Episerver begins its ascent

Ascend ’15, held in Las Vegas this week, was something of a coming out party for the new Episerver. On the one hand, Episerver is by no means a new company. Founded in 1994, it’s an established brand in its native Sweden. But after merging in January this year with New Hampshire-based web content management vendor Ektron, it’s setting its sights both on the US market, and on becoming a global company.

Episerver’s traditional focus has been using sophisticated digital marketing techniques to generate business results (earlier this year, I spoke Joakim Homlquist, the company’s digital marketing director, about U.S. Presidential elections viewed as eCommerce campaigns). Ektron has been delivering personalized digital experiences to drive ROI. Bringing the solutions together, said James Norwood, EVP for Strategy and CMO, has meant “taking the hidden gem of Episerver’s product and building what’s best of Ektron into it.” The result of the convergence is the Digital Experience Cloud, the Fall ’15 version of which is released this week.

What’s in the Cloud?

In a series of discussions with Episerver executives, partners and customers, over the last three days, I’ve explored what the Episerver Digital Experience Cloud is, and–equally importantly, as always–what it isn’t.

First up, it’s not a cloud. Not necessarily, anyway–or more precisely, not yet. The heritage products offered by Episerver and Ektron were on-premise, licensed software solutions. Most of this historic customer base (almost 9,000 across 30 countries) is still using the on-premise solution, said Norwood, but in the last twelve months 70 percent of on-boarded customers have gone to the cloud version. “Moving to the cloud is very important,” he said, a stance confirmed by Episerver’s decision to use the “Cloud” name for the platform regardless of deployment model. In particular, cloud-based users will be able to benefit from frequent, even weekly updates, and get quick access to “minimum viable product” launches.

The Digital Experience Cloud is “an end-to-end platform to underpin digital marketing initiatives,” Norwood said in his keynote. We’ll unpack what that means, but let’s be clear that it’s not a full-blown marketing cloud; not a data management platform; not a digital asset management tool; not a comprehensive social media management suite; and certainly not a CRM system–although there are ways for each of those elements to surface within the Episerver eco-system.

At its heart, the Episerver platform is a content and eCommerce management system, but with significant bells and whistles–the most notable of which, in its current iteration, are a user-friendly interface for building, approving, launching, and optimizing campaigns, and the ability to deliver personalized online content. 

In Episerver’s terms, a “project,” said Bob Egner, VP of Product Management and Marketing, can be thought of as “a project management container for all elements of your campaign.” Episerver’s Projects tool allows users to assemble, modify and review content for a campaign in one collaborative space–sandboxed from other campaigns (you can develop an unlimited number of campaigns in parallel)–and schedule the launch of the content from the one interface. It includes functionality for making and preserving comments on content, tracking revisions, and assigning workflows.

Commerce Campaigns is tailored for marketers to build commerce activities like promotions and discounting into campaigns, and set and track campaign targets. The Fall ’15 release also includes a new form-building engine, with the option to populate and personalize forms with data from other marketing automation platforms (more on that below); and Instant Templates, based on Ektron’s Page Builder and Master Templates tools, to facilitate content creation.

What’s coming to the Cloud 

The Digital Experience Cloud, in its Fall ’15 iteration, is available to Episerver customers this week. Egner also laid out the roadmap for developments over the short (next two quarters), medium and long-term. Coming up soon: a new social publishing tool to replace Ektron’s social reach capability, and the convergence of A/B and multivariant testing tools hanging over from the heritage Episerver and Ektron products. In the medium-term, expect to see an expanded concept of campaigns, featuring enhanced campaign metrics, customer journey metrics, and stored profiles.

Down the road–“We’re thinking about it, but not yet working on it,” as Egner puts it–cross channel campaigns, moving beyond web and mobile content to email and social media marketing; ROI and attribution metrics; and predictive modeling to optimize content delivery.

I asked Egner if he was anxious about taking what he called “a measured approach” to capabilities like predictive modelings–which some vendors already claim to offer. His response was that many customers aren’t even ready for “futuristic” developments. Things like predictive modeling might be on the check-list when a business is buying marketing technology, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to use it. I heard this in several variations during the conference. Norwood told me, “Technically our product is way ahead of what most of our customers are actually using,” and in a panel discussion, independent consultant Scott Liewehr of the Digital Clarity Group mused that when it came to tech, “people have big eyes when they’re buying.”

Unlike some of the big marketing suites, which seek to surround clients with proprietary tools for all their needs, Episerver’s eco-system is notably open. There’s a limited digital asset management capacity within the platform, but Episerver doesn’t pretend it can meet all customer needs. Instead, the platform is able to mirror Sharepoint-based asset libraries, and offers integration with external DAM systems like Celum and ImageVault. Although Episerver is looking at storing customer profiles, housing and managing big data is nowhere in the plan. Instead, it offers a set of baked-in connectors which allow customers to build audience segments and optimize content using data from external marketing automation, CRM and social platforms.

There’s an add-on store–all products certified and supported, Norwood said. The contribution of developers, he told me, is “a huge part of what goes on. We produce a platform out of the box and help people get it up and running fast,” but customers are expected and encouraged to customize the platform to their own needs.

Always be sewing   

I spoke with Episerver customers, and learned especially how web content personalization translated into increased engagement and sales. Unexpectedly, it was a major sewing machine vendor that had some of the most dramatic results to share. Janome America is one of eleven subsidiaries of a Tokyo-based global parent. Mike Seminara is the Marketing Manager–and is regarded by Episerver executives, I discovered, as a true digital disrupter. That’s a good thing, by the way.

