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Interview with Elevated Third on Drupal

Clutch spoke with Jeff Calderone, the CEO of Elevated Third, about Drupal - one of the most widely-used website platforms. Learn more about Elevated Third on their Clutch profile or at


Can you provide a brief description of your company?

Elevated Third is a strategy and Drupal development shop for enterprise B2B clients. Most of our clients have a long sales cycle and they need a technical tool that helps them throughout the sales and marketing process that is sometimes more than a year. Those are the clients we work best with. Drupal is a good fit for those clients. Typically, there’s also one of the big marketing automation players involved as well including Salesforce, Marketo, Eloqua, or Pardot.


What is the challenge your clients have going into a new web design project?

Most of our clients are enterprise clients so it’s not their first website, but they’re in some stage of digital transformation. They’re trying to make all the marketing and sales pieces work together. Most companies, even really large companies, are not doing that very well. There’s a case study that talks about 75% of CMOs don’t feel like their marketing automation is working well. Usually, that’s partially a strategic problem and partially a technical problem. They’re not able to get Pardot or Eloqua to do what they want, but they’re also not able to integrate it with their sites so that they’re closing the loop and getting the end-to-end feedback and reporting and personalization that makes that stuff work.


What factors should people consider before choosing a platform for their website?

Especially if they’re in the B2B space and have that longer sales cycle, I think they need to pick a platform that is going to be able to grow with them and integrate with their existing legacy systems as well as connect with marketing automation and Salesforce and CRM in a way that is user proof. Personalization is coming. Voice activation is coming. All of those exist in some form already. Building on a platform like Drupal allows you to get something up and running quickly and be modular both now and in the future and add onto a solid core as these technologies and trends become actual.


What is Drupal known for and who is an ideal client for it?

Drupal is one of the 2 large opensource projects, the other being WordPress. The main contrast that we’ve seen is WordPress is great for the lower end of the market. It’s very opinionated in terms of how it works and what you can do with it. One of the things we say in the sales process is if you can do it in WordPress, you probably should. But for most of our clients, there’s something more complex that they need.

Drupal is great because it gives you a lot of functionality out of the box, the core functionality that’s been built by thousands of developers over time. It’s really solid, tested, and secure. The modules that are created by the community are really where the power comes and where it stands out. We can start with a key suite of modules and core functionality and often get our clients 60-70% of the way to where they want to go, but then be confident that we can build custom modules and functionality to get them the rest of the way, and oftentimes, replicate the functionality of a fully custom website for much less because we’re using the opensource community that has created all this functionality over time.


Share the importance of technical coding knowledge when building a website.

I would make a distinction between the content providers and the developers. There is no real skillset required for content. Good Drupal shops pay attention to the user experience not only for the customer or end user but also for the administrators and the content providers. We’ll build a workflow that makes it really clear and easy what you’re supposed to do and how to add content. There are no special skills there.

On the development side, often when we work with very large companies that have an in-house Drupal team, those folks will typically be developers that maintain the code base and do security updates and patches, etc. going forward. And then because our Drupal developers are so skilled, some of the best in the world frankly, we end up coming in and solving problems and creating features that the in-house team isn’t able to accomplish. We work well with in-house teams in being able to share the workload and help them be effective with the stuff that they can do but always be around for things they need our help with.


Could you expand on the Drupal community and its ability to keep up with technology as it changes?

One of the things that surprised me initially but is a great strength of the Drupal community is how willing everyone is to help each other. I think we’re competitors, but we’re friendly competitors and we realize that if we can make Drupal stronger together, then we’re all stronger and we compete better with Adobe and Sitecore if we together build a more solid platform. That altruistic attitude really comes through. I think everyone is willing to help each other.

We go to DrupalCon every year and sponsor and have a booth and make connections with other Drupal shops and developers that we can ask questions of or help when needed. We were one of the main sponsors this year for DrupalCamp Colorado and have been involved for a number of years. Our competitors are there and the whole Drupal community but it’s not competitive in that sense during that time. We’re focused on how we make Drupal better and learning from each other. We want to make a more solid, more valuable platform for all of our clients. It’s the cliché of “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I think that’s the attitude of the Drupal community.


Could you please talk about Drupal security and best practices to ensure you’re doing everything you can to keep your content secure.

The one thing that we maintain with our clients is making sure that either their in-house team or we are paying attention to module patches. The Drupal security team is great and really timely in terms of paying attention to vulnerabilities and communicating quickly with the overall Drupal community. We have both automated and spot checks for those things. As soon as something comes up from the Drupal community, we’re quick to patch or communicate with our clients that that’s what they need to do.

One of the great things about opensource is instead of having a security team of a dozen people that are handing out something before it’s released, the Drupal community is constantly pushing and testing and trying to harden the code. There’s thousands of people every day making sure that their modules are secure, and the core is secure. Everybody is watching everybody else’s back and then quickly communicating if something shows up as a vulnerability. I think that’s one thing that Drupal has over the proprietary software platforms is just how many people are paying attention to security at any given time and how quickly we can communicate with each other and fix things as they come up. Companies with a proprietary software team are not able to respond as quickly because they don’t have as many eyes looking at the problem.


What are the features of the platform that have most impressed you?

The thing to know about Drupal 8, which is the most recent version, is the idea of headless Drupal which is using Drupal as an agnostic backend platform for whatever frontend technology you would like to use. There are a number of frontend technologies like Ember or React that are popular and very powerful. Drupal is not opinionated in terms of its theming layer, so you can especially use those other frontend technologies with Drupal driving the backend. We’ve seen some success doing that and creating some digital experiences that are really cutting edge.

