The digital experience (DX) stack is the backbone of the technologies through which customers interact with the majority of B2C, B2B and B2E businesses today. DX affects the journey of all who interact through it, and the technologies it facilitates range from websites to purchasing, customer service, delivery, work processes — every customer touchpoint is created by some part of the DX stack. This article will focus on the variables and core technologies needed to put together the right DX stack for your business.

CMSWire spoke to Sonja Kotrotsos, head of the Europe, the Middle East and Africa go-to-market for Contentstack. “American Express found that U.S. consumers are willing to spend 17% more if it means they can work with a company that prioritizes the customer experience. Millennials, the largest generation in history, are willing to spend the most — reporting that they’d shell out as much as 21% extra for a great experience. That is to say: Customer experience management is the new enterprise marketing, so customer experience management is the best marketing investment an enterprise can make.” That’s where the DX stack comes into play.

Address Each Stage of the Customer Journey

To begin with, a business needs to understand the customer journey to determine their customer touchpoints — the places where the customer and the business interact. This understanding will provide the business with an empathetic viewpoint of what their customers go through, how they experience the interactions with the business, how it can be improved.

We asked Tony Byrne, founder of Real Story Group, how a business should begin the process of creating their DX stack. Byrne suggested that businesses should, “Start with the customer journey at the glass and build your stack from that, rather than buy a stack and figure out what to do with it.”

A customer journey map can be a useful tool that enables a business to best determine the core needs of their DX stack, along with any secondary requirements for their customer’s touchpoints. It can also provide a closer look at the spots within the customer journey that are problematic and need to be addressed.

Generally, it is accepted that there are several stages in the customer journey, though it is not agreed upon how many stages there are, nor exactly what those stages are. That said, regardless of the terminology used, the stages equate to:

  • The awareness of a need for a product or service or a solution to a problem.
  • Consideration or search for the product, service or solution.
  • Purchase or decision on a specific product, service or solution.
  • Retention or loyalty of a customer to do business with the company again.
  • Post-purchase behavior, such as leaving feedback, reviews, or word of mouth advertising of the product, service or solution.

Each stage of the customer journey is facilitated by the elements that make up the DX stack. Since every business will have different touchpoints within the customer journey, it is important for businesses to know these touchpoints in order to effectively put together and utilize their DX stack, which is the mechanism through which the customer experience occurs.    

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Core Components of the DX Stack

There are several components that make up the core elements of the DX stack, including, but not limited to: content management, personalization, and the ability to deliver the personalized content to any channel (i.e. omnichannel).

The content management element is built around an enterprise content management system (ECM), content management system (CMS) or web content management (WCM), and allows the business to handle the intricacies of digital content management. This is also typically where all the various elements of a website such as web pages, videos, images, etc. are managed. Kotrotsos said that for Contentstack, custom experiences tailored to each customer is what they are focused on, and shared that, “Consumers value an experience where they encounter personalization, consistency, and speed. Across all of those, content is the common denominator. That means that at the heart of the DX stack there must be a cutting-edge CMS that allows businesses to customize experiences on every channel where customers engage with their brand.” She said that businesses should “look for a ‘MACH’ architecture (Microservices, API, Cloud, and Headless) to start.”

Many DX stacks today use AI-based personalization engines that facilitate the analysis of user preferences, feedback, behavior and characteristics. This type of functionality provides a uniquely personalized experience for customers, which is the basis for effective customer engagement. A customer data platform (CDP) is another personalization-enhancing component of the DX stack, and is used to unify customer data and make it available to other systems. This further enables businesses to create a very personalized and enriched customer journey.

CMSWire spoke with Cory Munchbach, COO of BlueConic, a CDP software vendor, and asked how a CDP enables the personalization that enhances the customer experience. “The CDP is hugely important in a brand’s stack, especially for those businesses that are working to put the customer at the center of their marketing programs and data infrastructure.”

