A guide to ecommerce replatforming: Everything you need to know

Many online retailers built out their first ecommerce application when websites dominated the internet, and it was an advantage just to have an online presence. Today, the landscape for an ecommerce business is very different.

Customers want to interact with your brand via websites, mobile applications, and social media. And they want to do it all at blazing fast speeds, with a user experience personalized to their needs. Even best-in-class legacy systems were not built to solve these challenges — but current platforms are. 

Migrating to a new ecommerce platform will enable you to make use of the latest functionality, like APIintegrations to multiple plugins, channels, and audiences; cloud services to automatically scale infrastructure with your growing customer base; and modern technology frameworks that deliver all of the above at record speeds.

If you’re a retailer stuck with legacy systems, replatforming your ecommerce solution is a good way to modernize and meet your customers’ needs.

What is replatforming?

In the broadest sense, it’s a migration process that involves moving your site from one piece of software to another. An organization often makes this move as part of a larger digital transformation project.

The term is not specific to any one industry. It might mean modernizing your site by shifting its backend from on-premises hosting to a cloud-native platform. It could also mean switching your content from a monolithic CMS to a headless CMS, or a composable content platform like Contentful. 

What’s the difference between a headless CMS and a composable content platform? Learn more here.

Every replatforming project looks different. For this guide, we’ll focus on ecommerce replatforming: moving from a legacy all-in-one commerce application to a modern, API-first, composable architecture stack.

Graphic of shopping on a smartphone for a t-shirt

Replatform vs redesign

It can be easy to get these terms mixed up. Let’s define them to clarify the difference.

A platform is a foundational technology used to build your website’s backend infrastructure. Think of the CMS, the commerce engine, translation engine, and other components you use to generate, serve, and translate content, and conduct sales.  

The design is the UX, or the frontend. This is the user interface and the components that render the site for your audience, and enable them to interact with your application.

Replatforming can mean replacing a single component of your website’s backend tech stack or all of the components in a single go. It may or may not involve changing your design. 

Redesigning means changing the look and feel of your site with new UX components. If you do this by moving to a new site without replatforming your content at the same time, this is sometimes called a “lift and shift.”

In the past, organizations were often forced to do both at the same time, which is called a “rip and replace.” This was common because an outdated platform was often paired with an outdated design. 

But we should mention there are also valid reasons for doing one at a time. For example, maybe your website has a brand-new design that you’d like to keep. Or, maybe you want to minimize downtime and risk by implementing a phased rollout to replatforming your site in sections.

Benefits of ecommerce platform migration

Here are just a few ways your ecommerce store will benefit from a new platform:

  • Performance: Every second your store is loading causes you to lose 10% of conversions. Using an API-first, composable architecture allows you to select the highest performance services for your given application—and that increased performance can even improve SEO rankings. For example, many of Contentful’s customers use a Jamstack architecture to generate the fastest websites possible by prerendering content before traffic even arrives. This approach can be combined with a variety of other performance optimizations across your platform. Most importantly, modern Jamstack static site generators (SSGs) have made it possible to prerender even millions of unique pages in as little as a few minutes (or less!).

  • Scalability: It doesn't matter how fast your store is if you experience frequent outages and downtime. That can be tough to combat with legacy systems, since they likely spread the workload across a number of individual servers, with each one running only a single service. That means if your site has a big spike in traffic, that workload can overload a key server, causing it to fail and take the whole site down with it. Bringing your application back online requires rebooting this server, which takes time and doesn't alleviate the stress that caused the outage in the first place. A modern, composable architecture platform eliminates this problem with the advantage of cloud-based auto-scaling functionality. This means the platform automatically balances workload across multiple redundant services and hardware. It will “watch” for increased usage and automatically provision and dedicate all the extra resources it needs to absorb demand. That way, your online store is always up, making for the ideal customer experience.

  • Custom solutions: Ecommerce legacy apps are often one-size-fits-all solutions that pick services like the ecommerce engine and digital asset manager for you. The problem? These services are often worst-in-class and integrated poorly. And, since your organization has unique business needs, it's unlikely that every one of these tools will be perfectly suited to your application. Replatforming to a modern, composable architecture enables you to build your own solution from a huge range of technology vendors in the marketplace. Select the DAM, personalization engine, translation engine, commerce engine, plugins, and automations that are right for your organization and your customers. Then, add these new features quickly using your platform’s API.

  • Flexible content creation: Using a legacy application for your CMS makes the creation of new content very time-consuming. Since many of these apps are 20 or more years old, you might spend two or more weeks just to create a new landing page. A modern headless CMS like Contentful can reduce that time to minutes.  In ecommerce, that empowers you to use your content for a better user experience. For instance, you can quickly create engaging digital content that showcases your products and your brand’s voice for as many channels and audiences as you need.

Graphic of a platform stack

How do you find the right platform for your ecommerce website?

When it’s time to replatform, the obvious first step is finding the platform. From our experience, here are some considerations that will help you make the best choice.

