Behind the Scenes of Product Innovation at Rolling Stone

Learn how Rolling Stone leverages partnerships to drive digital product innovation for their 53-year-old brand. You’ll hear from leaders at Penske Media Corporation (Rolling Stone’s parent company), XWP, and WordPress VIP. They’ll give an inside look at how you can build your ideal technology stack to respond quickly to changes in the market and create customer experiences that drive revenue.

You’ll learn:

  • How to adopt an integrated approach to design and development partnerships
  • Guidelines for reducing the total cost of ownership of your digital properties
  • The benefits of an open source content management system
  • Practical tips to increase your team’s agility and get to market faster


Nici Catton

AVP, Product Delivery, Penske Media Corporation

Leo Postovoit

Head of Partnerships and Product Strategy, XWP

Liz McDonald

Lead Technical Account Manager, WordPress VIP


Tess Needham (00:00):

Thanks everyone for joining us for the webinar, behind the scenes of product innovation at Rolling Stone. At WordPress VIP, our customers are constantly innovating with their websites and we see them pushing WordPress beyond just the blog. So along with our partner XWP, we invited Penske Media Corporation to show us under the hood of how product innovation happens for their digital products like Rolling Stone. As we go on with the session, please use the Q&A box to ask your questions. We’ll have some time at the end to answer them. I’ll let Allison Blanda from the WordPress VIP team take it from here. Over to you Allison.

Allison Blanda (00:41):

Thank you, Tess. Hi everybody, and welcome to our panel discussion specifically about the behind the scenes partnerships that help drive product innovations at Rolling Stone. I’m Allison Blanda, I manage strategic relationships here at WordPress VIP, and I’ll be your moderator today. As the host, I am absolutely the least important person here. So I’m going to get right out of the way and jump in and ask Nici Catton from Penske Media Corp, Leo of XWP and Liz of WordPress VIP, who you see here with us, to start by introducing themselves. Nici, I’ll ask you to go first.

Nici Catton (01:25):

Sure. Hi everyone. I’m Nici Catton, I’m the vice president of product delivery at Penske Media Corporation. We’re the parent company of Rolling Stone and actually over 20 other brands as well. So I oversee product and project management at PMC. There’s quite a few aspects to that role, but I think a couple of them are particularly pertinent to what we’re going to discuss today. And that includes organizing our roadmap and our resource planning, ensuring that we’re delivering a fair amount to each of our different brands and making sure that we’re doing the right thing at the right time or at least trying to anyway.

Nici Catton (01:58):

I also project managed the replatform and redesign of a couple of years ago. My teams have been heavily involved in continuing to innovate and welcome since then driven by a number of different business areas. So I’m really excited to dig into this today.

Allison Blanda (02:16):

Fabulous. Leo you’re up next.

Leo Postovoit (02:20):

Hi everyone, my name is Leo Postovoit. I’m the head of product strategy and partnerships at XWP. We work with technology companies and publishers like PMC and all their brands to make whatever they want happen. So our big thing is pointing our nose in the right direction to the future. We work to be your strategic trusted advisor over the long term to really be able to do what you want all the way through.

Leo Postovoit (02:40):

The other cool thing about what we tend to do because we’re a gold agency for WordPress VIP is we really ask the questions of, what do you want to scale with? How do you want to scale? How will you get there? And with PMC, it’s been really great to see how their brands have evolved over the years and I’m really excited to dig in today to tell you a little bit more about how we do that.

Allison Blanda (03:05):

[inaudible 00:03:05] you Liz.

Liz McDonald (03:06):

Yeah. All right. Great. Hi, I’m a lead technical account manager at WordPress VIP, and I work on a squad that manages high value media customers like PMC and our squad ensures that applications like PMCs run WordPress at scale. And this includes everything from architectural consulting to performance reviews, to discussions about engineering best practices and my favorite part of my job is working with future partners and customers because future partners know our platform so well and they really help customers leverage WordPress. And I also have the honor of being the technical account manager working on the initial Rolling Stone migration as well.

Allison Blanda (03:53):

Amazing. So I want to kick us off with a level setting question, because Nici, you mentioned that PMC has more than 28 brands, your team has multiple projects in flight internal teams to manage and then a whole partner ecosystem two of which are here right now. So how do you decide whether to partner with a third party or take a project in-house?

Nici Catton (04:20):

Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot to that actually. So I think I’ll start just a little bit talking about the structure, how we operate as a whole. We have similar challenges to a lot of enterprise companies in the sense that we get a huge volume of requests from a variety of different people from all our different brands, but also within the brands as well. There are requests coming in from editorial, from marketing, from sales, from events, from design, and these can be very, very small tweaks all the way up to huge multi-year projects.

Nici Catton (04:53):

And so in order to make sure that we can be both proactive and reactive with what we’re working on, we actually really try to ring fence our resources. So one of the first things that we do is we have actually quite a formal definition of what a project is for work in our team. And that’s not just your typical, it has a start date and end date, there’s quite a few criteria that are involved in that including multi-sprint, multi-brand, revenue generating, exec visibility and a combination of these things generally results in us saying, “This is large enough to be a project.”

Nici Catton (05:29):

In the truer sense in that it needs more oversight, more governance, more reporting, more communication, all those kinds of things. And when we have a project come into the team, that is something that has to be roadmap and it has to be resourced accordingly and part of that resourcing conversation and decision making is, do we want to do this in-house or do we want to outsource it?

