In March, we hosted the latest in our one-hour series of Digital Labs sessions for a global audience. Speakers from innovative brands FullStory, Zillow Group and The Financial Times provided actionable insights into creating a great tech stack and debated hot topics like Build vs Buy, the importance of cross-functional input when creating a tech stack and the most exciting trends on the horizon.

Missed it? Here’s what we covered.

First, meet the Panelists:

  • Jason Tabert, Senior Marketing Specialist, Conversion Rate Optimization, Zillow Group
  • Ivan Hristov, Head of Product, The Financial Times
  • Ed Barrow, VP Product Strategy, Optimizely
  • Patrick Brandt, Engineering Manager, Ecosystem, FullStory
  1. Customers are your North Star, so simplify their journey through technology, service and integration.

The event opened with Zillow outlining the complicated customer journey within the real estate digital landscape and how a smart tech stack can help simplify and optimize the customer experience. Zillow offers a breadth of different services and online customer journeys are often non-linear. Consumers expect “Push button, make magic happen”. However, real estate transactions are complicated, time consuming, stressful and expensive for the customer.

Zillow’s goal is to create a “radically simpler real estate transaction through our technology, our services, our integrations” and to help customers at every stage of their real estate journey.

  1. Make your tech stack work hard for you.

Key considerations for Zillow when building out their tech stack were gaining insights into user behaviors and being able to message customers appropriately and consistently, reducing friction points along those customer journeys and facilitating transitions between different products.

Zillow has multiple product lines and they’re evolving their tech stack to support multiple lines of business, both B2C and B2B​. Passing data and information back and forth between the systems, being able to analyze the same cohorts and making sure you’re looking at the same people across systems enriches the whole program. Jason advocated companies should constantly re-evaluate their existing tech stack – is it still working for you? Is there something better?​

When building on your tech stack, always consider what existing tools you can integrate with and what kind of value you’ll get out of connecting these tools together. Jason advised buying the “best in class” tools to provide all those integrations. Passing data and information back and forth between tools and being able to analyze the same segments and audiences across systems enriches your customer profiles and helps future-proof your tech stack.

Zillow uses Optimizely as their experimentation and personalization platform, which sits on top of their WordPress installation. Zillow sends Optimizely data into Google Analytics, and then through other tools like FullStory, so they can understand more of the customer journey and do a deeper analysis into user behavior.

Zillow used their smart tech stack to help understand where users were perhaps languishing or abandoning the journey. As Jason explained, using a tool like FullStory, “You can segment and really dive into the customers who didn’t take that action that you were hoping for, or they didn’t convert.” In that way, you’re, “Understanding those customer journeys and watching those replays and looking at all those metrics where you’re not speaking to the user, where they go into a different page, where they’re looping. That all helps inform ways that you might be able to change your experiments, understand what they did instead, shift your messaging, lots of different things.”  Insights from tools like FullStory can be fed back into your experimentation program and you can constantly iterate and move forward. Jason’s final piece of advice was, “Don’t be afraid of a losing experiment, because even a loss tells you something.”

Build vs Buy? Start with defining your business case.

With so many great tech stack options and “best-in-class” platforms available, does it make sense to partner on technology or to build your own? Well, according to our panelists, a Build vs Buy decision is not just about technology; it needs to start with defining your desired outcome.

Ivan Hristov from The Financial Times said it always starts with the business case and the question, “What are you trying to achieve?” You then have to weigh up what internal resources are available to build something versus going to market and seeing what’s available. If it’s not a core part of your business, Ivan said he would always prefer to partner.

Jason Taubert from Zillow is also a proponent of buying where possible. Like Ivan, Jason believes if it’s not your core expertise then“I think it’s always best to not reinvent the wheel and to go buy those ‘best in class’ tools.” He also acknowledged that you need to have the buy-in from stakeholders and suggested setting up light integrations as touchpoints where you can then prove out the value before committing to buying in the tool.

Patrick Brandt from FullStory highlighted the unexpected hidden costs and serious investment associated not only with building but maintaining a tool and keeping it running.  When it comes to a choice to build or buy, you have to consider whether you have the skills and expertise in-house to not only build but to sustain the tool yourself.

  1. When designing a tech stack, bring together a cross-functional team with differing viewpoints.

Bringing together different disciplines to understand the bigger picture helps to ensure full scope visibility of what is being requested when considering how to build out your tech stack. As Jason said, “I think it’s important to bring together a lot of different disciplines…not just from the marketing side, for instance, or from the product side…so that you’re really understanding are we building something that’s actually going to enable all these different teams and really answering all those different problems.” It’s important to get a high-level view to ensure you’re actually building something that’s going to help stakeholders with their specific needs.

