Clutch spoke with Jason Perry, the CEO of Engagency, about the implications and uses of Sitecore, a popular CMS used to build websites.
Introduce your business and what you do there.
ENGAGENCY is a trusted Sitecore systems integrator and managed services provider. We specialize in Sitecore, the world’s leading .NET web content management platform. I am a co-founder. I serve as our President and CEO.
What should people consider when choosing a CMS?
Of course, that always depends on the size of the organization, the growth strategy, and the nature of its business model. Most mid-market and enterprise companies these days need an “enterprise” web content management system– capable of managing and governing websites and content at scale. What I mean by that is managing numerous websites and landing pages, all within one central system. Creating economy of scale by sharing content and modules across websites. Governing content with very granular workflow and user permissions. Giving marketers the ability to manage every aspect of their content and digital marketing activities and easily make modifications on their own. Translating content into multiple languages across multiple sites, without cutting and pasting content from a spreadsheet. These capabilities are table stakes for Sitecore, but these are just some of the abilities that a modern mid-size and enterprise marketing team require just to survive in the market today.
If companies want to thrive and compete on customer loyalty, then they also need to consider how their CMS is enabling them to integrate and leverage data across channels, third-party, and custom applications. There are a lot of challenges and a lot of opinions when it comes to how to leverage data in useful and responsible ways. The key is to find the CMS that aligns with IT’s technical requirements and Marketing’s vision of how they want to engage, nurture, and build loyalty with customers– and then make sure that the CMS you choose can do that at scale.
Looking deeper at Sitecore as a CMS, could you explain what differentiates it from other CMS’s?
Sitecore’s differentiators are constantly evolving, but one that’s been there from the beginning is the integrated nature of the entire suite. Sitecore is architected to integrate with any third-party or custom application. Sitecore’s Experience Database ‘xDB’ acts as a central repository that collects data from any source and allows marketers to use it to personalize a website visitor help guide visitors to what they’re looking for, across multiple channels. The first step is to get all the useful data in one place, so you can correlate it and really fine tune how you appeal to each persona– and that’s what xDB does.
Another major differentiator is Sitecore Commerce, which is their .NET e-commerce platform that was built from the ground up to allow marketers to create personalized buying experiences. Combining Sitecore and Sitecore Commerce presents a huge opportunity for manufacturing companies all over the globe that understand the importance of having a direct B2C relationship and want to give their end customers another buying option and a really personalized buying experience.
There are a lot of other things in the works. I’m excited about their plans to leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to tackle some of the most daunting and repetitive aspects of a digital marketer’s job. What is exciting about Sitecore is not just what they have released, but where they’re going as a company, their vision is always one step ahead of the competition.
Who is the ideal user for Sitecore, and who should avoid using the platform?
I don’t know if anyone should necessarily avoid using Sitecore, but organizations with more than one URL will get the greatest ROI out of Sitecore, just because of the economy of scale Sitecore affords. It was designed for complex multi-site content management scenarios. Organizations that grow through acquisition or have multiple brands will see a greater economy of scale and therefore it’s easier to justify the licensing costs.
That said, I estimate a quarter of all Sitecore customers only have one URL and maybe half only have 2-3 URLS. They chose to buy Sitecore because they’re in a heavily regulated industry that requires special governance capabilities, they need to translate thousands of pages into multiple languages, or they want the personalized experiences that you can create with Sitecore to be the real competitive advantage and differentiator that they use to compete for market share and customer loyalty.
How important is technical coding knowledge when building a Sitecore site, from a client’s perspective?
It’s vital. We do a lot of Sitecore Implementation Audits for clients that originally implemented with another vendor, and unfortunately, we’ve seen our fair share of poorly architected solutions, poorly configured solutions, and plenty of sloppy code. As it turns out, bigger is not better when it comes to selecting a Sitecore vendor because they often cobble together teams of offshore resources that have very little experience building sites in Sitecore or working together as a team.
