Expanding purchasing and sales online can mean great things for a distributor of B2B products — new markets, more revenue and less stress on your in-person sales force. However, for many B2B companies moving into digital for the first time, it can be overwhelming to make sense of all the new terminology, principles, metrics and worst of all — the initialisms!

“CMSs, ERPs, and PIMs, oh my!” With all of these new concepts, it can be difficult to understand what is needed to power great online experiences that actually grow revenue. Unsurprisingly, one of the first questions I get from people when I tell them what I do is: “What exactly is a DXP and why do I need it?”

De-Mystifying the E-commerce Tech Stack

Here is a quick overview of the different components that typically feature in today’s e-commerce tech stack:

  • E-commerce platform: The part that handles the transaction itself. The platform lets users add products to a cart and place the order.
  • Product Information Management (PIM): The database where all the core data about products is stored and maintained. PIMs can also be used to audit (and fix) the quality of that data.
  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP): The system that manages how the business sells the products in the PIM (e.g., pricing, inventory amounts, warehouse locations, etc.)
  • Content Management System (CMS): The system that organizes the content to be used on the website and empowers the business to publish without IT support.
  • Digital Experience Platform (DXP): A platform that enables the customer experience on an e-commerce site to quickly adapt to user behavior in a way that is responsive, scalable and automated across all channels.

The E-commerce Tech Stack in Use: An Automobile Analogy

With a basic set of definitions in hand, we can shift the discussion to how these components interact with each other. To do this, we will use an analogy where a successful e-commerce website is compared to a modern automobile.

E-commerce Platform: The Engine of Your E-commerce Vehicle

In this analogy, e-commerce platforms are the engine in a car, powering the vehicle to move. But the power of an engine on its own doesn’t get the driver anywhere. That power has to be controlled and directed to where it does the most good. E-commerce platforms provide the power needed for the core purpose of the site (i.e., the transaction) but in isolation — without other parts — it doesn’t necessarily do the job well.

CMS: Powering the Transmission of Experiences

In an automobile, the job of controlling and directing power falls to the transmission — but in a digital commerce tech stack that job is done by the CMS. While a transmission manages power through gear ratios and sophisticated mechanical design, a CMS takes the power of the features and functionality of the e-commerce platform and designs the look and feel of a site to make it easier to use. By making it easy for the buyer to know where to click next — and making it easy for the seller to make edits to the site to keep the design fresh — a CMS can make the difference between an e-commerce site that is useful and one that makes the buyer want to actively seek other options.

ERP: Critical Framing for Your Site

The ERP is the frame of the e-commerce automobile. Like ERPs, automotive frames have an interesting history. The concept was not invented for automobile design. Indeed many early cars featured frames made of wood, reflecting prior practices from carriage or boat design that used wood (or wicker). It was many years until today’s sophisticated body-on-frame or “unibody” designs became common. ERPs also pre-dated e-commerce; today many features critical to e-commerce are still managed by an ERP (e.g., pricing, inventory/availability) without which the site would work about as well as a frameless vehicle.

PIM: Fueling Product Discovery and Site Performance

What of the Product Information Management (or PIM) system? In e-commerce, product information is one element that is universally important in the impact it can have on the experience. Poor quality product information quickly degrades the performance of a site — slowing discovery and reducing the confidence buyers have about the purchase. If the product information is the fuel, air and oil that keeps the engine humming, the PIM then represents the series of filters that keep those inputs clean and prevents them from causing problems.

DXP: Driving Automated and Personalized E-commerce Experiences at Scale

So what is a DXP in the context of our automotive analogy? As the latest addition to the technology stack, DXPs represent something new and that was not originally essential — the onboard computer systems that have become common (indeed, even critical) in car manufacturing.

Modern car computers perform many different jobs, but those jobs tend to fall into two categories:

  1. The  tasks that used to be done manually in earlier models, but today are handled by the computer. In modern cruise control systems the car not only maintains a speed, but slows automatically to maintain safe following distances when in traffic and monitors lane markers to re-center the car when it veers to one side. These features are things the driver can do, but when they don’t have to do them, the experience of driving becomes easier, safer and more enjoyable.
  2. The tasks that are so menial or dynamic that they were usually not performed at all before computers were a thing. Examples include monitoring air pressure, humidity and oxygen levels to automatically adjust the fuel/air mixture before firing the cylinders. Or, modern all-wheel drive systems that automatically transfer power between all four wheels depending on driving conditions.

Both these types of tasks are analogous to the features associated with DXPs. DXPs often automate — and scale — features that used to be done manually, such as applying merchandising rules for “boost and bury” in search results or setting up promotional landing pages for a new product launch. What once was a tedious process of applying rules to each SKU can now be done to hundreds (or thousands) of products automatically. Keyword searches with zero results can quickly be mapped automatically by applying machine learning algorithms to identify patterns of user behavior associated with those keywords.

Other DXP rules allow firms to design strategies around work that was, until now, “too big to handle” (so they simply weren’t done). For example, the process of setting up product recommendations used to be very manual for the manufacturer or internal product specialists. Difficult to set up and overwhelming to maintain, product relationships quickly became outdated or inaccurate as product life cycles came to a close. But with a DXP able to constantly monitor how customers find, consider and purchase products across the selection, distributors can now more easily establish recommendations that reflect the behavior of their customers in addition to traditional hand-curated recommendations.

Why DXPs Are Critical to the Modern B2B Tech Stack

While much is debated in the world of B2B e-commerce, one thing that is widely agreed upon is that online customers have certain expectations about how they will discover products, what information they will have to evaluate and compare products, and how easily they can buy. Increasingly, these expectations are set by B2C retailers and are experienced by B2B buyers in their personal life (even before they started buying as a job). Without the capabilities provided by DXPs, creating a bar-raising experience for a distributor’s site will remain very challenging — if not impossible.

With a DXP, however, distributors have a new set of tools they can use to get the most out of the other components of their tech stack. In doing so, they can create an experience that delights visitors, wins new customers and has an edge over new industry disruptors or the competition that lags behind.