What’s a digital experience platform? Get the scoop on DXPs, CMSes and where content platforms fit into the modern stack

Illustration depicting abstract graphics, representing scaling digital experiences for the future
July 12, 2021


Digital experience platforms change the way global organizations interact with their customers. Both Gartner and Forrester have introduced reports to help digital leaders understand the benefits of DXPs. But the emerging market has left some people scratching their heads: what is a digital experience platform? How does it differ from a content management system? And what do you need to deliver the digital experiences your customers crave? Spoiler alert: an all-in-one digital experience platform is not your only option.

This post explains the difference between CMSes and DXPs, why DXP suites are falling out of favor and how digital-first companies are building their own digital experience platforms with Contentful at the center.

What is a digital experience platform? 

First things first: what’s a digital experience platform? Gartner, who is primarily responsible for coining the term, defines a digital experience platform as an “integrated set of core technologies that support the composition, management, delivery, and optimization of contextualized digital experiences.” In other words, digital experience platforms allow for the creation, hosting and distribution of digital experiences across multiple channels and devices.  

Illustration of people sitting on platforms, working on laptops, representing a digital experience platform

Digital experience platforms solve an increasingly complex problem: meeting the growing expectations of customers. Customers expect relevant, connected experiences through a range of digital channels (web, mobile, social media) and digital devices (wearables, home devices, digital displays). 

Digital experience platforms evolved to make working with this enormous amount of content manageable. But as we’ll see later, DXP suites — single tools that try to do everything necessary to produce digital experiences — share the problems of their CMS counterparts. Companies are already pivoting to the next generation of digital experience tools: the digital experience platform.

Why do companies need a digital experience platform?

Content isn’t just for marketing or creating websites anymore. Content is the heart of every digital experience, from brand awareness through product support. Customers expect these digital experiences to connect across an increasing number of channels on all their devices with meaningful touchpoints at every stage of the customer journey. This requires coordination across multiple teams and technology within the enterprise. 

Digital experience platforms enable brands to build and deliver enterprise digital experiences, faster and with greater consistency. These enterprise digital experiences capture greater revenue, drive preferences and increase customer loyalty. To create them, brands need to go beyond content management. Digital experience platforms integrate content with other core technologies to deliver personalized, localized and interactive experiences across channels, devices and the customer lifecycle.

In the race to deliver digital experiences that are relevant and better than the competition, the only sustainable advantage is the ability to build faster than the competition. Experts agree:

“How companies deliver digital experience and customer experience are essential elements of future success — and will propel the best-in-class businesses,” states CMSWire.

Speed or “time to value” is the critical measure of success. Brands need efficient tools to build digital experiences that scale. Relying on heroic efforts to overcome system shortfalls is no longer a viable option. People can fill in system gaps for one-off experiences and give the appearance that a CMS or digital experience platform is working, but the true test comes when you need to roll out a new brand to 32 markets in six months or want to enter a new channel like voice content

See more examples of what it means —  and what it takes — to build better digital experiences.

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What is the difference between a digital experience platform and a content management system?

A traditional content management system is designed to manage content, typically for a single channel such as a website or app. CMSes may deliver content to a webpage, but you can't use a single CMS to create and manage digital experiences across channels. Companies end up with a sprawl of siloed CMSes that make it impossible to deliver the connected digital experiences customers want. 

Headless CMSes decouple the content and the presentation components of a traditional CMS. They enable companies to separate how content is created and managed from how that content is delivered and displayed. In this way, a headless CMS can deliver content across multiple channels. Learn more about the differences between traditional, decoupled and headless CMSes.

Digital experience platforms take the flexible delivery of a headless CMS a few steps further.  With a digital experience platform, digital experiences are structured, easily machine readable, and extensible, enabling integration with a variety of tools. Brands can build, deliver and scale deeply engaging digital experiences faster. Digital experience platforms empower companies to build digital experiences such as chatbots, IoT, AR/VR and digital assistants in a way that is replicable.

While the term “platform” might sound like you’re purchasing an all-in-one product or stand-alone package, that’s not always the case. DXP suites do exist, but most digital experience platforms are composed of a collection of technologies that deliver what your business needs. You still need an API-first, extensible content management component such as a headless CMS or content platform

As we’ll explain in the next section, some companies choose predetermined bundles of technology packaged as a digital experience platform or suite. Others opt to build their own digital experience platform or digital experience stack, choosing the technology that best fits their needs. 

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What’s the difference between a DXP suite and a digital experience platform?

You can buy an all-in-one digital experience platform that provides a suite of tools — you can even buy one from CMS providers, which are expanding into the DXP market. But these options take the limitations of a monolithic suite with them. 

Most DXP suites haven’t been built from the ground up. Instead, suite providers acquire technology from smaller players and add it to their product. They collect the technology and, instead of offering it as modular architecture, they slot it together with the rest of their offering. 

The result is a suite of tools that weren’t created to work together, and that haven’t been chosen by you to match your business needs. The suite-based approach requires customization, which can lead to a mess of integrators, workarounds and, eventually, a digital product that isn’t ideally suited to your needs. For more details on limitations and challenges of suite-based DXPs, download Sustaining the drive to digital.

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Digital experience platforms deliver the functionality of a DXP suite with greater speed and flexibility

More and more companies realize that platforms composed of modern technology, not a single monolith solution, are the way to go. Companies can assemble their own digital experience platform with just the tools they need now and add to it as they expand their digital capabilities. A typical digital experience platform will include a content platform (such as Contentful), analytics, personalization, digital asset management and customer data management. 

Digital experience platforms enable people with all kinds of technical and design knowledge to engage with them, and there is nothing extraneous or unwanted. A true digital experience platform is built to be an integration hub where it's possible to add and remove technological services with ease. That’s what a digital experience platform delivers.

Learn how digital experience stacks can unleash your strategic agility.

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A content platform is the core of the digital experience platform

Every digital experience platform needs a content component, because content is the heart of every digital experience. At Contentful, we’ve gone beyond content management and headless CMSes to deliver a content platform powerful enough to create amazing digital experiences at scale.  

Unlike a CMS, a content platform is not a closed system that cuts your content off from other tools. Contentful was created to sit at the core of a digital experience platform and work seamlessly with other tools and services. With Contentful and our technology partners you can build your digital experience platform using the technologies you love without having to integrate all the parts yourself. 

Contentful is headless CMS made smarter. Our next-generation content platform combines industry-leading support, integrations, apps and resources to help developers and non-developers get started quickly and deliver digital experiences faster. The App Framework, let’s you connect to tools and services quickly, using them as building blocks for your digital experience platform. You also have access to a framework to create your own apps, making your digital experience stack fully customizable. 

Contentful is the content platform for your modern digital experience stack. See how we're helping brands build better digital experiences.

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