When I first hopped on Zoom with Deanna Ballew, Senior Vice President of Product at Acquia, we bantered casually about her home near Madison, Wisconsin – and the dark beauty of Midwestern thunderstorms.
At the time, we were both being treated to unstable spring weather, mine of the Southeastern U.S. variety but equally temperamental. It was an apropos reflection of what’s happening in the technology market as fears of recession and the specter of AI loom menacingly across the horizon.
But there's opportunity in that tornadic frenzy. As composable strategies continue to rain across the legacy landscape, DXPs have been repositioning their offerings in a bid to be more, well… composable in an increasingly omnichannel world. Heck, last year, Salesforce unveiled a new service called Composable Storefront – a fully headless commerce solution that features an ecosystem of integrations.
Does this make Salesforce a “composable” platform? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s a bit of a misnomer, really, when you consider that all DXPs were essentially composed to begin with.
Such is the case with Acquia. Over the years, it has expanded beyond its Drupal-powered CMS to comprise an ecosystem of integrated technologies, including cloud services, CDP, a marketing studio, and other goodies. By all accounts, the company fits the monolithic bill.
But as co-founder and CTO Dries Buytaert described in his Composable DXP Manifesto, Acquia has been evangelizing modular architectures that align with Drupal’s concept of the Assembled Web for over a decade. In that sense, they’re not newcomers to the composable game. In fact, in 2021, the company expanded its open capabilities by introducing a set of composable enterprise features.
Still, Acquia seems focused on the sum of its DXP parts to help customers grow. Most recently, it purchased Widen, a digital asset management (DAM) solution that is proving to be a key activator in its completeness of vision (it’s worth noting that the service can be procured separately). Deanna, who came along for the ride from Widen as its Chief Innovation Officer, is now working across the Acquia portfolio on the company’s vision and M&A strategy.
Given all this, where does Acquia fit on the composable spectrum? Lately, I’ve been listening to many voices across the industry use this term in different ways, and I wanted to hear from a platform with a long-established leadership role in the DXP topology – and one striving to be more modular than monolithic.
Deanna and I were also joined by Maggie Schroeder, Acquia’s Director of Product Marketing. We talked at length about composable, the hyperbolic explosion of AI, and the importance of their “Acquian” community as accelerators of innovation and success.
For those who don't consult the analyst reports, Acquia held firm to its Leader position in the 2023 Gartner Magic Quadrant for DXPs, trailing only behind Optimizely and Adobe. The triad has persistently battled it out over several cycles in a bid to dominate the space, although Adobe – a much larger competitor – continues to wear the crown.
So how did Acquia join this exclusive league of leaders? It's been a long road, and community and innovation played a big part. But it doesn't hurt that the company was purchased by Vista Equity Partners in 2019 for $1 billion, boosting its quest to build market presence.
While these rivals all deliver industry-leading foundational technologies (CMS, CX, CDP, analytics, personalization, customer journey management, and more), Gartner highlighted Acquia’s synergy between its product innovations and acquisitions, as well as its uncommon support for intranet and employee portal applications. There was also a footnote about Acquia’s Site Factory toolset, which eases the burden of scaling deployments.
Analyst observations aside, I asked Deanna what was putting the wind in Acquia’s sails (or sales, n'est-ce pas?) in 2023.
“One of the core pieces to why we’re winning is that we continue to thrive and focus on content and data,” she said. “The foundation and flexibility of Drupal as our CMS delivers us over 46,000 modules, and by combining our CMS with Acquia Cloud, we can now give our customers the ultimate balance of enterprise security, stability, and scalability. And that's kind of the sweet spot where they can start small and grow, or they can start big and really scale up. So that's where we've grown.”
Deanna also underscored the impact of the Widen acquisition, and how pairing an award-winning DAM with Acquia’s ML-powered CDP – formerly AgilOne – is at the heart of the company’s composable promise to provide an open set of solutions that play well with other technologies.