For readers not up-to-date with sewing machines (I admit to being behind the curve myself), some of them are now highly sophisticated digital products. Janome’s top-of-line machines cost thousands of dollars, but it offers a full range–over 70 models–plus thousands of accessories. As Seminara said, “it’s a tremendous amount of products.”  

Acquiring a machine may be an occasional transaction, but accessory purchases come under the heading of after-sales, and prolong the customer’s relationship with the vendor. Using Episerver, Seminara said, “we’ve been able personalize web content.” Customers visiting the website after purchase see only accessories that work with their machines. Along with accessories, Janome also offers personalized designs and pattern suggestions.

This is relatively straightforward for the 65,000 plus customers who bought machines direct from Janome. The next challenge is to encourage the customers who bought hundreds of thousands of Janome machines from independent sources, and are coming to the website to make accessory purchases, to register and share in the personalization benefits. Seminara is also helping roll-out the Episerver platform globally to the other Janome subsidiaries (Japan and Canada are top of the list).

With over 50 percent of visitors viewing content on mobile, responsive content is also important to Seminara, and something Episerver delivers. The number of unique visitors to the website has more than doubled. Page views are up almost 700 percent, and new visitors almost 100 percent. Successful social engagement on image-heavy platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, as well as Facebook, has also helped drive traffic. Seminara currently uses Hootsuite for social media management; Janome uses Marketo for marketing automation–“It implements with Episerver, which influenced our decision to go with Episerver.” Currently he has just four managers and two graphic designers guiding the content (and none of them doing it as a full-time job). It’s currently an on-premise and not the cloud iteration of the product, “but that will change. As we go global, we’ll have no choice.”

The health of children

I heard a different story, with a strikingly similar outcome, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is both a nonprofit and an organization which has enhanced its digital commerce capabilities with an Episerver implementation. Working with Episerver partner Adage Technologies, the AAP replaced its existing eCommerce solution. “Fragmented, with content managed across multiple departments, and an inconsistent and fractured user experience,” was how AAP IT Director Rob Katchen described it. “It limited our ability to cross-sell and upsell information.”

The AAP is an organization of pediatric professionals dedicated to the “optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents and young adults.” One way it powers its mission is selling a wide range of books, eBooks, CD-Rs and online and offline events. But according to Caitlin Grogan, Adage’s project manager on the AAP implementation, “it’s not just about commerce. It’s about the relationship.” The AAP wanted users to have a better experience, including control and clarity about where they were on the website, and what they were doing. Episerver meant the possibility of serving personalized content based on membership information: it meant, for example, the possibility of showing different content to doctors and concerned parents.

The implementation included EpiFind, a search tool able to surface content from books and eBooks, and also, as Caitlin explained to me, to search across the full family of AAP sites.

Results? One change Katchen highlighted was the reduction in the number of clicks necessary to make a purchase–from around 17 using the previous solution to currently around three. The AAP has seen a 29 percent increase in revenue over twelve months, an increase in website visitors of around 350 percent, and–perhaps most striking–an almost 700 percent increase in users accessing their mobile properties.

A focused proffer

“Today we’re a global company, and we need to be seen as that,” Episerver CEO Mark Duffel had said in his opening remarks. “We’ve needed to grow in scale. We now have more resources, more infrastructure, and more expertise, but we remain agile.” But doesn’t Duffel’s avowed aim of being “big enough to deliver, small enough to care” leave Episerver vulnerable in a highly competitive space where legacy IT giants are crashing into each other and making big waves?

For example, while it’s admirable that Episerver’s connections allow customers to integrate data from Adobe’s ExactTarget, Hubspot, IBM’s Silverpop, Marketo, Oracle’s Eloqua, and Salesforce, those same vendors are themselves offering their own mix of marketing, content management, personalization, customer journey mapping, and other solutions. Couldn’t Episerver feel the squeeze?

Norwood disagreed. “We’re bringing a digital experience customers aren’t getting anywhere else. Salesforce, Pardot–we want to consume them as resources and do what we’re really good at. We’re going to stick to our knitting.” Try to cover all bases? “No, we’re not that big, and I don’t think that’s the way forward.” 

Right now, he said, “we are very focused on midmarket companies with rapid growth, to the upper midmarket.” Episerver aims to attract companies “with a grand vision of where they’re going, and a need to keep tech at arms length.” It’s not currently in the hunt for clients with big IT teams contemplating three year roll-outs. In Norwood’s view, Episerver has an appealing, easy-to-use front-end (the interfaces I saw demonstrated at Ascend certainly looked user-friendly), and “we’re designing for users, not technicians.” 

“We’re a midmarket company ourselves,” he said, “and we understand the challenges.” He told me about the high-end UK supermarket chain Marks & Spencer. Year round, it uses an Oracle ATG commerce implementation. For the holiday season, it has successfully turned to Episerver to drive sales of food products with responsive content. For the holidays, says Norwood, “it acts like an agile midmarket company.”

“We like to attract savvy, edgy marketers who want to disrupt their market. People prepared to take risks and fail fast.”  But “we’ve got to build our brand in the US. We’ve still got a ways to go. We need to get the at bats. When we get to play, people like what we’re offering.”

Episerver covered The Hub’s travel and expenses to attend Ascend ’15 

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