It’s not just coding knowledge that you need to have. You need a team that has really thought through their development and deployment process and make improvements every time they do an implementation project together. You need to know what goes into a Sitecore architecture document and how to establish standards and enforce best practices that keep every developer on the same page and following conventions. You need to understand how to architect and configure the hosting environment according to Sitecore best practices. You need to know how to support a Sitecore implementation and upgrade it.
We started working on Sitecore projects back in 2008, and we’re still learning ways to improve on best practices every day. The learning curve is steep, so you need to get help from folks that have been down the implementation path many times before.
Are there any special or unique features within Sitecore?
Yes. There are lots of really powerful unique features to Sitecore. The Sitecore Experience Database, called xDB, which serves as a central repository for all your customer data is a big important differentiator with Sitecore. xDB allows you to collect and take action on your data like no other CMS on the market.
The Sitecore Commerce piece is another really big differentiator that is unique to Sitecore. The way they’re enabling companies to create personalized commerce experiences, by aligning personalized content and commerce really sets Sitecore apart.
But there are a lot of little things that are unique about Sitecore too. Like the Path Analyzer that creates a map and allows you to visualize the sequential paths that contacts take through your website. There are some really powerful workflow and user access capabilities that you don’t see in other CMS systems. And there is the IP Geolocation capabilities that allow you to personalize suggested places to try or buy a product– which is great for B2C, manufacturers, CPG, retail, franchise restaurants, etc.
I could go on, but there are so many it’s really worth a deeper dive.
Are there any services which haven't performed up to your expectations, or is there any tool which you'd like to see implemented within Sitecore?
In a marketplace this competitive, there’s no room to sit and rest on our laurels. The proving ground for the CMS market, or those who are evolving into a true multi-channel Experience Management Platform, will be how they leverage artificial intelligence.
One of the biggest challenges to getting the most value out of these investments, as these platforms get more complex, is the planning and interaction design process. There is a lot to consider when planning and designing how to personalize content, or a whole series of interactions for multiple audiences, across multiple channels. AI will help simplify and augment the planning and interaction design process that marketers must do.
This is the one thing that every platform in this space will have to improve. It’s where the biggest effort for innovation needs to be.
What should companies expect in terms of cost, when setting up a new website, maintaining it and adding new features?
I’m not at liberty to speak about Sitecore licensing costs but to implement Sitecore for the first time one should expect to spend anywhere between $100,000 and $300,000 just on the technical portion of the implementation, for a typical deployment.
Redesign costs can vary widely but we always suggest that you separate design and development and have these very different functions done by two separate agencies. This dual agency model really helps control costs and ensure that you're getting the best of both worlds.
Ongoing support and managed services from a trusted Sitecore certified vendor like us will run you around $7,000 to $15,000 a month depending on how many enhancements you’re making to your site every month and whether you’re looking for 24/7 support.
Could you talk about Sitecore SEO and security?
Sitecore allows you to build your site to conform to any SEO strategy or best practices you want to follow. Sitecore gives you a framework and it’s up to your Sitecore implementation partner and your SEO experts to design and implement things to your specifications.
In terms of security, Sitecore is used by government agencies and highly regulated industries like healthcare, financial services, etc.– because of it’s security best practices. Sitecore provides the framework and the functionality any organization needs to ensure they’re HIPPA, PCI, or GDPR compliant. There is a lot of work that goes into that, but Sitecore is designed for companies with the strictest security requirements.
Are there additional aspects of building a site or dealing with Sitecore that you’d like to mention?
Well, this goes for any enterprise CMS, but I would urge people to resist the temptation to hire a “jack of all trades” and expect them to do an excellent job at designing and implementing a complex solution on an enterprise CMS. Many companies are starting to realize that it’s no longer safe to assume that hiring a one-stop-shop and having “one throat to choke” is a safe bet and will be the easiest way to manage outcomes.
When you hire a jack of all trades, they always have a core competency and the rest of what they offer will be pretty mediocre, so you better know what their core competency is, and be willing to settle for the B team on one major aspect of your project.
