Consumer Goods

Everything on the line

The stakes were high. EnsembleIQ, a highly respected B2B magazine publishing company, already had a highly successful and well loved digital business arm. Doing anything to mess it up would be really, really bad. But then you can’t rest on your laurels. Things move quickly in the publishing industry. And things move VERY quickly at Ensemble, which has become one of the fastest growing B2B publishers in North America.

Recent strategic expansion had incorporated myriad new brands from various regions of the U.S. and Canada into the Ensemble family, bringing with them disparate digital systems and processes. The forward thinking Ensemble leadership wanted to standardize these, while simultaneously leapfrogging themselves in order to stay well ahead of the competition for years to come. In effect they decided to refactor the entire digital business model and its component systems. If it worked, it could take something good and turn it into something absolutely stellar, with reverberations throughout the industry. If it didn’t work… suffice it to say the reverberations would be just as loud. But the Ensemble CDO put things in perspective at the outset, explaining to the team that our enemies were fear and ego: when everything is on the line be courageous, be humble, and build something great.

Our mission

Our mission, therefore, was to collaboratively conceptualize and build (from the ground up) a single, cohesive, streamlined digital ecosystem to replace legacy systems and manual processes throughout the organization. We’re talking websites, newsletters, gated assets, lead management, targeted advertising, data integrations, and the tools and processes for getting them done. Basically re-think, re-build, and re-launch the whole shootin’ match.

"Don't mess this up." - Important Stakeholder

But, again, it would be a really bad idea to fail. “Don’t mess this up,” we were told. (Actually, the verb was somewhat more colorful.) So it had to be rock solid. It had to accommodate vast complexity. It had to be done really, really fast. So, of course, it had to be Drupal.

And, that’s probably a good lead in to…

Why Drupal was chosen: 

We needed to build multiple integrated systems as part of this initiative, some public facing and some not. The public web sites were a no-brainer. Nothing can touch Drupal for big, complex websites. Drupal’s ability to manage and juggle elaborate web content is unsurpassed. Its security record trounces the competition. Its power and expandability make it quite future-proof for accommodating the “Hey, would it be possible to also…” conversations that invariably come up after the fact.

And Drupal seems to have become something of the de facto standard in B2B publishing – everybody uses it. Including Ensemble, who already had a number of Drupal 7 properties in their portfolio, and Drupal savvy staff on board. Basically, it would be hard to imagine a conversation on this topic that would end with any sentence other than “The public sites will be Drupal.”

Where the “Why” topic gets a little more intriguing, though, is the behind the scenes business systems. These included an enterprise gating/lead management and reporting application, and an integrated newsletter creation application. Line of business applications like these might historically be built with .Net, or Java, or Rails or suchlike. However, Ensemble chose to build them in Drupal. Why?

The answers are subtle, but significant:

Drupal is a software development platform

Drupal (especially 8) is so much more than a “CMS”. Drupal is a platform for developing online software. Full stop. Such online software might happen to be what somebody thinks of as a “web site”, or it might not. Doesn’t much matter.

Drupal saves people money

With its powerful data object model, development framework, and enormous amount of functionality available out of the box, Drupal saved Ensemble massive time and expense. We estimate the cost and time that it took to build these back-end systems in Drupal was about 60% to 70% less than would have been the case if we were using traditional, legacy approaches.

Open source is good business

Open source in general is hugely advantageous for most software projects. And Drupal in particular benefits from an unparalleled community. We’ve heard that of the one million or so known open source projects, Drupal ranks #1 for number of contributors. This is remarkable, and means that Ensemble’s software needs are continuously benefitting from a whole world of developers.

Standardization makes life easier

An additional benefit is that since the public sites were definitely going Drupal, the use of Drupal for everything else means that Ensemble only needs to maintain expertise in a single technology stack. No juggling a bunch of languages. No “web” vs. “I.T.” fistfights in the parking lot.

Drupal for big software is the new normal

Lately we are seeing more and more of this. While Ashday has been building these sorts of complex backend apps with Drupal for as long as we can remember, it used to feel a little like the exception not the rule. But nowadays, especially since Drupal 8, we're hearing about such projects frequently. More and more organizations, including some extremely large ones, are catching on to the substantial money, time, and sanity saving advantages of using Drupal for heavy software engineering lifts, not just “websites”.

Love affair

And, finally, we just really love Drupal. (Ok, at this point this probably didn’t need to be stated.)

Describe the project (goals, requirements and outcome): 

In very short order we needed to execute a front to back initiative, to accomplish 3 primary, intertwined things:

Build a consolidated yet flexible magazine web platform to power numerous sites. It had to be capable of supporting similar, but different, magazine sites – all of them quite complex. And of course it had to be engaging and attractive and make readers and advertisers happy. We would start with one site,, but additional subsequent site conversions would need to follow in rapid-fire fashion.

Re-invent email newsletter process. Historically, Ensemble staff created newsletters in a fairly manual, cumbersome process of assembling and passing around HTML, which linked readers back to the site. Ensemble had the clever, paradigm shifting idea to replace the whole process with a Drupal application that would automatically pull content in from the sites and allow it to be easily drag-and-drop assembled, so as to save vast amounts of (error prone) labor, and standardize high quality, mobile friendly output.

Manage gating and leads. Some of Ensemble’s content is gated. Early on in the assessment phase Ensemble determined that their existing toolset for this needed to be replaced, but no available commercial products seemed capable of accomplishing their complex requirements. So an entire centralized gating & leads management application also needed to be built in order to go live.

So ... how did it go?

It was quite a lot to do, and it all had to come together frightfully quickly. The launch date was set, the clock was ticking, the stakeholders and investors were waiting with baited breath. It required a truly significant integration of the two groups, Ashday and Ensemble, merged into one, working intimately together to pull off something really momentous.

And that’s what happened. Our story would be more fun to tell if there was an exhilarating, down-to-the-wire ending. Emotions running wild, 11th hour crises, a heroic mid court buzzer shot and all that. But really it was kind of anti-climatic. Which is good - fun stories do not make for fun projects. With excellent vision and leadership from the CDO, Director of Software Engineering, and the rest of the crew at Ensemble, plus the magic of Drupal (properly done), the whole thing came together as planned and calmly coasted past the finish line, on time and on budget.

The work has been well received. We were excited to see that soon after launching the first public site (Consumer Goods), average page views per visitor and average session duration nearly doubled. And leveraging Pantheon's custom upstream abilities and some clever architecture, we were subsequently able to convert and launch numerous similar-but-different sites for Ensemble's other publications very rapidly (such as Progressive Grocer, Apparel Magazine, and quite a few others). There’s more to do on this initiative, and will be for a while. But there again we see the power of Drupal 8: With this solid foundation now set, and Ensemble's publishing acumen, the sky is the limit as to what can be imagined and built going forward.

Organizations involved: 
Why these modules/theme/distribution were chosen: 

Using best of breed contrib modules saves significant programming time, and brings the benefits of a whole community of developers.

Website, Under the Hood
Gate Form, Under the Hood
Newsletter Creation, Under the Hood