86: Deanna Ballew: Embracing open source composable martech, AI literacy and qualitative insights

What’s up everyone, today we have the pleasure of being joined by Deanna Ballew, Senior Vice President of DXP Products at Acquia.

Summary: Deanna has over a decade of experience exploring how people use martech and what software vendors can do to support everyday tasks. She deconstructs the value of open-source martech, placeing power in the hands of its customers, fostering an environment of rapid innovation. With composability and generative AI, she suggests that instead of getting caught up in the AI race, martech vendors should concentrate on how AI can help solve genuine customer issues. As for marketers, to fully exploit AI’s potential and mitigate its limitations, they must develop AI literacy. Closing on personalized marketing, Deanna urges a metrics reevaluation and champions qualitative data as an advocate for marketing decisions, adding depth to the narrative beyond what numbers alone provide.

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About Deanna

  • Born and raised on a farm in the rustic heartland of Iowa, Deanna’s professional journey started at a couple brief tech jobs before she joined Widen, a Digital Asset Management vendor
  • Widen offered Deanna an arena where she could carve her own career trajectory, a journey that felt like six different careers, each opening up unique challenges
  • She started as a front-end developer, playing a key role in steering Widen towards becoming a full-fledged software product organization
  • Her continuous evolution through Product Management and leading software engineering and UX teams culminated in her appointment to Chief Innovation Officer in 2020
  • A year later, Widen was acquired by Acquia, a digital experience platform for enterprise that was founded by the creator of the open source Drupal project, a popular CMS
  • Today Deanna serves as SVP of Product at Acquia focused on their Digital Experience products overseeing both UX and CX teams

A 2 Decade Journey Through the Whirlwind of Tech 

When asked about her impressive tenure at Acquia and Widen, spanning nearly 20 years, Deanna offered a wealth of insight. Unlike many professionals in the tech industry who frequently switch roles, Deanna has remained at Widen, continuing with the organization even after its acquisition by Acquia. The secret to her long-term commitment, she explained, is the opportunity for growth and the freedom to evolve without stagnation. 

In search of what she referred to as the ‘Goldilocks’ of companies, she found the perfect balance at Widen. The organization was large enough to offer learning opportunities and yet small enough to let her make an impact. This was back in 2004, a time when print was still dominant, smartphones and social media were yet to revolutionize the world, and ‘martech’ hadn’t entered the business vocabulary. Deanna was part of a small software team tasked with the transformation of Widen, a pre-press company established in 1948, into a leading player in the software and martech industry.

Deanna has been instrumental in the company’s journey to becoming a significant provider of SaaS solutions and a force in martech. The excitement of riding the waves of innovation in marketing technology, she admitted, has been a captivating part of her career. Over the past decade, Deanna’s focus has shifted to the human element of martech—exploring how people use these technologies, how behaviors intersect with tech growth, and what software vendors can do to support everyday tasks. This focus on the people-centric side of the rapidly advancing martech world has fuelled her passion in recent years.

Takeaway: Deanna’s enduring presence at Acquia and Widen is a testament to her adaptability and eagerness for growth. She has navigated through tech revolutions, transforming Widen from a pre-press company into a significant player in the martech world, all the while maintaining a people-centric focus. Her story underlines the significance of seizing opportunities and staying agile in the ever-transforming tech landscape.

Unraveling Digital Asset Management and Digital Experience Platforms

When queried about the confusing array of acronyms in the martech space, Deanna readily acknowledged the “alphabet soup”. She then proceeded to shed light on two key terms – DAM (Digital Asset Management) and DXP (Digital Experience Platform). 

Deanna’s enthusiasm for DAM was infectious as she described it as a system that allows organizations to create, manage, and distribute thousands, if not millions, of digital assets for their brands, products, and services. DAM is essential to industries ranging from non-profits and higher education to financial services and hospitality. In essence, any sector that needs to manage a slew of digital files benefits from DAM. The aim is to ensure consistency and reinforce brand management.

