Most of the time we speak about composable commerce, the audience is technologists and engineering teams. In order to accelerate adoption of a composable architecture, we need to include marketing teams as equal partners in this initiative. Everyone in the organization must understand the reason for the change and the benefits they’ll get from adopting that change. For this reason, I have chosen to write this article for the marketing audience.
Vendors Making the Move to Composable
Gartner recently released some research on the latest industry trends and called out "composable commerce" as the future of the ecommerce enterprise. This was swiftly followed by some of the biggest ecommerce and DXP players such as Salesforce and Sitecore announcing their membership in the cool composable club.
Sitecore announced the move from XP, an all-in-one DXP suite to XM, a headless CMS at the core and an ability to pick and choose capabilities such as personalization from other vendors. Salesforce announced a composable storefront, basically decoupling its core commerce functionality from the presentation layer.
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What Does This Mean for Marketers?
So, as a marketer, what does this all mean to me? Composable commerce is about giving organizations the choice to pick and choose what Gartner describes as "packaged business capabilities" from more than one vendor as opposed to an all-in-one, single vendor, closed solution. The analysts have been following the industry trends for the last few years and have finally decided to give it a name.
Now, in order for organizations to build composable tech stacks, each of the individual business capabilities you buy from a software vendor must lend itself to being pluggable into the overall digital stack. This means that each vendor in the composable ecosystem must play nice with everyone else.
MACH Alliance was formed in 2020 to provide guidance to organizations on how they should go about building their technology stacks in a composable fashion. They have defined the criteria that software vendors should follow to make it possible for organizations to build a future-proof architecture that is built from lego blocks that are easily pluggable, but also displaceable. MACH stands for Microservices, API-First, Cloud-Native, Headless.
Digging Deeper Into MACH Architecture
To everyone other than engineers and architects, each of these terms may mean very little, so I’ll break these terms down first:
- Microservices: A self-contained functional component of the overall system that can be deployed independently and is not coupled with any other component. This allows each component to act as a lego block in the overall architecture, and the goal is for it to be swappable when and where necessary.
- API-First: APIs are a standard way of two systems talking to each other. When dealing with a multi-vendor ecosystem, individual solutions need to talk to each other, and having a standard set of documented APIs allows for this to happen.
- Cloud Native: The vendor solution must be deployed in the cloud, as opposed to on-premise. The importance of this is that cloud provides the benefits of auto-scaling, performance, speed and agility.
- Headless: Head is the touchpoint that delivers the visual (or sensory) experience to the end user. Being headless means that the content and business logic residing in each of the components of your tech stack does not contain any information about how the information is presented on the frontend. In other words, you should not find any html or CSS in your content. This is important because it allows content and business logic to be used across multiple channels instead of you having to duplicate the content and logic for each channel.
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Paradigm Shift to Omnichannel
Most brands are still focused on the web channel, but this is ripe for change. With the pandemic, followed by a recession, brands will compete tooth and nails to get attention from the customer. Many brands crashed during the pandemic if they couldn’t offer their customers to complete a purchase online. In the coming months and years, if you can’t meet the customer where they choose, you will lose their trust and the opportunity to convert them.
Meeting the customer where they are means that you need to move beyond a website. Many traditional Digital Experience Platforms (DXPs) have a very web or page-centric view of the world. If you are looking to move beyond the web, you’ll need to adopt technologies that allow you to build consistent and connected omni-channel experiences. There is no way to accomplish this without a headless mindset, one of the foundational components of a MACH architecture.
The Need to Differentiate
In order to compete, you must offer a differentiated experience. If you choose to build your digital experience with a monolith that comes with a predefined set of templates, there is very little you can do to create a differentiated experience.
Having the ability to build your own visual layers on top of a set of back-end services empowers you to create a unique brand presence. For instance, if you’re a real-estate brand, you may want to create a unique digital experience such as a virtual real-estate advisor who helps the customer find a home that fits their needs. This wouldn’t be possible with a set of templates that came out of the box with a traditional DXP.
The Impending Demise of the Third-Party Cookie
With Google and Apple about to remove the ability for brands to use third party cookies to track them across sites, brands will need to gain control of their relationship with their customer. Not only do you need to be able to create a single view of the customer across their journey, you need to be able to activate this data on all paid and owned channels.
The ability to build first-party relationships with your customer starts with a technology infrastructure that is able to connect the customer journey across all channels, digital properties, brands, regions, etc.
The Need for Speed in Digital Experience
We are all painfully aware of the endless release cycle that comes with all-in-one monolithic suites. The pandemic has proven to us that we need to be able to move quickly to meet the demands of time, and, if we don’t, the customer will find an alternative.