“I think that's really key to what we're seeing with composability,” she explained. “You can't do everything with a single vendor. It has to work within our customers’ current systems and technologies when they need it and scale and grow as it goes.”
Maggie also touched on Acquia’s commitment to helping customers make technology work for them, suggesting it all comes back to the ease of use the company is building into its products.
“We’re providing low code capabilities for marketers, but also really advanced tools for our developers who we know are at the core of creating experiences – so those who are less technical and those who are very technical can work together to create experiences that are outcome-driven.”
As a well-established open source vendor, Acquia’s community has been a wellspring for continuous innovation. I asked Maggie how the heritage of Drupal is impacting the company’s plans for the future.
“Drupal is at our core, and it’s part of the beginnings of Acquia,” she said. “We've really stayed true to that, throughout the duration of Acquia’s existence.”
But enhancing that legacy has been a key focus, and Maggie noted a series of very strategic acquisitions and innovations that have complemented the open source engine. For example, the purchase of Cohesion in 2019 and its subsequent transformation to Site Studio has made Drupal more accessible to low-code business users – what Dries calls an “ambitious site builder.” As Deanna echoed, the goal has been making things easier for users across the collective community.
“We put a lot of emphasis into content and really making that experience as seamless as possible. And then of course, giving our customers that foundation helps them get even closer to leveraging data and more complex use cases as well.”
As for that community, it’s quite expansive: according to the company’s website, Acquia boasts more than 800 customers and over a million users worldwide, buoyed by a Drupal footprint that includes one in eight enterprise websites and over 10,000 active community contributors. Oh, and there’s also those 46,000 modules to boot.
While open source brings its own set of challenges from security to stability, it offers key benefits that are attractive in a composable world – like no vendor lock-in. But there’s more to it: this open community is helping Acquia and its customers jump ahead and drive delivery on their own terms.
“They don’t have to wait for our roadmap,” Deanna said. “And that's a really key thing to be able to do what you need to on your own timeline.”
It’s a no-brainer to ask about the new brain driving this hype cycle: ChatGPT. It’s undeniable. In less than six months, countless platforms across the digital experience and martech stack have harnessed OpenAI’s generative service to improve content operations and workflows.
While Acquia is already leveraging machine learning and predictive models in its CDP, I asked how this latest permutation of AI is transforming the strategy. Once again, it came back to the community.
“We see that even with all the AI stuff going on right now, our community and customers are doing it themselves,” Deanna said. “They're making it work when they want to do it.”
To that end, the Drupal community has already launched an OpenAI initiative that aims to provide a suite of modules and an API foundation for ChatGPT, GitHub CoPilot, and more. This would include a bevy of features for powering generative text, content editing, audio transcribing, text prompts, and more.
“All of our sales engineers are enabled to leverage the Drupal OpenAI module as part of their demo to show ‘the art of the possible’ with ChatGPT,” Maggie explained. “It can create anything from text content, images, content analysis – there’s a lot. And this goes back to having the power of the Drupal community behind us, really helping our customers get ahead of the trends. So while others in the market are waiting for additions or integrations to ChatGPT, the Drupal community was, I'd say, first to market with the ChatGPT integration.”
During my recent trip to the Boye & Company CMS Experts summit in New York City, there was an epic debate about headless CMS and the challenges that exist with visualization. While DXC platforms like Uniform are providing an answer for pure headless solutions, traditional CMS platforms are espousing the value of their APIs to reinforce the value of a hybrid play. This comes at a time when even WordPress is offering a headless backend to power any kind of frontend framework.
With Acquia’s Drupal CMS falling into the traditional CMS and DXP column, I asked Maggie how omnichannel fits into Acquia’s strategy, and how it stacks up to purely headless contenders.
“First of all, I love that you're saying ‘omnichannel’ and you're not leading with headless, because headless is the technology that makes omnichannel possible,” she said. “However, something I want to acknowledge is that not all experiences we talk about are truly omnichannel, right? Omnichannel implies these experiences are connected and they're consistent across all the channels where you're delivering content. And I think that is where we've really stepped in to provide differentiation.”
