It all starts with how people buy

The way people buy has changed tremendously in the last fifteen years. I’m not an expert in analyzing buying behaviors but I can refer to what I have observed. I also can refer to my own behavior, both when buying for myself or at my company. The vendor is coming much later in the buying process these days, only after the buyer has done his homework, informed himself on the product and shaped his intention to buy. This definitely is a major trend.

When I think about how commerce has changed , I like to look at real brick and mortar stores. Look at how a store looked like hundred years ago and look at how it looks like now.

In the old store, everything is hidden behind the counter and is only accessible by the sales associate.

In the modern store it’s all about having the customer access the product themselves, without interference. Apple store is the best example -- no more counters or safeguards.

A lot about this change is a question of trust. Individuals are trusting organizations less and less and relying more on their own understanding of a product and its capabilities. Last month, I was at the DX Summit where I  got tons of valuable insight worth sharing. Garry McGovern , who gave one of the keynotes, spoke a lot about this shift in consumer trust.

An interesting thing about this trend is that it’s global. One might think this refers only to consumer business, but actually whether it is about consumer to business or business to business, choices are still made by individuals. This trend is therefore as much valid for business to business as for consumer to business. Garry covered this fairly clearly.

And thinking about this in regards to my own personal and professional life, one of the last things I want to do now is to engage with a Sales representative when buying. I want to get my hands on the targeted product. I want to experience a solution before committing or even discussing to buy it. I want to have feedback from my peers more than from the vendor.

For anyone interested in the discussion, I highly recommend “the intention economy: When Customers Take Charge”, a book by Doc Searl, speaking on how commerce is flipping from attention to intention, from being driven by the vendor to being driven by the buyer…

So yes, in the last 15 years, there has been a tremendous flip of this relationship.

How does it relate to Content and Commerce?

We talked about the in-store experience in the previous section, looking how stores are evolving, but what about the digital experiences? Well just like the in store experience, the digital experience must evolve with less control by the vendor. The customer must take control of the relationship. They must be able to feed the evaluation process with information by themselves.

The customer needs to discover content that is not commercial in nature. He needs to go to destinations that are more informational and less commercial than a classic e-shop. He expects to find content on social media such as Pinterest, Facebook, LinkedIn  and on other platforms and not necessarily only on the store. The store themselves should evolve, morph into a more content rich and informative experience where product items and price come second and the  product benefits and value are emphasized  more. Think about testimonials, reviews, guides, educational content. This is really hard to perform while enforcing a streamlined and simple user experience if the Commerce and the Content platform are disjointed. Content and Commerce technology work much better if they are based on one single platform. This way, your commerce-based site better serves the need for an integrated, unified and hiccup-free user experience. In addition, you can push content outside from this platform, into other channels.There are definitely different ways to get there. Mark Grannan, analyst at Forrester, was also covering this topic recently at the same DX summit. He listed seven patterns for building a digital platform for content + commerce.

Five patterns that he would name as traditional:

  • Option 1: one single e-commerce platform.
  • Option 2: one single Web CMS.
  • Option 3: side-by-side hybrid solutions.
  • Option 4: a Web CMS supported by commerce modules/features
  • Option 5: an E-commerce platform supported by a Web CMS module/features

And two “new-ish” patterns

  • Option 6: a digital experience platform layer
  • Option 7: a headless CMS and e-Commerce customized solution

I think it's very helpful to provide a structure on how to think about different solutions. More than that, it shows how maturity plays an important role in the mix. Headless is definitely a great way to move forward, but headless requires maturity to engage in the endeavor of building a custom software layer. Welcome, you are now in Software business!

