Episerver: Softly, Softly

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Carefully taking risks: The Passing Zone at Ascend 2017
Carefully taking risks: The Passing Zone at Ascend 2017

A marketing solution which combines content management with an eCommerce platform; campaign orchestration with customer journey mapping; adds social listening and email automation; and has AI capabilities baked in for good measure.

Am I talking about one of the big cloud players? We all know who they are.

Or am I talking about a software company of which I wrote, in November 2015: " [It] doesn't pretend it can meet all customer needs"? In fact, just last November, Episerver CMO James Norwood told me: "We don't try to do everything."

And yet recently in Las Vegas, I watched President and CEO Mark Duffel take the stage at the brand's Ascend 2017 conference to announce a new Episerver: "Bigger and better," powering some 30,000 websites, and enabling $18 billion of global omnichannel revenue for its customers. It still ticks the Forrester Wave and Gartner Magic Quadrant boxes for content management, but now offers, Duffel says, digital content, commerce and marketing "all in one screen." With AI, Norwood added, working "discreetly but powerfully" in the background.

For something which is still not a big box marketing suite, Episerver is looking and acting more like one with every month that passes. It's a softly, softly approach.

Solutions on demand

I sat down with Justin Anovick, VP of worldwide product — the guy in the cloud pants — to talk about the company's roadmap, and asked him whether Episerver was angling to play in the major marketing cloud leagues. "It could evolve that way," he said, "but we're taking our own route. Historically, Episerver has been more of a tool-kit. Our focus is on the evolution of the tool-kit into solutions."

Solutions, he emphasized, that Episerver customers are actually asking for. Example? Episerver Campaign, with what David Bowen, head of product management, described to me as "much more advanced orchestrations and nurturing flows" than Episerver Campaign Monitor, a tool with a narrower focus on website performance. The October 2016 acquisition of omnichannel campaign management platform Optivo is in the mix here.

More examples? Episerver Find, a solution for generating personalized web experiences; Episerver Advance, for email personalization and event-triggering; Episerver Social, for management of user-generated social content; and even an Episerver social bot to assist editors managing social listening and publishing (it's powered by Cortana, and more of Microsoft later).

Still, Anovick said, the CMS capability is Episerver's "bread and butter," included as part of the Commerce offering. It appeals, he said, to customers who want to focus on their own brand, and the possibility of creative their own unbelievable digital experiences for consumers. (Episerver does, after all, call its total offering the Digital Experience Cloud). It's of less interest, he admitted, to brands primarily focused on commoditizing their offerings through sites like Amazon and Alibaba (many brands, of course, do both).

But again: Things don't stop at  eCommerce."From a product perspective," said Anovick, "one of the big things [we're considering] is a marketplace concept." It probably won't be called that, he said, but essentially it means a space for partners to offer integrations and add-ons which work with, and enhance, Episerver's offerings (yes, not unlike an app store). "Our partners are doing these things anyway," he said. "We don't even necessarily know the use cases." 

The intelligence layer

Like many other marketing tech vendors in the current environment, Episerver insists that AI is not just something on the roadmap for the solution. "It's doing it today," said Norwood in his keynote. Specifically, AI is enabling customer journey mapping, and pushing it in the direction of predictive modeling (in other words, understanding the customer's interests and needs in advance, and optimizing content to meet them). "If you haven't started some kind of customer journey mapping already, you're probably behind the curve," he said.

What is new is the emphasis Episerver is placing on its AI capabilities, based in part on its long-standing relationship with Microsoft, and in part on its acquisition last summer of omnichannel personalization vendor Peerius. And yes, this does get complicated: It's AI, after all.

I met Joey Moore, product director at Peerius, who enthused about how coming together with Episerver had "accelerated our roadmap," thanks to increased resources and capabilities. The focus of Peerius has been to personalize the consumer's omnichannel eCommerce experience. Machine learning — algorithms which automatically make themselves smarter based on continuous feedback from large quantities of data — is at the heart of the Peerius platform, Moore explained.

It would take an army of merchandisers, Moore explained, to generate personalized product recommendations based on a catalog as large as, for example, Topshop's (a Peerius client). Machine learning can not only generate such recommendations, but gear them, Moore said, to increasing revenue — recommendations which "convert better," or lead to adding more items to a basket. This isn't based on audience segments, he emphasized: It's one on one. "We do have the capability to understand and use segments," he added. "There's no need to throw them out of the window."

The bedrock data fed to the Peerius algorithms includes web clicks and views, mobile web and app activity, call center records, digital receipts, electronic POS records, and the CRM reservoir. Within an individual user profile, Peerius will collate information on devices owned, and last touchpoint — a store visit, for example, or an email open.

