There’s nothing quite so surprising in life as the about-face. You know how it is: someone or something spends years building up a certain set of expectations, and then -- seemingly out of the blue -- pivots almost completely away from those expectations to behave in a totally different manner. It’s the Beatles releasing Sergeant Pepper, Vince Vaughn playing a role other than “Vince Vaughn” or the English national team lining up in something other than a 4-4-2 (yes, that’s my timely World Cup reference for this column).
When it comes to a Customer Experience and digital marketing platform for internet sites, that’s exactly what Microsoft has done over the course of the last year.
Many companies are still catching up to this news, and the idea that you can build great public-facing internet sites leveraging .NET and a SQL back-end without trying to squeeze them into the SharePoint framework (admittedly never an easy task).
Reporting From a Front Row Seat
I’m going to admit this up front: I'm one of the leaders for an extremely strong Microsoft consulting organization. Last year, the software giant selected us as their Partner of the Year for the entire United States. Credentials like those get noticed -- so you can imagine the surprise when we meet with clients to talk about their internet site project, about Customer Experience, and we tell them not to use SharePoint.
And what’s more, that the best tool in the Microsoft stack for those workloads isn’t a Microsoft product.
That’s right: partner products are Microsoft’s best direction here, and for good reason. Microsoft’s been saying as much since last summer’s World Partner Conference but in many cases that message hasn’t landed with all of their customers yet.
There’s an interesting story to be told there about both about the platform itself and how the space has evolved. It has a direct impact on why we’re seeing so many companies invested in the Microsoft platform migrating to Sitecore for their internet sites.
The Foundation of Any Good Internet Site Is …
There’s only a two-to-three year lifecycle for most major companies’ internet sites. Within that timeframe you typically see at least one major visual redesign, and quite possibly a migration to another CMS. All that redesigning and migrating can really take a toll on the technical team charged with supporting the sites. For that reason, it’s typically very important to IT that some common baseline be established from a development, maintenance and infrastructure perspective.
Not coincidentally, many companies have a major investment in the .NET framework and an IIS / SQL Server infrastructure. It doesn’t make much sense for a firm with Microsoft skills to look at Java-based solutions for their next website upgrade, so admittedly powerful tools like Adobe’s are a hard sell for them. What they need is a platform that can match Adobe feature-for-feature while allowing their technical teams some level of familiarity with the code base and infrastructure. In other words, they need a Microsoft solution.
What Was that About SharePoint for Internet Sites?
Up until early 2013, Microsoft’s answer for that was SharePoint. Between the web content publishing framework developed for that tool -- which is used successfully for many corporate intranets -- and the ability to build predictive, search-based applications with the former FAST Search server, it wasn’t a bad one. There was even a separate SKU for internet-facing SharePoint sites called “SharePoint For Internet Sites.”
Unfortunately, the high cost of that “site license” SKU combined with the lack of any specific customer experience features effectively wrote the death sentence of SharePoint for any meaningful digital marketing usage. SharePoint’s heritage as an all-in-one, Swiss Army knife for internal applications and collaboration meant it didn’t ship updates very often. The technology for CXM was there, but you had to build your own solution. Coupled with that aforementioned pricy licensing, that proved a tough sell.
In the digital marketing and customer experience arena, that put SharePoint at the mercy of smaller, more agile solutions that weren’t encumbered with things like document collaboration, records retention policies, business process management or enterprise social networks (to name just a few).
At the same time, some of those smaller, more agile solutions were really starting to exploit this weakness in the SharePoint offering. Companies like Sitecore and Ektron, Microsoft partners all, increasingly found themselves in “coopetition” scenarios where they’d be bidding against (and beating) SharePoint-driven solutions for corporate internet sites.
This wasn’t good for anyone. And when Microsoft made the decision to invest in other workloads for the next version of SharePoint -- cloud friendly workloads that could translate far better to the Office 365 space than complex public internet sites -- the table was set. The group charged with evangelizing and selling digital marketing and customer experience (in Redmondese -- DPMG or Digital Platform Marketing Group) was disbanded and the partners were invited in to dinner.
The Microsoft / Sitecore Partnership: Strong and Growing Stronger
There are other platforms that can deliver in this space, both from open-source communities and product companies like Ektron. Of course, Microsoft didn’t award them with their 2014 Partner of the Year designation across all independent software vendors. Sitecore won that, which means that this Customer Experience / Digital Marketing / Web Content product beat out, among others, not just their own direct competitors but all of those partner vendors in the SharePoint ecosystem, major software alliances, app vendors in the Windows Store and game development companies who work with the Xbox.
That sort of performance against hefty competition says a lot about Sitecore -- but it also says something about Microsoft. Historically, how Microsoft hands out its Partner Awards can tell you a lot about what Microsoft’s goals were for that fiscal year, and who helped them get there.
In 2011, the top US partner award went to a social business platform helping drive the internal adoption of SharePoint in major enterprise customers around the world -- at a time when SharePoint went from user-friendly collaboration tool to business productivity juggernaut. In 2012, that same distinction was awarded to hardware partner that was instrumental in the development and delivery of the Surface tablet -- Microsoft’s opening salvo in the “Devices and Services” pivot. In 2013, it was a systems integrator that helped migrate more users to the Office 365 cloud than anyone else in the country. And in 2014, the top ISV partner award goes to a company that’s leading the way with Customer Experience.
And Whither Next? Who Can Say …
Just because Microsoft hasn't invested in CXM directly doesn’t mean it doesn’t see the value. We can hear that loud and clear from the partner awards. Microsoft still provides support for one of the two major programming frameworks, very popular development tools, and a hugely successful database server that are common in companies large and small around the globe. Many of those companies want to build and maintain their public websites through the use of those tools, and they want to use those sites to better interact with and cultivate their customers. The answer for that today is provided by a partner.
The funny thing about today is that many companies spent so long listening to Microsoft sell SharePoint For Internet Sites that they have a hard time accepting that partners are taking the lead in this workload. They still want to use SharePoint for their internet sites, and for some use cases, it still works. But what SharePoint can’t do well is Customer Experience and digital marketing, and for Microsoft-oriented shops that message needs to land loud and clear. For now.
Tomorrow? Microsoft may well be getting back into this game. Not with SharePoint, certainly. It's already acquired some social listening services and are starting to make some noise in that direction, though. It certainly has set a precedent for acquiring companies that help fill out their offering, from Groove to Skype through to Yammer. Maybe it'll buy a CXM platform next. Nobody really can say. But until it does, it's made its answer to the CXM question pretty clear -- and a lot of happy Sitecore customers have nothing to quibble about.