Think about where web experience started. Web Experience Management (WEM) picked up where traditional, brochure-ware, static web content management ended. It provided a way to create more personalized, dynamic experiences as more consumers started using the web to find information and buy products. Web experience platforms were built using very tightly coupled architectures that controlled content and the front-end web experience, or "presentation layer." 

More simply put, the WEM platform became the website. 

Fast forward to today. We live in a very different digital world. Customer and web experience is multi-channel with mobile, web and other targets, and multi-site or multi-service, encompassing many different applications including marketing, commerce, customer service, support, training and community. 

Complex services, such as banking, insurance, travel and healthcare, are increasingly transacted online. Businesses need the ability to mix backend systems with the modern digital experience. In many cases, transactional or complex websites do not fit in the WEM box. They require a more agile approach. 

Perfect World vs. Real World IT

Let’s look at this from a pure IT angle.

In a perfect world, you would build your IT environment from the ground up with systems designed to work together. This is the implicit promise of most big web experience platforms. This vision assumes that the WEM platform is the center of the IT universe. Everything is managed on a common framework, and the  WEM software powers the entire customer experience. 

This is a great approach – until you hit the reality of an enterprise IT environment. What happens when you need to integrate a legacy application or change the data model or extend the experience with additional solutions? 

Enterprises don’t live in a perfect IT world. They live in an imperfect world with a myriad of customer applications and services. Maybe you are an insurance company that delivers quotes online; an airline booking tickets, managing loyalty, promotions and reservations; a retailer with an existing ERP, catalogue, CRM and payment system; a transit authority managing schedules, routes, and notifications; or a hospital delivering e-health and secure applications. 

Basically, if you are any kind of company doing real business on the web, chances are it’s complex and cannot be delivered using a WEM platform alone.

There is a huge gap between the need to deliver a consistent-cross channel experience and the IT reality. Management expects a unified customer experience from marketing and commerce, all the way through to customer care and support. And this consistent experience is expected offline as well as online. The applications that power these businesses are not positioned to support this vision without enormous investment and risk. 

The web experience answer to this challenge has been twofold:  A business can either rebuild or retool its entire set of customer experience services to work with the WEM platform, or it can partition WEM-managed content from external application pages. Neither of these approaches is very satisfactory. 

It doesn't have to be that way. 

Enter Content as a Service

A new breed of modern web experience platforms is built using an agile approach that delivers content as a service. In an agile CMS, the web presentation layer can easily support web applications and CMS content without complex integration. You can manage any and all content for your website and business systems in your CMS and deliver it on demand to whatever front-end interface requests it, whether it’s to a website built on top of the web experience platform or a completely separate web application. 

No changes are required to legacy applications or data, specific server technology is not needed, and your web experience platform does not dictate what your “stack” looks like. Even better, your customer-facing web applications can consume managed content to deliver a consistent customer experience and content governance process. 

A content services platform has a very different architecture and approach compared to first-generation WEM platforms. When considering an agile or content-services approach, look for the following capabilities. 

Decoupled Architecture

A decoupled architecture is one which separates the application for managing content from the application that delivers it. This provides for much more flexible content delivery, because the CMS is not dictating the stack or set of technologies required to deliver the content and website. Because content is not delivered from a database in the "run-time" environment, it is much more scalable. In most decoupled CMS applications, content can be delivered anywhere, in any format – which is critical in a content services deployment.

Agile Deployment Model 

An agile deployment model provides flexibility in how content is published or delivered. Generally, CMS applications use either a static or a dynamic deployment model — a.k.a. “baked” or “fried” models. Those paradigms are no longer valid. There are many gradations for how content is deployed. 

An agile CMS solution offers multiple deployment options to fit how the organization needs to deliver its content now or in the future. These include: dynamic delivery using a server technology like ASP.NET or Java; multi-format delivery using mixed or different server technologies; Web services delivery using a REST or SOAP-based API; device-targeted delivery using a mobile detection system; push-based delivery such as XML, JSON or into an external database so it can be consumed by a remote application; and plain old HTML delivery for static Web content.  

External Preview

Because an agile CMS does not always manage all of the presentation layer of the website, it's important that the website preview in the CMS work remotely so it can render external application code as well as content managed in the CMS. Remote or external preview empowers marketing users to make in-context edits and view layouts on pages that are not entirely managed by the CMS. An agile CMS provides a web services-based preview system that can emulate applications and content in the design-time CMS environment.

Structured Content

Agile content services require smarter content. Content needs to be structured so it can intelligently be deployed and reused within the context of the customer experience or device. This means that content is: 1. separated from its presentation and 2. more importantly, is semantically defined so it can adapt to multiple outputs and formats. Structured content includes XML, JSON and other formats that provide a rich content definition. 

NoSQL Database 

Modern web content does not fit a traditional relational database model. The approach the CMS industry traditionally used stored content as “blobs” in a database.

An agile deployment requires a flexible content or data model with a richer content structure. NoSQL databases support agile content management and deployment because they are schema free, meaning that content can have any structure and that structure can change over time. Content is stored as documents or JSON objects that have richer metadata and use search-based indexing that allows content to be easily queried and retrieved based on the metadata. 

Your Choices

Although we would all like to live in a perfect IT world, reality rarely complies. When considering a major web or customer experience project, it’s critical to understand the impact of a new web experience platform. Many web experience platforms are fixed boxes that require applications and content to live together. A service-oriented WEM platform provides the ability to mix content management with line-of-business applications and existing customer data.

If you plan on replacing your entire set of Web applications and customer-facing services, then considering a tightly coupled platform approach may make sense. If you have sizable investments in your Web applications and customer systems, then looking at a more agile, service-oriented experience platform may be a better option. 

If you want to be prepared for anything — and the speed with which things are constantly evolving shows no sign of slowing down — then an agile, service-oriented web experience platform and content delivered as a service is the only option you should consider.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Evan Brant