How Edutopia increased their speed to innovation

Edutopia is a leading source for what’s working in pre-K-12 education. Since its founding by filmmaker George Lucas in 1991, it has provided content on effective education practices to teachers, school leaders, principals, superintendents, state departments of education, education researchers, and parents. With such a wide audience, Edutopia needed to develop an infrastructure to support its multichannel strategy and ensure it was serving the most relevant content to each user.

The core of Edutopia’s digital publishing strategy is built on automation and relevance. Their challenge was ensuring each editor could concentrate on creating impactful content. At the same time, they wanted to increase their pace of product innovation and focus their staff on building unique, new capabilities. Working with WordPress VIP and Gold agency partner Trew Knowledge, they replaced their legacy Drupal environment, increased the rate of publishing, reduced development toil, and built an architecture to support a unique digital experience.

Key Results

  • Improved, more efficient publishing workflow—five new pieces of content daily
  • Reduced development costs
  • Increased speed of new feature development
  • Saved dozens of hours of production time monthly

Business challenge

Bridging content and product

Edutopia’s core mission is to show effective learning and teaching practices and encourage “success replication” in schools. “Edutopia began because George Lucas is passionate about education and he was bored in school,” said Edutopia Executive Director Cindy Johanson, “A lot of people know that education can be better but they don’t know what better looks like. Edutopia strives to highlight and celebrate what’s working in schools. Our team also takes what is often jargony research on learning and makes it accessible to a wider audience through a variety of content types: articles, features, videos and more.”

Much of the responsibility for delivering that content falls to Edutopia Chief Content and Product Officer Stephen Merrill. “I’ve been in digital for a long time, going back to CNN in 1998 when we had to write articles and then code them into HTML ourselves,” Merrill said. “Not long after that I was part of a team that built a proprietary CMS. So I’m very comfortable walking the line between content and product and thinking about how we enable effective content operations and content distribution.”

“Over time we realized there was a level of complexity with Drupal that no longer made sense for an organization our size—it was only making it harder for us to develop new capabilities.”

Cindy Johanson, Executive Director, Edutopia

Edutopia employs 20 to 25 staff, but also sources about half of its content from outside contributors. “We publish around 1,200 pieces of content a year, and we deliver them across multiple channels, including web and social platforms. Some are deeply reported feature articles, others are shorter pieces like carousels on Instagram. It runs the gamut.”

Delivering increased relevancy

With so much content and so many audiences, delivering relevant content is a constant challenge—and opportunity. “All of our KPIs go up with personalized content: depth of visit, repeat visit, time spent on site,” said Johanson. “Often they double.”

To ensure that relevance, Edutopia built their own ranking engine. “We have a small organization but not small ambitions,” said Merrill. “Many sites simply rank on recency—the newest always comes first. We use tech to evaluate the audience sentiment for every piece of content we publish, leveraging data sourced internally and from providers like Google and Facebook. We also consider the subscriber’s profile: What is their role? Their grade level? What subjects do they teach or focus on? By layering together sentiment and customer data and building in a decay factor to account for recency, we determine what content to highlight.”

18 years of tech held back pace of innovation

As Edutopia evolved towards a more curated experience, elements of their tech stack shifted. “We’ve always been big open source proponents,” said Johanson. “Drupal was our CMS for 18 years, but six years ago, we moved to a decoupled architecture, with our front end hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS). However, over time we realized there was a level of complexity with Drupal that no longer made sense for an organization our size—it was only making it harder for us to develop new capabilities.”

“With Drupal, the pace of production was slower and it often required multiple engineers to get something built. We can now shift those resources to new product features and additional content production – ultimately strengthening our impact and effectiveness.”

Stephen Merrill, Chief Content and Product Officer, Edutopia

“I never could put my finger on why it was slower to develop on Drupal. We needed to continue to develop modern website features, so we made compromises and ended up with things that should be in our headless frontend instead of living in Drupal. Over time, those decisions became a layer of legacy cruft”, said Merrill. Eventually it became clear it was time for a change. “We wanted to stay headless, but be part of a wider tech and media ecosystem. And ideally, we wanted it to be open source,” added Merrill.

The solution

Searching for the right headless CMS

With the need for a change obvious, Edutopia evaluated alternatives. “We asked several publishers what they used,” said Johanson. “WordPress VIP was the most common answer. However, few publishers were using headless architectures at the time.” As a result, Edutopia did a parallel evaluation of WordPress VIP and Contentful, a headless-only CMS. “Ultimately we decided WordPress VIP was the best choice to handle our headless needs. It offers a superior user interface and helps our team publish content faster.”

