.

As an example, let’s say today you find yourself needing to re-platform your web content management system as your current solution is not scaling to your needs and has become a hindrance to your marketing teams ability to execute digital campaigns. Let’s also say that you have a strong solution working for analytics and data management that serves as an effective reporting engine for monitoring the effectiveness of your digital engagement efforts.

If you find yourself in this kind of situation you might be tempted to just look for a new CMS because other parts of your experience stack are effective and you don’t want to change them. You would be right to avoid a closed DXP because it would require you to abandon the parts of your platform that are working well today. But if you take the tactical route and look at a web CMS and not a DXP, you will miss the strategic wins possible by looking at the larger picture. An open DXP lets you achieve this: keep the project strategic while maintaining the part of your experience toolset that working for your organization.

Three Use Cases for DXP

 Here are the three common use cases we see for digital experience platforms. 

1: When you need a comprehensive platform for a comprehensive strategy

Not every digital strategy needs to be underpinned by a digital experience platform, but there are some indicators that can show you when they should be. Every marketer today wants to map out, align and optimize the entire customer journey, but also realizes that this goal is a long-term process that will take more than a few quarters to achieve. If that is the goal, you need to look at a DXP today to have the platform you need tomorrow to achieve this vision. 

If you are focused on omnichannel needs, even if they are not completely comprehensive across all your channels, you should look at DXP. If you are working on a strategy that includes close collaboration among email campaigns, continuous website page optimization testing, and content optimization for lead generation, then you should look at a DXP to ensure that you have a platform that includes the analytics tracking, editorial, A/B testing capabilities you need to execute that vision. 

2: When you want to build more personalized user experiences across channels

A digital customer journey is only part of the complete experience a customer has with your brand, whether it’s looking for a job, making a purchase or filling out a contact us form. The basic digital marketing toolkit will only get you so far in terms of converting interest into action. You can optimize the flows, implement an effective content strategy and improve the design UI and UX of the site, but eventually to move the needle further, you will have to move to a more sophisticated toolset, and personalization is the best, first option.

If you are looking to invest the budget, time and expertise in building an effective personalization prospect journey strategy, you must think beyond the browser, and consider not just the content on your primary website, but the email newsletter, targeted ads, social, video and even offline engagement like physical mailers. (Hey, scrunchies are back, so why not direct mail?)

To execute this strategy, you are going to have to think about a digital experience platform, not just a website CMS, to shift your team’s marketing paradigm to a broader scope.

3: When you need strong campaign management

Think ahead to when you’re planning your company’s next website platform. If you are creating a strategy that will include digital marketing campaigns (and who doesn’t, nowadays?), you should strongly consider a DXP over a CMS. 

One of the major and most common pitfalls that cause digital marketing campaigns to fail is the friction between running a campaign and getting the experience you need from your website quickly enough to support that campaign. If you don’t have a solid framework for the two to interact, you will have a harder time executing campaigns.

Executing an impactful campaign strategy requires three things:

  • Clear, crisp, customized reports that are laser-focused on your two to five KPIs
  • Agile marketing, where your marketing team is able to push changes to your websites quickly and without involving development so that campaigns can be supported
  • A data-driven mentality in everything you do, because in the end, you get what you measure

So the important question is: Is a DXP necessary for impactful campaigns? Maybe not necessary, but it absolutely is helpful and encourages a higher percentage of successful campaigns. With a DXP, you can easily feed data from multiple sources into a single platform for analyzing data quickly. And the faster you can analyze, understand and plan, the faster you can act.

Future-ready starts now

At the beginning of this article, we’re calling it out that the term DXP will become a lot more common in digital discussions. What this really means is that teams are going to be pushed to think strategically about their entire customer journey and how the underlying platform serves them as a business to reach their goals.

This strategic-focus will take time to develop and grow but there’s an optimal place to start to get a leg up on your competition. For any organization to be successful with their DXP decision, they must first ask which platform approach best aligns with their current and future needs and their institutional goals. We’ll follow up next week on why Open vs. Closed DXP is the most important consideration that should drive that question.

Tom Wentworth

Former SVP Product Marketing Acquia