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Sitecore — Differences Between a CMS and a DXP

As the marketing technology stack proliferates, it’s crucial to know how each platform supports your needs. Learn the difference between content management systems and digital experience platforms.

Working Definitions: CMS and DXP

A content management system (CMS) powers an organization’s website and applications with the tools needed to deliver content – including editorial, workflow, reporting, organization, security, and user administration. It’s the foundational software for digital identity, strategy, and engagement.

A digital experience platform (DXP) provides the full suite of tools to power the delivery of personalized experiences that scale and connect – across channels, geographies, and languages.

The truth is these two platforms can overlap. As the martech space continues its rapid expansion, it’s increasingly important for decision-makers to have at least a working understanding of the nuances between these two technologies. When you’re ready for a primer on each, including the relationship between them, continue reading below.

Your CMS is Your Digital Core

At a minimum, a content management system (CMS) powers an organization’s website and applications. Teams need to deliver the content they’ve created, and a CMS provides the workflow, reporting, organizing, and user administration tools to do just that.

For some small organizations, these tools might be all that are needed. But for most, they’re just the beginning.

Here’s a full list of the functionalities often included in the modern CMS:

Security and Compliance

Whether authenticating users and levels of access or keeping user data safe, you need security. And regulations such as GDPR and California’s A.B. 375 require all businesses operating within their jurisdictions to meet stringent requirements around data security, transparency, and consumer data rights. Most organizations today need a security-first CMS, one that includes data encryption (both at rest and in transit), advanced personal identifying information (PII) compliance, and smooth integrations with enterprise security providers and/or third-party authentication systems.

Workflow Management

Authoring, editing, staging, approval, translation, publishing, promotion, reporting, and iterating – your busy team needs a workflow that adapts to their needs, an intuitive performance dashboard, and support in tagging all content with the appropriate metadata. 


People expect to engage with your organization on whatever device they choose. Your CMS must not only make it simple to deliver content to today’s and tomorrow’s various channels but also future applications and services.

Global Delivery

If you currently have multiple sites across various nations or plan to in the future, you’ll need a CMS with multi-site and multi-language support, smooth integrations with localization and translation services, and regulatory compliance for multinational content.

Flexibility, Extensibility, and Performance

Organic visits over time, seasonal spikes, entry into new countries, creating new websites and campaigns quickly — a modern CMS must be flexible enough to handle it all. It should integrate with other technologies, include a wide array of modern APIs and connectors, manage multiple sites from one centralized location, and more. And it should be capable of deploying on the cloud.

Cloud: Allows continuous deployment, automated updates, speedy delivery of new features, and more. Cloud deployment also powers the launch of campaigns and websites in hours or days versus weeks or months.


A modern CMS makes it easy to edit and view content before publishing and schedule items for future publication.

Commerce and Content Integrations

Content and commerce are now connected – from initial research to purchased-product use. Make sure your CMS includes a unified interface for commerce, migration tools, seamless inventory management, adaptable inventory handling, automated actions (such as cart-abandonment or purchase follow-up), third-party integration, user-generated content creation, and testing capabilities.

This may seem like a lot to expect from a CMS. In part, this is just the reality of doing business in our digital age. But it also raises an important truth: as the martech space becomes increasingly convoluted, the distinctions between the various tools needed to compete in it become somewhat fluid.

In fact, the last category, commerce and content integrations, is a functionality that begins to push this technology away from being defined as a simple CMS to being defined as a digital experience platform (DXP).

"A CMS powers an organization’s website and applications with all the tools needed to deliver content — including editorial, workflow, reporting, organization, security, and user administration."

CMS Architecture: A Primer

But before we dig into the definition of a DXP, we need to take a brief detour into CMS architecture. The reason is simple: CMS architecture determines what your CMS can do today – and tomorrow.

A CMS is software that contains:

  • A programming framework (such as ASP.NET or Java)
  • A database that stores content
  • A user interface for web editors

These are all hosted on a web server, which has an operating system, or in the cloud. CMS software also includes multiple application layers. An application layer supports CMS functionality and defines how different parts of the software connect to each other and the host system.

Sitecore’s CMS, for example, has one application layer for managing content (with functions like editing, managing, and storing) and another layer for assembling the content into a layout – delivering it. We call the first the “content layer” and the second the “delivery layer.”

