Interview with Bryan Cheung, CEO, Liferay

Bryan Cheung

“The foundation always has to be good content. You can’t fake that and you need to invest in content for it to really be good.”

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Tell us about your role and how you got here? What galvanized you to be a part of a Digital Experience Platform?

I’m the CEO of Liferay but I often refer to myself as a “reluctant CEO” because it was never my goal to run a company. A group of us started Liferay believing that building a successful company could be a means to serve communities and non-profits through donations, volunteering and partnerships.

The Founder of Liferay, Brian Chan, built the original Liferay Portal on nights and weekends after he considered buying a web portal for his church but found existing solutions to be too expensive and lacking features. Brian released Liferay Portal as free open source software and we formed as a company in 2004 to provide services to people around the world that had started using Liferay. Since then, we’ve evolved from our portal roots to offer a complete Digital Experience Platform designed to help organizations serve customers through great digital experiences and streamlined business operations.

What sets Liferay apart from rest of the league?

Customer experience” is a buzzword but with our portal background, Liferay is in a unique position to influence the entire relationship between a company and its customers. Companies use Liferay to educate prospects about their products, deliver a seamless onboarding experience and provide customer service and issue resolution—all from one platform.

In addition, we want the want the world to be a better place for Liferay having existed as a company. We have a keen interest in exploring how companies can combine profitability and social good – such as by opening an office in an economically distressed area, or by using data and analytics to fight trafficking.

How would you define Connected Experience from a Modern CEO’s perspective?

“Connected Experience” is ultimately about shifting our focus from the touchpoints—mobile, web, stores and call centers—to the relationship. I don’t care where my customer interacted with me. What matters is whether those visits move our relationship forward. Do they build trust and confidence? Are we doing a better job of understanding and giving them what they’re looking for? Is there continuity and context, so that when a customer visits me and tells me what they need, it materially changes what they experience during their next interaction? This can be as simple as knowing that a customer prefers to be called by their last name, but it could be harder, like knowing that the customer unsuccessfully tried updating their insurance policy online five minutes ago and being ready to make those changes when they call customer service.

How is the Experience Technology ecosystem different from when you first started? What would you say is the biggest driver for the change?

The three biggest changes I’ve seen are:

Consolidation and commoditization of related product categories. Content management, portal, collaboration and commerce are table stakes for this industry now. Every vendor should offer these features out of the box.

Cloud evolving from an IT decision (“where do we run this thing?”) to an active part of a vendor’s offering and company strategy. For example, if I’m a B2B company and I sell widgets to my wholesale and retail customers, can I give them intelligence based on both their personal buying patterns and buying patterns across my customer base to help them better manage inventory and discounts? That’s a lot easier to do when part of your solution leverages the cloud.

The increasing prominence of data and analytics in vendor offerings. Consolidating customer data can give you a lot of insights not just on “low hanging fruit” like buying behavior and interest but also on broader customer needs. For example, is there a product line for which documentation is confusing, or where a lot of issues pop up? Is there something about your self-service portal that’s unintuitive? Are potential customers dropping off because your forms are too long or ask for too much sensitive information?

Much of this can (and should) be done in a non-personally identifying way, which is important because we want companies to respect personal data privacy.

How do you see the technology evolving around omnichannel analytics experience and customer data management in the coming years?

One thing the Cambridge Analytica scandal really highlighted is consumer concerns over privacy. I think customers are open to sharing their data with companies if it’s done in a way that’s transparent and where the customer understands how they benefit. However, marketers are going to have to adjust how they collect and use customer data in order to both ensure that they’re compliant with new regulation like GDPR and that they maintain a positive relationship with their customers.

Fundamentally, the change will have to be one of attitude. Successful companies don’t look at customer data simply as a resource to sell more product but rather as a way to deliver value. The best marketers provide helpful information and tips to prospects both up to and after the point of sale – even if it means pointing them to a competitor.

What type of marketer would benefit the most from Liferay’s marketing stack?

Most people think of marketing as targeting and selling to new customers, usually in consumer products, but in our world, it is broader than that. First, Liferay often supports non-consumer-product companies across both B2B and B2C. Second, these companies build long-term relationships with their customers post-purchase. They help customers get the most out of their products and services because loyalty and repeat business matter.

We’re also working with companies who want marketing to be educational, good at listening and responsive to needs across the entire customer journey, not just prior to purchase. Content marketing and consultative selling are forms of that but so is customer success.