Munchbach stated that, “The information retained in the profile spans the entire customer lifecycle and includes browsing behavior, consent preferences, purchases, and everything in between. The ability to combine and persist these disparate types of attributes in the profile and use them together as the basis of segmentation (think lists, audiences, cohorts, etc.) for marketing is actually quite revolutionary: to be able, in just a few clicks, to define a dynamic group of profiles who bought a new pair of shoes in store yesterday after three months of browsing online, and then target them on Instagram the day after purchase to capitalize on peak brand affinity while also excluding them from non-welcome emails for the next 30 days? That’s a huge set of wins that all start from a complete, up-to-date, and system-accessible profile.”

Byrne said that “If your stack vendor acquires a CDP, and that CDP focuses on retailers historically, but your firm is in manufacturing, working with that CDP is going to be very, very painful…for you and your customers.” He advised that businesses should recognize that while “Integration is a key component, so is ‘fit’ of the individual pieces against your use cases.“ Munchbach agreed, and emphasized that “The most successful brands not only carefully plan and prioritize their use cases, but continue to review and adapt those use cases as their business needs change.”

Omnichannel can be seen as an integrated cross-channel content strategy that enables a business to manage multiple channels and customer interactions, with the result of a unified experience for the customer. Generally, this Content-as-a-Service (CaaS) technology uses a RESTful API to manage content delivery across web interfaces and other channels by separating content from presentation. Byrne suggests that it is important to also keep customer data independent from specific channels, and stated that those who are putting together their DX stack should “Make sure you have customer data unified in an accessible place that’s decoupled from all your engagement channels. Same for related issues of analytics and operations. In the future, personalization and decisioning will become an independent layer as well.”

These core elements combined should include the functionality required for Digital Asset Management (DAM), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), ecommerce, analytics, campaigns, marketing, and to be effective, they must be integrated and extensible.

Byrne believes that businesses can simplify the process by unifying some elements, and stated that “With respect to integration, when you can ‘unify’ certain elements — like data, decisioning, core content — at an enterprise level underneath any individual engagement silos, it can dramatically reduce your integration needs because you only have a single place to go to get the authoritative data, content, and decisions you need. It reduces many-to-many integrations.”

DX Platform or Integrated DX Suite?

There are many vendors of enterprise-class digital experience platforms (DXP), and there are valid reasons why a business would go with one of them rather than assembling their own DX suite. The most likely reason a business would choose a DXP over an integrated DX stack is the amount of work and frustration involved when trying to put together a suite of software tools that can easily work together.

There are quite a few vendors now that are touting all-in-one DX solutions, including SAP, Adobe, Salesforce, Sitecore, Liferay, and Progress Sitefinity. The main advantage of using an all-in-one solution is that with only one vendor to deal with, dealing with integration and support is easy. The majority of your DX needs will be covered, and you won’t have to go far to get the help you need should an issue arise. The disadvantages include vendor-lock in, where you are pretty much stuck with the software and tools that are provided by that vendor if you want everything to continue to be integrated — and even that is doubtful. The other potential problem is that although DXPs are touted as the end all be all solutions, they are rarely truly “all-in-one” and there are usually some aspects of your DX stack needs that will still have to be met through the use of additional out-of-vendor software.

Learning Opportunities

Kotrotsos emphasized that when choosing a DXP over a DX suite of software, it comes down to the specific needs of the enterprise, and stated that “Just as you wouldn’t wire up an entire smart home if the end goal was to use an app to turn off the lights, you wouldn’t create a full microservices, API-first, cloud-native and headless (‘MACH’) architecture if all you needed was a pretty website. Creating a DX suite that can be integrated from several technologies is most beneficial for enterprises who have digital ambitions beyond the capability of legacy tools, or already feel slowed down by their current infrastructure. If competitors are rolling out new customer experiences far faster, talent is frustrated (or leaving) because they can’t do their job successfully with outdated tools, and new initiatives are shelved because of the effort needed to rewire the system — it might be the right time to go fully MACH.”

Byrne believes that even with a single vendor solution, businesses may have to struggle to obtain the functionality that is required from their DX stack. He said that “A single vendor still means integration — sometimes harder integration than if you had not gone with a single vendor — because the specific tools may not be best fit for you, so it’s more work for you to customize them to your needs. Consolidation around a single vendor is no magic panacea to the challenge of integration,” he said.