Nici Catton (05:49):

So the rest of our work is kind of similar to what Liz was saying out to you in terms of squads. We have pods who handle the more day to day requests and then work gets funneled to those. But when a project comes in and it’s defined as such, we sit down and we look at the project, we look at our roadmap, we see what else we’ve got lined up and going on at the moment. And we actually look at what we’re trying to deliver with that project as well. And if it’s something that is something that we are going to be responsible for maintaining, developing, rolling out to other brands, that’s generally something that we want to be pretty hands on, on if not leading entirely.

Nici Catton (06:29):

And if it’s something that is in the most simple case, a one and done. So maybe a sales side or something like that, that’s a one off. We know we’re not going to necessarily need to touch it significantly in the future. So we’re okay saying, “We can outsource this.” And then there’s obviously everything in between and what we actually do is when we do outsource or when we do partner is, we always ensure that we have a technical lead from our side as well. So someone that is responsible for both technical and architectural decisions, but also for code reviews making, I mean, obviously we’ve got huge, very solid code review process with WordPress VIP, but also making sure that we’re using our core technology and our real, the foundational work that we are doing in our code as well. And we have a product and/or a project manager depending on the delivery as well.

Nici Catton (07:20):

So we have a look at our roadmap, what the thing is that we’re delivering, what we’re going to need to do in the future and then we take a call on there if we want to outsource into what extent. And I’ll definitely just finish on saying that things that are like a full replatform, that involves a lot of content migration. That’s normally something that we want to pull someone in to help us with just because to be completely frank, we want to use our internal resources on things like that on innovating and developing things that we are going to be rolling out to our brands and not necessarily things that are task driven that we’re not going to need to do again in the future.

Allison Blanda (07:54):

Leo, how does XWP approach working with the product setup like the one Nici described?

Leo Postovoit (08:02):

That’s a great question. So the fun part is, as much as the PMC will say, “We want to own everything, we want to own the product vision, own the strategy for these things.” And they definitely do own the vast majority of it, what ends up happening is our engineers are just as motivated to innovate and find ways to grow within that. So for Rolling Stone, I still remember quite vividly, we spent a lot of time to lay up some pretty cool advanced front-end tools and techniques.

Leo Postovoit (08:26):

The actual migration, for example had a really, really complicated set of elements from some legacy data that was part of a PostgreSQL tool. So we used Google Cloud’s app engine to help pull a lot of that data over. So in that migration method, we basically thought really hard about how we were going to do that, how to do it reliably, how to do it quickly. And I know Nici has referred to it as a silky smooth launch as one phrase we get to talk about. But, we basically seek out every opportunity to push ourselves further and we’re not aligned cook if you will. We would do our best to also show up to the table and deliver just as high value wherever possible.

Leo Postovoit (09:05):

And I have to say the one great thing about PMC and many of the organizations we work with is, they are very receptive to ideas. So one of the big parts as we see with processes, so PMC has their own internal design resources, as we work with them, they had lots of ideas and lots of big pieces. There was a lot of back and forth, and that’s very normal for us to expect to how these things are working. So if you have a component that’s extremely complicated and it adds lots of overhead, we might say, “There might be a quicker way to get there.” Or, “There might be a better way to do this.” And they might say, “No, this is the reason why we thought through this and we’ll work with you to figure out exactly what that looks like.”

Leo Postovoit (09:36):

The big part I would say is when you choose a partner, whether it’s WordPress VIP, or XWP or anyone else in the ecosystem, you should be asking the more basic questions, which is, are they going to show up and actually challenge these ideas? Are they going to push us to think this completely through? And realistically we’ve found that working together with PMC, we’ve been able to shape a really solid set of products out and every single time we think about what we’re building, we’re ultimately trying to ship something that feels really solid.

Leo Postovoit (09:58):

So at the end of the day, I’d be asking, how do you find a partner who’s going to help you on that journey and not just say, yes, yes, yes. And sometimes you say no, or maybe, or how did we do this in the best way? Or, how do we deliver this small first and then iterate toward a bigger piece? And that’s generally what we try to do is agile delivery with innovation in mind.

Allison Blanda (10:17):

Great. A big part of all of these three [inaudible 00:10:26] ethos is open-source. And I know that all three of you take that really seriously. And part of open-sources is admitting that everyone around you is probably trying to solve the same problem as you and reinventing the wheel shouldn’t be necessary. So I’m curious how that mentality informs the way the three of you work together. Let’s start again with Nici.

Nici Catton (10:53):

Sure. Yeah, I mean, that is a huge ethos for us on so many levels, not just in terms of WordPress, just in terms of our own internal development as well. Multi-brands, we can’t reinvent the wheel every time, we would literally never get anything done or anything of value done and that is a huge backbone of our core technology aspect as well, which I think we can touch on a little bit later.

Nici Catton (11:17):

But in terms of how we work together. I mean, Liz knows our team are consistently raising tickets with WordPress VIP and saying, “Hi, we’ve got a thing, we’ve got a challenge, has anyone done this before? What if you tried, what do you recommend?” And we have to operate that way. I mean, we would not be as successful as we are if we didn’t have these resources, this open-source ethos and mentality and just everyone in the team very open to that as well.

Nici Catton (11:43):

We can’t be masters at everything, we don’t want to be masters at everything, we’re a leading team, and we have to figure out what we want to specialize in. And the resources are out there and we need to rely on it. Somebody with XWP. I mean, what Leo was just saying, that partnership and that back and forth in those conversations are absolutely critical to everything that we develop with anyone that we work with. And it is about respect and understanding and just trying to get to the best solution in the most efficient way.

Allison Blanda (12:09):

Liz, that being said, where are you sitting in that ecosystem and how do you impact that?