Peerius capabilities are being integrated with Episerver Perform (the platform's product recommendation tool), with Episerver Advance, and other Episerver solutions. "The integration," Moore said, "is complete." He looked to the future too: "Think about in five years time," he said. "How [does an eCommerce brand] defend against Amazon? eCommerce platforms that don't support intelligent content are going to struggle."

All good, but where does Microsoft come in? According to Moore, Episerver is leveraging Azure Machine Learning to support other components of its overall offering. 

One strength of Peerius, Bowen told me, is that it generates product recommendations for specific businesses: It's built out for specific domains, and understands those domains' KPIs. Azure's Cortana Intelligence Suite provides what Bowen describes as "easy to adopt machine learning models." It provides natural language processing abilities — familiar to anyone who has interacted with the Cortana bot — and also has deep learning competence in identifying and recommending untagged images: a competence impressively demonstrated by Anovick on the main  stage, where Cortana pulled cute dog images for campaign purposes based on image recognition rather than a taxonomy.

I did ask whether there's a risk to Episerver in building solutions around a third-party machine learning suite. Salesforce, after all, has had the resources to develop Einstein internally. "What is a risk," said Bowen, "is the commoditization of AI," in other words the kind of one-size-fits-all AI which many in the space have criticized. He emphasizes that Episerver does have proprietary knowledge of how machine learning can benefit its own customer base; it has data scientists; and it has Microsoft scientists working alongside its customers.

"We have a great relationship with Microsoft," Avonick added. "It's a symbiotic relationship. We work very closely with them." He expanded on what Bowen had said: "The focus on use cases is important." It's the machine learning use cases from customers on the Episerver platform which, in effect, constitute Episerver's intellectual property when it comes to AI.

The platform for the county

How does Episerver work out as a practical implementation? I took the opportunity to speak to an unusual — but by no means unique — customer: a local government authority. Dave Kagenbrink is solutions administrator for Waukesha County, Wisconsin — the third largest county in the state, just west of Milwaukee. The challenge his team faced, not unlike a commercial business, was getting the right information to the right people at the right time. There's one important qualification, he said. The people of the state "are customers — but also citizens."  There's no opportunity, he explained, for inaccuracy.

Prior to 2000, the county was run pretty much on paper. It eventually ventured down the path to digitization. Government doesn't move fast, Kagenbrink observed: "We don't do bleeding edge." By 2006, it was an Ektron shop, the CMS which merged with Episerver in 2015. Over the last eighteen months, it's been converting to Episerver: "There were four to six weeks of heavy lifting," said Kagenbrink.

Kagenbrink describes his objective as looking at the county's needs "holistically," finding "a single way that works for everybody. Almost everybody," he added, after a pause. Episerver provides an opportunity to decentralize the authoring and editing of content. "IT doesn't own the information," he explained. "It's easy to bring in an editor and say, 'This is all you need to know to publish information.'" In two hours, someone can learn to support the entire information base for their department. There are 40 different departments within the county government, but that doesn't mean 40 different websites.

Despite being under the umbrella of good governance, there are commercial elements too, marketing golf course reservations, for example, pavilion rentals in the parks, and even selling marriage licenses. "We're biting around the edges," said Kagenbrink. What's more, it's still an entirely on premise implementation. But Kagenbrink is eyeing the cloud. "We might put an IT sharepoint site out there," he said. "We're starting those conversations."

Episerver hadn't been an automatic choice for Waukesha, following the merger which effectively ended Ektron as an independent option. The county issued a full RFP and looked at seven or eight different products. Each one had unique merits, Kagenbrink admits, "But they didn't overshadow our comfort with the company and platform. It ticked all the boxes that we still needed, there was an established relationship. There was no reason for us not to continue." He added: "The people, over the years, have been amazing." And he keeps running into tech peers from other local authorities, and discovering to his surprise that they're Episerver consumers too.

The journey continues

Whether it's the customer journey, or Episerver's journey as a technology brand, it's evidently not over yet. When Norwood spoke of the "consistency and seamlessness across channels" that are the hallmarks of the ideal customer journey, I reflected that he might be describing Episerver's own gradual progression. Its origins, as a Stockholm-based CMS some twenty years ago, hardly prefigured the unveiling of the Episerver Digital Experience Cloud in 2015.

Episerver seems to have mastered the trick of disguising remarkably fast, ambitious — even aggressive — growth as a thoughtful, deliberate, customer-inspired evolution. "We've obviously accelerated our roadmap in recent months," Norwood told me in December, "through a number of very targeted, very strategic acquisitions." But it remains focused, he insisted, "on the core need: How do we get these digitally savvy — or maturing digital marketing organizations — to perform well online."

Episerver covered DMN's expenses to attend Ascend 2017. Photo of The Passing Zone by Kim Davis.

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