Ivan said there’s often under representation from data teams or they’re involved at too late a stage, so it’s essential to have cross functional representation from the outset. Their point of view is essential when designing a tech stack to ensure the business benefits.

Ed Barrow from Optimizely stated the 80/20 rule and advised, “Spending 80% of your time really trying to understand and articulate the problem. A lot of that comes from business users and the business teams, but also from the data teams and engineering teams about the common state of affairs and just really being clear about the problem that we’re trying to solve. The scale of that challenge puts into perspective the investments and the decisions that then get made.”

  1. Don’t just evaluate the tool itself but how that tool will fit into your existing stack.

Often within companies, there are many different platforms/tools in place working in silos. How do companies map out and build integrations between those tools and optimize their value? Well, Patrick Brandt from FullStory said it starts with a data-centric view – understanding the value that any given tool provides in isolation but also understanding how a particular tool lives within a business process and how it impacts workflows. The next step is to understand those data flows and specifically how any of that can be managed via API’s (application programming interfaces) to gain insights in a cost-effective and easy manner.

It’s about “focusing on the outputs that make the most sense so you’re thinking about the whole story. As an example, Optimizely has this great capability to output any variation that a user experiences at any given time through their API. We have the ability, through our API, to take that into FullStory.”

Jason agreed that the question of integration is critical before bringing in new tools and is yet another reason to bring a multi-disciplinary team together to ensure you map out integrations across your entire ecosystem. There are a lot of duplicative tools so standardizing across tools really helps. It’s important to not just evaluate the tool itself but to consider the flow of data through the whole ecosystem to help you achieve your objectives, not just now, but in the future.

Ed Barrow of Optimizely echoed Jason’s keynote presentation when he stressed the importance of common identifiers between tools so that they’re talking the same language. This gives companies a lot of flexibility down the line as the way you envisage integrating two systems today, “Isn’t going to be fit for purpose in 18 months to 24 months’ time.” It’s important to recognize that business is always evolving and to ensure that you can improve and adapt integrations over time, “So that you have the ability to pull data from somewhere, manipulate it and send it on somewhere else, giving you much more flexibility and making sure that you’re building for change.”

  1. Two major tech stack trends on the horizon.

The use of customer data platforms (CDPs) will be a key trend according to Ed Barrow, as companies seek to reach into other platforms in a flexible way and leverage that data to tailor the user experience. Ed announced Optimizely’s recent acquisition of a customer data platform called Zaius, which will be embedded into Optimizely’s digital experience platform so companies can leverage a broader base of data across multiple systems to personalize the customer experience.

Patrick said that the one big mega trend they’re watching at FullStory is the continued shift to digitization across industries. “It’s easy to take for granted how pervasive ecommerce is, yet it continues to be adopted more and more broadly”. COVID-19 has accelerated the mobile enablement of ecommerce, so it’s important to consider the user journey regardless of the channel used.

  1. Collaborative tools will become “must-have” elements of your tech stack, as remote working is here to stay.

Echoing Ed’s comments, Ivan from The Financial Times said that, from a B2C perspective, a CDP is critical for them to have a 360-degree view of the customer and the various touchpoints of the customer journey across multiple channels. A CDP tool offers a lot of value and potential for their business in terms of being able to plug in data from different places to understand customer behavior and to activate successful customer engagement tactics.

Patrick believes that integration platforms like Zapier and Ricotta are now essential to businesses. “What I love about these platforms is that it’s basically a low code or no code way to connect the data flows between disparate tools.” They allow mutual customers to snap together different tools like FullStory notification alerts and Slack or landing data from one platform into a CDP or data analysis platform in a very user-friendly way that doesn’t require an engineering skill set.

Ed believes that, with the shift to remote working, it’s important for companies to invest in OKR management to allow large, distributed teams to collaborate effectively. “I’m really interested in more asynchronous ways of organizing and managing teams and I think there’s been a very rapid rise of OKR management and other tools that enable organizations to align everyone around a shared set of goals, to provide transparency across teams, so you know what’s going on in other departments and how your contributions add up to the overall goals of the company.”

Thanks as ever to all of you who attended the third session in our new Digital Labs Series, dedicated to helping you build your own smart tech stack.

More sessions are on the way featuring panelists from some seriously great brands. They’ll be discussing various aspects of the smart tech stack, all backed up by real-world insights based on their own experiences.