Liz McDonald (12:16):

Well, I wouldn’t say that we impact WordPress core as an open-source, but we are highly involved and engaged and motivated to think about how core changes impact our customers. And it’s really great when our customers are also involved in the evolution of WordPress core. So Penske Media Corporation has a number of engineers who are really active in that community and it’s great to engage with them in that open-source project. And also be able to think about how that impacts Penske Media Corporation, but also all of our other clients at VIP.

Liz McDonald (12:57):

And just to echo what Nici said, we absolutely cannot wait for tickets to come in and say, “Hey, we’re thinking about this longterm project six to 12 months out, can you tell us how other customers might be tackling this business problem?” And it really helps us also think about where our roadmap overlaps and how we can all just make sure that we’re making the best use of everyone’s time. Go open-source.

Allison Blanda (13:26):

Leo, how does open-source and building blocks inform how your team approaches work specifically with Rolling Stone?

Leo Postovoit (13:33):

Yeah. So I want to answer the question a little bit differently. So come with me on the journey. I absolutely love the open-source work that I’ve actually seen VIP and PMC do as well and it actually informs some of us. It’s a great interplay and it does come back to Rolling Stone. So one of the cool things we did on another project for PMC just recently on Variety, we use the larva design system framework. So that’s open-source, that’s available on the PMC repose.

Leo Postovoit (13:56):

I have to say watching VIP open-source its tools over the last, I think 10, 15 years at this point, has been incredible to see. Between the news pack project, between all of the work with all the editorial tools, between the [m-plugin 00:14:06], which we eventually took over as XWP and Google eventually took over, and isn’t open to again maintaining it in the wild. A lot of that informs how we look at the ecosystem. I’m also a component meditator for privacy. Core is a really, really big deal to XWP and we really think about what these things are going to be structured. We contribute quite a bit of time toward WordPress in the wild. We have a big program internally called WordPress Plus, where we actually pay our engineers to work if they choose to on a given section within that.

Leo Postovoit (14:32):

As it relates to PMC directly, obviously we use some of the tools that are built inside the WordPress VIP that are open-sourced. There’s obviously the m-plugin on basically every one of the PMC sites. We obviously have built in certain aspects of core and functions that we do think are critical for making sure you actually leverage that WordPress experience.

Leo Postovoit (14:51):

One of the big things we talk about in the wild is trying to do things the WordPress way. And so what that means is even though it may not necessarily be WordPress core per se, even as we build new features or build new extensions, or we think about filters and functions and coding standards and even philosophies and approaches, we’re asking, is this right? Is this what another WordPress agency would do? Is this what another organization would do? What happened if core did this? We’re trying to understand, how does this look as a fuller landscape? So another part of the open-source core ethos is trying to make sure that this will work not only at an enterprise scale or at an individual scale, but across the 200 million websites that run WordPress in the wild.

Allison Blanda (15:27):

Got it. And bringing it back to specifically the Rolling Stone product journey, Nici, I did want to congratulate your team on launching the new digital subscription model last week. Congratulations. I know that was a big project for everyone on this call. I’m curious how you’re measuring success and then I’d love to hear from Leo and Liz on how your teams are contributing to those metrics as part of this ecosystem.

Nici Catton (16:00):

Yeah, definitely. I think measuring success is a very interesting thing to think about because naturally your brain goes to almost the very standard success metrics, right? So you’re looking at traffic or engagement, revenue, all those kinds of things, and those are foundational to us. I mean, we can’t continue developing if we’re not meeting those goals. But one of the things I think is actually quite interesting is slightly different angle is looking at two other areas as well.

Nici Catton (16:26):

So there’s not just around the actual performance of the digital products and how they’re doing in terms of numbers and dollars and speed and all those kinds of things, but also thinking a little bit about things like editorial success as well. Do our editorial teams feel that they’re being supported? Do they feel like they’ve got a good product? Do they feel like they’re getting developments that they need from us to ensure that their publishing tools are as good as they can be? And I think this is particularly important for a brand like Rolling Stone, they’re iconic and they need the tools to enable them to showcase their watering and journalism and photography and I think that is something that we are consistently trying to balance out.

Nici Catton (17:08):

We’re constantly trying to balance out the things that are driving success for a business and the things that driving success for a business in terms of how they can actually get things out to their audience and in what ways they can do that. To be honest, that’s a really big challenge, that is something that we struggle with day in, day out, and we’re still trying to figure out, and we are constantly tweaking and changing things and figuring out what’s our best mix of working on these kinds of things.

Nici Catton (17:35):

And that leads me to my third area of success, which is very personal to me, but also to my team as well, which is our delivery success, our product success. Are we delivering things that are adding value to our businesses and not just the things they’re asking for? Are we delivering things that are being requested full from some of our more corporatives like SEO, audience development, revenue and operations, products, us ourselves things that we want to be out there trying. Engineering so that we can improve our code base, so that we can roll out things like our larva design system, which is revolutionary for us. And are we doing it on time? And are we getting things out quick enough? And are we pivoting quick enough as well, if something doesn’t perform as expected.

Nici Catton (18:19):

I think when we talk about success metrics, it’s very easy to just go, “Oh, are we making money? Is our traffic up? Are our page views up?” And actually what I like to think about a little bit more is the other side of it as well and that really feeds into a lot of our road mapping, and resourcing and business planning as well. So not really a direct answer to your question about our metrics but broadening it out a little bit.

Allison Blanda (18:42):

I want to know page views and subscriber data, you’re not going to…

Nici Catton (18:51):

I might not have my job if I…

Allison Blanda (18:53):

It’s only been a week, okay.