Next, Deanna turned her attention to the concept of DXP, the digital experience platform. At its heart, a DXP is about combining data and content to craft meaningful user experiences. Key tools like Drupal known as content management systems, come into play here. The process involves weaving together images and data to tailor personalized customer journeys. Machine learning is used to further enhance and scale these experiences across various touchpoints.

The discussion highlighted the need for organizations to embrace technologies like DAM and DXP to meet the evolving expectations of their audiences, whether it’s web-based interactions or exploring potential frontiers like VR, AR, and metaverses.

Takeaway: Acronyms like DAM and DXP are more than just letters—they signify critical aspects of modern martech. DAM helps organizations manage an immense amount of digital content, ensuring brand consistency, while DXP amalgamates data and content to create personalized customer experiences. In the realm of martech, understanding and leveraging such tools is the key to delivering effective digital experiences.

Dissecting the Packaged vs Composable Debate in Martech

When Deanna was asked about the debate between packaged and composable solutions in the martech space, she provided an insightful response. Her viewpoint emphasizes the importance of tailoring solutions to an organization’s internal team dynamics and willingness to change.

In some cases, Deanna explained, packaged solutions like Acquia’s suite of offerings – which includes a content management system (CMS), a hosting platform, a customer data platform (CDP), and a marketing automation platform – might be the best fit. These ready-to-go solutions can provide faster time to value and seamless integration. Yet, Deanna was quick to recognize that not all organizations are poised to change their processes to fit into a pre-bundled solution.

For organizations that find it challenging to adjust their processes, Deanna advocated for the flexibility of composable solutions. With these, companies can choose individual point solutions and integrate them into their existing tech stack. This approach allows for customization to suit the unique processes and needs of an organization. It’s about making the solutions meet your processes, rather than the other way around.

Intriguingly, Deanna highlighted the tension that often exists between IT and marketing teams. She noted how the composable nature of Acquia’s offerings helps balance the agility and experimentation desired by marketers with the stability and scalability requirements of IT teams. This balance, Deanna suggests, is essential for successful martech deployment.

Takeaway: The debate between packaged and composable solutions in martech is not a one-size-fits-all question. It’s about matching the solution to the organization’s willingness to change, their unique needs, and the dynamics of their internal teams. A successful martech deployment navigates the delicate balance between the agility of marketers and the stability requirements of IT teams.

Composability, Generative AI, and the Customer’s Voice

When asked about her perspective on the ever-evolving martech trends, Deanna embraces both the complexity and the opportunities. This perspective is rooted in her experience with the first martech landscape map by Scott Brinker back in 2011, where only 111 vendors were listed. Now that number has exploded into tens of thousands, driving an invigorating competition.

Deanna’s viewpoint reflects a healthy attitude towards competition. The fast-paced, diverse landscape ensures that no player, however established, can rest easy. Innovation isn’t optional, but essential. If a company, such as Acquia, decides to pause, they risk being left behind. Deanna sees the high-speed evolution in martech as more of an opportunity than a curse. It ensures that companies consistently deliver value to their customers, always striving to stay ahead of the curve. 

Deanna also touched upon some of the emerging trends in the industry, with a particular emphasis on composability and generative AI. Coming from a software background, Deanna views composability as a new label for the time-tested concept of modularity. This modularity, inherent in Drupal’s open CMS, has been embraced by Acquia.

While eager to explore trends, Deanna emphasizes the importance of listening to customer pain points. This approach helps her team identify where changes in customer behavior may drive the adoption of new technologies like generative AI. The popularity of AI and machine learning has been simmering for years, but generative AI’s advent has sparked a significant culture shift, with tools like ChatGPT becoming mainstream. 

To stay at the forefront of these trends, Acquia emphasizes experimentation. The company recently conducted a 48-hour hackathon, challenging teams to create using generative AI tools, thus providing a practical platform for exploring the technology’s potential. Once the teams develop their experiments, they take them to their users, seeking feedback and determining what makes it to their product roadmap. 

