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DXP or CMS for Higher Ed: The Choice Is Yours
DXP or CMS for Higher Ed: The Choice Is Yours


DXP or CMS for Higher Ed: The Choice Is Yours

Apr 26, 2021By Greg Zguta


Solid content management is table stakes for higher education websites. More than ever, the website is the public face of an institution, and higher ed marketers can’t effectively manage a modern website without a good content management system (CMS). Many institutions already have a solid system, some are looking for a better solution, and still others are exploring integrating all their digital touchpoints. Digital experience platforms (DXP) have emerged to meet these needs, but what is right for your institution: a CMS or DXP?

What is a CMS?

A CMS in higher education has long been the software that enables digital marketers and content owners around campus to publish web content in a consistent way that does not require HTML hand-coding. Since the emergence of the web, institutions have adopted CMS software to publish websites and maintain brand standards. A CMS enables non-technical editors to contribute content, enforce governance policies, and manage the burden of maintaining a large, complex website.

What is a DXP?

Gartner defines DXP as “an integrated software framework for engaging a broad array of audiences across a broad array of digital touchpoints. Organizations use DXPs to build, deploy and continually improve websites, portals, mobile apps, and other digital experiences.”

Put another way, a DXP combines traditional CMS features with additional capabilities to support multichannel messaging beyond the main .edu website. While a CMS is mainly focused on the production and management of digital content, a DXP is also focused on how, where, and when that content is delivered.

Why does it matter for higher ed?

What if you could reduce the number of tools required for managing websites, landing pages, analytics, email campaigns, and CRM-powered content? Or if you could execute new campaigns, promote new programs, and measure results faster? Higher education is complex, and multiple systems are involved in bringing a student from the top of the funnel through matriculation and graduation to becoming alumni.

DXP features help marketers elevate activities at the admissions stage and beyond. The website is still the doorstep to the front door. However, prospects may also interact with a chatbot, sign up for email alerts, or speak to an advisor.

The power of a DXP is that you can take what you learn from these previously siloed systems, segment the interaction, and provide an experience that’s personal to the visitor.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a societal shift in the expectation of a modern digital experience. Prospective students rate digital interactions at the beginning of their college search as the dress rehearsal for the learning experience. Hybrid/online learning is here to stay; if there is a sharp drop in the digital experience after a prospect becomes a student, it will affect an institution’s reputation and, likely, a student’s completion rate.

Things to consider when selecting a CMS

mStoner has helped dozens of institutions select and implement content management systems for nearly two decades. When you are evaluating your CMS and considering the path forward, here are five things to consider that are common drivers of CMS decisions for higher education.

  1. The technology environment. Open-source or commercial? Self-hosted or cloud-based? Is a low-code solution needed? Are there developers on staff who will code and support the CMS and, if so, what sort of development environments do they work in? This shouldn’t be a limiting factor; sometimes a change is needed, and training can support any change, but the current environment certainly influences fit.
  2. Governance policies. What governance policies does your institution have in place? Small, centralized marketing teams managing smaller sites have different needs than institutions with large, decentralized teams of editors using the system.
  3. Features. WYSIWYG editing, spellcheck, image management: features like these are rudimentary in the CMS world. But capabilities such as search, analytics, user management, and calendaring are examples of key differentiators between systems.
  4. Cost to buy, as well as implement. Money always matters, and it’s important to consider the cost of ownership over several years, as well as the internal and external costs of properly implementing the design and features required.
  5. System integration and connectivity. This is an increasingly important factor when the CMS needs to integrate with CRM for handling inquiries or offer “headless CMS” capabilities to publish content to other systems, such as intranets, portals, social media, or digital signs.

The use case for a CMS and the key criteria for selecting one haven’t changed much in recent years. The core features that make a good CMS are also going to be present in a good DXP. What, then, can help an institution decide if a DXP is the right tool?