Liz McDonald (18:57):

Well, I would love to just hop in and just say, one of the things that is great about just working with PMC is also when things don’t go well as expected. Nici had said sometimes you just need to be able to pivot. And having that close relationship with Penske Media Corporation means that we know where things stand in their roadmap and in their sense of priority. So if something doesn’t go right, we’re able to just say, “Great.” We know looking at this is really important and we’re just trying to be really deeply embedded in everything that Penske Media Corporation does in terms of understanding the roadmap and their individual project metrics as well.

Leo Postovoit (19:46):

Yeah. I know one of the big things that Nici and I have spent a lot of time talking about and seeing be improved in the process across the PMC network is also, as she mentioned around time to publish editorial workflow experiences. One of the big things that you’ll see on a lot of the PMC sites are lists articles, listicles, if you will. And a lot of these require structured content, a lot of that might actually inform structured data in terms of SEO and even what these larger longer form editorial pieces, how we tell those stories with design and with content in mind, a lot of that is possible because WordPress is a super dynamic platform.

Leo Postovoit (20:19):

Another big thing that we see as a key metric, and you can see this tracked across all sites on the internet really is performance and that’s a big thing that we do at XWP. We really do want to make sure that sites are fast, that they’re reliable, that they’re viewable in every country, in every part of the world. We want to make sure that they make sense on mobile devices. So a big thing, that I’ve been trying to point people toward if they’re looking to innovate their product is, is it easy to use for the editorial team? Is it easy to use for the audiences that come to it? Is it actually viewable?

Leo Postovoit (20:46):

I was looking at one publisher site just a couple of days ago, and I was shocked because the amount of ads that were on the site, there was this auto play video thing at the top, there was a sticky thing at the bottom, there was a popup ad that sat on top of things, and there was also an email newsletter and then because I’m in California, there was a little GDPR notice that, oh, sorry, a CCPA notice that said, “Hey, let’s make this happen.” And I’m like, well, you need to prioritize your users in terms of what they see in terms of engaging that experience.

Leo Postovoit (21:14):

One of my favorite things about the Rolling Stone site is that it’s really been designed with users in mind, it’s really easy to read content, it’s really easy to immerse yourself, it’s really easy to get from one article to the next. And a lot of that is because WordPress was configured in a way that allows you to go on that user journey in a pretty solid way.

Allison Blanda (21:31):

Great. And we’re getting a lot of questions about subscriptions and subscription management, so to summarize them, to Leo and Nici, can you summarize what the workflow you follow for subscription management is?

Nici Catton (21:49):

Sure. I can talk a little bit about that. So this has been a huge area of investment for us as a company, as a whole, over the last couple of years. So we have historically had sites that have had a harder payroll and subscription management aspect, and also print subscription has been a huge part of a lot of our businesses for decades. And we’ve actually over the last couple of years completely redeveloped our subscription technology stack.

Nici Catton (22:14):

So we’re using a combination of different systems right now, including Zuora, Salesforce and Auth0 for authentication as well. And we’ve actually invested a lot of time working alongside other partners, including XWP and also working with WordPress VIP to make sure things tie together. On coming up with our own middleware and our own technology stack that really basically takes the best of these different systems and allows us to have more of a seamless end-to-end subscriber or new register and experience.

Nici Catton (22:48):

I think one of the things that we’ve uncovered and we uncovered this with a lot of things, and I think it’s going to sound really obvious, but I think it’s important to say. With a lot of new technologies, there’s nothing out there that does it all. With a lot of new technologies you have to have a lot of taking things and thinking, “Okay, this does this really well and this does this really well, what do we need to do to make these things integrate in the best possible way that allows our users to basically have a seamless experience without knowing that they’re jumping from system to system?”

Nici Catton (23:17):

So it’s something that we originally worked on for a considerable amount of time and completely redid our subscriber management system as well, rolled it out into Women’s Wear Daily, we rolled it out into Variety earlier this year with a new more premium product. So doesn’t have a payroll on it, but Variety VIP, which is like a thought leadership more premium product, does have a digital subscription aspect. And as we mentioned earlier, we’ve launched on Rolling Stone last week with what we’re calling a permeable payroll.

Nici Catton (23:51):

So it’s still quite late, but it’s something that users will be increasingly seeing, or as they start to get into more thought leadership content, they’ll be coming up against as well. And to be completely honest, it’s something that we’re going to be continuing to develop and improve. It’s a huge part of our technology stack alongside the publishing stack now over the next few years, I would say at least.

Leo Postovoit (24:14):

I should say Nici and our team spent a lot of time working together on Variety VIP Plus. Super interesting, very curious to see how it all timed up. So it’s quite interesting to watch if you read Digiday or any of the larger publications we talk around the publishing industry, you’ll see that subscriber members are basically increasing across the board for most publishers and a big thing to consider is as you want to dive into this alternate monetization model, we’ve seen that depending on what vertical you’re in, some of your revenue increase has gone up, some of it’s gone down, some of your traffic has gone up, some of it’s gone down.

Leo Postovoit (24:47):

Generally speaking, we’re seeing that most sites are experiencing a positive increase, especially the ones that have thought about performance. And those two are really asking of their audience that they want to do something with quality content in mind means focusing on subscriptions as a key model. So my favorite part about the Variety VIP experience is that it’s all about creating a quality content experience. As this rolls up to Rolling Stone into the other verticals that PMC touches, I think that’s going to be really interesting to see.