Takeaway: Deanna paints a picture of the martech landscape as a place of relentless change and fierce competition, but also immense opportunity. The key to thriving in this environment? Consistent innovation, a deep understanding of customer needs, and a willingness to experiment with new technologies. A proactive stance like this ensures that Acquia stays at the forefront of the martech evolution.

Product Builder’s Pit Stop: To Incorporate AI or Not?

When asked about the contrasting approach of martech founders towards incorporating general AI into their products, Deanna presents a balanced perspective. Some founders rush to incorporate AI, out of fear of being left behind by their competition. On the other hand, some choose to tread cautiously, focusing instead on their core product and customer pain points, wary of the ever-changing AI landscape.

Deanna leans towards the proactive approach to AI, recognizing the pace of technological change as inevitable. She stresses that instead of fearing obsolescence, one needs to assess their risk tolerance and embrace the evolution. AI, specifically generative AI, has become widely accessible, and numerous vendors are providing services and models which businesses can leverage.

Solving Real Problems with AI

The essence of the discussion for Deanna revolves around utilizing AI to address real problems. She suggests that instead of getting caught up in the AI race, martech vendors should concentrate on how AI can help solve genuine issues. 

During Acquia’s experimentations with generative AI, their main focus remained on how the AI could solve problems for users. They understand that until a product lands in the hands of users, it’s hard to gauge its effectiveness. 

The Power of Experimentation

Emphasizing the significance of learning through doing, Deanna encourages others not to shy away from experimentation. She firmly believes that by avoiding experimentation, businesses lose the chance to learn firsthand about the potential benefits and downsides of incorporating AI into their services. 

In conclusion, Deanna stresses the importance of finding the balance between advancing with the technological tide and focusing on solving actual problems for users. Rather than fearing rapid obsolescence in an ever-advancing field, companies should focus on leveraging the increasing accessibility of AI to address genuine user issues.

Takeaway: In the realm of martech, it’s critical not to shy away from AI due to fear of rapid changes. Instead, focus on leveraging it to solve real problems and improve the user experience. The true value of AI integration lies in its practical use, and getting your hands dirty with experimentation is the best way to unlock it.

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The Power of Adaptability and Innovation from Open Source Martech

When discussing the advantages of Acquia’s open digital experience platform, Deanna places a strong emphasis on the value of Drupal’s open-source nature. The power of customization that Drupal offers goes beyond superficial tweaks, it’s about delivering unique solutions for specific needs. Acquia, anchored in Drupal, allows clients to develop an environment that perfectly aligns with their business strategy and operational structure, a powerful leverage point in the martech scene.

She notes that being founded on open-source principles means their platform is never static, it’s a living entity that grows, evolves, and innovates daily. This isn’t limited to what Acquia provides out of the box, but extends to the boundless creativity of its users and partners who augment, tweak, and refine the platform. This community-sourced dynamism stands in stark contrast to the closed-source platforms where users are at the mercy of the vendor’s release schedule.

Taking this concept further, Deanna discusses the impressive pace of innovation that open-source fosters. For example, when it comes to adopting cutting-edge tech like ChatGPT, Drupal is always ready. The community has already built and contributed modules for integrating the AI model, enabling rapid adoption of the technology. This exemplifies how open-source accelerates the diffusion of innovation, staying ahead of the curve in a fast-paced martech world.

In the realm of integrations, Deanna explains how Acquia takes an inclusive approach. They understand the business reality of their customers who are using a mix of solutions from various vendors. By ensuring their DAM system, CDP, and other tools can connect and cooperate with the popular third-party applications, Acquia creates an integrated digital environment. It’s not about imposing a monolithic Acquia-only solution, but helping clients weave together a technological fabric that best serves their needs.

