Exclusive: Discussing WCM Landscape with Industry Veterans
Although a Web Content Management System (WCM) may not sound like your everyday go-to platform, it actually somehow is. As WCM platforms are the gravitational center of digital ecosystems and experiences, all the digital content we consume or create on the web is powered by these platforms. As basic as their functionality sounds, their impact on our digital experiences is tremendous. Since today’s tech-savvy consumers’ expectations are ever increasing, the competition for catering to their needs and capturing their attention has never been more fierce. With this reality in mind, content management technology providers have been aggressively and rapidly amplifying their platforms in order to create excellence in businesses and end-users’ digital experiences.
Now that we are already nearly two months into 2018, I reached out to a handful of significant thought leaders in the space to understand the subtle and significant trends that shaped the WCM landscape during the past year, find out what has changed in the WCM vendors’ agenda since last year as well as trends and challenges that content creators will face throughout 2018.
Understanding where the WCM space is heading requires a concise look at what has shaped the technology landscape during the past year. With that in mind, I asked the interviewees about the trends that we have seen the most over the year. Tjeerd Brenninkmeijer, EVP EMEA, Bloomreach, for instance, outlined his biggest takeaways from last year’s trends, saying the first one was the shift in the industry’s focus from web content management to Digital Experience Platforms (DXPs):
“A very significant trend is the shift from WCM to DXPs which allow brands to build a compelling and comprehensive customer experience across all channels, from acquiring a new customer to servicing existing customers (support, extranet, etc). There are basically two approaches to this trend: Building an agile, best-of-breed, microservices based architecture that is exactly tailored to your specific needs OR going for the suite approach that obviously limits your flexibility.“
Brenninkmeijer is not the only one who has noticed the recent evolution of WCM platforms as John Austin, Sr. Global Program Manager, Technology Alliance Program (TAP), Sitecore, also wanted to draw our attention to this steep shift by stating: “As WCM has really evolved into CX solutions, customer deployments have become far more complex, this, in turn, has resulted in a significant increase in the lifespan of CX/WCM platforms. Gone are the days when customers replace their platforms every 3 to 5 years.” He also added that “customers are looking for unifying solutions more than unified solutions,” meaning that buyers are interested more in the WCM platforms that can seamlessly integrate with other third-party systems like CRM, DAM, Martech, and so on.
My understanding from Austin and Brenninkmeijer’s statements is that digital businesses are looking for modern architectures that support the delivery of flexible, granular, purposeful applications, rather than moving forward with existing traditional, monolithic architectures. In other words, a technology that can enable WCM platforms to be coupled with different sets of third-party technologies to get some sort of flexibility with content delivery. To reach this type of flexibility, digital businesses now need to decompose a monolith application into smaller, manageable services which are called microservices.
The idea behind microservices is to build apps as suites of independently deployable services so each capability (report generation, document management, customer relations, etc.) can be treated as a separate process. As a result, companies can quickly change, test and improve offerings based on real-time insights gained from integrated customer information systems. To put this concept into perspective, here are a few business use cases:
With the microservices architecture, when you want to add new features to an application, your developer team doesn’t need to rewrite the whole application.
Microservices can be upgraded with no impact to the system and smaller codebases make maintenance easier and faster. All these increase overall productivity by saving development effort and time.
The parts of an application can be scaled separately and are easier to deploy.
Instead of developing applications from the ground up, existing services can be adapted to build custom experiences on the fly.
Dependency concerns will be far lighter than with monolithic designs, and rolling back changes much easier.
When a failure of a single module happens, the error can be isolated from the rest of the application.
Applications that use microservices architecture can seamlessly run on multiple devices such as desktops, smartphones, IoT etc.