Things to consider when selecting a DXP

For starters, a DXP should care for your content management needs in maintaining the main .edu website. If the fundamentals around content management aren’t strong, a DXP is unlikely to add significant value for the organization until content management is improved. The key areas where DXP delivers beyond the traditional CMS include:

  1. Personalization. Content management systems aren’t designed to provide robust personalized experiences like the ones common on the web today. Personalization in higher education can be complicated, but a good DXP can deliver on this promise and put personalization within reach with relatively low effort. Imagine delivering content you know a prospective student will engage with at exactly the right time before they decide to apply.
  2. Interoperability. A DXP is designed to deliver content across multiple digital channels beyond the website. The capability and flexibility to adapt to meet these needs is a hallmark of DXP, and it includes sharing data with other systems around campus, including your CRM, marketing automation tools, and data and analytics. Interoperability enables personalization and other functionalities that are key for creating meaningful experiences for students.
  3. Holistic view of the prospect or student. Analytics providing visibility into visitor interactions is a key way DXP extends beyond CMS capabilities. In addition to publishing content, a DXP collects data about how visitors interact with the content, across channels, to provide a view of the student; it also includes tools such as scoring or modeling to help make the information actionable.
  4. Engagement. Features such as chatbots and marketing automation enable a DXP to deliver capabilities that are sometimes part of separate tools and rarely part of a CMS. These also feed into the view of prospects as they journey to become students.

Fulfilling the promise of these advanced marketing capabilities requires the related tools, but it also requires resources at the institution. Though a DXP can aid in productivity, just like the website itself, none of these capabilities is a “set it and forget it” endeavor.

There are definitely instances in which a DXP is not the right solution. Institutions with simple content publishing needs or one-person teams are less likely to benefit from a DXP. In other instances, DXP features are something to grow into, so you might choose a CMS that is a foundational part of a platform without buying into the full suite of DXP features right away.

How does it work?

In many cases, the gap between when a student registers and when they matriculate is when the institution is most at risk of losing the student. How can a DXP help close this gap? Here’s just one example.

Griffith University proactively devised a personalized experience to engage new students with a digitalized orientation process.

The experience had three fundamental principles:

  1. Reuse information already available in multiple applications.
  2. Serve relevant content based on personalization rules.
  3. Be mobile-first.

The result? The MyOrientation app. The app helps students step through the various activities they need to complete before setting foot on campus. Students arrive with their forms filled out and their devices already connected to campus Wi-Fi. Suddenly, preparing to start college is easy for the students, whether they’re on campus or remote.

Griffith was able to monitor each student’s orientation progress through the app. When some students were disengaged or fell behind in the process, administrators could send tailored communications to provide additional support, reducing the likelihood of the student dropping out.

Using software from its digital experience platform, including an integration platform as a service, content management system, data-model framework, and reusable components, Griffith could tailor a personalized experience quickly based on what it already knew about students. The plug-in components enabled the university to provide automated first-day planners, drawing information from students’ existing attributes.

Right answer: Get your strategy in order

We say it a lot at mStoner: Strategy matters. Invest in your content strategy and make sure it aligns with your institutional goals. A tool such as a CMS or a DXP is only as strong as your strategy and your team. For marketing teams growing in sophistication, DXP features are coming to your aid. Where your institution is with content management, existing tooling, the need for key DXP features, and the resources to manage all of it should ultimately guide your CMS vs. DXP decision.

Picking your customer engagement platform is a big decision. And it’s a big process. We’ll work with your team to clarify your functional and technical requirements, give you the inside perspective on which platforms to consider, and facilitate a conversation with potential vendors to make sure you’re getting honest answers. Ultimately, choosing a DXP or a CMS is up to you. But we’re here to help. Let’s chat.

Thank you to our friends at Squiz for their help preparing this post. For more information, download their e‑book, The College’s Guide to Building a Transformative Digital Strategy.

  • Greg Zguta Director of Client Support I've been working on education web projects since the late 90's and enjoy visiting campuses and watching how technology has transformed higher education since I got my first email account at Oberlin College in 1992. Back then, I mostly used the web to check weather radar and sports scores . . . I suppose technology hasn't transformed everything yet.