Also, it’s impossible for a one-stop-shop to avoid their own conflict of interest– meaning that if you’re giving them free reign and guaranteeing that they will get paid to implement anything they design, then therein lies the temptation to create work for yourself. Design agencies are famous for this. The problem is that this “make work” approach can end up completely defeating the purpose of investing in an enterprise CMS like Sitecore. The whole idea is to create the greatest economy of scale you can, by designing a few layouts and modules as possible and reusing them across all of your sites. You will be hard-pressed to find a design agency that will think like this without any incentive or form accountability. Separating design and development keeps both parties accountable and honest.
The other thing people must consider is that most one-stop-shop agencies don’t provide support. They have very expensive cost structures so they rely on large budget projects. So these folks are your best friend when you’ve got $500,000-$1,000,000 to spend on a redesign project but as soon as that budget is spent, they are on to the next thing. It’s really hard to get the one-stop-shops to support their own work. Which means that in many cases they don’t take as much care as they should, to build your site in a way that can be easily supported, enhanced, and scaled over time.
We have 5 additional questions. For each of these, we ask that you rate Sitecore on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best score.
How would you rate Sitecore for its functionality and available features?
5 – When it’s implemented properly, everyone agrees that Sitecore is an outstanding value in terms of features and functionality. Nobody gives you more features and functionality in one suite. The authoring tools are very intuitive. It allows you to be really self-sufficient as a marketer. The best part though, is that Sitecore has such a healthy technology partner ecosystem, that any functionality you need that is not built directly into the suite is available as a third-party application with a connector. It’s very seamless.
How would you rate Sitecore for ease of use and ease of implementation?
5 – Well, these are two very different things here. With proper training, the ease of use is a 5. Sitecore is extremely easy to use when the backend authoring tools have been thoughtfully implemented, and people are appropriately trained. It can be a nightmare to use if you hire a partner that doesn’t understand how to make the authoring experience user-friendly and they don’t do a good job of training you to use what they built. Always be sure to ask your prospective implementation vendors for examples of their training documentation and make sure it’s easy to follow before you make any decisions.
Ease of implementation is a different story and it depends entirely on how much you’re trying to tackle in your first implementation, and who is implementing it, which are both things you have complete control over. We always advise our clients to start with a minimum viable product and then enhance and scale it in phases you can control and grow into. The goal is to make your first implementation as easy as possible– like a 3 or 4 level of ease, so you achieve a relatively quick win together, and you build a solid foundation, and you can test the waters and make sure you both want to work together, over the long run.
How would you rate Sitecore for support, as in the response of their team, and the helpfulness of available resources online?
4 – To be fair, some of the technical documentation for newly released functionality could be better, but that’s to be expected, everyone’s guilty of that. On the other hand, they’ve published an entire developer portal and a separate partner portal full of any kind of documentation you can think of for every version of Sitecore you want to support, so there is nothing lacking there.
Their support response times are good and if we find a bug in the platform itself, which we do from time to time, they issue a hotfix very quickly. Honestly, at this point we don’t really rely on Sitecore’s support team very often, because we know the platform so well– but it’s good to know that they’re there if we’re really stuck or we run into an issue that’s related to the platform itself. They stand behind their product.
How likely are you to recommend Sitecore to a friend or colleague for DIY development?
1 – I would never recommend that anyone try to implement Sitecore completely on their own, without any experience, but frankly I’d say the same thing about any CMS. There’s just too much to learn and too much at stake when you’re building a site for a billion-dollar company.
Self-sufficiency is a great goal and we always recommend and support it, but you have to build up to it. So instead of DIY we offer Co-development and Training services, which give you a Sitecore certified architect and a team of seasoned Sitecore certified developers– to coach, answer questions, and augment your internal team as your building up to be 100% self-sufficient.
How would you rate Sitecore for overall satisfaction with the platform?
5 – I’m very pleased with Sitecore. We specialize in it and Sitecore is the only CMS product we support, so I think that say’s a lot. There is still a lot of room to improve and innovate, and I’m excited about the things coming down the pike. Sitecore is a safe bet according to all of the analysts, but it’s their vision of the future that’s really exciting.