Microservices architecture is also referred to as a headless approach. As Forrester’s analyst Mark Grannan told CMS-Connected in an interview, “API-based content delivery and microservices are hugely important.” By harnessing the power of APIs, a headless platform may offer ultimate flexibility for creating rich web and mobile experiences and unleash the creative power of front-end developers but it comes at the price of sophisticated development skills and experience. Therefore, there has been a huge hype around the headless platform approach. If you follow the web content management market at all, then last year, you must have read a couple if not a dozen articles on whether organizations should go with headless or they should stick with a traditional CMS.
Joel Varty, VP of Innovation and Development at Agility Inc, also believes that integration will be the primary focus of the WCM software vendors in 2018: “How can we help our customers by making all their systems work better together? Systems built in the Cloud with modern APIs make that much, much easier than it used to be. I’d like to see more folks learn how easy it is to bring disparate systems together using APIs and Cloud – that’s knowledge that I believe we as a Vendor have the opportunity to pass on to our partners and our customers.”
A Headless Approach Not an Either-Or Situation
According to Brenninkmeijer, instead of frothing up the bubbles on the hype, businesses are losing their intense interest in a pure headless CMS: “A third trend we see is the downfall of headless content management. Headless solutions have been quite popular for a while but businesses are starting to see the downside of it. They are now looking for hybrid solutions and a more intelligent approach to SPAs.” He also explained what challenges a pure headless approach brings to content creators: “A big challenge for content creators is to assess which content performs best and which generated data they should use to optimize their strategy. Impactful content is key to business success and the increased use of headless systems has led to content creators not knowing what their content is used for anymore. This makes it harder to create 1:1 personalization and measure the impact. It also leads to conflicts between editors, digital marketers, and developers.”
The Omnichannel Revolution
To get the story behind the story, I inquired with Kentico’s CEO Petr Palas about what is driving the wide adoption of microservices and a headless approach, and he splendidly explained: “First of all, we should consider discontinuing use of the WCM acronym since the industry has changed. Content is no longer just about the web. It’s about much more. Last year we saw a dramatic growth of emerging channels – chatbots, digital assistants, AR, VR, IoT, etc. This is the very beginning of the omnichannel revolution that is coming to the whole CMS industry. This requires a major shift in how we think about content creation and delivery. On the technology side, we can already see the shift towards headless, microservices and cloud but that is just the leading edge of a much bigger change coming to our industry.”
I loved the phrase he used; “the omnichannel revolution” and agree that the shift from a traditional, monolithic architecture to cloud-first, based on containers and microservices has simply been driven by today’s uber-connected consumers’ expectations of having a consistent and relevant experience across all digital touchpoints.
At the end of the day, I really do not think consumers are becoming loyal to brands, as they are becoming loyal to the experience that a brand provides them. Being not only a personal belonging but also a doorway to a vast world makes mobile devices a unique channel in terms of building a one-to-one relationship. However, the game of capturing attention is even tougher in this arena as we all scroll endlessly through social media newsfeeds or lists of Google search results. Once managed to capture the consumer attention, then brands have a chance to either make a splash or mar their business as they have a pretty narrow window in which to further engage with them. That’s why it is important to have a future-proof technology with an easy usability that can power the content with a clean and aesthetic layout.
Petr Palas of Kentico also added that providing consistent and highly personalized omnichannel experiences will remain the biggest goal of digital businesses: “The biggest trend we will see in the upcoming years is how to provide consistent and highly personalized omnichannel experiences. It’s no longer just about web and mobile – marketers need to get ready for chatbots, digital assistants, AR, VR, IoT and other emerging channels. The problem is most marketers and content creators today work in silos and they’re limited by disconnected tools they use to manage and deliver content. That leads to content friction that causes internal inefficiencies and an inconsistent customer experience across channels. We need a new generation of CMS that is designed as omnichannel from the very beginning – which is what we did with Kentico Cloud.”