Leo Postovoit (25:14):

As we start to tackle more premium content, as people are going to be wanting to engage with these longer, more engaging pieces, having content in a separate garden, a walled garden if you will, will allow users to want to engage deeper in these spaces. That being said, I think there is a great conversation around the open web and keeping people to render that, subscriptions aren’t the only way to handle things. I read a really great article this morning talking about how subscriptions aren’t the only way to handle things. Sometimes if you just run lots of ads and you sell people like, if you use a sufficient model to say, “I have no ads.” Or one of my good friends in college gave up data of a nag wall, we used to have a nag wall popup on the page to remind you, hey, can you please donate money? It doesn’t always have to be a subscription model per se.

Leo Postovoit (25:55):

You could encourage them to do a variety of different ways to monetize. And of course there is the public model where people use NPR or PBS, where you have a donor based system. Depending on which type of publisher you are or where you are in the world of things, it makes sense to consider as many monetization models but subscriptions, I would say today is the most obvious bit. And I would say PMC is a leader in around the methodologies in which those things have been constructed.

Allison Blanda (26:22):

[crosstalk 00:26:22].

Nici Catton (26:22):

Yeah. I actually just want to jump in on that actually. Sorry, it’s a really good point. I firmly believe that not every single brand in the world is suitable for having a subscription model. Not every single brand in the PMC universe is suitable for it because a lot of it depends on your audience. And I do believe that if you are going to go down a digital subscription model, you need to be offering content that is unique and is worth paying for, not offering content that you can Google and get elsewhere. And I think that is going to be a really difficult model for the whole industry to figure out and I’ve already seen some companies starting to go too far down that route. And why would I pay to see something I can get a news alert for essentially. So that’s a really good point Leo.

Leo Postovoit (27:05):

My favorite part about Rolling Stone in terms of our content universe, is it isn’t pulling sources from traditional wire services, if you will. It’s not just using old articles from 20 years ago. You can read some of that stuff, their archives are there, but there’s fresh, there’s current, there’s relevant pieces. And so if you’re building your brand, if you’re thinking about what your value is to the community, if you’re thinking about your users, they want things that are original, that are high quality, that are relevant, that are curated. And that’s the ethos that I think Rolling Stone tries to portray. In addition to extremely high quality journalism.

Leo Postovoit (27:33):

I’ve been reading Rolling Stone since I was in, I think, middle school. So it’s a brand that I personally associate with. And of course I think there’s a really important part that if you’re going to be a subscriber and you’re saying, “I choose to support this because it’s worth my time and it’s worth the content in terms of what I want to do and how I want to read that.”

Allison Blanda (27:50):

And if I’m hearing you correctly, there were three versions or two versions of the digital subscription model that you’ve worked through, whether it was WWD or then Variety VIP, and now as of last week, a version on Rolling Stone, it brings to mind the idea of, okay, how do you factor in experimentation when you’re working with a brand that has a legacy but then you also want to innovate? That’s for all three of you.

Nici Catton (28:31):

That’s a challenge. There’s always a risk that you put something new out on an iconic brand or a brand that people are paying for as well. And things fail, things need to fail so that you can make them better. So I think the approach that we do is we do a lot of experimentation. We normally we pick a brand, it might not be one of our biggest brands to begin with. We might start on a different brand or might start on a smaller section of a site as well. You don’t have to do everything across the whole site to begin with. And then we follow the standard model. We experiment, we analyze, we iterate if needed, we roll out. We roll out to a certain extent. We don’t necessarily roll out everything everywhere.

Nici Catton (29:12):

I think a lot of our sites follow a pretty solid 80/20 rule where 80% of the site is based on some form of our standards code base, or our standard wire frames. And then there’s 20% of localization and we’re always evaluating that when we do roll out experiments as well. We don’t just put something on the site because, for the sake of it. And it is something that we’re careful about and it’s the balance between being careful and being innovative and dynamic and trying things but we just really assess the landscape and we speak to our stakeholders as well. We see what comfort level is out there in the business and out in the wild as well.

Leo Postovoit (29:52):

Yeah, I should say the idea of Coretech is a really important one as well. So whether it’s PMC or some of the other larger brands we worked with in past and present, I should say as well. Whether it’s News Corp or Interactive One or Heavy, some of these bigger brands all share this idea of a single code base that makes sense in the wild. So there is localization that occurs in these individual sites, but having a single code base means it’s really easy to roll out new features across the board, it’s really easy to maintain things. When you have a bug it’s sometimes gets spread across the entire ecosystem of things, but it’s also really good to be able to ultimately have these things come back together and not have to worry about all these sites in the wild. You can find one thing and make it more modular.

Leo Postovoit (30:33):

And also, I’d say the big thing around Coretech is that as you develop once, you don’t necessarily need to worry about any tests that might break it, or still need to worry about any SEO concerns. You can say confidently, I did this thing once and it works everywhere else. I also think that PMC has done a really good job of thinking about every individual brands. So that 20%, it sounds like it’s a low effort, but there actually is a lot of focus and a lot of energy put to the individualization and the voices of those brands. And I think that’s the smartest thing if you can do. If you’re a publisher with a portfolio of brands, or if you’re thinking about your number of sites and even how they’re all different, there’s probably a lot that can be overlapping and shared and trying to go down the pathway of, whether it’s a multi-site universe that you’re building out, whether it’s individual plugins and themes that are being used across the board, trying to create something that is repeatable is going to be really useful.

Liz McDonald (31:19):

Nici, I think one of the things that would be really interesting is that people might want to know what the timeline looked like for the solution. When did you start? How long did you explore? From the exploration period to the time you started engineering, can you approximate how long that was? I think about early conversations we had had eons ago. I mean, that’s what it feels like as eons but it might be nice to know what that project timeline looked just so that people understand these decisions follow a very longterm roadmap.