To illustrate, Liferay worked with a large manufacturer of farming equipment here in the US to help them build an online catalog through which farmers could easily purchase equipment, such as a tractor. With the emergence of IoT-enabled devices that tractor could notify the manufacturer if there are maintenance issues. Once notified, the manufacturer can actively reach out to the farmer to let them know that there’s a problem with their equipment and suggest possible fixes. By being helpful to the farmer the manufacturer generates goodwill and makes it more likely that their customer will buy from them again in the future.

How should B2B marketers leverage customer data and content marketing for better audience reach and targeting?

The foundation always has to be good content. You can’t fake that and you need to invest in content for it to really be good. Hire good journalistic writers and put them in touch with your subject matter experts. Be willing to spend money to collect data, run surveys and produce compelling visuals.

The reason you have to invest is that everyone’s gotten on the content marketing bandwagon over the last five years but almost nobody does it well. So now there’s an ocean of bad content out there. People feel cheated because they give up their email address only to download a listicle with obvious truisms that don’t really help them solve their problems. We are all tired of it, and now most of us won’t fill out the form because we likely won’t get what we’re promised.

This is true even with good content. We’ve seen our form fill rates drop about 30% the last year and half for our analyst reports, which have always performed well and been well regarded.

So now you have to write exceptional content and probably give it away for free. But that’s ok because people are paying you with their attention. Just the fact that they’re willing to give your content some of their reading time and possibly develop an interest in your company is worth a lot because attention is scarce.

Where data can come in is to help you figure out what your audiences are interested in hearing from you. This can be as simple as analyzing search terms (both organic and on your site), to analyzing how much time people spend on different assets on your web properties. It’s tricky because that will tell you what they’re interested in among the topics that you’ve already covered, but you may not know what they really want to learn about, which isn’t on your site.

What tools does your marketing stack consist of in 2018?

Some of the primary tools we use are Salesforce as our CRM, HubSpot as our marketing automation platform and Slack as our internal communications tool. In addition, we use Triblio to help engage with customers, Zendesk for customer messaging and DiscoverOrg (formerly RainKing) for lead scoring.

Tell us about your best digital transformation campaign?

One example we’re particularly proud of is our work with Coach, a multinational fashion retailer with over 1,000 stores worldwide. Prior to using Liferay, Coach employees struggled to share information and find documents online both as it related to human resource needs and customer questions – particularly while on mobile devices.

Using Liferay, Coach created “Coachweb,” a single sign-on employee intranet that has become a cornerstone for Coach’s digital ecosystem and the future of how they use technology to support their employees. Coachweb has allowed the company to decentralize content management and avoid the time-consuming process of rebuilding their content by simply replicating it online when necessary. When combined with document consolidation, Coach has been able to be efficient in how they spend their time and money on internal processes.

How do you see experience platforms evolving with the maturity of AI/ML and voice? What challenges do you foresee marketers facing?

Depending on the application, machine learning needs to get a lot of things wrong before it gets things right. So sometimes you need a lot of data or a sort of “trial and error” period before things get going. In those cases, it usually helps when users train your algorithm first with their choices and behavior patterns.

Voice makes the omnichannel story even more interesting. What does it look like for responsive content to also know how to render itself through Alexa? Marketers are going to shift their concerns from pixels and positions to intonation or personality. We’ve always cared about “voice” when writing copy, but now that voice is actually audible.

The challenge with both will be how to avoid coming across as creepy, and I think you could start by actually caring about your customer and not just trying to sell them things. If marketers have the right mindset, the application of the technology will be fine.

How do you prepare for an AI-centric ecosystem as a business leader?

At the end of the day, AI is a technology that can help us deliver more value to our customers. Having solid people on board that understand the math and the tech will help you avoid the hype and understand what specific problems AI is suitable for solving. Those can be highly complex applications such as risk analyses for financial services. But they can also be simple timesavers. For example, we’re working on a product for unifying customer data from different sources into a single profile. Machine learning can help automate data cleanup actions like recognizing “US,” “U.S.A.,” and “America” are all the same thing.

Our team of in-house data experts is also helping us apply machine learning to our support organization. The goal is to help customers find answers to their issues directly so that issues are resolved faster.

How do you bring together people and technology in one place?