I also believe, as helpful as they are, those schemes need to be taken with a grain of salt. Many different things can be placed behind those words. For instance, what is a digital experience platform, and how is it really different than a modern CMS ? Here is how eZ plays in:

  • Option 1: impossible with eZ, we always thought content was core, so we don’t ship commerce-only features :-)
  • Option 2: here it’s all about what is a Web CMS? eZ Publish for years was a CMS that included commerce capabilities, so why not? That is definitely an eZ Publish “legacy” case.
  • Option 3: many of our customers do this and we do have e-commerce connectors in our ecosystem such as Magento connector. It‘s less and less popular though… what we’ve heard is that it’s harder to maintain since you need a dual skillset and it's harder to customize. It might fit some cases though, and yes, it is still an option.
  • Option 4: We have seen this option being used more and more in the eZ ecosystem. Definitely a good option is to move into a solution where everything lies on one single application platform -- eZ Platform. There are different ways to do so, and there is some sort of build or buy choice to consider. One can buy an external module such as silver.eShop from our partner Silver Solutions with whom we collaborate. It’s also possible to build using existing components from the open source and Symfony marketplace such as Sylius or others. But you have to be prepared to engage in a more heavy project.
  • Option 5: this option is clearly a possibility as eZ Platform provides many ways to integrate content into an application, especially the one relying on the REST APIs. This said, we almost never see this scenario. It clearly depends on the capability of the underlying Commerce platform. This will however probably bring a lot of limitation in terms of user experience, as Commerce platforms are traditionally made to provide a “store experience” and not much more.

Now how about the two patterns Mark classified as “new”.

  • Option 6: isn’t the DX platform the modern CMS of option 4? What does Mark mean exactly here by DX Platform? At eZ, we see our platform as one to build digital experiences, and think Option 6 is in this respect very similar to option 4.
  • Option 7: the headless option: headless is a very strong buzzword lately, mostly referring to how to use a CMS dedicated to content creation and storing but not in charge of the delivery layer. I spoke a lot about this approach in different blog posts such as this decoupled and headless 101. From there, we need to think about how to build the Commerce piece and how  it relates to “headless.” I’d be curious what Mark had in mind precisely. My guess is that this implies the organization builds its own front-end delivery service that would create the customer experience by assembling both content from the headless CMS and features from some sort of services or micro-services in charge of the transactional part of the commerce store. Mark is absolutely right, anything  along those lines is the most mature way to deal with your digital experience. You will build your own product based on content and commerce technology, and you should be aware it comes with a range of challenges and requirements that you must be ready for. Again, welcome, you are now in the software business!

How does it relate to Personalization?

So, I started speaking about the in-store experience and then moved to digital experience. One thing that comes naturally in-store and that actually is not new at all is personalization. Experience in store can be highly personalized, especially for frequent buyers and it comes naturally. The vendor knows you, your preferences, how to speak to you, and what could be of interest. How can we get this in the digital world?

Well that’s where a DX platform comes into the play. It’s bringing more than content, it’s bringing ability to deliver RELEVANT content. It’s about personalization and about having the ability to measure performance of content to better optimize the performance towards specific goals (being usually revenue in an E-commerce case).

There are many ways to do so, that I also discussed a bit here, but the bottom line is: to do it at scale, you’ll have to deal with big data and intelligent systems that can crunch a lot of behavioral data and turn them into meaningful content choices for the user.

And here is one more area where a unified Content and Commerce approach will help. By knowing in general what the user likes, reads, watches, views, beyond the product sheets in the product catalog, by knowing his maturity and by being able to connect to all sort of content. An intelligent personalization system is able to really deliver the right content at the right time (and not only make generic product recommendations)

At eZ, we offer a personalization SaaS cloud service that learns from users and can recommend content that will improve the experience, better inform the customer and lead to growing sales or other sort of conversions. It might recommend editorial and informative content early in the discovery process, to make sure the buyer can educate himself, and doing this to optimize the final steps: the purchase. Such personalizations would be much more complex in a world where content and commerce are disconnected.

Whatever your choice, Customer has to come first

Visualizing technology solutions, architectural patterns, system options helps a lot to understand the game. But there is also the risk to forget we should first think about the customer and not the system. At the end of the day, there are many roads that can lead to achieve the ideal we discuss: a unified Content and Commerce experience. The one thing however that you must not neglect: a customer centric point of view, placing the customer and the user at the center of all things.

At eZ, in the next months and year, we will focus on the digital experience capabilities of our platform and on the content technology that helps create content and deliver it in a relevant way, everywhere. We will team with experts such as Silver Solutions when touching the commerce side: purchasing, payment, procurement, customer service, monitoring… This is big, and exciting!

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