Case Study

Penske Media Corporation

Penske Media Corporation’s portfolio spans 21 publications across a dozen industries, from entertainment and sports to fashion and art. Variety, a worldwide entertainment news and industry publication, has seen vast success in recent years improving its online platform and growing its audience. Rolling Stone has flourished in the digital revolution while other publications have floundered. 

A large part of these companies’ success is thanks to PMC’s approach to the digital space. From their editorial team to their web development philosophy and everything in between, PMC has helped these companies grow from their ink and paper roots to become digital publishing powerhouses. 

How the Machine Works

Like any scaling, enterprise organization, PMC must run efficiently to succeed. The key to efficiency online is an easy-to-use platform that allows for customization and adaptive functionality. In PMC’s case, that efficiency comes from WordPress

Having all our sites on WordPress means that every one of our development teams can share resources with one another. A team can create a plugin with its own function, then another can adapt it to their own brand’s needs.

Nicola Catton, Vice President of Product Delivery @PMC

The efficiency of WordPress allows PMC to create their sites with an ‘80/20’ philosophy. As they’ve grown and created more detailed websites, they’ve been able to develop a framework that easily maps out 80% of a website’s features and structure, the foundation a site is built on. 20% of the site is then left for the individual brand to work with the Product and Engineering team to add branding and features that work for their specific audiences and editorial strategies.  

The ability to create websites with this philosophy didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it took several teams iterating across multiple projects to develop a solid foundation and strategy with the help of XWP. We enabled PMC to eliminate technical debt from its largest brands, allowing them to innovate further and faster.  

2017 – Variety.com Redesign

The first time XWP and PMC collaborated was on Variety.com, a property that was ready for a refresh, as well as functionality changes throughout. The XWP team’s task was fourfold. First, we redesigned Variety’s home page with 20 different modules and cards for individual stories and articles. 

Second, our team programmed the rules that govern content population on the home page. Modules and cards could also be auto-populated if necessary, empowered by thoughtful design which allows for customization based on the needs of any editor throughout the organization. 

Third, we created custom cards for individual functions and publishing types. XWP engineers  built cards for video, recommended articles, and a custom block for a new high-profile real estate feature recently introduced by Variety.

In a bid to expand their content reach, the Variety team tasked XWP to create a new section of the site dedicated to the 500 most influential individuals in the media industry. Variety500 was a unique project that included all functions of the main Variety site, but with a design that elevated the site to a level that matched its subject. 

The project showed the PMC team that XWP was more than capable of handling a massive technological undertaking. The vision and expertise that permeates both through PMC and XWP made us natural partners. 

2018 – Rolling Stone Migration and Redesign

PMC acquired Rolling Stone in 2018. To integrate Rolling Stone into the PMC portfolio, they needed to move RollingStone.com from a legacy PostgreSQL based platform to WordPress. The site would also need a full redesign to fit in with PMC’s overall tech philosophy and compliment the relaunch of their print magazine. 

This wasn’t your typical ‘lift and shift’ migration. Rolling Stone was a massive site containing over 250,000 different pieces of media and content types, including video, images, audio, and an archive of articles. Twenty years of content, and many more years of print assets, meant an expert team to handle the migration was imperative. 

CMS Migration

XWP leveraged several Google Cloud Platform services to build a highly-scalable, multi-stage import routine. We first imported data into Cloud SQL from the legacy PostgreSQL based platform, then set up a staging WordPress installation on App Engine and created a mapping database on Cloud Firestore in Datastore mode. 

Then, we developed a set of Cloud Functions that would map and migrate each data record and media object, along with replacing references to them inside the content, to WordPress. We did this using the built-in REST API, which handled an impressive ~800 POST requests per second, and significantly more GET requests. 

This process could be executed multiple times to capture live changes to the production data after the initial import. This migration plan kept infrastructure costs very low as everything was taken down once completed. 

By using these advanced tools in Google Cloud Platform, we were able to reliably transfer media and images without any data loss or negative impacts to technical SEO, as old URLs were properly mapped and redirected during the process. 

The other key advantage of leveraging cloud functions is that migration occurs at a significantly faster pace than traditional importing methods for WordPress; instead of hours and days, it takes seconds and minutes. 

A large part of the migration’s success came down to testing. By the time our team was ready to push the ‘migrate’ button, we had thoroughly tested the process to ensure it would run without issue and with complete accuracy.

Theme & Plugin Development

Our teams worked hand-in-hand with the designers and editorial team at Rolling Stone to create a website that met their needs. This meant engineering a custom theme and plugins that provided: 

A customizable home page.