Speaking of personalization, Mark Duffell, President and CEO of Episerver, also believes personalization will continue to be the center of the discussions around content delivery. "Content is still king in the digital world, and WCM will continue to grow in importance as commerce becomes more digital. As the digital terrain becomes the primary point of contact between consumers and brands, successful companies will meet consumers online with digital experiences that help them through the buying process the way a store associate would. That’s why personalization is such a hot topic right now. And with the increasing power of machine learning, we’re going to see experiences become even more personalized, to the point that marketers will be able to segment down to the individual level and target individual consumers based on their distinct journey,” Duffell stated.
GDPR is Here
With the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) going into effect on May 25, 2018, integrating robust GDPR capabilities was another hot topic in 2017. According to Palas, “during the second half of the year, many vendors realized that GDPR was a much bigger deal than they originally thought and started scrambling for ways to build new capabilities into their existing products.” However, he states that this issue will continue to be the focus of some vendors this year, too because “they will continue playing catch-up as their customers will need to become compliant.” However, according to Palas, this is sad because “where they should be really focused is on how to enable better content management for omnichannel. And that requires a major redesign of their solutions if they want to stay relevant in the long term.”
On the other hand, he stresses that GDPR will be a huge topic for content marketers in 2018. “They will need to review – and often rethink – the way they engage customers throughout the customer journey and make sure they’re aligned not only with GDPR legislation but also with growing customer expectations when it comes to personal data. What we see is that the majority of marketers are totally underestimating the amount of work connected with this process and how their existing marketing plans will be disrupted by this change.”
Main Focus of the WCM Vendors: AI and Cloud
Speaking of focus areas, many leaders interviewed for this article think that injecting artificial intelligence technology into content management was one of the most critical tasks they had last year. Now that they have gone past the introduction phase, this year, content management and commerce platform providers are eager to explore all the further possibilities of AI to power their technologies.
Tjeerd Brenninkmeijer of Bloomreach agrees that the main focus of most WCM vendors has been finding a way to leverage the possibilities of AI within their product since especially last year. He elaborated: “Unlike BloomReach, most vendors are still in the very early stages of adapting AI.” Apart from integrating with the AI capabilities, he also touched upon two other important areas of focus from last year: the development of the user interface and cloud. “Obviously building out a cloud strategy has been a big focus for most vendors and we see different approaches here like PAAS vs. SAAS,” Brenninkmeijer said.
Joel Varty of Agility seems to share a similar point as he said: “Cloud-based software became a requirement, not a nice-to-have. Vendors are doing everything they can to move to the cloud or to be seen to be doing so. The notion of Cloud seems to epitomize what folks were concerned with last year – reliability, integration, and innovation.” He also brought a refreshing observation from last year to the table and said: “I think we hit ‘peak feature’ last year. Many vendors have been adding feature after feature for years and years. At a certain point bloat takes over and we see these features start to be consolidated and weeded out. I think we are over that hump.” I have found that point very true given our conversations with many customers at the annual events. While the features like personalization and product recommendation have been very well-known and heavily used, some customers have also indicated their excitement about the adoption of the new features powered by artificial intelligence technologies. However, the common feeling was that they still need a good use case for them so they could take those “cool” features off the shelf and put them to work.
While John Austin of Sitecore agrees with his counterparts’ observations on the growing demand for cloud-based solutions as well as for more intelligent experience delivery, he also made an interesting additional point by saying: “Surprisingly while security is a concern, I expected it to be a bigger concern with customers than it has been so far.”
In the case of last year’s focus of the WCM vendors, Petr Palas of Kentico criticized the space by claiming: “When you look at most leading vendors, they were just playing catch-up. During the first half of the year, they were mostly focused on how to move their on-premise solutions to the cloud, often shifting to a largely inefficient managed hosting model. During the second half of the year, they tried to get on the bandwagon and claim that they were ‘also headless’.”