The way that the Drupal community is looking 5 and 10 years out and trying to position Drupal to be a player regardless of how technologies evolve is starting to show. Allowing Drupal to be flexible across all devices and using it as a hub of multiple technologies both on the backend with connecting to APIs and also on the frontend and driving these other frontend technologies, is really powerful. We can walk into any client who has existing investments or ideas of how things should work and Drupal almost always has a place to play and is a powerful way to pull all those things together.


Are there any areas of the software that could be added or improved upon?

Speaking for us, it’s really center plate. I think our business has evolved to go to enterprise and B2B where we think Drupal is especially suited. I think other Drupal agencies, and maybe us in the past, might be frustrated with the learning curve. When a company is trying to compete head to head with WordPress and the lower end of the market, I think people have been frustrated that Drupal doesn’t do that very well because it’s powerful and modular and doesn’t build those brochureware sites out of the box quite as well. For us, seeing that frustration and moving up the chain in our sales and marketing process and focusing on client where Drupal is a good fit has been our response to that frustration.


What does it take to maintain a Drupal website?

I agree that a website should be a living thing that is part of your overall content and communication strategy and not just an object that you put on the shelf once it launches. I think the two things that I would say are important are the backend maintenance in terms of making sure that things stay secure and stay optimized and also looking for opportunities. One thing that we do for our clients is evaluation and reporting and looking at how the website is accomplishing their business goals. If we build a website and it doesn’t convert the way that we thought it would or we see opportunities to add funcationality and features that will improve the user experience, we use pretty extensive on-page and off-page tracking to make sure that we understand how it’s working, how it fits into the overall ecosystem and is it really driving engagement and driving sales.

I think my recommendation for clients would be to save budget and attention for that overall long-term strategy and be able to evaluate the effectiveness of not only the Drupal website but your marketing automation efforts and your CRM efforts so that you can build a loop that’s always improving and closing more business over time. Sometimes customer don’t pay attention. They look at website launch as “we’re finished” rather than where they can start to really improve things and drive business.

One thing that I would say is there’s a big difference between a mediocre Drupal shop and a really good one. To the earlier point with WordPress, there’s a possibility to do Drupal poorly if you don’t have the right skills. One of the things that sets us apart is our relationship with Acquia. We’re a preferred partner with them and 6 of our 11 developers are certified with them, and 3 of them have the grand master certification. That means they’ve passed the 3 hardest tests that Acquia gives. There’s 150 grand masters in the world and 3 of them work here. That extra level of execution is important to evaluate. Drupal is a powerful tool and you need skilled people to push it at the enterprise and B2B level.


Is there anything else companies should look for in an agency?

Focusing on an agency that’s going to understand your business and solve the right problem as opposed to just developers who are going to build what they’re told to build. That’s really key. There are a lot of shops that have good developers that will build whatever you tell them to. We focus on providing that strategic insight. Half our agency is strategy and UX and design and helping the company to solve the right problem trusting that the other side of our shop, the Drupal developers, can implement and build those things that we recommend. Having both the strategy and development functioning at a high level versus having a strategy firm that doesn’t know how to build what they’re recommending or a development firm that is just going to build what they’re told to build without any insight or connecting to the strategy - it’s key to have that integrated approach and not just one or the other.


We have 5 additional questions. For each of these, we ask that you rate Drupal on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best score. How would you rate Drupal for functionality and available features?

5 - For an enterprise client with sophisticated needs and aggressive strategy, Drupal is a 5. For someone that needs a brochureware site, it’s not a 5.


How would you rate Drupal for ease of use and ease of implementation?

5 - It should and can be a 5. The challenge is that some development shops don’t pay attention to the user experience of the admins. You definitely need to save time and budget and energy to pay attention to how a large team is going to maintain a site and those workflows and customize that experience so they’re seeing just the content they need to edit and not everything else.  


How would you rate Drupal for support, as in the response of their team, and the helpfulness of available resources online?

4 - We are one firm and we are responsive and support our clients. Most Drupal shops do that. There might be some that don’t. That’s the challenge of being an opensource project versus Adobe or something where there is a profit motive and they have a support system that has a budget and an 800 number for all Adobe clients. Drupal doesn’t have that. You’re beholden to the Drupal agency that you picked which knocks the quality from a 5 to a 4 because you can’t guarantee that everybody is going to support the same way.


How likely are you to recommend Drupal to a friend or colleague?

5 - In the sales process, we tell our clients if WordPress would be more suited to them. We have some WordPress shops that we like and that provide good work that we refer business to all the time. We don’t try to turn WordPress clients into Drupal clients. For the right type of client, Drupal is a 5.


How would you rate Drupal for overall satisfaction?

5 - We started doing much better when focused on Drupal. It’s been about 10 years. Being able to follow in their wake and with companies like Acquia also coming aboard to lend commercial credibility to the opensource community, it’s been great for us and definitely a big part of our success.

Expert quote
"Drupal is one of the 2 large opensource projects, the other being WordPress. The main contrast that we’ve seen is WordPress is great for the lower end of the market. It’s very opinionated in terms of how it works and what you can do with it. One of the things we say in the sales process is if you can do it in WordPress, you probably should. But for most of our clients, there’s something more complex that they need. Drupal is great because it gives you a lot of functionality out of the box, the core functionality that’s been built by thousands of developers over time. It’s really solid, tested, and secure. The modules that are created by the community are really where the power comes and where it stands out."