At the heart of creating a unified conversation across all digital channels are three core technology areas: web content management, e-commerce and mobile platforms. Each of these areas has its own nuances, but it’s the aggregate -- the integration of all three -- that will determine a brand’s ability to prosper in the age of the customer.

CMOs and CTOs are being asked to work together like never before to solve the technology integration riddle in order to achieve high levels of engagement, personalization and loyalty.

Paolo Yuvienco, Global CTO of DigitasLBi puts it this way:

Today’s customers demand an always-on, unified experience with the brands they identify with. Whether they’re looking at a web property on their mobile, tablet or desktop, it needs to feel like part of the same conversation. On the technology backend, that’s difficult to do and we need to lean on deep infrastructure expertise to make it happen.”

The Omnichannel Imperative

According to research firm Gleanster, 62 percent of brand marketers cite changing customer preferences and channel proliferation as their current top challenges. And just 4 percent of companies in a recent IBM study (pdf) rated the multichannel customer experience associated with their own brand as "excellent."

But why is cross channel engagement and consistency so difficult?

One set of answers is cultural and one set of answers is driven by technology.

On the cultural front, it’s only with the advent of the digital marketing era that marketing and IT have had to work so closely together. As the infrastructure is chosen, built out and integrated, there needs to be constant collaboration among very different stakeholders -- the CMO, the CTO and the CIO.

The CMO brings a vision that revolves around growth and customer engagement while the CTO is driven by technology design, architecture and infrastructure. The CIO is often brought in during large re-platforming projects to ensure security, integration and IT governance. Even if the brand uses a third-party infrastructure provider, it’s the CIO who is usually responsible for uptime and compliance. This cross-functional collaboration is a fairly recent development and the vastly different backgrounds of these executives can sometimes impede progress.

On the technology front, there are numerous reasons why integrating infrastructure to generate a seamless, omnichannel experience is difficult. Some of them include:

  • Digital customer expectations: Today’s consumers demand seamless navigation, fast load times, highly customized content and 100 percent availability.
  • A shortage of the right technical expertise: Some brands may have large teams of traditional IT specialists (those resources we most associate with “keeping the lights on” rather than digital innovation) but few engineers and architects with the right skillset. These brands may find it difficult to find internal talent to solve cross-system problems of integration and think through a long-term digital infrastructure strategy.
  • Resource constraints to manage new infrastructure: Even if the brand has the right talent in place to solve complex problems around infrastructure, it may not have enough of it. According to a recent survey, there are two posted IT jobs for every qualified candidate.
  • Complexity: There is no single, integrated infrastructure solution that will bring all the supporting systems together. This means that brands have to spend a lot of time evaluating their digital strategy, assessing the marketplace for contributing solutions and working out whether they can integrate and host their solutions in-house or whether they need to partner externally. The technology landscape around core engagement systems -- content management, e-commerce, mobile platforms -- is constantly changing, making it difficult for brands to stay on the cutting edge.
  • Legacy infrastructure impedes advancement: A brand’s road to innovation might be impeded by disparate applications and platforms running out-of-date technologies. Some global companies have opted to build new future-ready, cloud-aware applications rather than trying to overhaul their older “legacy” applications.
  • Performance drain: The very qualities that make content engaging (high degree of personalization, rich/multi-media, increased localization) also make it a drain on the infrastructure that underlies it. Content Delivery Networks, the ability to burst into the cloud for peak traffic, and the PCI compliance that can only be found on dedicated servers are all challenges to sustaining consistent performance while keeping budgets in check.

Partnering to Succeed: Agencies and Systems Integrators

According to a recent report from Accenture called "Turbulence for the CMO," agencies and alliance partners "must help CMOs make sense of complexity in the marketplace by improving their levels of execution and delivery and by providing a broader set of capabilities and deeper integration across the agency ecosystem." 

Given the tremendous challenges they now face, CMOs and CTOs are increasingly relying on forward-looking agencies and systems integrators -- seeking guidance on strategy, infrastructure and application design, and execution. 

But brands are also seeking advanced and adaptive platforms to keep up with the rapidly evolving demands of their customers. That means they need experts at the leading edge of technology and skill development. They need partners that can implement robust and technologically sophisticated systems, while perpetually maintaining, supporting and upgrading them.

CMOs and CTOs are now seeking partners that can handle IT complexity on their behalf. At the center of that complexity is the elusive goal of integration. Today's brands "invest in a fragmented array of technologies to address emerging channels" because "there really aren't any turnkey, end-to-end, multichannel, Customer Experience Management solutions," according to Gleanster. As a result, "integration continues to be a core value driver for top performing organizations."

As Joe Lozito, CTO of Rosetta puts it:

It’s not about a CRM tool or a CMS. They certainly play a role, but so do many other disparate systems. This is an integration challenge. It’s about creating an engine that can process your volumes of data, apply the intelligence gained from customer insights and segmentation and reach your customers across any experience (web, mobile, social, etc.), and then continually optimize those messages by feeding that learning back into the engine. That’s a large ask and it requires a deep infrastructure expertise to create the integration points between your various enterprise platforms to bring it to life.”

What Brands Look for In Infrastructure

Whatever investments are made in the front-end factors of customer experience management, the initiative will inevitably break down or underperform in the absence of reliable infrastructure and responsive support. Brands must have an advanced approach to hosting and optimizing their platform -- ensuring the right resources to deliver the right workloads at the right time.

As Forrester notes, "Some e-business teams are re-architecting their on premises e-commerce solutions to allow them to deploy in the cloud, thus allowing them to: 1. manage peaks and troughs in traffic in a cost-effective manner, and 2. put processing power physically near end customers in international markets."

That idea has encouraged companies to explore managed hosting solution providers that are dynamic, dependable and accountable. Given the fast pace of innovation and the unpredictable nature of market demand, they've realized that high performance is best obtained (or supplemented) through reliance on a focused and proven specialist.

"Growth in user populations, devices and dynamic content are each ramping up — and make your top challenge scaling up your web capacity and performance," according to Forrester (pdf).  

Regardless of the hosting provider being evaluated, brands are looking for guaranteed availability, massive scalability, certified security levels, and expertise that deepens and complements in-house IT skills. Most brands are also looking for flexibility -- they want the capability to use cloud-based and dedicated offerings, side by side, and prefer not to be locked into a single vendor for the indefinite future.

Succeeding in the Experiential Future

Leading brands are building digital experiences that are engaging, memorable and authentic. But to make those experiences seamless, to make the conversation full and vibrant, brands have to navigate difficult technological waters.

How do CMS and e-commerce systems sync up? What infrastructure is required to deliver 100 percent availability and fast load times? How to balance cost control with scalability? How does mobile become a necessary part of the conversation, rather than an ill-designed afterthought?

These questions are all central to the new collaboration between IT and marketing, between the CMO -- who now wields a powerful technology budget -- and the CTO/CIO, who comes to the table with deep knowledge and time-proven methodologies. The brands that can work out this new terrain will thrive in the digital economy. The ones who can’t will get left behind in the analog world.