Sitecore Marketers: Planning Your Sitecore XP Implementation Roadmap

Dec 11, 2016Marketing Strategy, MVP, Sitecore

One of the best features of a digital marketing platform like Sitecore is its ability to do more than simply display content on a page. Sitecore’s ability to personalize content experiences is one of the aspects of Sitecore that sets it apart. But this advanced functionality requires Sitecore XP and XP requires xDB. Here is a 6-step roadmap outline to a Sitecore XP implementation for business users and marketers.

The Sitecore Experience Platform (XP) is a powerful marketing suite provided by the website content management system (WCMS). Sitecore XP provides a wealth of digital marketing features not found in other WCMS systems. These features allow marketers to do more than just build pages – they allow marketers to market. Here are a few of the example features included in Sitecore XP:
  • CMS native A/B & multivariate testing
  • Rules-based personalization (implicit personalization)
  • Visitor profile-based personalization (explicit personalization)
  • Deep engagement analytics at the page / content level
  • Visitor profile creation for tailored digital experiences
In order for any brand running a Sitecore website to leverage these and other advanced marketing tools, we need to setup the Sitecore XP feature suite and Sitecore xDB database infrastructure. This document provides a high-level plan and approximate timelines to accomplish that. Here’s a quick outline view of the process:
  1. Step 1 – Plan for our infrastructure needs.
  2. Step 2 – Define our goals.
  3. Step 3 – Conduct XP training.
  4. Step 4 – Build (simple) personalization rules.
  5. Step 5 – Begin some simple A/B testing.
  6. Step 6 – Optimize under-performing content.

Step 1: xDB Infrastructure – 3 to 8 Months

The use of Sitecore XP generates a tremendous amount of data. That data needs to be stored somewhere and it can’t go in the SQL database that runs the content delivery platform. A standard SQL server just wouldn’t be fast enough to handle the encounter data that XP collects. Sitecore XP requires its own separate database, and planning for and deploying xDB is the first step in a Sitecore XP implementation.Sitecore xDB runs on the MongoDB platform – a free and open-source cross-platform document-oriented database program that’s classified as a “NoSQL” database program.What does all that mean to a marketer? It just means that it’s separate from the database that stores your website content and it’s faster than that database, too.

Decision Time: On-Premise xDB or Cloud Hosting?

Your xDB setup requires a hardware infrastructure to store all of the data that will be collected in Sitecore as people visit the website. As with any database solution, you generally have two options: on-premise or cloud storage. In other words, you (or your IT team) can build your own MongoDB server(s) or you can pay someone else to use (and manage) theirs. Here’s a great article from Jason St-Cyr at Non-Linear Creations on whether you should host your MongoDB instance or go with the cloud option.

Decision Time: Budget for Your xDB Infrastructure

This is one aspect of a Sitecore XP implementation that I think many marketers overlook when planning their Sitecore XP implementation and that’s to budget for xDB infrastructure costs.Whether you choose cloud or on-premise, that infrastructure is going to cost you something. That cost will vary depending upon the option you choose, but the range of costs is going to be in the thousands to the hundreds of thousands, depending upon your needs.Here are two examples of those costs, showing both ends of the spectrum:You already have all the hardware you need to run a MongoDB and your IT team has the necessary skills in-house to manage it. Your costs will be minimal because the MongoDB software itself is open-source and therefore free.You don’t have in-house capabilities and decide to host in the cloud. Your website traffic reaches into the millions of visitors each month and expect to require a lot of storage and a very responsive database environment. Using the ObjectRocket (Rackspace’s MongoDB cloud hosting) cost calculator, I plug in the following options:
  • US region
  • MongoDB Service
  • Sharded Cluster (premium service tier)
  • WiredTiger Engine (high performance)
  • 100GB storage
The above selections return a $2,518 per month cost. That’s over $30,000 per year in database storage costs. As you can see, it’s important to make sure these costs are accounted for before you begin your XP planning.

Step 2: Define Our Digital Goals, Assign Engagement Value – 1 to 3 Months

Deploying Sitecore XP is not just an engineering task. There’s a huge part of it that is a marketing task. You have to think very early on, “How will we use Sitecore XP once it’s ready?” A lot of business and marketing planning should go into your XP deployment. Therefore, the next step in the process is to define digital goals and map them to organizational & strategic marketing goals. This phase can commence while the infrastructure project is underway.

Decision Time: Define Marketing Goals

When defining your website goals, you should make sure they’re specific and achievable. For example, a primary goal could be to book an appointment with a sales consultant. You know that if a website visitor performs this task, there’s a high likelihood they will become a customer.Be careful not to over-extend yourself and take a “boil the ocean” approach to your initial Sitecore XP roll-out. Generally, I would limit goals to approximately 6 to 8 to start with. You can always define more goals in the future.The definition of goals is a very important step – so important, in fact, that Sitecore Business Optimization Services (SBOS) developed a board game to help the process. Be careful not to under-estimate the importance or effort this step will require.