I think the best way is for passionate people who love technology to make tech more accessible to the rest of the world. On top of that, if those people also care about other people, they’re going to figure out how to use technology to help others. That’s the vision we try to foster at Liferay.

One way we do that is through our Employee Volunteer Program, where we encourage people to take time off and invest in their communities. That can be as simple as helping someone move heavy stuff or paint a shed. But it’s also really neat when we see our people find ways to use their tech skills to serve.

In Brazil, one of our developers helped build a library and an after-school program in a working class area of town. He got some of the other developers in the office to come with him to teach the local kids how to code. These are kids who don’t have all the same opportunities that the upper-class kids in the area get. The coding program is changing their view of what’s possible for them in the future.

We had another of our employees use their Salesforce admin skills to help a non-profit that fights human trafficking. They had learned how to set up Salesforce on the job, and now they were able to conduct personal training for one of the non-profit staff members.

A frequent theme that comes up in our internal employee surveys is that people stay at Liferay because they appreciate the company’s values. I like to say that we hired people with the right heart and the values of the company are a reflection of the values our employees bring.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

I’m a big music fan and have always hand-curated my music in iTunes because my tastes tend to be obscure and international. But these days I’ve enjoyed both Amazon Music and YouTube Red. YouTube Red is an especially great way to discover new albums that are hard to find/out of print.

There’s also a journaling app I like called DayOne. Simple, straightforward, with just enough features to be useful without distracting you from the actual task of writing. Interestingly, even DayOne is going to a subscription pricing model, which used to be pay once and get updates forever.

Finally, this annoys my designers, but I do fire up Sketch pretty regularly when I want to share new ideas for our products or concepts for our marketing and sales practice. I used to use Keynote exclusively for this, but Sketch makes it even easier.

What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?

Hiring people you trust and get along with who can learn their job, rather than people who have expertise but not the other two qualities, is the biggest force multiplier I know. When you get along with your team and don’t ever need to second-guess their intentions, you save so much time and energy not having to deal with unnecessary conflict or politics. Of course, we disagree and fight for the best ideas, but we’re all working for the good of the team and ultimately the customer, and that’s huge.

What are you currently reading? 

I like paper and its physicality for all the obvious reasons. It gets you away from so much screen time. It’s also because psychologically I associate reading on paper with having freedom of mind, space and time, which is so difficult to find. If I have time for a leisurely read of the weekend edition of the newspaper over a cup of coffee, it usually means I’m in a pretty good moment.

On the professional side, one of my product designers has been hounding me to read Inspired by Marty Cagan, which I’m trying to find time for. He’s texted me snippets at 2am—I guess it’s that good—and from what I’ve read there’s solid, pragmatic advice in there for how to build great products.

The most memorable business book I’ve ever read was Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life?, which makes a great case for how management can be a noble, life-giving pursuit. A lot of business books tend to tackle on-trend topics, but the principles in this book are timeless.

On the personal side, I’m getting ready to get married, so I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s Meaning of Marriage. I’ve also enjoyed Ann Patchett’s fiction (State of Wonder is great).

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I like what Mark Zuckerberg says about hiring people: ask yourself whether you would be excited to work for this person.

Also, it’s a lot harder to mess up chicken than beef, so when in doubt, go for the chicken.

Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:

This is a stretch, but John Maeda. He’s always struck me as thoughtfully brilliant.

Thank you, Bryan! That was fun and hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.

As CEO, Bryan Cheung steers Liferay’s strategic direction and worldwide business development efforts. Drawing on his technical experience, understanding of customer needs, and a passion for end users, Bryan leads Liferay in meeting the company’s commitment to deliver focused and effective business solutions to its customers and its community.


Liferay makes software that helps companies create digital experiences on web, mobile and connected devices. Our platform is open source, which makes it more reliable, innovative and secure. We try to leave a positive mark on the world through business and technology. Hundreds of organizations in financial services, healthcare, government, insurance, retail, manufacturing and multiple other industries use Liferay.

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The MTS Martech Interview Series is a fun Q&A style chat which we really enjoy doing with martech leaders. With inspiration from Lifehacker’s How I work interviews, the MarTech Series Interviews follows a two part format On Marketing Technology, and This Is How I Work. The format was chosen because when we decided to start an interview series with the biggest and brightest minds in martech – we wanted to get insight into two areas … one – their ideas on marketing tech and two – insights into the philosophy and methods that make these leaders tick.

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