Today’s consumers expect to be able to buy what they want, when they want, and where they want. They value retailers that demonstrate an understanding of their needs and that create personalized offers tailored to their preferences without crossing the line into being intrusive. What’s more, consumers count on retailers to offer multiple payment and delivery options and assume customer service representatives at those retailers are informed and responsive in sorting out issues such as returns, exchanges, and incorrect orders.

These are high expectations for even the most innovative and forward-thinking online businesses. Predominantly brick-and-mortar companies that built their businesses in the pre-online era are now wrestling with how to adapt to the digital world. It is one thing to understand changing consumer expectations and quite another to figure out how to meet them successfully.

Providing great customer experiences requires blending information, design, and operations. In addition to being a purchaser, a customer is a collection of emotions, activities, and attitudes that come into play around purchasing decisions. In practice, this means the content-related parts of a business—websites, promotions, and physical stores—need to be integrated with the commerce parts—product catalogs, transactions, logistics, and fulfillment.

But while this integration of content and commerce is crucial for today’s companies, they face two key obstacles:

A fragmented technology-vendor landscape—Commerce servers and web content management (WCM) systems are traditionally separate technologies sold by different vendors and implemented by partners with capabilities in either the former or the latter. Furthermore, other related technologies such as digital asset management (DAM), product information management, or business intelligence (BI) may be required, necessitating the involvement of additional vendors and further increasing spending. Many vendors that sell different products do partner with each other to ease integration challenges for their joint customers. And yet, the cost and time to integrate them may be prohibitive, particularly if there is a shortage of certified experts for a given solution.

Departmental divides within companies—Marketing departments commonly create and manage content, while IT departments and merchandizing and sourcing specialists manage commerce. When these departments do not collaborate on technology strategy and purchasing decisions, redundancies, inefficiencies, or even serious disruption and revenue loss may result. One common example is if a marketing department launches a big campaign for a major holiday without coordinating with IT to ensure that there will be sufficient network capacity to handle sudden increases in traffic. There is a risk websites will crash.

The good news is there are signs that some key market players are taking steps to bridge the content and commerce divide. A new version of Sitecore Commerce was launched this past January, and Episerver has been gaining traction with its commerce solution for both existing customers as well as new customers for WCM. Two open source suppliers, Magento for commerce and Acquia for content, recently announced a partnership that will include an integration service that will have real-time sharing of product, pricing, promotion, and transaction data between the two companies.

Similarly, some vendor partners are changing their business structures to address the content and commerce integration challenge. Systems integrators who implement and manage these vendor solutions have been investing in expanding their content and design capabilities. Accenture, IBM, Wipro, and HCL have collectively spent billions of dollars in the last few years either acquiring digital agencies, building their own internal practices, or a combination of both. In addition, more digital agencies are investing in acquiring expertise in providing post-implementation services—often called “managed services”—to assist clients with ongoing operations after “going live,” when they may lack the necessary capabilities to take advantage of new technologies.

Despite these positive developments, content and commerce integration is a formidable challenge. Here are five steps to developing a successful content and commerce integration strategy to meet that challenge. 

Step 1: Ensure Marketing and IT Experts Are on the Core Project Team

It doesn’t matter which department leads a content and commerce integration strategy, if the project team has the right mix of people. Input from both the content experts and the systems experts will be essential. Marketing experts contribute knowledge of the customer and customer behavior, understanding the importance of user research, user experience, and customer-journey mapping. It is the folks from marketing who will be working with the content management such as the website, apps, and campaigns. IT experts make sure that the systems on which content runs work properly, contributing knowledge of security, data structure, and reliability. The people in IT will need to prevent denial-of-service attacks, scale network capacity as needed to meet peaks and troughs in traffic, and manage customer data effectively and securely.

Step 2: Define Goals and Measures of Success

A common step many project teams take after their formation is to immediately jump into discussions about what technology platforms to purchase. This is a mistake. Just as you wouldn’t buy a car before deciding how and where you are going to use it, what features are important to you, and what your budget is, an organization needs to determine what its goals and measures of success are before investing in new technology. Do you want to increase revenue to meet new targets? Or are you more concerned with protecting profit margins by improving efficiency? Do you want to enter new geographic or demographic markets or expand into new product lines? There are a variety of technology options in the market for different types of organizations—large and small, in different industries, with different features and functions—and you’ll need some guidelines to narrow down your selection. Just as you wouldn’t decide to buy a Ferrari if you have only a few thousand dollars to spend and will mostly be driving your family around the suburbs, you don’t want to consider buying enterprise technology that is well beyond your budget and doesn’t help you to meet your organization’s goals. 

Step 3: Conduct an Internal Capability and Requirements Assessment

You have the right team in place and have determined where you want your content and commerce integration to take you. Your next step is to validate that you have the right people and processes in place to take advantage of this new reality. Skills that will be needed during and after content and commerce integration include marketing operation management, data reporting and analysis, and security management. If you do not have people with these skills, you must to factor in the need to retrain existing employees, hire additional ones, or consider outsourcing some functions and services to a third party.

Step 4: Find the Right Partner and Technology Solution(s)

Every organization comes to content and commerce integration from its own unique starting point. Some may have different types of legacy technology from various vendors, their own homegrown systems, or a combination of the two. They may have been successfully running an online store using a homegrown commerce platform and now want to provide richer digital content that runs in a variety of languages, thus requiring additional content capabilities. They may be a media company with high-quality digital content and want to launch an online store to sell branded merchandise. They may be an industrial manufacturer that wants to create an online product catalog for customers and move their suppliers to ordering online instead of via direct sales.

These different starting points, coupled with the goals determined in Step 2, underscore how there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to buying content and commerce technology. Some organizations may have determined in Step 3 that they have the necessary capabilities to choose the technology they may need—be it a WCM solution, an ecommerce platform, a product information management software, or a suite of multiple solutions in one product. They may feel capable of selecting and implementing it themselves. However, for those that are unsure of which technology they need and what expertise will be required to implement and operate it, selecting an external partner will be the best option.

Step 5: Pilot, Test, Iterate, and Scale

Implementing a single technology solution from just one vendor can be a challenge. In a content and commerce integration—since it involves a variety of both front-end and back-end processes and affects the people who manage those processes and use them in their work—that complexity increases dramatically. At the same time, responding to customer demands and market pressures means that organizations investing in content and commerce need to also get to market as quickly as possible, learn what works, adjust as needed, then scale.

Content and commerce implementation should therefore not be conceived as one major multi-year project, but rather several shorter stages that take months or even weeks. Waterfall project methodologies are giving way to agile ones in which there are pilots, continuous improvements, and getting to a successful minimal viable product (MVP). For example, a global consumer products company wants to begin selling directly to consumers online in addition to in-store retailers in order to increase sales and get better data about customer behavior and connection with the brands they buy.  Rather than moving its entire product catalog of hundreds of thousands of individual products to become available in scores of countries right away—which would require a major budget outlay as well as potential disruption to existing systems—this company could start with just a new product line in a single country or region, learn from that experience, and then adjust and expand either to other products, regions, or both. Companies as diverse as Fitbit, Kelloggs, and L’Oreal have taken this route successfully.