DECISION TIME: Assign Value Scoring to Goals

Once goals are defined, an engagement value score is assigned to pages & content that represents the path to those goals. This will allow us to determine high-value and high-performing content and under-performing content paths.An entire blog post could be dedicated to just the subject of engagement value scoring. Here’s a great resource (PDF) that’s a couple years old, but still provides a lot of great information on engagement scoring.Oh, and before I forget, be sure to set a baseline conversion rate for goal pages before XP is enabled.

Step 3: XP Training – 1 Month

Again, only a relatively small portion of a Sitecore XP implementation is the build of the feature. Knowing how to properly use the various tools provided by Sitecore XP is critically important to success.I strongly recommend that digital and marketing teams be provided XP-specific training once goals are defined. This will allow efforts to be optimized as we continue the path to implementation.Sitecore provides a wealth of training resources an options and I recommend you start your XP training process, here.

An Introduction to my Sitecore Module & Product Idea.

I created this project to act as the “hub” for all posts related to my Sitecore MVP pursuit and my Sitecore product idea. My first post is an introduction to the series and is titled, “Pursuing Sitecore MVP – My Sitecore Product Idea”. As I post more segments to this project, they will all be included here. You can follow along on my Sitecore MVP journey from start to finish.

Step 4: Build Rules-Based Personalization – 1 to 12 Months

So far, you’ve determined your database infrastructure, you’ve defined goals for your website and you’ve setup training for Sitecore XP. Mapping out rules-based personalization is the next step and is the first phase that will actually require the XP platform to be setup and ready.Once goals are built and content is assigned engagement scoring, the XP platform will collect and score each website visit. This step will tell Sitecore what to do with those users once we begin to learn more about why they’re visiting our website. We build rules to begin personalizing their experience on our website.As a basic example, let’s say a user visited our website via a blog post about the benefits of exercise and then clicked on a call to action to learn more about a fitness tracker we offer for sale on the website. From there, they did a bit more research on our site about the features of the fitness tracker, viewed photos of the tracker and maybe even added it to their shopping cart. I think it’s safe to assume they’re interested in this product, so on their next page view or visit we personalize that page and offer them a limited time discount of 10% off the same fitness tracker they’ve been researching.

Decision Time: Build Personalization Rules by Starting Simple

Hopefully you’re noticing a theme when it comes to an XP implementation: start simple and work your way into more complex functions. I strongly recommend you take this same approach when it comes to building rules-based personalization as well. Start basic with this and work our way up in rules complexity:
  • Prioritize rules based on goals, where top goals’ rules are setup first.
  • Determine which pages will be personalized and what elements on those pages will be personalized. This will provide us with a guide to how much content is required. Don’t underestimate the amount of content it takes to personalize!
  • Prioritize the new content required based on goal importance.
  • Build those rules and personalizations in the Experience Editor and begin collecting data in Marketing Center.
Want to learn more about configuring and deploying your goals in Sitecore? Check out this blog post from Horizontal Integration on the topic.

Step 5: A/B Testing – 1 to 2 Months

It hasn’t been mentioned yet, but “quick wins” are important for many organizations when implementing more advanced digital marketing practices. A very easy quick win for many is to setup A/B testing on the top digital marketing goals.
  • Does the grey or the orange button convert at a higher rate?
  • Does an offer for free shipping or 5% off the purchase price provide for higher conversions?
  • Should we have our email opt-in form at the top, bottom or middle of the page?
These are the types of questions brands can easily ask and answer once rules & engagement value scoring has been defined and simple A/B testing is implemented.Once you’re ready to get a little deeper into A/B testing, be sure to check out this article from Lars Birkholm Petersen on the topic.

Step 6: Track & Improve Conversions – Ongoing

Okay, so our xDB is setup and collecting interaction data. Our content has all (or, at least the important stuff) received engagement scoring, our goals have been defined and we’re seeing results come in.It’s now time to begin using Sitecore XP as it was intended to be used – to optimize experiences. With Sitecore XP, we can begin to identify the lower-performing content and seek to improve it. We should also idenfity the high-performing content and seek to replicate it as well. After all, if something is working well, we should understand what’s making it successful and learn lessons from that success.

The Story Behind the Photo

Valley of Fire State Park - Las Vegas, NV
I attended a healthcare digital marketing conference in Las Vegas and had the opportunity to explore the area before the conference started. The Valley of Fire State Park is full of wonderful vistas. I came to the top of a hill not far from the visitor’s center and had to stop and take this shot.

Valley of Fire State Park

Are you planning a Sitecore XP implementation?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article and your experience in planning Sitecore XP implementations. There seems to be a bit of a shortage of information on Sitecore for marketing professionals and I’m hoping to fill that void a bit. Do you have any tips or best practices you’ve learned? Please leave a comment below or feel free to contact me with your thoughts.

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