two rainbow colored slinkies
PHOTO: rawpixel

Digital experience (DX) technologies are rapidly becoming more sophisticated — even by the standards of today’s fast-paced software development environment.

Major DX platform providers continue to invest heavily in developing new features and solutions that increase companies’ data-fueled knowledge of their customers and help companies facilitate customer experiences to more strategically and effectively spur those customers into action. However, organizations are all over the map right now as far as their understanding of how technology can meaningfully impact DX. While perhaps one-tenth of companies are at the forefront of DX deployments (and thereby pushing vendors to advance capabilities forward), many still remain as much as a decade behind — and that gap is increasing. 

When it comes to their marketing technology, businesses may have anything from bleeding-edge solutions that just became available a few weeks ago all the way to 15-year-old legacy systems. Those that are on the latter end of that spectrum — or are partway through a transformation — have interesting decisions to make as they choose between major platforms and more piecemeal setups.

Large Vendors Offer All-in-One, Out of the Box Solutions

Major DX platform providers, including Adobe, Salesforce, Oracle and Microsoft, have largely turned to capability expansion by way of acquisition. Naturally, these big companies champion the virtues of all-in-one, out-of-the-box solutions. Their goal is for companies to buy their platforms — and all future component solutions — from them, forever. They are also aggressively pursuing the vanguard of technology applications for DX, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

Purchasing and deploying a major all-in-one platform has a downside: Businesses that do that put themselves at risk of vendor lock-in. IT decision-makers have always grappled with the risk of vendor lock-in and have generally exercised caution when purchasing major components of their infrastructures, and they are approaching decisions about DX technology in the same way. As businesses vet the biggest players in the DX market, they have to make big judgment calls when determining whether or not a platform will fulfill their organizations’ needs and whether they have the in-house expertise to use that that platform effectively.

Related Article: What Should Your Digital Experience Stack Look Like? It Depends

Picking Sides in the DX Features Arms Race

Some companies see a strategic advantage in locking in with a big vendor, because the big vendors are competing in a features arms race.

Betting on the right horse and incorporating the most innovative DX capabilities as soon as they come out can be a competitive advantage. At the same time, however, choosing one of those platforms involves a big commitment. For example, implementing something the size of the Adobe Marketing Cloud requires a massive investment in the training necessary to ensure that everyone in an organization can use it. And once a company makes such an investment, the prospect of switching to another big platform becomes a nightmare, in part because migrating would require another big retraining initiative.

Accepting vendor lock-in, and the access to the latest and greatest features that comes with it, is a limiting, but potentially safe, choice that can make sense in some cases.

The Value of Maintaining Flexibility

When users choose not to invest in all-in-one platforms, the reason is often cost. Modern all-in-one platforms are incredibly expensive to operate. In contrast, assembling a DX stack by carefully selecting a mix of tools is a more cautious approach — and it leaves companies with more choices about where to make DX technology investments in the future.

Another option is to use a major platform alongside third-party tools, a practice that most major vendors try to facilitate by making their systems compatible with other vendors’ offerings. For example, a website that runs on a modest Acquia/Drupal content management system could be effectively integrated with Oracle Eloqua marketing automation software.

Related Article: What Every CMO Needs to Know About the Marketing Technology Stack

Separating Out Big Data Platforms

In my view, the crown jewel of any DX stack is the piece that facilitates moving data in and out of systems to create a unified customer data platform. Implemented appropriately, that helps your entire DX stack to operate with a single view of the customer, and it helps marketers make intelligent decisions based on that data. Even among organizations that use systems from the largest vendors for most of their stack, many are choosing to hold this critical big data platform component separate in order to ensure that data is protected and remains fully under the brand’s control.

That approach still requires users to select other vendors’ tools and hosting environments to handle data, but it also gives them more choices so they have the flexibility to find a highly specific offering that is the appropriate fit for their needs.

Controlling the User Experience

In situations where the user experience must be flawless, even companies that have purchased strong DX stacks will go the extra mile to implement custom front-end applications. Integrating such a solution back into the DX stack gives users full control and the flexibility to choose among all of the modern web or native app technologies that are available. Operating in this way requires a stack with powerful programmatic access, because using a custom front end means data must be able to easily pass in and out of various systems.

This in turn leads to introducing systems that behave in a headless mode. That enables a company to use a custom front end on top of the platform it has purchased, rather than its built-in user experience capability, while still benefiting from the functionality and benefits the platform provides. For example, it’s becoming more common to utilize commerce platforms in a headless mode, relying on them for their powerful DX underpinnings, but replacing the out-of-the-box shopping catalog experience with a highly customized UX. It should be noted that doing that requires a great deal of front-end expertise, so companies should make sure they have that expertise in-house or work with partners whose teams have the necessary skills and experience.

Related Article: Digital Experience Stacks Evolve Once Again

The DX Stack of Today and Tomorrow

The question of how to implement personalization at scale is fundamental to next-generation digital experiences — and it is one that has yet to be answered definitively. Today, humans do the work of developing personas and customer journeys. We program personas into systems, we have content teams manually generate targeted content, we do A/B testing to identify the best measure of success, and we let personalization engines serve up that content in an automated manner.

The future will be different. Rising expectations are putting companies under pressure to tailor customer experiences not just to generalized personas but to specific individuals. That pressure is speeding the advance of systems in which machines perform content customization.

Adobe already has AI technology that is able to select and modify images from galleries. Technology designed to customize headlines is also reaching a point where it offers some exciting options. Those technologies are beginning to generate personas and journeys programmatically; they are also starting to modify content to serve each user.

All of those developments mean that personalization will no longer be a job that humans will manage manually. Instead, people will focus on setting the strategic direction and marketing rules under which the machines will operate.

The need for so many different technologies may inspire more companies to align themselves with the major platform vendors. In the future, operating a homegrown DX stack will probably be a job for true experts or companies that have knowledgeable partners.

Implementing a Modern DX Stack

In developing a modern DX stack, organizations should really be pursuing a strategy that looks out over a five-to-ten-year time frame.

For some, especially those whose DX stacks already include a significant amount of functionality from a major platform vendor, continuing to purchase one vendor’s offerings may be the best option. Those companies that must maintain precise control and flexibility with their customer experience and data — and have employees with the skills and expertise required to fulfill those needs — may decide they’re better off assembling a more customized stack.