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Looking Back at Sitecore Symposium 2018: What's NECXT?

Elizabeth A. Spranzani, SVP, Development

If I were to choose one word to sum up this year's Sitecore Symposium it would be: Inspiring

It started with all of the preparation myself and my colleagues put in during the months leading up to Symposium. For starters, Verndale released its annual report, NECXT, which explores the near future of customer experience through the technologies that will reshape how brands and consumers connect. Myself and various technical leaders at Verndale wanted to make sure the Sitecore part of this story could be told, including how we would actually use Sitecore with technologies such as Voice, IoT, AR/VR, and AI/ML, and what insights and data would be necessary in crafting the customer experience of the future.  

Several of my female colleagues and I were also busy contributing to the Women of Sitecore group and movement, which gained momentum throughout the year and had a big presence at this year's conference. You may have seen Rosie Symposie herself as you walked around the Symposium! If you or any women you know are looking to learn more about Sitecore and technology, or need support, or a mentor, the community is here for you. You'll find amazing and truly inspiring women there who are stepping up in big ways.

Continuing along the road to Inspiration, Sitecore outdid themselves this year with the best speaker that I've witnessed in the past five Symposiums that I have attended: Mick Ebeling, founder of Not Impossible Labs. I think everyone I know came away from his presentation wondering how they could personally help Mick. He was energy and idea personified.  He and his team of innovative thinkers/creators/technologists look for impossible challenges and make them possible including: inexpensive artificial limbs for children who otherwise couldn't afford them, a program that allows the homeless to order and pick up a hot meal, and wrist/ankle bands that when worn would allow the deaf to better feel music (and, oh, by the way, it also inhibits Parkinson's tremors as an unintended by-product!).

The big announcement this year is that Sitecore acquired Style Labs, which opens the door for Sitecore clients to a product that will be a great complement to the suite of products that Sitecore already offers. This is essentially a DAM (Digital Asset Manager), MRM (Marketing Resource Manager), and PIM (Product Information Management) in one and a natural progression for the Sitecore platform to provide customers a true end-to-end management source of their content and media.

Switching over to updates that will interest developers, there were so many key areas that Sitecore focused on in the five session tracks. Myself and the other Verndale Sitecore MVPs decided to divide and conquer in an effort to absorb as much as possible around topics such as: Sitecore 9.1 Architecture, Horizon, Azure/Cloud, Machine Learning and Sitecore Cortex, Sitecore Experience Commerce, XConnect, JSS and Headless techniques, SXA, Salesforce, etc.

My personal areas of focus were Sitecore 9.1, Machine Learning, and Salesforce.

Sitecore 9.1

The main concept to understand around Sitecore 9.1 is that it is following the path of Sitecore Commerce: a lean foundation (hOSt) built in .NET Core where features are added in as plugin microservices.  This moves away from the monolithic Sitecore Kernel and Client assemblies that we have been working with for the last 10+ years.  The IOC Service registration of these plugins will dynamically load at runtime, making it easy to customize and add more.  Even the web layer will be loaded as a plugin and is not mandatory. These services will include Communication/Messaging, Security/Identity, Universal Tracker, Horizon, and eventually the Publishing Service, xConnect, and Sitecore Commerce will be remolded slightly to fit into this model.  Now the way that Sitecore services and features tap into the Sitecore host will be the same way that any of the external sources would be connected: promoting consistency and ease of connectivity. 

Take Identify for example.  Sitecore will provide a default Identify service that could be used, but Membership won't be baked into the Core database anymore. Sitecore realizes that a federated authentication and identity approach is becoming more of the norm, interconnecting all of a client's Martech stack with seamless SSO for their end users.

Salesforce

At Verndale we've done a lot of Sitecore <-> Salesforce integrations and although there were only a handful of sessions on the topic at Symposium, I found the updates there pretty exciting.  I've broken down the various connector options you have with Sitecore and Salesforce. The Sitecore connector to Salesforce Marketing Cloud is rather simple at the moment, but Sitecore has big plans for this connector. Salesforce is projected to own 25% of the CRM market within the next few years. These two platforms complement each other really well and a comprehensive customer solution would do well to leverage both for what they are best at:

  • Salesforce should own the data; it excels at CRM, Journey Management, Marketing Automation, Data and Insights
  • Sitecore is top of the line for Content Management, Personalization, Analytics, Behavioral Data gathering
  • Both have great eCommerce offerings

With a robust connector that can push that xConnect and analytics data from Sitecore into Salesforce DMP, it can then be crunched and processed there, sending back important information that can then enable the Sitecore xDB and personalization engine to deliver targeted and powerful experiences to the end user. Now we eagerly await Sitecore's next few iterations of the connector to make that a reality.

Machine Learning

The final area, and the one that I attended the most sessions about, was Sitecore Cortex and Machine Learning. I know this is one of the most important areas into which Sitecore is really pushing their product.  It was discussed rather vaguely a year ago at the 2017 Symposium, with the knowledge that the form of it was going to take shape over the course of 2018, and released with the Sitecore 9.1 version of the platform.  I didn't want to leave this year with Cortex as a buzz word in my head, but rather really understand how it can benefit our clients, and what is realistically needed to implement it successfully. There is enough here that warrants another post, but some quick takeaways are that you need:

  • Sitecore 9.1+ and an XP license (xDB)
  • An External Machine Learning Service
  • Potentially a Cognitive Service
  • A LARGE ongoing data stream from hundreds of thousands of users: old data gets irrelevant fast
  • Ideally someone who knows a thing or two about data modeling, aka: a data scientist

Now that we are all home and have had time to process what is coming up for Sitecore in 2019 and the near future, it's time to start prioritizing what makes the most sense to focus on with our clients. What is the low-hanging fruit? What will have the biggest impact on their end users, their content authors, their ROI? For each client it likely will be a bit different, but the strategic planning is half the fun, the other half is the technology of making all of this come true.