15 February 2012

Is web experience management a realistic ambition?

Web content management systems are seeking to break out of their core function of web publishing in a quest to become all-encompassing “platforms”. The ambition is to provide a single platform that can manage a rich and interactive user experience across multiple channels, but is this realistic or even desirable?

Branching out from web content management

Content management vendors are increasingly under pressure in a crowded and fragmented market. Given that the core functionality of content management is increasingly commoditised, vendors have to work harder to stand out from the crowd and find ways to distinguish themselves.

Many are responding by broadening their offerings to branch out from their traditional remit of managing web pages by incorporating related marketing services such as analytics, commerce, personalisation, campaign management, email marketing, search and customer relationship management. The aim is to provide a multi-channel publishing platform that supports the creation of rich, interactive experiences.

This diversification is being encouraged in part by the growing proliferation of devices and services that people are using to access the internet. It’s not just about visiting a single website through a browser anymore. Organisations are expected to manage content across multiple channels and engage with users through numerous different touch-points. This requires a more integrated approach to dealing with users based on the notion that each contact is part of a wider conversation that you are having with them.

Managing this conversation requires the integration of a number of disparate services that are currently provided by a fragmented collection of suppliers, processes and technologies. Web experience management seeks to unify these services and integrate them within a single platform rather than forcing people to mix and match technologies and suppliers.

A work in progress at best

Given the hazy definition of customer experience management it’s not surprising that it’s currently more of an ambition than a concrete reality.

The market is currently led by high-end products such as Adobe’s CQS (formerly Day) and SDL Tridion, both of whom offer the greatest range of functionality and a track record in this kind of enterprise space. Many other vendors are driving their roadmaps towards more integrated experience management and Autonomy, OpenText, Fatwire, Sitecore and EPiServer are all providing increasingly competitive options.

All these platforms are works in progress and there is no single vendor that can currently deliver every aspect of experience management. Given the complexity of some of the technologies that contribute to experience management it is unlikely that they ever will.

Adding technologies such as analytics, multivariate testing, commerce and customer relationship management to content management requires the close integration of highly specialised tools. It’s technically very difficult to achieve. There are software houses that have spent more than a decade perfecting analysis tools – why should a content management vendor be able to develop something comparable in a year or two and integrate it seamlessly into a content management platform?

Some of the features currently offered by vendors currently feel like “box ticking” exercises. They are designed to look good in demos or get a platform past a demanding RFP rather than being a genuine attempt to meet functional requirements. They certainly would not fare well in any comparison with the features provided by a specialised vendor.

Some vendors are making headway with isolated aspects of web experience management. For example, Tridion has been particularly successful in facilitating multi-screen publishing and incorporating translation services. However, it is unlikely that many vendors will provide the same depth of functionality across the board that is being provided by best-of-breed specialist vendors.

A stilted conversation

At the heart of web experience management is the promise of a platform that allows you to gather information about your users, study their behaviour and tailor their experience. The insights gained from analytics and multivariate testing can be applied to content personalisation. Automated campaigns will be driven by integrated customer relationship management. A user can enjoy a consistent and tailored experience across multiple channels and devices.

This vision is undermined by the practical difficulties associated with gathering enough information to generate the insights needed to drive a tailored user experience. It is about to be made even more difficult by the EU’s forthcoming cookie legislation, which reflects growing concerns over a user’s right to privacy. Users are increasingly exercising their right to browse anonymously and keep their personal preferences secret, which undermines the scope for useful web experience management.

However, perhaps the biggest obstacle to successful experience management is in knowing what to do with the tools. Data alone is not enough – you need the experience and market knowledge to understand what you should be doing with it. Every client that I have seen equipped with personalisation functionality has struggled to leverage its value in any meaningful way. If the relationship with a customer should be a conversation, then how do you start it and what do you say?

As always, the tools themselves are not enough – it’s the insight that can be derived from them which creates the value and this can be surprisingly elusive.

Filed under CMS, Strategy.