Combination of Commerce & WCM
The demand for breaking silos and creating unfragmented digital experiences across devices and channels is driving the content and commerce technology ecosystem to drastically change. As Forrester also explains, commerce solutions have evolved to support customer engagement features, such as page templates, navigation tools, site search, and personalization, while some web CMS now offer shopping carts, checkout workflows, and product catalog management. This shift leaves digital businesses at a crossroads. Although legacy patterns will continue for the next three to five years, cloud-based solutions powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning will eventually take over and shape digital experience strategies. Therefore, retailers, who don’t want to sit with laggards where they drag their feet and cling to antiquated ways, should be aware of new emerging content and commerce possibilities.
On that note, Tjeerd Brenninkmeijer of Bloomreach predicted: “In the coming months we will see a lot of innovation within content & commerce as this combination will become increasingly important for brands to build up a relationship with their audience. API-first commerce will allow a flexible architecture that caters exactly to the needs of the business and allows great flexibility. This includes adopting new technologies like voice and chatbots.” He circled back to his first argument about the shift from WCM to DXP and said: “Of course, this all ties into the DXP philosophy.” Therefore, he believes that the primary focus of the WCM software vendors in 2018 will be “understanding AI and how to leverage it and also creating a connected customer journey that goes beyond customer acquisition and also contains customer loyalty, after sales and retention. This is where the DXP approach comes in.”
With regards to the upcoming trends at the intersection of the WCM and the commerce markets, Joel Varty of Agility discusses that with the flexibility that comes from the rise of AI and machine learning, “every aspect of the business can tailor the ideal customer journey. The seamless combination of e-commerce and WCM to create the differentiating commerce experience that focuses on the ultimate customer experience.”
Challenges of Content Creators in 2018
Lastly, I discussed the challenges that content creators will face this year. Petr Palas of Kentico said: “On the strategic side, content creators need to start shifting their mindset from how to manage a few traditional channels to how to manage content for the new multichannel world. This is a paradigm shift and the ones who start early will reap the biggest benefits from opening new communication channels with their customers.”
Palas was not the only leader who sees a shift in the content creation process as Joel Varty pointed out yet another shift: “The world is becoming more and more technology-driven, and yet at the same time we are seeing a shift in demand for simpler and more streamlined experiences. It turns out that simpler is actually harder – it means you have to say no to a whole lot of stuff and yes to only the very best and most relevant. This started with the “mobile first” trend a few years back, and it’s still percolating throughout the industry. How do we streamline and consolidate the best and most relevant content into simpler and more personalized experiences? The folks who can consistently deliver on that promise will have success in 2018.”
In my view, the last year’s hottest topics were a headless CMS approach and the GDPR impact. This year, the discussions around the understanding of the GDPR requirements will be replaced with the topic of how to comply with the GDPR without having to rule out personalization. Similarly, the hype about headless CMS will settle down as the main focus will shift from what a headless approach means to where it is appropriate to utilize.
The ongoing trends such as delivering personalized omnichannel experiences across devices including conversational systems and virtual reality will continue to sit in the center of content strategies throughout this year.
The demand for best-of-breed solutions that support digital experiences in diverse use cases, such as the IoT, conversational interfaces, or embedded commerce will grow. However, to be able to speak to both best-of-breed seekers and single-vendor solution buyers, WCM vendors will amplify their native capabilities in emerging areas such as e-commerce and contextual marketing features, while providing solutions which can seamlessly integrate with different sets of third-party technologies in order to give their users ultimate flexibility.
Given the unprecedented growth of the open source platforms like Drupal, Magneto, and WordPress in their inclusion to the content creation process, what we see as “newish” this year is platform collaboration and openness. As I previously cited in the story between New York magazine and Slate as an example of rival collaboration in an article entitled “What Can CMS Providers Learn From Media Companies?”, when businesses are confident in their capabilities, a strategic collaboration with competitors often results in a win-win situation. This year, we will see this relationship happening either through open-source platforms or platform integrations.
There is one thing that is certain, 2018 will be a busier and yet more exciting year than ever for all WCM vendors as they will keep innovating, acquiring, and teaming up to make their platforms more modular, smarter, granular and atomic.