Takeaway: Deanna presents a compelling case for open-source martech solutions. She highlights how Acquia, rooted in Drupal, places power in the hands of its customers, fostering an environment of rapid innovation, seamless integrations, and complete customization. It’s a model that seeks not to constrain, but to empower users, fueling Acquia’s competitive edge in the martech arena.

AI in Marketing – Replacement or Transformation?

In response to queries regarding AI’s impact on marketing roles, Deanna acknowledges that the roles marketers play today could indeed be replaced by AI. But this, she notes, is not a novel phenomenon. The nature of marketing has been in a state of constant evolution, adapting to changing technologies and societal trends. The introduction of AI is likely to be another transformative force, altering rather than eliminating the profession.

Deanna expresses a key point: the future adoption and effectiveness of AI in marketing hinge on the establishment of trust. This applies particularly to data-driven AI models like GPT. The vast volume and diverse sources of data feeding these models pose challenges to data quality and reliability. Improving AI literacy among marketers and developing proprietary models with curated data are possible solutions to this trust issue.

Looking ahead, Deanna envisions AI liberating marketers from mundane tasks, freeing up time for strategic and creative work. As AI-powered interfaces become more user-friendly and responsive, marketers will be able to harness data more efficiently and effectively. For instance, they can directly ask an AI system for the “next best customer segment,” instead of manually collating and analyzing data.

Takeaway: The increasing incorporation of AI in the marketing landscape does not spell an end for marketers, but rather a shift in their roles. As trust in AI develops and as marketers become more AI-literate, AI could significantly enhance efficiency and strategic insight in the marketing process. This transformation is not without challenges, but the potential benefits are considerable.

Encouraging AI Literacy Among Marketers

When asked about the potential implications of AI biases on marketing campaigns, Deanna refers to generative AI as a tool for marketers. It’s a tool that can be leveraged, but it also requires a clear understanding of how it works. AI literacy, especially about the inherent biases in AI systems, is paramount. Marketers must realize that all AI systems bear some level of bias, arising from the curated data they’re trained on.

Deanna emphasizes that the responsibility of navigating these biases lies with the marketers themselves. In much the same way that they would scrutinize content from an agency before pushing it live, marketers need to examine AI-generated content for potential biases and inaccuracies. With the current state of generative AI, marketers are the final decision-makers, accountable for the campaigns they deploy.

For Deanna, encouraging AI literacy among marketers is not just about understanding AI as a tool but recognizing it as an integral part of their industry. She likens this to content marketing or marketing automation trends. As these trends emerged, marketers delved into understanding their workings. Deanna argues that AI literacy should be viewed the same way – not just as a technical concept for engineers, but a core competence for marketers.

Takeaway: AI, despite its potential biases, is a powerful tool that marketers can harness. However, to fully exploit its potential and mitigate its limitations, marketers must develop AI literacy. Understanding AI is as critical as understanding content marketing or marketing automation. With this knowledge, marketers can effectively navigate the challenges and capitalize on the opportunities AI presents.

Ensuring Privacy While Powering the Martech Stack

Deanna was asked how Acquia manages the difficult balance of maintaining regulatory compliance without compromising their martech capabilities, particularly in the realms of personalization, customer experience, and AI integration.

Deanna emphasized that the intersection of data privacy and marketing represents an area ripe with innovative possibilities and swift evolution. It was only a short while ago that marketers had virtually unregulated access to copious amounts of data, largely without the public’s awareness. However, consumer consciousness has since shifted. There’s now an understanding, and rightfully so, that one’s personal data shouldn’t be used indiscriminately.

In addressing this new expectation, Deanna highlighted Acquia’s two-pronged approach: responsibility and transparency. Responsibility comes in the form of collecting only necessary data, eliminating the common practice of data hoarding. Transparency is equally crucial, requiring clear communication with consumers about the nature and purpose of the data collected.

This two-fold commitment doesn’t impair the utility of their martech stack, Deanna assured. Acquia remains laser-focused on aiding their clients to uncover new ways to harness zero party and first party data, always with users’ consent. This kind of data is even more beneficial than anonymous data, she explained, because it enables brands to provide personalized experiences that resonate with individuals rather than casting wide, indiscriminate nets.