As Maggie explained, business users are often seen as a “pain point” for pure-play headless competitors in the market. Acquia’s ability to supply both low code business features – as well as a completely headless experience to frontend developers – gives users the freedom to choose whatever framework they prefer.
“We see a lot of our customers adopting a hybrid approach to omnichannel,” Maggie said. “They’re asking, ‘What is the outcome we're looking to drive with the experience? Is it really going to be content dependent? And is it owned by, say, a marketing team?’”
A great example she cited: marketing campaign pages. A stakeholder probably doesn’t want to be dependent on a developer to update the content, especially if it needs to be changed frequently. This is different from a digital sign, which is highly dependent on a frontend developer to create.
“We want to give freedom to all the different contributors who are working on the same team to deliver experiences. I think those are really the two key differentiating factors for us: enabling the whole team and then also having the ability to provide low code and headless.”
Dovetailing on the hybrid versus headless discussion, Maggie shared the importance of aligning with a customer’s goals and growing with them over time. Having a more composable approach seems to benefit this on multiple levels, particularly when a large migration or transformation is part of the program. But it also requires the right mindset – which Acquia champions for its users.
“Instead of painting this picture of ‘oh, you have to rip and replace everything,’ we say, ‘let's do this one at a time, let's focus on content first,” or ‘let's focus on your digital assets first,’ or ‘let's focus on product inventory first.’ I think that’s a huge benefit for our new and existing customers.”
From a roadmap perspective, Maggie said the various products and capabilities that Acquia offers can be rolled out over time, making the journey less overwhelming. For example, year one could include CMS, followed by year two with DAM, and year three with CDP and personalization. This is where the benefits of a composable DXP come into play.
Maggie also shared a customer use case for Anheuser-Busch/InBev, which pushed the limits of a composable approach to create new experiences. Working with Acquia, they created decoupled components for a game application, allowing any marketer to add it to new sites. The entire experience is low code and completely composable.
I asked Maggie where these high-touch professional services fit in the business model, and if Acquia plans to invest more in that level of relationship.
“I think being consultative is kind of end-to-end for Acquians,” she said, conjuring the mantle reserved for its team and community members. “Our sales team is very well versed in having those conversations. We try to go in as more of a trusted advisor.”
In today’s macroeconomics, there’s no telling if we’re at the precipice of a global recession or knee-deep in a soft landing. While the pandemic resulted in a buying spree for Acquia and its contemporaries, the last 12 months have seen a softening in IT budgets and layoffs from the likes of Google, Meta, and Amazon.
So does Acquia see 2023 through rose-colored glasses? I asked Deanna to weigh in.
“In the environment we’re in with the recession – are we in it or are we not – we’re really leaning into our existing customers to ensure they have great CX,” she said. “We’re seeing an increased focus on the customer journey, on CDPs. Focusing on customer retention and customer upsell has been a key trend.”
“I think we’re in a really great position because we’re empowering teams,” Maggie added. “I think the question that everyone is asking themselves is, ‘how do we do more with the same?’ Or maybe even ‘more with even less’ budget or team resources. We’ve really maximized what their team can do instead of bogging them down with maintenance and other types of menial tasks. They can get straight to the value and the mission they set forth.”
As we rounded the corner to the end of our conversation, I asked what’s on the horizon – and what gets this team excited about the prospects ahead. Deanna jumped in, and once again focused on the importance of community.
“I think about 40 percent of our customers now have a TAM – technical advisor manager – to help them grow in year one, year two, year three, and advise them along the way,” she said enthusiastically. “But I’m most excited about launching a broader Acquia community. Not only do we help them, but our customers help each other, giving [each other] ideas and advice to help them grow along the way. That’s really exciting for me.”
Exciting indeed. And even if 2023 turns into a Midwestern thunderstorm, Acquia seems well positioned to ride it out.