For instance, as a grocery store provider, if you were not able to offer online ordering and curbside pickup, you lost a bunch of regular customers. The pandemic, although temporary, has had a permanent effect on customer behavior. Even though many customers are going back into the store, a lot of them will continue to enjoy shopping from the comfort of their own homes. This means that you must be able to power delightful online experiences quickly and having a cloud-native and headless architecture is essential for that goal.
Related Article: 8 Things to Know About Composable DXP
Attracting and Retaining Millennial and Gen Z Talent
Something that is not often discussed is the need to attract and retain talent. More than half of the US population is now Millennials or younger, which means that your customer is getting younger.
In order to build modern experiences that appease these digital natives, you need their perspective and their talent on your team. To retain this talent, you need to be building a technology ecosystem that is modern and "fun" to work with. Millennials and Gen Zs simply don’t want to work with old/legacy tech. This is a vicious, or virtuous, cycle depending on how you look at it.
Modernizing your digital stack will attract digital natives who in turn will act as the voice of your customer allowing you to create experiences that resonate with your customer base.
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The Need to Avoid Vendor Lock-In
Monolithic vendors have become very comfortable with their power and monopoly in the digital experience space. One of the biggest reasons for this is that once they’re in, it’s hard to replace them because of the closed nature of their architecture combined with the size of the investment you’ve made.
MACH vendors entering this space are providing the much needed healthy competition between vendors pushing the legacy players to "up their game" and drive innovation in the industry. So, if you’re looking to get more out of your existing vendors, you want challengers, not just the incumbent leaders into your technology ecosystem. Let’s keep everyone honest!
This Seems Like a Lot of Work and a Lot of Money
One widespread misconception about MACH architecture is that it requires a huge investment to get started. If you do a rip and replace, this would be the case regardless of the type of technology you are talking about.
Because of this myth, many organizations choose the path of inaction or business as usual. I’d like to challenge that thinking. If you want to change your eating habits, you don’t go from having hamburgers, fries and pop daily to salads, herbal teas and a 45-minute workout everyday. You take small steps to get you to your ultimate goal.
This is what you need to do when modernizing your technology infrastructure —start on a journey and iteratively make small changes towards the goal. It’s not an option to do nothing.
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Making Incremental Changes Toward Modernization
One way of achieving this is the "Strangler Pattern," an idea first conceived by Martin Fowler. You encapsulate a legacy system into a facade that interfaces with modern front-ends and services and work on replacing the back-end. Once the backend is replaced with newer services, you switch the facade to point to the newer services.
This keeps your customer-facing front-ends working seamlessly during the transition and also reduces the disruption caused by having your internal teams having to change their workflows overnight.
So, if your IT team says that modernizing your tech will take too long, be too disruptive, or will be too expensive, go ahead, challenge them and tell them you know about the Strangler Pattern!
Too Many Vendors to Deal With?
The one charm of the all-in-one traditional DXP was that marketing knew exactly what application to log into to create an end-to-end experience, albeit limited to the web channel only.
This is no longer the case within a composable stack. I have multiple channels and multiple point solutions that come together to build a composable, best-of-breed solution. If I want to create content, I need to log into a CMS. If I need to manage my search behavior, I turn to a search platform. If I want product recommendations, I go to a recommendations platform. If I need to manage my checkout experience, I log into my commerce engine.
This plurality of both sources and destinations requires careful orchestration. This is exactly what "experience orchestration" platforms are trying to solve. Some examples include Uniform.dev, Gatsby and Conscia.ai. Many of these are quite early and are trying to figure out exactly what part they play in the overall composable ecosystem, but they are moving in the right direction, and the industry analysts are taking note. The goal of these platforms is to stay headless, composable and still have centralized control for marketing and product teams to create omnichannel experiences.
In order to make composable work, marketing needs a single, intuitive interface to orchestrate experiences from any content and data platform for any channel or touchpoint. They need to be able to preview what the end user experience will look like in a seamless fashion. They need to determine what is working and what is not on every channel, browser, device, target customer segment or any other context relevant to their business. We can no longer have a single hand to shake as far as a vendor is concerned, but we can have a single point of control to manage and orchestrate what experience is delivered to what channel for which customer.
From Digital Experience Platform to Digital Experience Orchestration
Here is the definition of composable DXP as per Forrester:
A platform that provides the architectural foundation and modular services for developers and practitioners to create, orchestrate, and optimize digital journeys at scale — to drive loyalty and new commerce outcomes across owned and third-party channels.
Note the term, "architectural foundation." This means that even in the world of composability, we have a center or foundation. This foundation no longer needs to have all the capabilities in the digital stack such as CMS, Search, PIM, CDP, etc. Its role is to support the connections to all these independent packaged business capabilities and act as the orchestrator, a composer.
Perhaps, Gartner and Forrester will change the category of Digital Experience Platforms (DXP) to Digital Experience Orchestration or "DXO?" Just a thought.