To get content to an audience, the delivery layer requests content from the content layer through an application programming interface (API). That content then moves through a third layer, the rendering or 'presentation layer,' which takes what the delivery layer has produced and renders (or presents) it on a screen.

Visitors to a website built on Sitecore see the published version of what the presentation layer has produced. Because the content and delivery layer are separate from the presentation layer, our CMS is 'decoupled' (versus a coupled system where all three are just one layer) or 'headless.'

As there are different ways to deal with application layers, there are also different ways to store content within a CMS. Without getting too technical, we can say that some systems store content as whole pages, while others store content in smaller chunks called 'items' or 'objects.'

There are two reasons to store content as items or objects. The first is that it makes it easier to reuse content across multiple pages and applications. The second is that content is not bound by any presentation requirements – it’s not bound to a page’s format, for example.

But why does that matter? Here are three reasons: Fitbit, Amazon’s Alexa, and Facebook’s Oculus. Devices like these have unique (and increasingly divergent) requirements for presenting content. When pulling content from a CMS, they only want the underlying content, not page layouts, styles, management frameworks, etc.

Our CMS stores content as objects and separates the delivery layer from the presentation layer – meaning content creators only need to create content once to be delivered anywhere.

But we also have a decoupled publishing layer. And this, in contrast to traditional headless CMSs, allows creators to still preview and publish content easily without developer support. And there’s more to our unique headless CMS: It gathers analytics from web engagements and, thanks to APIs, from anywhere.

You can learn more about our no-compromise hybrid headless architecture here.

DXP: Scaling Personalized Engagement for the Digital Age

The digital age has led to empowered and connected consumers with rising expectations. And these consumer expectations are driving organizational change across industries – from manufacturing to retail to healthcare and beyond.

Digital experience platforms (DXPs) support organizations as they adapt to the exponential shifts of the digital age. Here’s how:

While a CMS supports the orchestration and delivery of the content essential to digital experiences, a DXP goes beyond this by providing automation and smart delivery across websites and portals, apps and IoT devices, and more. It also provides insight into the reception and result of these experiences with data, analytics, and often AI and machine learning.

A DXP streamlines engagement and provides the coveted 360-degree view of customers across channels, and continuously updated in real time, taking the analytics of a CMS to a whole new personalized level.

In short, a DXP is the tool (or set of tools) that powers personalized, cross-channel digital experiences. The right one will replace much of your current martech stack and fluidly integrate with the rest of it. The benefits are clear:

  • Omnichannel reach: With voice-enablement rising and IoT devices proliferating, reaching your audience where they are and where they will be has never been more essential.
  • Build lasting relationships: Smart organizations know that a conversion isn’t the end of the relationship; it’s a new beginning. A DXP powers and tracks engagements throughout the entire lifecycle.
  • Integrations that deliver: Disparate data isn’t actionable. Connected data is. And with the market in continual flux, knowing that future integrations won’t be an issue delivers maybe the rarest commodity today — peace of mind.

What’s Included in a DXP — Or What Should Be

As a robust platform of marketing tools, a DXP always includes a CMS (often as its core), but it also usually includes the following functionalities:

  • Contextual Intelligence and Relevance (customer profile engine, language translation, omnichannel, etc.)
  • Commerce (PCM, payment & billing, shopping, etc.)
  • Asset management (DAM, web-to-print, etc.)
  • Engagement (chatbots, mobile apps, marketing automation, etc.)
  • Digital process (BPM, MRM, case management, etc.)
  • Cognitive (predictive analytics, machine learning, AI automation, etc.)
  • Data Center (CRM, MDM, etc.)

DXPs can be single-vendor solutions or a combination of solutions from various vendors, depending on organizational needs. However, as DXPs continually evolve to keep pace with the ever-changing competitive needs of today, most organizations won’t find a single-vendor solution. And those who do will almost always require multiple products from their vendor.

Therefore, it’s critical to find a DXP that includes easy integrations, future-oriented extensibility, and an expansive partner ecosystem.

Having gone through all that, we can now return to our statement above with a deeper level of understanding.

"A CMS is the foundational software for digital identity, strategy, and engagement. A DXP is the full suite of tools powering the delivery of personalized experiences that scale and connect – across channels, geographies, and languages."

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