Nici Catton (31:53):

Are you talking about the digital subscription model there? Yeah. So I think from the initial exploration of us going, we need to upgrade what we currently have to the full migration of subscribers and launch of the ecosystem working together was, I think, 12 to 18 months for Women’s Wear Daily. I mean, I would say similarly to when we were doing website launches on WordPress VIP, years and eons, literally years ago, their whole idea is that we get faster. And again that really does relate to this idea of working smartly. Don’t change it every time, change the 20%, but your effort into changing that 20%, which means, the Rolling Stone digital subscription model, aside from the business conversations, which are obviously much lengthier from the technical exploration to the launch.

Nici Catton (32:45):

Last week, we were looking at a three to four months turnaround, which is obviously significantly faster because we really invested that 12 to 18 months in coming up with the foundation. But it’s tough and you can’t always assume that you’re going to get quicker and quicker and quicker and quicker. And then in the final two, you’re doing six weeks or something, because if you’re doing it correctly, you should be learning and changing as you go and evolving as you go as well.

Nici Catton (33:10):

And, sorry, I’m going on a little bit here, but I just keep thinking of loads of things about what you just mentioned and one of the crucial things, as well is getting that balance between rolling out a new product. So taking something that you’ve built the foundation, localizing and doing that 20% of customization or whatever it is that’s required to get onto a new brand, but you can’t neglect your base. You’re going to need a stream, you’re going to need some way, some sort of structure that allows you to maintain and continue developing the foundation and making sure these, and I’m not sure everyone can see my hands, but they’re dovetailing together because you need to make sure these things are connecting and talking.

Nici Catton (33:47):

Because if you’re continuing to evolve and innovate on your foundation, and then you’re off somewhere else, rolling out to brands, the brands that are way down the line are going to have a very different product to the one that’s actually the one that you’re proud of and investing in. And so that’s really important. And I think some teams make the mistake of going, “Oh, we can just go off and do it and we’ll get faster and faster and faster and then we’ll be a two week turnaround by the end.” Or they just don’t connect the two aspects of the development and the rollout.

Allison Blanda (34:18):

Right. And I think that that opens up a really interesting question for Liz about how a team like hers works with a team like yours, when there’s ever-changing tech. We got a question in the Q&A box about Gutenberg, which we colloquial called Gutenberg, but the block-based editor that WordPress came out with. How, as an example about, how you met in big changes that you then need to factor in to your product conversation?

Liz McDonald (34:51):

Yeah. I mean, when I think about Penske Media Corporation, and then I think about Gutenberg and Nici, please do feel free to interrupt at any time. But I always think about all the editorial staff that have to change their workflows. And every time we talked about Gutenberg, we think very specifically about that key stakeholder group and what that means to their day to day. And we’re constantly weighing the benefits to the amount of time that it’ll take an effort for a Penske to implement something like that.

Liz McDonald (35:20):

So there’s all these little things that when you have fewer stakeholders or it doesn’t impact, but when you’re impacting editorial for Penske Media Corporation, you have to be so careful. So I know Penske Media corporation that’s been working on rolling out Gutenberg and has had great success. And I know a lot of their engineers are very pro-Gutenberg and Nici, how would you like to tie that in because I see you unmuted?.

Nici Catton (35:47):

Yeah, sure. I mean, I was actually going to say, I mean, the fact that WordPress VIP recognize the impact of that editorial is hugely important to us. And basically to me. I mean, it’s very easy to get excited about new technology and we should, right? This is exciting. This is going to be revolutionary for our teams, for our editorial staff and for the way that they are able to get content out. However, it’s also a huge change and change is scary. And when you’re looking to implement that change across many different brands and not just editorial, but it also impacts our business teams as well when we’re looking at things like ads and our SEO and our syndication, all those kinds of things as well.

Nici Catton (36:28):

So I think one of the most important things for us as a partnership is the very honest and frank communication, there is absolutely no point in either side being blind to what the other side is experiencing or where they’re coming from. We know that WordPress VIP needs to get everyone onto Gutenberg eventually. You can’t continue supporting two editors. I mean, you can, but that’s not going to be efficient. That’s like us saying, “Yeah, we’ll support multiple CMSs.”

Nici Catton (36:57):

We know, we understand the drive and we do believe in the value of the new admin space. But having the frank conversation of us being able to say, “Hey, this is going to be scary. We’re going to have to take it slow at first, we’re going to have to learn, please bear with us, we’ll keep you updated.” And having those regular conversations is what’s going to make this journey successful and actually really valuable for both sides because I’m sure we’re going to learn things and going to go to WordPress VIP, we’ve attended so many talks about getting Gutenberg rolled out and learn about lessons other teams and companies have had.

Nici Catton (37:32):

We’ve spoken to partners like XWP and at the same time, the challenges that we face, we can feedback so that when these guys are going out to other companies and other teams as well, they can say, “Oh, actually I know someone that tried that and that didn’t work, don’t do that, don’t phrase it that way or don’t set up that, that way.” So it’s all about being honest and frank, I think.

Leo Postovoit (37:51):

I should also say there’s a couple of key things. Circling back Allison to your earlier question regarding opensource and VIP. VIP published a ton of really great guides, probably back in 2017, still relevant, a little old, but still relevant around how to update short codes, how to leverage the API inside Gutenberg. So the block-based editor isn’t just this interface, it’s also a new storage model, it’s also these new APIs. You can use Gutenberg already in different ways. It’s all about collectively what you want to do with it.

Leo Postovoit (38:18):

So some of the things that are, I will call them fully headless, but they’re headless like where you’re leveraging rest APIs. The work process that Rolling Stone is doing these things are already leveraging Gutenberg. And as you start to think about rolling out Gutenberg in the wild, you might be considering only using for one post type or one section of the site. So there’s a great plugin that’s VIP built called Gutenberg Ramp that allows you to start to turn on selectively how to use Gutenberg.

