An epic Episerver Ascend 2015 customer conference

SUMMARY:

Episerver’s Ascend 2015 was a solid conference with plenty of meat on the proverbial bone but with only modest marketing larding. Customers were happy, partners were bullish and the product range looks good.

James Norwood, CMO Episerver
James Norwood, CMO Episerver

The customer conference season is not over yet and while it is easy to get jaded with cloud-blah-IoT-blah-blah I was especially keen to attend Ascend 2015, Episerver’s first US customer gig. It was an excellent time investment. Here’s why.

Over the last five months, I’ve been assessing web content management systems (WCMS.) There’s plenty to choose from but if my assessment is anything to go by they fall into three broad camps:

  • Hideously expensive but with a cracking brand attached to them – think Adobe
  • Old, clunky, hard to implement and operate – I won’t name names here because my assessment is inevitably subjective, but there’s plenty to choose from.
  • Newer, cloudy stuff but also hard to implement because they usually require a shedload of Java or Java-related coding and they are not well supported.

As I explained to James Norwood, CMO Episerver, other than Adobe and possibly Sitecore, there really isn’t much by way of brand recognition in the market and none of the vendors seem that bothered about promoting a co-ordinated community of design houses or  resellers. As such, it is very difficult to find a WCMS vendor where I get a solid sense of trust in the brand. I suspect Adobe customers will say otherwise but once you strip them away, the rest appear largely undifferentiated.

Having said that, I’ve known Norwood for many years largely from his time at Epicor (not to be confused with Episerver) and Kana. From that point of view, we are ‘known quantities.’ I made clear that my main interest was in meeting customers but once I arrived, I found that the ‘epic’ community is much more than a collection of resellers and coders.

Episerver has created and nurtured a group of Most Valued Partners (EMVPs.) These are a collection of twenty some people who are ridiculously passionate about Episerver and its at-sometime-to-be-sunsetted sibling Ektron (which I have in the legacy category.) Episerver looks after these folks by giving them VIP status, arranging events for them and showcasing their work. In return, EMVPs write copiously about technical topics, solve problems, offer fresh approaches and are required to maintain certification on the latest solutions. In short, the community may be small, but it is real, it is committed and it is a genuine partnership. As I said to Norwood, on the basis of what I saw, this is a stand out example of what a vendor community should look like and how it should operate. A big thumbs up there.

I would be wholly misleading if I characterized Episerver as only a WCMS provider. As its current marketing says and as was carefully explained in the keynote, the company is all about digital experiences. From the reprinted blurbs:

Episerver announced it has executed on its promised convergence strategy to unite the best capabilities and approaches from Ektron and Episerver solutions as well as the debut of many new features. To date, organizations across three continents have selected the Digital Experience Cloud and customers on prior versions are starting to make the move in growing numbers.

It’s not quite like that because as Norwood stressed in his keynote, Episerver wants its customers to move when they are ready to do so and there was a tad of confusion about whether Epi and Ektron are fully converged. Having said that, the company is threading its way through a complicated path that encompasses everything from moderately simple intranets to highly complex digital commerce scenarios and an awful lot in between. In short, Episerver is way, way more than WCMS.

One stand out example is CPH – Copenhagen Airport. Check out this fact sheet:

CPH Ascend 15

Anyone who’s been through CPH knows it is a glorified shopping mall but the stand out for me is that a full 50% of its revenue is derived from retail activities. Episerver is the hub (sic) for the retail operation. Elsewhere, I heard from MudPie (more on them later) that achieved a 200% revenue increase from a series of landing pages that made sense to customers and which were designed to provide personal experiences. Then there was the success of adoption at the Jazz Aviation internal community. In each case, I was struck by the sheer enthusiasm of the people telling their stories. That’s always a good sign.

Then there are the partners, telling their stories with a level of candor you don’t normally find. For example, I spoke with Michael Kunzler, managing partner at The C2 Experience, asking him about a specific market segment. I got a no holds barred answer that was refreshingly honest that goes like this: “I’m not sure I can help you but I can put you in touch with those who might.”

There’s a lot to like about Episerver and its transition towards driving efforts in the digitization of business. It’s measured but deliberate approach contrasts with the usual razzamatazz we see at customer shows. Norwood has a good way of putting over a message in ways we can all appreciate. For example, in thinking about the modern retail buyer who he called Jessica for this purpose:

Jessica doesn’t own a television and has never seen Game of Thrones. How do we connect with this attention deficit individual?

Indeed. A clutch of recent conversations suggest that holding a person’s attention has become considerably more difficult to achieve in the last year. Most people I have spoken about this agree there is no single answer although Norwood believes that the ability to create personal experiences that resonate at the buying ‘moment of truth’ go a long way. I have not seen enough case studies to be convinced but on one vexing topic, I can whole heartedly agree:

I don’t expect to receive irrelevant or inappropriate emails just because I bought something.

Has your inbox recently become flooded with ‘stuff’ simply because you were required to sign up for a service? Mine has. How that gets solved is a problem for another day but Norwood (vaguely) held out the prospect of analytics as the way to first understand intent and then start acting upon it.

I have a slightly different view. If the intention is to use loyalty as the foundation for repeat business then you need a relationship with the buyer well beyond the transaction. That means the development of community, which in turn takes time and effort. But that discussion is for another day.

I came away from this event wishing Episerver well. They have a good line up of products at reasonable prices, a healthy and vibrant community, resellers who talk sense and a set of messages that are very much of the moment. I’d prefer less ‘digital transformation’ spray painting because I think that message needs real clarity before companies buy into it.  Regardless, the combination I described is certainly good enough for Episerver to differentiate in the market where others are slack. All we now need to do is see what more customers have to say.

Disclosure: Episerver covered most of my travel costs for attending Ascend15.