From Deanna’s perspective, respecting privacy doesn’t require a compromise on delivering exceptional experiences. It might call for more innovation and creativity, but she sees this as a positive shift in the industry. 

Takeaway: Privacy doesn’t have to hamstring the potential of martech offerings. By focusing on responsible data collection and transparent practices, companies like Acquia can still deliver value through their tools such as CDPs and personalization, while fostering a more meaningful relationship with consumers.

Balancing Quantitative and Qualitative Data in Personalized Marketing 

When asked about teaching marketers to understand the impact of a personalized campaign against a generalized one, Deanna reframed the usual metrics. Questioning the satisfaction marketers take in achieving a mere 25% open rate or a 2% click-through rate, she emphasized the need to strive for far better. Personalized campaigns, she argued, can see returns up to a 700% increase in open rate if executed effectively. This involves a reevaluation of what is considered successful and meaningful in campaign metrics.

For Deanna, a comprehensive approach of using both quantitative and qualitative data has proven successful. Despite the allure of substantial quantitative data provided by A/B testing, she points out its limitations. The qualitative side offers an opportunity to gather deeper insights, eliciting feelings and empathetic understanding from the users. It’s a balance between large scale data collection and personal interviews, the combination of which provides a richer, more detailed narrative. This harmony of data types encourages innovative solutions and, when blended together, creates a more comprehensive picture.

Building Empathy and Internal Advocacy Through Qualitative Data

In response to concerns about the statistical significance of qualitative data from small focus groups, Deanna countered with a different perspective. In marketing, unlike in scientific fields, the need for absolute statistical certainty is often overemphasized. Instead, what’s important is gaining enough information to make informed decisions and learn from those actions. She further advocated for the power of qualitative insights that can reveal unexpected truths, which in turn might influence larger marketing strategies.

Emphasizing the value of qualitative data, Deanna encouraged marketers to dip their toes into this less familiar field. She suggested keeping the exercise simple: a small protocol involving just a handful of interviews can reveal game-changing insights. 

Finally, addressing the often contentious divide between UX teams and others more focused on quantitative data, Deanna affirmed the importance of finding middle ground. She recognized the depth and breadth of data gained through qualitative research, acknowledging that these rich narratives often provide a clearer picture of customer preferences than A/B tests.

Highlighting a critical aspect of using qualitative data, Deanna suggested the power it holds in gaining internal advocacy for marketing decisions. A single authentic clip from a customer interview can be instrumental in gaining leadership buy-in, leveraging empathy to create powerful influence within the organization.

Takeaway: To truly make an impact with personalized campaigns, it’s essential not to limit your perspective to just the quantity or quality of data but to find a balance where both coexist, thus unlocking greater insights and potential for innovation. The value of qualitative data lies in its ability to uncover unique insights that can transform marketing strategies, despite it not always offering the statistical significance that quantitative data might. Qualitative data not only adds depth to understanding customer preferences, but can also be a powerful tool in gaining internal support for marketing strategies. Trust your gut, balance the scales, and remember that data is only as good as the story it tells.

Deanna’s Pursuit of Fulfillment: A Choice of Happiness and Success

When asked about the secret to maintaining her personal happiness and professional success amidst her numerous roles and responsibilities, Deanna’s response is anything but straightforward. While holding the VP position, being an avid reader, and the mother of three boys, she maintains a whirlwind of activities in her life. 

However, Deanna’s outlook stands out because she considers happiness a matter of choice. This realization dawned upon her over time, asserting that it’s a decision she makes consciously. In her career, she’s always sought organizations that offer not just professional opportunities, but also a chance to be genuinely happy. Deanna believes in taking the initiative to seek these opportunities instead of waiting for them to present themselves. 

