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Brands: Compete on Experience

14 Mar 2018, Dave Kilimnik

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Original article published here

Experience. Just the latest marketing buzzword, right?

Wrong. “I think the trend is very real,” said David Kilimnik, CEO of Hero Digital, an Episerver partner. But he would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, Hero Digital bills itself not as an agency but as a “customer experience company.” Or CX for short.

Ok, consider this striking observation made by Episerver CMO James Norwood during his opening keynote at Ascend 2018, Episerver’s annual user conference. Based on data from Episerver’s global Reimagining Commerce survey, 92 percent of first-time visitors to a commerce website do not intend to make a purchase. The overwhelming majority are there to do research or compare products and prices. What’s more, 95 percent say they can be dissuaded from buying online by uninformative or incomplete content.

This simply means that if a brand is primarily focused on driving consumers efficiently through the funnel, from interest to conversion, only a small minority of visitors – to website or app – are being addressed. In an interview, Norwood emphasized the significance of the trend. “I find it quite astounding, really, to consider the customer experience as a higher priority than your products and services. It’s a wake-up for anyone who’s not really there yet. For a brand, if you’re not getting the customer experience right, there’s zero tolerance.”

We’ve been covering the evolution of Episerver at DMN for several years now, really since its coming out as a global brand in 2015, following the merger of the original Swedish Episerver, an eCommerce platform, with a U.S.-based content management vendor, Ektron. The development of Episerver’s offering over that period seems to match the growing importance of CX in the B2C space.

“That was by design,” said Norwood. “When I came into the business three years ago, we were a content management system that had a commerce platform attached. In those three years, we set ourselves a very clear mandate for what the platform was going to be. It’s going to include campaign orchestration, and we need to go beyond the website to offer a more holistic journey. We’re not trying to take over the world; I don’t think we need to go further; we’ve built what we needed, and we’ll keep enhancing it so that it delivers value – like putting in AI, advanced search, and customer journey analytics.”

Experience is paramount

Skeptics have been telling me, business is about profits. CX is a nice marketing term, but at the end of the day, it’s about the bottom line. Increasingly, though, it looks like brands which are focused on conversions and revenue may be focused on the wrong thing. “The assumption is that people go to commerce sites to buy,” said Norwood, “but they typically don’t. The buying thing happens way down the road – and it may not happen at all if the education, the content, and the experience isn’t right. There needs to be a mind shift from focusing on the conversion; if you get all the other things right, the conversion is going to happen.”

Norwood’s perspective was validated by Allison Simpkins, SVP, North America at Valtech, a global digital agency which emphasizes business transformation. Like Hero Digital, Valtech is an Episerver partner – but, also like Hero Digital – works with a variety of platforms and solutions, although Epi is “premium and tier one on our list,” Simpkins said. “We’re a decade-old Epi global partner. What we do with them is really about business transformation. It’s great as a CMS and as a content platform, but what is it going to do for the brand on the customer experience in a holistic way – offline and online?”

Brands can’t just look at website performance any more, said Simpkins. They have to ask themselves: “How am I giving the ‘wow’ factor? Customers are different nowadays. They want things now, they want immediate responses. Brands need to pivot towards this; those that don’t will be diminished, or even cease to exist. Your customer now owns your brand.”

That means leveraging all the tools which are now available, from AI to personalization to voice bots, in – again – a holistic way. “Customers want to recognize themselves in brands,” said Simpkins. They want to be loyal; they want to be advocates. “When [our client] has a platform like Epi, we have the technical chops to be able to take that platform and maximize the best practices, and push the boundaries of the product.”

Marketers are ready to buy CX

Kilimnik of Hero Digital had a similar perspective. “Our alignment with Episerver is very strong,” he told me, “because we purpose-built Hero from day one to look at the customer experience opportunity. We saw two super-interesting things happening in the market. Marketers are now the primary buyers of technology, and what they’re buying provides the opportunity to create experiences across all these different channels. They’re going to buy experience platforms like Episerver, but within that they’re going to shift their spending – from traditional forms of marketing via direct mail, television, and display media, to customer experiences, which we define as…things that work.” Meaning websites, in-store experiences, mobile apps, and the full range of digital touch points.

For some brands, of course, CX is broader, encompassing additional elements like customer support. “We really have focused on the digital customer experience, and the needs of the CMO. Where the rubber hits the road for a brand is with a strategy to advance their digital maturity; followed by the design of those experiences across the different channels.” In that respect, brands like Apple are raising the bar for everyone. Customers have “Apple-like” expectations for their experiences. Hero brings the design strategies for the Episerver platform to execute, as well as measurement strategies. “That’s the first part. The value realization lies in all the operational elements, from customer acquisition to digital campaigns, and so on.”

Kristine Stebbins, Hero’s managing director, took it to a more granular level. Customer experience strategy is based on mapping journeys for personas. “Personas are data-driven, based on a variety of inputs,” to which Episerver contributes “behavioral data and interaction data, which we can meld with Google Analytics, and enrich with sales information, and data from CRM or other systems.”

“It’s very important for us to be platform agnostic,” emphasized Kilimnik, “so that we can be trusted advisers. We get engaged for platform selection as consultants, and that’s ideal for us. We want to be involved with a customer before they’ve made technology decisions. Our goal is to get Epi introduced when we believe the fit is strong.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Norwood sees technology as often being an obstacle to brands creating valuable bonds with customers. “The ability to retire technical debt and put things together seamlessly is where the focus needs to be. If there’s a siloed organization with siloed applications behind the scene’s, that’s where the focus needs to be. Again, Episerver is not here to solve all problems, but one platform which solves specific problems and can tie into other things, can take out maybe 10 or 15 other point solutions. I’m starting to see a shift going back the other way, with IT being more involved in the game. The best customers we have, it’s with the CMO and the CIO in lock-step.”

The elephant in the room

When it comes to commerce, there’s surely another major motivational factor driving all this talk of customer experience, forming bonds with brands, and indeed the whole direct-to-consumer trend. It’s called Amazon. Selling products and services through Amazon, or indeed other third party market-places, is one thing. CX is something else.

“The vast majority of Episerver customers are going to be brand manufacturers or midmarket retailers, where the only way to differentiate is through the things Amazon doesn’t do. It’s very important, because most of our customers are looking to grow online to supplement their current business, or replace current brick and mortar, and they’re going to want to do it in a way that keeps them away from Amazon.”

The reality is that Amazon and Google aren’t going anywhere. “I think Episerver customers can co-exist and do pretty well,” said Norwood, “because they can be a bit more agile, a bit more nimble. That’s really our niche; we play well with rapidly growing, mid-sized folks, who are being a little bit disruptive.