  • Infrastructure: Does the platform use AWS, Microsoft Azure, or another cloud service? Is it a fully managed SaaS solution with in-house developers dedicated to keeping the technology up to date? How does the platform handle security, and is it adequate for your needs? How much traffic does the platform regularly serve? How quickly is it able to serve that traffic?

  • Service level agreement: What can the platform promise regarding downtime? How can it demonstrate its adherence to the SLA? How much money would you lose in conversions with that amount of downtime?

  • Training: Does the vendor offer only documentation? Or do they offer instructor-led training, self-paced online learning, or more?

  • Extensibility: What integrations or plugins do you need? Does the platform support them? If not, how quickly can your devops team add new features? How good are the integrations, and the API? Do they work the way you need? What resources does the platform provide for customization? 

How to replatform

A lot of websites will offer an ecommerce replatforming checklist, or some other kind of one-size-fits-all guide to migrating from your current ecommerce platform. But it’s not that simple. Your organization is unique, and that means your replatforming project will look different from everyone else’s. 

However, there’s one statement we can make with confidence: We recommend against taking on a replatforming project completely in-house. 

Replatforming is often time-consuming and laborious. So it probably doesn't make financial sense to become an expert in this process, since you'll only undertake this effort every few years (or less) if you do it right the first time.

So, how should you approach it? Consider using a digital agency, which has the manpower and resources to execute the replatforming project. You could also use the paid professional services of your platform vendor, which can empower your team to use the platform to its fullest potential. Or, you can use both.

  • Digital agency: Check the partner network for your vendor and you’ll find agencies that offer migration services. These agencies can help you handle tasks like UX design, developing content models, auditing content, and the replatforming itself. You can even use multiple agencies, depending on your business needs. Pay attention to the number of digital agencies that are willing to partner with your vendor. Generally, the better designed a platform is, the more people will want to use it — leading to a larger partner ecosystem.

  • Paid professional services: Your platform vendor may offer structured assistance for the replatforming process. This will speed up the time-consuming process of replatforming and set you up for success in the future. Contentful, for example, has offerings for onboarding, modeling your content, building editorial workflows, data migration, development best practices, and so on.

Using either — or both — of these options will save you a lot of time-consuming work, and get you onto a new platform quickly and painlessly. (At least as painlessly as possible for a replatforming project.)

For example, this image is manually tagged with the keyword phrase "green grocery basket." (Ideally, the image file name should also include this keyword phrase, e.g. green-grocery-basket.png.)

Pro tips for a successful replatforming project

Contentful has supported many leading ecommerce organizations through their replatforming projects. In the process, we’ve gained a variety of insights that can help ensure your success. 

  • Assemble your team early: Gather all your stakeholders in a room (or a virtual room) as early in the project as possible. Include anyone who might touch the project, including your agencies, engineers on your devops team, content creators, business owners, and designers. Failing to assemble this team early on can lead to unexpected change requests that delay your time-to-market as these teams are added to the project over time.

  • Define KPIs: You’d be surprised by how many companies don’t define these metrics. However, it's absolutely crucial for your team to define measurable criteria for success.

  • Think about your content: Your replatforming project offers an opportunity to move to a new CMS with a composable content model that meets your organization's unique structure and priorities, like Contentful. If you decide to go this route, you shouldn't just start data migration right away. First, you’ll need to consider how much of your existing content should be migrated to the new platform. Then, you should develop a content model, which your new platform will use to structure and organize that content in a way that meets the unique needs of your business.

  • Test the content model: If you’re moving to a new CMS as you migrate from your existing system, this might be the most important task in the whole project. Before your devops team writes a single line of code, create a landing page or a hero banner. You might find that the engineer who created the model, and the content creators themselves, have a very different idea of what the content should look like. Continue testing throughout the implementation cycle to ensure that the solution works for both your technical and non-technical team members.

  • Move-in phases: A “big bang” approach is where you move from your existing platform all at once. This is tempting, but risky. Sometimes a big bang goes “bang” and the whole site fails. Any downtime you experience with your new store can lead to significant loss of profit. Try replatforming your less important, low-traffic sites first to see how it goes. These sites can often go down without causing a problem. This also gives your content and devops teams a chance to start using the new platform. They can do load testing, tweak designs, and even optimize performance to improve conversion rates. In the event that you only have a single site, consider moving portions of the application. Try changing your marketing or support pages first. Once that is done successfully, move more critical pages that generate conversions, like any checkout pages.  

The value of ecommerce replatforming

An outdated ecommerce platform can cause a lot of headaches for your store, your organization, and most importantly your customers. As we’ve explained, migrating from your legacy applications to a platform with an API-first, composable architecture can make all the difference and bring a variety of new opportunities for your new online store.

Moving to a new platform is not a simple task, especially since your migration will look different from any other organization’s. But if you follow the suggestions above, you’ll be well on your way to a modern ecommerce site, richer customer experiences, and better conversions.

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