During her career span, Deanna switched paths six times, with her current role at Acquia marking her seventh. Each transition was a result of her proactive nature, recognizing potential opportunities and seizing them as they aligned with her desires.

Success, as Deanna explains, has evolved for her over the past two decades. Previously, it was all about the next title or accomplishment. Now, her definition of success includes more personal elements, like building robust teams, launching new products, completing her MBA, and effectively merging organizations while maintaining the integrity of her team. 

However, she emphasizes the importance of understanding one’s personal definition of success and having a way to measure it, whether through team happiness scores, product SAT scores, or customer NPS scores. This tracking mechanism helps in celebrating wins, regardless of how small they may seem or how long they might take to achieve.

The term ‘balance’, according to Deanna, is a concept she associates more with a scorecard. Instead of the typical ‘work-life balance’, she focuses more on feeling fulfilled in her life. This sense of fulfillment has changed over the years, from her early twenties with no children, through her thirties with young children, to now in her forties, when her kids are more self-sufficient. 

For her, seeking fulfillment means understanding her needs at any given time and taking steps to meet them. This drive led her to pursue an MBA in her late thirties when the timing felt right for both her career and personal life. Deanna uses her learnings to improve her work and build her team, making her feel content and fulfilled at the moment.

Takeaway: Deanna’s secret to happiness and success lies in her proactive approach towards life. She focuses on choosing to be happy, understanding her definition of success, and seeking fulfillment rather than trying to maintain a traditional work-life balance. By doing so, she’s able to stay happy, successful, and maintain a sense of accomplishment in her career. This highlights the importance of having a personalized approach to one’s career and life, rather than following preconceived norms.

Episode Recap

Deanna unravels the martech “alphabet soup,” bringing clarity to key terms like DAM and DXP. DAM shines as a tool for managing a sea of digital assets. Meanwhile, DXP takes data and weaves it into tailored user experiences. These technologies emerge as crucial for meeting ever-evolving audience expectations, whether in traditional web-based scenarios or frontier arenas like VR and AR.

The podcast explores the dichotomy of packaged versus composable solutions in martech. No one-size-fits-all here. Deanna underlines the importance of tailoring solutions to an organization’s dynamics and change-readiness. Packaged solutions offer swift value and integration. However, for firms reluctant to retrofit their processes to a pre-bundled setup, composable solutions offer the needed flexibility and custom-fit.

Deanna is quick to acknowledge the vibrant, competitive martech landscape. The ever-evolving ecosystem is not a curse but an opportunity to keep innovating, always staying ahead of the curve. Composability and generative AI are on her radar, as is listening to customer pain points. She emphasizes customer feedback as a compass guiding the adoption of emerging technologies, an approach deeply embedded in Acquia’s ethos.

Deanna further demystifies the implications of AI for marketing roles. AI could redefine roles but also free marketers from mundane tasks, making space for strategic and creative work. Key to this transformation is trust, especially for data-driven AI models. As AI interfaces get smarter, marketers can efficiently harness data, asking AI for insights like the “next best customer segment” rather than diving into manual data analysis.

Deanna presents a compelling case for open-source martech solutions. She highlights how Acquia, rooted in Drupal, places power in the hands of its customers, fostering an environment of rapid innovation, seamless integrations, and complete customization. It’s a model that seeks not to constrain, but to empower users, fueling Acquia’s competitive edge in the martech arena.

The conversation closes on a powerful note on personalized marketing. Deanna calls for a paradigm shift in campaign metrics, challenging marketers to aim higher than a 5% open rate. She champions the harmony of quantitative and qualitative data, countering skepticism about the latter’s statistical significance. Emphasizing qualitative data, she presents it as a tool for gaining internal advocacy for marketing decisions, shaping a narrative far more compelling than numbers alone could tell.

Listen below for a comprehensive, nuanced, and accessible journey through the world of open-source martech, AI and qualitative vs quantitative data. 🎧

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Intro music by Wowa via Unminus
Cover art created with Midjourney

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