Rolling Stone’s home page could now be customized by the editors, or be populated according to the business rules programmed into the backend.

A unique, dynamic list format: 

Rolling Stone is known for their high-profile, authoritative lists where the editorial team numbers items like ‘The 500 Greatest Rock Songs‘ or ‘The 10 Best Action Movies.’ XWP created unique functionality around this list format that allowed for dynamic URL changes that coincide with each number change. The header of each list also dynamically changes as a user scrolls through a list. 

WordPress VIP Compatibility

When PMC acquired Rolling Stone, they already knew where the site would be hosted: WordPress VIP. VIP’s coding standards are extremely high, and every piece of code that goes onto their servers goes through their rigorous ‘sniff’ test. WordPress VIP is trusted by the world’s top enterprise brands to improve performance and provide a top-of-the-line experience. 

XWP has been a preferred agency partner with WordPress VIP since 2015. VIP is an excellent enterprise WordPress solution, providing a highly-scalable, highly-performant platform for high-traffic, enterprise sites, one that we’ve worked with on multiple occasions in the past. The partnership between XWP and VIP made for a seamless migration.

This was one of our smoothest and most successful launches to date. Everyone who reviewed the site – both before and after launch – commented on the exceptional quality. This was down to an incredible effort led by XWP, with a focus and dedication that was a pleasure to be involved with.

Nicola Catton

2019 – 2020 – Variety Redesign: Version Two

In 2019, the team at PMC asked XWP to perform another redesign of Variety.com. This would be an expansion of the previous project, and also include a few new functions that had been identified as necessary since the initial work in 2017. 

Expanding the home page:

The previous redesign of Variety’s homepage involved creating 20 blocks that could be populated by the editorial team, or automatically populated based on business rules. In the new design, XWP was asked to expand the design to contain 40 blocks in total. 

VIP+:

Variety.com is a free site that provides users with content monetized by advertising revenue. The decision was made to create a premium service called Variety VIP+. Users pay an annual or monthly fee and receive access to premium content specific to media-minded executives and influencers. The XWP team helped bring Variety’s design to light with expert development and improved workflows. 

AdTech: 

XWP does more than just WordPress. As part of our relationship with PMC, we’ve worked on many aspects of their website technology, including providing two Kotlin engineers helping improve the custom AdTech solutions for multiple PMC sites. For the 2019/2020 Variety redesign, we also added an on/off switch for lazy-loading on an ad-type basis, the ability to sync ads in terms of the GPT correlator value between lazy-load requests, and added support for prebid ad lazy loading. 

The Foundation for Success

Perhaps the biggest improvement made during our work with PMC were the improvements to development and design processes throughout PMC’s properties. As experts in WordPress, the team at XWP had exceptional perspectives to share with PMC teams operating the properties with a single CMS, improving overall productivity. 

During the 2019 Variety redesign, our team repurposed a large amount of code that already existed in some of PMC’s other properties, like RollingStone.com. After taking existing code from other these websites, our team audited it for inconsistencies and engineered it to even higher coding standards. After the audit and build, PMC uses this updated code as a framework in the rest of their properties for redesigns. 

While XWP has performed a number of tasks for PMC, this, ultimately, is the biggest gain for the team. Our work ranged from migrations to code reviews, assisting PMC to build the foundation for their properties to grow. PMC’s unique “80/20” philosophy of web design has allowed for exponential growth over recent years, and XWP is proud to have played a role in helping to build the foundation that facilitated that growth. From our initial work on Variety.com through the most recent redesign, each project has brought PMC closer to realizing their ultimate goal of seamlessly onboarding new publications.

We benefited so much from XWP helping create this foundation. Because of all their work helping to create and develop this core, we’re saving tons of time.

Nicola Catton

What’s Next for PMC? 

Thanks to their internal teams and the hard work that they pour into quality development, stories, and content, there is no other option but for PMC to continue to grow at a fantastic pace. 

PMC’s recent move toward premium content with Variety VIP+ has been such a success that they plan to move forward with monetization improvements on other platforms as well. Rolling Stone will launch its own digital subscription service in late 2020 that is built on top of the advances from the Variety VIP+ work, and hopes are high that the new Rolling Stone platform will be as successful as VIP+. 

Ultimately, PMC’s goal is to create a process that allows for quick, easy deployment of new properties, while continuing to innovate on their existing platforms. XWP is proud to have been a part of this journey with PMC, and to be a part of their vision for growth in the future.

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