Next, Edutopia needed to partner with an agency that deeply understood their personalization goals. They selected Trew Knowledge, a WordPress VIP Gold partner. “Trew Knowledge understood our business implicitly and had all the pieces to build a high-functioning publishing system,” said Merrill. “We just had to help them understand our unique API and dynamic publishing components and then decide what features we needed to migrate from Drupal.”

“We decided WordPress VIP was the best choice to handle our headless needs. It offers a superior user interface and helps our team publish content faster.”

Cindy Johanson, Executive Director, Edutopia

“The shift in platform was also a shift in team strategy for us,” said Johanson. “Previously we had an internal Drupal development team but we wanted to move to a more flexible outsourced model for development. Trew Knowledge has expertise in personalization and they are enabling our employees to focus on what we do best: content creation.”

“Edutopia has a very unique architecture. It was an exciting challenge to migrate content from Drupal to the WordPress block editor and use GraphQL to expose the data to the existing front-end application. The benefits of a decoupled architecture were really evident, as we were able to focus on specific areas of the site without having to make changes to all components.” said Anthony Moore, Chief Technology Officer at Trew Knowledge.

Faster time to content production

In 2022, Edutopia migrated their content management system to WordPress VIP. “It was the smoothest migration I’ve ever been part of and I’ve been working on online sites since 1989,” said Johanson. “I also was surprised how easy the migration was,” said Merrill. “Part of it was that our decoupled architecture really paid off–for example, we had a user account system that we relied upon and it just instantly worked with no changes.”

“Moving content from a Google document to our CMS used to take 10 minutes. Now it takes a minute or two. When you publish a bunch of articles every day, that adds up quickly.”

Stephen Merrill, Chief Content and Product Officer, Edutopia

Edutopia now creates content faster. “Our staff is loving the WordPress user interface, it’s much more intuitive than what they had previously,” said Johanson. “Photo management is much better on WordPress VIP,” said Merrill. “And basic layout is much easier on WordPress. Moving content from a Google document to our CMS used to take 10 minutes. Now it takes a minute or two. When you publish a bunch of articles every day, that adds up quickly.”

Reduced development cost and improved focus

The shift to WordPress VIP benefited technical teams as much as editorial ones. “Cost was a huge factor in our choice to migrate,” said Johanson. “With Drupal, the pace of production was slower and it often required multiple engineers to get something built. We can now shift those resources to new product features and additional content production – ultimately strengthening our impact and effectiveness.”

“After the migration, the first thing we did was make sure everything in our environment worked with a high degree of stability and reliability. And it has been,” said Merrill. “Now we’re building a roadmap for our future. The North Star for our plan is ensuring relevance and automation: Our content needs to find its way to the right people, and it should do so using human-centered algorithms.”

Building in automation

Edutopia continues to build more automation that integrates content from their WordPress VIP CMS, particularly newsletters. “Newsletters are a huge channel for us, but they’re time consuming if you create them manually,” said Merrill. “ We used to have three or four people working on newsletters, selecting stories to feature, programming newsletter templates, and doing other quality assurance tasks. Using automated processes, we’ve taken the number of people directly involved down to zero. I can take that operational savings and put it back into hiring more editorial staff and telling more stories.” Meanwhile, automated newsletters that leverage Edutopia’s relevance engine are seeing 2x better click through rates.

Edutopia is also refocusing more resources on new web capabilities to power relevance. “To aid readers, educators and policy makers want to mark up articles,” said Merrill. “That’s why we’re considering adding notetaking and annotations across our experience, and then using those signals in our algorithms to indicate relevancy and rank that content higher for readers.”

Managing channels in an uncertain environment

Historically, web, newsletters, and social media were cornerstone channels for Edutopia. But the mix may be changing. “We’re watching the decline in Facebook usage and the chaos at Twitter very closely,” said Johanson. To communicate directly with its audience, Edutopia is considering re-introducing comments and new community features on their site and leveraging SMS as a communication channel.

“Our shift to WordPress VIP has helped our editors produce content faster, reduced our development costs, allowed us to re-allocate money to hiring more editors, and opened up new opportunities to improve our experience.”

Stephen Merrill, Chief Content and Product Officer, Edutopia

“We are on track to register at least one million accounts and provide personalized newsletters and other content features directly to users. We see the value of social media, but it’s a challenging environment for a publisher who is trying to provide critical information.”

“We have to stay disciplined, remaining laser-focused on delivering relevant content, and not get too wide-eyed,” said Merrill. “Our shift to WordPress VIP has helped our editors produce content faster, reduced our development costs, allowed us to re-allocate money to hiring more editors, and opened up new opportunities to improve our experience.”