Leo Postovoit (38:42):

So it’s scary to make a big change, there’s no absolute need to do it today or tomorrow or even this year. So the earlier you do this, the more likely it is you’ll be able to start to do things like structured data on a per content type. The more likely it is that you’ll be able to improve advanced STO features, the more likely it is that your data will be cleaner. But with something like PMC’s entire network, we have really custom editorial work [inaudible 00:39:06] that are built heavily on what’s called the classic editor build-

Allison Blanda (39:13):

Oh, I think we lost Leo.

Liz McDonald (39:15):

I know.

Allison Blanda (39:16):

In an impassioned moment. In the end, it really does sound like the factoring in-

Leo Postovoit (39:24):

Build we’re doing this.

Allison Blanda (39:26):

The factoring in experimentation and that innovation, that combo between the two.

Nici Catton (39:31):

Yeah, I think, and sorry Leo. You got cut off a little bit halfway through that, but your point about doing it on a single pace type, is absolutely the approach we’re taking. And actually what we’re doing right now is we’ve developed it for a new feature as well. So it’s not even a change, it’s actually, hey, you wanted this thing, we can do this using this Gutenberg, this is great, look at what we can do with it. And then you’re going to start getting people excited about it and getting a subset of people excited about it. There you will both spread the word, but they’ll champion it as well.

Nici Catton (40:00):

So when you’re going to have to do more of the change management thing, you do that slowly, you’re going to have champions within brands or within teams. They’re going to say, “Oh, I’ve actually been using that already for six months, I’ll help you.” Which relieves some of the pressure on the product and engineering team to deal with that hand holding. So that is the most valuable thing that I’ve learned over the last year about Gutenberg, is that using the Gutenberg Ramp and doing it on a [inaudible 00:40:23] basis and trying things and experimenting.

Liz McDonald (40:26):

I would also just say, I feel like just in terms of barrier to entry, I think that adopting Gutenberg is so much easier than changing the way that people sign on, doing a single sign on and having to communicate that to editorial teams is a much larger change management process.

Leo Postovoit (40:45):

Yeah. I would say greenfield developments, if anyone is looking to build a WordPress site today, I would definitely be considering Gutenberg as the first way of building things. I would not be considering using the classic editor, I’d not be considering using any of the visual builders, Gutenberg is the right way to do it.

Leo Postovoit (41:00):

The challenge with the PMC is that they have legacy brands if you will, part of this portfolio that have been around for a really long time. So they have a lot of content, a lot of things to change and also another pro tip that has to consider when is it right to be able to dive in and do this? So it’s all about slow transition, but if you’re looking at build something greenfield or you’re moving from a CMS, say Drupal or Sitecore or something else that’s out big in the wild, you should be trying to move toward Gutenberg and avoid any of the future tech that might be occurring.

Allison Blanda (41:33):

Man, I did not think the Gutenberg question would elicit this much from you guys. So thank you. Taking it back finally, just to product approach and what we’re hearing from you guys is agility is a word that gets thrown around a lot. And you’ve said it. You haven’t said it outright, which I appreciate, because I think it’s an overused word when talking about products, but at the same time, you’ve been using other words to describe agility. So I’m curious what it means to each of you when you’re thinking about the future of Rolling Stone and its product roadmap. Nici, let’s start with you.

Nici Catton (42:18):

Okay, sure. So, I mean, it’s an overused word, but it’s overused because it’s just so important and harks back a little bit to what I was saying earlier about being proactive and reactive at the same time. And just some of the things that we put in place, I’ve mentioned a little bit already, but having the right structure to allow the team to focus on things that the business believes are going to move the needle forward, or at least want to try or we’ve seen success elsewhere. But also allow us to be more reactive with the industry, with the world, with things like COVID, that fundamentally has changed a lot about the publishing, it’s changed our events business massively. So having the right structure in your team to be able to respond to those kinds of things is hugely important.

Nici Catton (43:09):

And honestly, I think some of the big learning aspects that we’ve had over the years and we still have, especially with brands like Rolling Stone, is to ask the right questions. I know that’s something that I think, that’s a huge mission of XWP when they come and work with anyone new. They pride themselves in asking the right questions and there are things like, “Why are we doing this? Do we need to do this right now?”

Nici Catton (43:36):

And that’s very important for us with more of the reactive work. If someone comes to us and says, “Okay, we’ve got this plan, we’re 80% there, but stop because we need to work on something else.” We withhold the right as a team and particularly our leadership and our product leadership to step back and say, “Okay, why? Talk to me about why I need to change this?” And we have to always be changing these things because otherwise you end up with a bunch of stuff that’s 80% there and not delivered. And ultimately things do need to change. You do have to be reactive, you do have to be agile and all those kinds of things, but you at least need to understand the importance of it.

Nici Catton (44:09):

And I think the other thing is always asking the right questions, which includes, why are you doing this? It’s also things like, is another brand going to want this now, or are they going to want it in two months time? If so, how do we develop to account for that? Should it be a PMC plugin? Should it go into the larva, our design system? And all of that relates back to bringing our engineers in really early to the conversation as well. So it’s very tempting to say, “I’m not going to distract someone, I’m going to let them carry on with what they’re focusing on right now and get on the road and then towards the end, I’ll bring them in when we’re closer to working on it.”

