testing VR headset at home
PHOTO: JESHOOTS | unsplash

The ongoing pandemic has created a unique time of opportunity to fix many problems in customer experience platforms, but the broken promise of digital experience management lingers. Content and commerce vendors around the world have leveraged the "digital experience management" phrase for years to differentiate their products and services. But this year, and in the approaching post-pandemic era, it seems to be ringing hollower than usual, as seen in mixed reviews for vendors after a year like no other.

That’s because digital experience management has always been a misnomer. No content or commerce platform can possibly lay claim to being the optimal end-all, be-all solution for increasingly demanding marketing teams, content teams, and the most fickle of them all, engineering teams. It’s an impossibility. There's no way to be the best-of-breed fabricator for websites, mobile applications, chatbots, voice interfaces and extended reality (XR) experiences. The utopian digital experience fabricator is a myth, and a dangerous one at that.

As voice interfaces and immersive experiences become commonplace as conduits for content and commerce, it’s time the phrase digital experience management goes into the dustbin of history and yields the way to digital experience orchestration, which lets both tech teams and brand teams have their cake and eat it too. This means giving developers full freedom, yes, but also granting editors and marketers the tools they need to create, preview and drive digital experiences on and off the web. In short, it means refocusing on what marketing organizations everywhere still need.

Proudly Rendered Elsewhere Is the De Facto Approach

The website was never going to be the only destination for our content. Organizations have leapt headlong into the headless CMS realm in recent years, heeding calls by developers for greater flexibility. There was just one problem: it meant fraying the all-important social contracts that were implicitly signed by the teams on either end of the office: the editors, marketers and brand strategists who need just as much control over other digital experiences as they do over their websites.

Moreover, we’ve seen an unprecedented level of diversification when it comes to developer experiences, as new tools run roughshod over the approaches that held sway a mere year earlier. Today, the very foundations of JavaScript development are seeing vertiginous innovation. Look beyond the web to environments like voice interfaces and extended reality, where content teams are just beginning to dip their toes, and you’d be forgiven for losing hope given the unmanageability of these ostensibly “manageable” digital experiences.

Despite the breathless marketing, content and commerce platforms have not solved the core problem that marketing teams still grapple with on a day-to-day basis. It still isn’t straightforward for content teams to set up, on their own without any technical support, a multichannel set of experiences in web, mobile, voice, chatbot and XR — with approval workflows and preview capabilities — with minimal overhead. Take these questions, for example:

  • For voice content, how can content teams consistently set up and preview their content without leaning on the desks of developers who might have much bigger fish to fry, when they need to preview that copy in Oracle Digital Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Google Home?
  • For immersive XR experiences, how can marketers and brand strategists instantiate and introspect their virtual reality pop-up store in their browsers given very few organizations have an Oculus or HoloLens sitting at the ready?
  • For digital signage and IoT builds, are teams really required to hang multiple digital signs in their offices to inspect content before it goes live, completely out of the context of where they edit that content?

Ultimately, the vendor promises around digital experience management — a trend that has continued even into the realms of headless content and commerce as well as distributed content and commerce — rest on quicksand. In the end, teams everywhere seek a more future-proof and authentic ideal of what our content and commerce platforms are meant to do in the first place.

Related Article: Rethink Your Content Strategy for a Headless CMS

Orchestrating, Not Managing Digital Experiences

In other words, you’re looking for digital experience orchestration, not digital experience micromanagement. Hence the term digital experience orchestration. When I speak to the teams I work with, including clients in India, Japan and the United States, some common remarks pop up:

  • “We don’t write code and a lot of this is too complicated for our editors, who just want to insert content, click save and visit an in-context preview.” How does this in-context preview happen when JavaScript applications and content-dispensing voice assistants are now on entirely separate infrastructures and proudly rendered elsewhere?
  • “How can we move our content in between draft, approval and published states without tapping on our developer’s shoulders to ask them to rebuild a Jamstack site every time?” For content teams, it still isn’t a self-guided process to see their draft content across distinct versions of a Gatsby site or augmented reality experience. And even the most carefully laid integrations break often.
  • “Above all, how can we avoid interrupting our editorial workflows by embedding preview into our platform?” One of the most common complaints I hear from customers is the disconnect between content and its presentation, because the preview function has been decoupled entirely from their workflows. Instead, they see a “Preview” button to nowhere and a bare, unadorned URL that makes them go, “Huh? Is this a phishing URL?” (This is not a joke.)

