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With hundreds of Experience Management options on the market, it pays to ask thoughtful questions before embarking on selection. PHOTO: Karolina Grabowska

Digital old-timers refer to them as Content Management Platforms. But because 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.

Many EM Options

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 with an early generation of a CMS or possibly even still without a publishing system, now is the time to consider the benefits of moving to a modern EM platform.

The good news is that there are an embarrassment 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 its worth taking some time to make a quality choice.

5 Tips to Successful Selection

1. Know Your Digital Destiny

If IT is driving the selection because its time to replace deprecated technology, that's fine. However IT 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 develop a digital strategy to define how digital will drive your business over the next few years — before embarking on a selection. Three years is a good target: less than that tends to be very tactical, and too much longer is unrealistic to plan for in the rapidly changing digital landscape.

While its important that your strategy consider your current and future offerings, customer segments, competitors and digital trends, 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, 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 for diverse capabilities ranging from ad serving to social features to personalization, A/B testing and gamification.

Some vendors have tried to differentiate themselves by acquiring a range of 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, multivariate testing, etc.— and prefer products that check more of the boxes.

While this may sound sensible, in fact it's misguided.

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 A/B testing tool with its product. However it might not be the best A/B testing tool for you and its no great effort to integrate any one of a dozen good A/B 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 different companies sold them.

Bottom line, its fine to buy bundled offerings if they make sense but creating your Experience Management Platform is less about picking one brand than assembling a 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 using 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 a headless configuration, the CMS/Experience Management platform is still used by content authors to create and edit content, route workflow approves and such. However a separate handcrafted 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

You can find excellent commercial Experience Management platforms. However there are also fantastic options in the open source space. In the most recent Gartner and Forrester rankings of Experience Platforms, the top three 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, commercial platforms can come with high six or low seven figure price tags for multi-year contracts.

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 a 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 onus is on you.

Or you can work with an agency or integrator that has expertise with the particular open source platform who can help you properly evaluate it. Even if you wind up paying that agency a fee for its service it may be worth it if it allows you to avoid the software licensing fees of commercial options.

5. Seek to Unify Across Business Units and Touchpoints

Whatever your digital strategy may be, the expectation of customers 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 re-platform 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 re-platform 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" re-platform is a step towards that future unified experience, whenever it might be completed.