A 2020 Gartner report, Magic Quadrant for Digital Experience Platforms, described the core requirements that each platform had to have in order to be considered a full-fledged Digital Experience Platform (DXP) for their study:

  • Native content management capabilities: textual content, graphics, web content, mobile app content, chatbot content and voice content.
  • Native support for rich, extensible, interoperable production/consumption APIs.
  • Native support for multichannel presentation and experience delivery.
  • Native account service functionality: registration, login and password management/authentication and access control.
  • Customer data management capabilities via a CDP.
  • Customer journey mapping.
  • Personalization, analytics and optimization capabilities.
  • Practical, applied AI.

Aside from the all-in-one approach to DXPs, there are other vendors that provide DXP solutions that contain the “best-of-class” core set of software technologies that are required for your DX stack, with the ability for a business to add additional software that is said to be easily integrated into the DXP.

Kotrotsos reiterated this solution, and stated that “Delivering the best possible customer experience means having a best-of-class everything: CRM, front-end website, content hub. That means the future of the DX stack is by definition modular. That comes with the added bonus that businesses who build their tech stack with modular pieces can always plug out ones that become outdated or don’t serve their purpose, and plug in new, even more cutting-edge ones, at any given time.”

The advantage of this type of DXP is that it can be extensively customized for the specific needs of the business. Marketing being what it is, there is always the question of the efficacy of the included core components, as well as the ability to successfully integrate the additional components that are required to obtain the needed functionality. If there is a problem with integration, a business is left holding the bag, and they are stuck with it.

While Byrne sees the benefits of using core elements of the DX stack from the key vendors, he is not a proponent of using a single vendor. “You may want to ‘anchor’ your stack with key vendors, like Salesforce for CRM and Adobe for Analytics or whatever, but you do not want to consign your stack to a single vendor. This is a cop-out and your customers will suffer,” said Byrne.

The other option is to put together your own custom DX suite of technologies and integrate them together. Although groups such as the Digital Experience Stack (DXS) Alliance are bringing together a wide range of vendors with a common agreement of rapid integration with each other's software, the reality is that it is still not an easy out-of-box process.

Likewise, Adobe, Microsoft and SAP’s Open Data Initiative was created to facilitate a “a comprehensive, real-time view of your customers across all touchpoints” by suggesting the use of a common data format that will enable data from various software tools to be used across the DX stack.

These two attempts to simplify the integration of software in the DX stack are valiant efforts worthy of support, and through their efforts, there has been progress, but it can still be a very time-consuming and frustrating effort fraught to potential bottlenecks and problems. Bryne implores business to focus on their DX requirements rather than supposed pie-in-the-sky alliances, and emphasized that he is “skeptical about [DX alliances] because similar efforts in the past have not worked well. You should select technology according to your particular needs, not because of vendor alliances.”

What About Rolling Your Own DX Stack?

Many businesses have their own team of programmers, so what about the option of creating a custom DX stack in-house with API level interoperability for third party tools? Although some businesses have cobbled together a working DX stack solution, there are many drawbacks to doing so. Byrne emphasized this point, “You don’t want to build in-house when there’s such a wide diversity of digital tools to meet almost any level of complexity and budget. Flush with venture funding, the thousands of vendors in this space are innovating rapidly and slowly building critical customer communities. As an enterprise technology buyer, you almost never want to compete with that by building your own tools.”

Creating a custom DX stack in-house is too challenging and problematic to provide interoperability with third party software at a level that would not require constant intervention from the IT department. Additionally, it would be very difficult to build scalability and extensibility into such a custom DX stack. The problems, risks and expenditure would not be justified based on the benefits.

Final Thoughts

Because the customer experience is riding on the DX stack, the success or failure of a business is at risk when less-than-optimum DX technologies and vendors are used. By selecting a well integrated DX suite or DXP that features best-of-class core components — which, as Kotrotsos reminds us, are built around a MACH architecture — you can ensure a positive, personalized customer experience throughout the customer journey, and a loyal customer base that will be your best marketer.