Nici Catton (44:42):

But you might have been 40% to coming up with a solution that actually isn’t the right technical approach, or it makes no sense, or there’s other things that our engineers want to talk to partners like XWP and WordPress V about, VIP, to get some responses on. So we bring our engineers into the conversation early and we’re asking those questions at that time to make sure that we are trying to get the right balance between keeping our focus, but being reactive and agile and making sure that we’re being more flexible with our roadmap than a more traditional model allows for. And honestly, it’s just a lot of conversations, it’s just a lot of stuffing and going, “Okay. Right. What do we know? Okay, let’s talk about it.” And that’s pretty much how we operate. So…

Leo Postovoit (45:27):

I think the, and Nici, thank you for the kind words about XWP and our approach to product. I get to feel really good about that for a second. The way that we approach things is traditionally agile scrum. So we follow this by the book as closely as we can. So most of our product owners go through some product owner training in the wild. So there’s a bunch of great certified scrum product on our trainings, certified scrum master trainings, depending on where and how deeply you want to go.

Leo Postovoit (45:51):

I think learning the process and sticking to it the right way is a really, really critical way to think about it. My favorite term that people started to adopt in the wild, started with Brian Boyer, who’s really famous in the product space, he used to talk with the NPR apps team. He calls it the minimum useful thing. So I asked this question, what do you really need? Why do you want 15 more features? Do we only need two? Can we get away with two? Well, if we do two, we can be done in a month. If we do 15, we’ll be done in six months.

Leo Postovoit (46:19):

So trying to get ultimately something completed as early as possible is critical. I’d also say even though I’ve just said process matters and sometimes you want to be lean and be careful not to overbear those processes. We sometimes use the Kanban methodology at XWP because it’s simpler and leaner depending on the size of your team. And of course, as we work with PMC and its giant organization and all these different stakeholders we have to consider how we might block each other.

Leo Postovoit (46:45):

So when you’re talking about agile, design is a really big factor, front-end and backend being separate are really big factors. Understanding that QA will ultimately block deployment, which is a good thing. These things are factors. So as you work through your different cycles, as you plan out your entire project, you should be asking how and when will these things sequence up together. And when something happens, are you going to be arguing to change this? Are you going to be coming together to try to resolve this? Because sometimes, the impasse is an important discussion to have. You don’t necessarily want to push something live and assume that the plan you start off with was the right one.

Leo Postovoit (47:17):

So a big part of agility as you embody it in your team is really asking, what do we really need? And something comes up. Should I change it? Am I listening to all the key stakeholders internally and externally? And of course, the other big thing that I think a lot of teams sometimes miss is, they put a lot of emphasis on a product manager or a product owner or a scrum master to worry about product. But what in practice at XWP, it might be an engineer or an architect, it might be a project manager, it might be VIP, telling us something, right? It’s sometimes is a different stakeholder that’s going to help shift that vision and we need to understand why that’s the case. So being as holistic as you can, as you think about what you want to build is a really great way to think about it.

Liz McDonald (47:56):

So I want to just chime in there and say thank you to both Penske Media corporation and to XWP, because we do come back. I mean, we are an extension of PMCs DevOps team and we monitor, we make some recommendations and those, I know break all kinds of workflows. And sometimes we come in and we say, “Hey, just so you know, this is not performing the way that you expected and we need to pivot.” And sometimes we’ll say, “Hey, this is something you need to think about in the next quarter.” Sometimes it’s, “This is something you need to think about in the next six months.” Sometimes it’s something you need to think about now. And adjusting for those resources is really tough. And it’s really great to be able to work with great partners who are making adjustments and allowing for flexibilities and being agile enough to also know that you need to continually maintain and manage applications.

Nici Catton (48:54):

I relay that phrase agile enough. Yeah, I mean, I think that sums up really.

Leo Postovoit (49:01):

Yeah. I want to put a little definition of that. I’ll just be a little bit product oriented. So sometimes people will get really stuck up on what agile means and then they’ll read a sheet or read a book and they’ll say, “We have to follow this.” It’s like, no. If you think about it, backlog grooming is basically throwing your ideas on a sheet. Sprint planning is basically deciding what you’re doing over the next period of time. A demo and a retro is showing off what you just did.

Leo Postovoit (49:24):

All of these key scrums if you will, are trying to show the world and specifically your internal and sometimes external stakeholders that you’ve done something. So agile is a framework to help you do better work and it also helps you write better software, helps you build better websites, helps you build better publishing platforms. It helps you do just about anything. And my favorite thing about working with PMC and VIP is that generally speaking, all these organizations embody agile methodologies in a way that’s really easy to work with. And as you think about your organizations and the wild for the viewers, listening in, you should be asking the questions, how do I do what I do? And is this efficient enough based on what we know is true and what is available to us in the wild? And it’s being agile enough to get through the hurdles of your day to day existence.

Allison Blanda (50:12):

I’m making you all t-shirts and sending you t-shirts that say agile enough on it.

Nici Catton (50:20):

[inaudible 00:50:20].

Allison Blanda (50:22):

On that note, I think we should end it there because that was really good. And I want to end on the big group hug that just happened. With that being said I’m going to hand it back over to our media master Tess Needham and thank you all to our panelists and thank you to all of our attendees. There were quite a few of you, so we hope you got a lot out of it. And we look forward to hearing from you.

Tess Needham (50:50):

Thanks so much Allison and again, thank you to all of our panelists and thank you everybody for attending as well and for your great questions. We had a few questions that we didn’t get to answer and they probably have quite longer answers than we had time for. So we’re going to try to include those answers in a follow up. We’ll also be sending out a recording to everybody. So I hope that session was useful for you. And thank you so much again for your time. Bye.

Leo Postovoit (51:19):

Take care.

Nici Catton (51:20):

Thank you everyone.