walking past a wall covered with letters
For those of us in the content management world, it can feel at times as though we're wading through alphabet soup PHOTO: John Jennings

CMS, WEM, DXP — the history of content management is a true alphabet soup. This can be quite confusing, and I see that every day when talking to different audiences about the industry: each person understands the role of a digital platform in the tech stack a little differently. 

The evolution of abbreviations, however, runs in parallel with the evolution of the role of content in the digital experience, and it makes perfect sense that content platforms would undergo continual reinventions in response to the market’s ever-changing needs. So how did we get, in both naming and functionality, from content management systems (CMS) to digital experience platforms (DXP)?

CMS Brought Large-Scale Control

Basic web content management (WCM) systems were first up in the game. These were the systems that let enterprises organize written content, images, data and other collateral needed for their online presences. These systems supported clean version control and provided authoring workflows with user management. As integrations with other back-office systems became crucial, open-source CMS applications gained in prominence and have been a mainstay ever since. Even today, many businesses can support smaller, stand-alone websites with a CMS.

Users today still very much need the functionality of classic CMS tools, so the core principle of content management remains at the heart of the web experience management (WEM) and DXP systems that evolved from content management systems.

WEM Took the Experience to Every Channel

As time went by, the customer experience grew — in size, reach and expectations. In fact, customer experience became a real profit driver for companies. Websites were no longer served simply as companies’ digital brochures. The digital experience became an integral part of the customer journey. Content needed to be accessible and consistent on new channels, cross-departmental collaboration became more important, and providing individually relevant content to each customer became a focus. Enter web experience management systems.

WEM systems were the first to bring rule-based personalization to the enterprise experience. They gave companies the ability to collect data about user behavior, define personas, and create and provide unique content to targeted audiences. Having an exceptional user experience meant that you could no longer send the same message to everyone.

Businesses also started playing with new channels, such as mobile apps and internet of things (IoT) devices, and they needed to not only share content between these channels but also share elements like forms, data collectors and logic applications. This was the core difference between CMS and WEM: WEM gave the ability to share entire personalized experiences across channels.

Many of these systems were defined more as marketing suites, putting experience solely in the hands of marketers and relying only on native data collection to drive personalization. WEM systems were built as stand-alone marketing tools and were difficult to connect and integrate with the rest of a company’s technology stack. This was the fire underneath the rise of open and headless WEM systems. Companies saw that the same openness that allowed unique content delivery in classic CMS tools could be utilized to integrate with other experience tools to drive personalization to its peak.

Additionally, open platforms allowed companies to work in a hybrid manner that encouraged cross-departmental ownership of the experience. More and more, digital was becoming a companywide initiative, and having hybrid experience delivery meant that marketing could use a classic user interface to manage the desktop and mobile sites while developers could reuse the same experiment elements in a headless manner when experimenting with new touchpoints.

road to DXP

DXP Is the Connected Core of the Experience

Now the digital experience platform (DXP) is the new kid on the block. As the name implies, digital experience platforms aren’t just for content and they aren’t just for the web. Instead, they are used to share any type of asset, or group of assets, across any digital touchpoint — online, in-store, on billboards, at kiosks, in customer portals, via ecommerce systems and more.

The shift toward DXP is twofold: It is first driven by the natural evolution of technology becoming increasingly agile and able to handle more complex tasks. Second, DXP comes from the push toward a fully connected experience where every interaction a customer has with any touchpoint is fed back to optimize the next interaction. DXPs focus not only on the interactions that lead to acquisition, but also on every touchpoint that helps maintain customer satisfaction, such as service portals and help desks. This optimization is increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning technologies — either built natively into the DXP or through integrations.

This push for a holistic intelligent experience isn’t a hotly debated topic — customers want the relevance that fulfills their needs in the moment, and companies want to give it to them. What is up for debate is the type of DXP that can get them there.

As more and more DXPs are introduced, it seems that they fall into two major camps. The first is the one I would call “the suite of all suites.” That’s the type I see coming from companies that have put all of their products together as one closed, all-encompassing tool to control the whole experience. There are some benefits in this definition of DXP. Having your content and ecommerce platforms built into the same suite means that they have been carefully calibrated to work together. And, of course, the perceived ease of buying a single tool to control the whole experience is appealing.

However, I have yet to meet a company that hasn’t already made technology investments. Most companies have best-of-breed tools that they really enjoy using. This leads to the second camp of DXP: the “integration play.” This approach to DXP is a push toward a microservices- and API-based architecture that encourages connecting the entire tool kit of best-of-breed systems. This type of DXP is the union of intelligent WCM and data capabilities to orchestrate content from the entire technology stack to drive a unified customer experience.

The focus on frictionless connectivity is why I believe the integration play is the most powerful approach to DXP. There is an entire library of enterprise tools out there, and companies should be free to create the perfect recipes of systems that fit their unique needs. In contrast to an all-encompassing suite, an open DXP that is built for integrations lets you choose the best tool for you in every class and weave your tools together across the entire experience to ensure that you’re getting the maximum value out of each one.

An Ever-Evolving Industry

I should be clear that not all CMS vendors have developed DXPs, nor does every one of them need to. The core principles of a basic content management system — version control, authoring workflows and content organization — are still fundamental to creating a digital experience and these features are all that smaller companies need to meet their current digital needs.

WEM platforms also continue to be very powerful tools for many companies — especially those whose digital experiences are largely controlled by marketing. With their ability to share experience elements, WEM platforms can be ideal for companies that focus on keeping touchpoints consistent with unique delivery to targeted personas.

DXP platforms are for those companies that are at an advanced stage in the digital journey and require a fully connected experience. These platforms are best for enterprises that have developers and marketers collaborating on the digital experience, and those that need to integrate backend and and frontend systems in order to meet the needs of their customers.

Choosing a platform can be overwhelming. It requires taking a critical look at where your digital experience is today and, more importantly, determining what level of performance you want five years from now. Ultimately, choosing between a CMS, a WEM system and a DXP involves deciding which type of system will most efficiently support your needs at the right level.