May 29, 2020

Starter kits: Step one in helping brands manage their digital presence

Josh Hoekwater

SVP, Strategic Partnerships

If your company has multiple websites and "digital sprawl" has hit an all-time high, a single platform solution may be your answer. The best part? It'll allow you to seamlessly manage all publishing efforts, adhere to brand guidelines and site regulations, and enable governance across your organization. Sound like something you need? Read on.

Over the years, Genuine has helped a number of brands architect, build and maintain a multi-site platform - essentially a system that allows organizations to build, deploy and manage a number of websites on a single codebase. We’ve built many of these platforms using a product from our partner, Acquia, called Acquia Cloud Site Factory, though we’ve also used other technologies to achieve similar results.

Architecting, implementing, managing and maintaining a multi-site platform can require significant resources - both human and capital. And once in place, one of the biggest challenges our clients face is how to then enable marketers (and their agency partners) across their enterprise to use the platform and take full advantage of the significant investment to build and deploy sites and pages that meet their business needs.

We strongly recommend one approach to our clients: a starter kit to support the onboarding, enablement and scalability of a platform. We’ve found these kits to be a very successful vehicle for ensuring consistency in the brand experience, and adherence with best practices, while providing a layer of governance that bolsters the sustainability of the platform.

What is a starter kit?

In the context of a multi-site platform, we define a starter kit as a pre-set collection of templates, components and site features that make up a "typical" use case for a marketer or brand team in the context of their business.

So, for example, a healthcare manufacturer or pharmaceutical company may have starter kits for their corporate sites, commercial (product) sites and therapy sites, and a CPG company may have starter kits for brand sites and campaign, etc. By curating these platform elements into a starter kit and providing meaningful guidance around usage and considerations, platform product owners are able to empower marketers, and even their agency partners, to create the digital experiences they envision with far less hands-on involvement.

But don't make too many. Typically, we recommend limiting the number of starter kits to three or four, which work for the majority of all use cases and can then be adapted for other cases as the platform grows. If a large number of starter kits exist within a platform, complexity increases resulting in increased maintenance time, increased duplication of functionality, and the scalability of the platform is lowered.

Your first 3 steps to build a starter kit

You’ve made the decision to move forward with a starter kit. Congratulations! Here’s what you need to do next (which we can help with, as an agency partner):

  1. Discover needs. Start by talking with key stakeholders to understand functional, user experience, design, and/or content needs and then abstract or genericize those components to the lowest common denominator wherever possible. Next, map out a matrix of needs, ordered by priority.
  2. Align with existing. Review existing starter kits (site types/profiles) and existing functionality, comparing needs with what currently exists in the platform, and outline gaps. Identify gaps that could be addressed with a combination of existing functionality or user interface patterns. Then determine the scale of the gaps based on business need, priority, and level of effort.
  3. Determine implementation path. If the gaps you identified are trivial or minimal, select an existing starter kit that both best aligns with the needs, and provides guidance on how best to use existing elements. If the gaps are larger but lower-priority and can be readily abstracted, select an existing starter kit. Next, estimate effort and priority for extending an existing starter kit to address identified gaps. Finally, if a significant number of high priority and non-abstractable gaps are identified, move forward with the development of a new starter kit to address the business needs.

You need a new starter kit, now what?

Once you’ve determined you need a new starter kit, adhere to the following five-step process:

  1. Start with the base. In all platform builds, we create "base kits," which contain the basic functionality and experience design components that need to be consistent across all platform properties. These elements typically include things like typography, color palettes and third-party integrations. Each new starter kit is built by inheriting the base kit. This can be done in different ways, depending on the language/framework.
  2. Abstract functionality and experience design. Typically, every kit starts as a need for a specific property, but ideally will be used for many. As such, all requirements need to be abstracted (where possible) away from a single use case.
  3. Reuse what already exists and stay D.R.Y. When reviewing needs, check against what may exist in other starter kits. If a similar feature or experience design element exists in another starter kit, do not rebuild it. Instead, focus efforts on moving that component into the common base kit and build out capabilities for introducing variations for each kit where needed. Follow the mantra of "Don't Repeat Yourself" (D.R.Y.).
  4. Phase out the development of the kit. Building out a new starter kit often takes more time. So plan in phases for how the kit will be built, spanning various platform releases beginning with what needs to be done to get something up and running. Doing so allows for a quicker ability to start focusing on content building, theming, and securing approvals, while the starter kit is still being developed.
  5. Add kit to all platform processes. Ideally, a platform has several surrounding processes and tools that monitor its health, deployment and documentation. When adding a new starter kit, these each need to be updated. Make updates to the following areas when adding new kit
    • Automated testing - Add to/update the automated testing suite, including tests for install of the new starter kit, tests for added functionality, and updated tests for any changes to other affected kits.
    • Deployment/build scripts - Any CI/CD systems used need to be updated to include any build processes (e.g., SASS compiling, 3rd party library installs, etc.) required for the new starter kit.
    • Documentation - Add documentation information about the new kit to the platform. Include detailed descriptions, use cases, etc. To be able to use it, people need to know it is there.

Be on your way to multi-site platform management

Multi-site platforms promise decreased infrastructure costs, better visibility and security for IT, and faster speed to market. But they can only deliver on those promises when marketers and agency partners are able to use the platform effectively, and IT teams are freed up to focus on innovation and projects that move the business forward. A thoughtful, focused effort to develop starter kits is a great place to start.

Get in touch if you need help getting started. We'd love to partner with you!