Organizations clearly need a different approach that brings editorial workflows back to where our content teams are most comfortable: their own tools. What organizations need is not the in-place editing or rich-text formatting that many practitioners are used to in products. Nor do they want a high-friction hodgepodge of disjointed integrations or an inflexible, rigid, paint-by-numbers builder. Rather, organizations need to empower discrete digital experiences by consuming and working with data through a rich network of processes, workflows and triggers without giving up any of the power that makes teams successful.

Take the analogous revolution that happened in the orchestration of infrastructure in application development. Today, a vast range of continuous integration (CI) and continuous deployment (CD) platforms now allow developers to stay productive while their applications, built in arbitrary technologies like Gatsby, live in environments where they can inspect changes and check things look good before they go live—upon each and every new addition of code they make to their work-in-progress.

Cross-functional teams need content and commerce platforms, in other words, to offer what CI/CD pipelines provide for developers upon each code change. They need CMSs and commerce platforms to be the equivalent pipelines for contributors upon each content or product change — truly distributed content and commerce. Truly continuous production, in the editorial sense, not the development environment sense.

By acting as mutually beneficial switchboards that each guide the implementation of a digital experience to the finish line, sometimes in the hands of developers tweaking features, adding components and adjusting styles — and sometimes in the hands of editorial teams inspecting headlines, checking wrapping and verifying compliance — our CI/CD platforms and content and commerce systems can play to each persona’s unique strengths. The outcome is a seamless architecture with the right choreography for the right content and the right code at just the right time.

Related Article: Why We Need a New Grand Compromise in Content Management Systems 

How Experience Orchestration Solves More Than Just Headless Preview

It might seem like content and commerce systems are giving up territory, but in fact, severing the final tethers between presentation layers and the systems that manage their data is a freeing, not limiting, event.

The more content and commerce platforms distance themselves from the minutiae and nitty-gritty of how applications are rendered, the more unencumbered both developer and editorial teams can be. Rather than micromanaging the rendering of individual digital experiences, platforms can instead allow architects to take on the heavy lifting of furnishing an available web preview, with their role merely as the enablers of those previews.

But this begs the question: Who gets to set up these digital experiences in the first place? Who gets to decide how they’re deployed? Who gets to decide how to preview them? It can’t only be the technical teams, who already have too much on their plate. Content teams need to be able to make content go live. It’s their job, after all.

The answer, I believe, is that everyone should be able to create, deploy and preview digital experiences, not just those with a technical background. Teams have been working to solve this problem for years now by developing channel-differentiated publishing workflows, developer-friendly APIs like GraphQL, and experience orchestration features. All of these will allow editors and developers to take a headless presentation layer — regardless of the framework or technology it’s in — past the finish line without disenfranchising any of the deeply involved personas along the way.

This approach means giving editors the ability to preview their content in any digital experience whatsoever, whether it’s a web or mobile application, a React Native or VR experience, or even a digital sign. It means returning to marketers the full ability to spin up digital experiences by selecting from a list of readymade templates and to decide how those digital experiences react to changes in content.

It means granting brand strategists and compliance officers a cohesive, cross-channel perspective into the digital experiences they need to scrutinize without jumping between disconnected and brittle integrations that only work some of the time, not when they’re needed most. In short, it means restoring to marketing organizations everywhere the power they have lost. I’d love to hear about what you hope to regain.

The new grand compromise for content and commerce management is here, and it’s not about digital experience management. It’s about digital experience orchestration.