Envisioning MACH: Specsavers shares its replatforming story

It’s estimated that what we see influences 80% of our impressions about the world. So, if you’re in the majority that has not been gifted with 20/20 vision, finding an optometrist you trust is pretty important. Enter, Specsavers.

For the past 35 years, the company has been changing lives through better eyesight and hearing. This multinational retailer offers optometry services; sells glasses, sunglasses, and contact lenses; and, more recently, sells hearing aids at its 2,000+ storefronts which are spread across 11 countries. 

Originally, the majority of the company’s revenue came from in-person activities. But this completely shifted with the onset of the pandemic, ultimately forcing Specsavers to speed up its calculated plans for digital modernization — which would include swapping out Drupal for Contentful as its content solution. 

As Senior Director of Solution Engineering at Contentful, I was curious what this process looked like for such a well known brand in an industry that has always been digital-first, so I invited James Skinner, Director of Digital Technology at Specsavers, to join me for a webinar on just this. 

Here’s a summary of our chat on how Specsavers moved away from its monolith and adopted a more eye-deal solution. 

What inspired you to make the jump from a legacy CMS to a composable content platform?

James Skinner: So, back in 2019, our team was working with Drupal and, in addition to the monolith reaching its end of life, we were beginning to clearly see some limitations of the platform. The first surrounding our ability to respond with speed to new business demands — whether those be from partners, customers, or internal teams. We struggled to make simple changes to our content. It all required deep engineering and a lot of testing to ensure things hadn’t gotten broken along the way. 

There was also the aspect of flexibility and technical debt. While Drupal had increased its functionality over the years, there wasn’t much power to them, and always ended up being just “okay.” We wanted tools that were best of breed and shined in really specific ways and they would require something that was a bit more open and flexible and came with less of that technical debt.

Charlie Bell: Another thing that we see with legacy monoliths are those hosting costs. You have to have that platform running somewhere, whether that's as a managed service via a partner or the vendor itself, or whether you're hosting it yourself. Version upgrades are also a very expensive and time-consuming process, often for little appreciable gain. Composable solutions like Contentful doesn’t have versions —  it’s always up to date. Plus the platform is entirely hosted by us, which is cost-saving. 

What was your approach to migration? Was it rip and replace or incremental? 

Charlie: One of the questions that we get asked a lot at Contentful is, “I've got an old system, it's got a lot of my old content in it and I'd like to get into a more modern platform to reduce my overall operational cost and operational risk. Is it an all or nothing thing?” What is your opinion on that?

James: So, I think it's really enticing to go for a big cutover — get everything done in one swoop and close off the existing platform. But, what that leads you towards is spending a lot of time moving content the customer is not interested in. Going slow so you have time to really curate your content is a better option for most — unless, your organization (like ours) is dealing with the end of life of an existing solution. 

At Specsavers, we did a lot of work on identifying what content really mattered — and that's not just about how many customers look at it. It's also about how often it's updated. The effort to shift content between platforms is high and if a piece of content isn’t going to be updated very often, you'd certainly put it to the back of the queue for a migration. 

But we also consider how much traffic the asset is generating. What does that traffic do for us? Does it convert well? Taking the time to revisit your content at this stage, weed things out, and make sure what’s left is working as hard as possible is essential.

For us there were key things that we knew we’d need to lift and shift — like FAQs. But outside of that, we relied on our stakeholders for input. We brought in business users including content editors and authors to help us determine what to move and how to rewrite it or to lift and shift it for maximum value.

Charlie: I think that's reassuring because it can be easy to look at your old, disorganized solution with all its content and get overwhelmed with the idea of moving it all. It can quickly become a job that no one wants to do. Taking that incremental lower risk approach has its benefits and it's actually easier than people think. People are almost conditioned to think that moving to a platform like Contentful will be really hard because everything they had to do with their legacy CMS or DXP platform is really hard, but we’ve seen customers be up and running on Contentful in a matter of weeks.

What other tools have you integrated to leverage the stack over suite approach?

James: Some of the most important content that we deal with comes from outside of our CMS. We have data flow from our master product data management systems through our PIM and then into content pages that sit within a variety of other parts of the stack. More specifically, we’ve integrated commerce tools and that one in particular is connected to other add-ons like our payment systems and supply chain.

Charlie: As the market leader in headless, composable content platforms, we offer a lot of integrations within our Marketplace — hundreds, even. As you mentioned, we offer tools that satisfy commerce needs but we also have integrations for PIMs, CRMs, and DAM systems. So, that's really value add to conversations we have with prospective ecommerce customers around the topic of, “I already have tools I love using, how can I bring them together?”

How do you begin measuring the value of a solution that’s so different from the previous one?

James: I think there are two key metrics to consider. One is the impact that the transition has on internal users and the other is how our content performs with customers. The internal user experience piece is really important because publishing typically required developer intervention — sometimes handcrafting markup and dropping it into certain zones because it was easier to do than trying to utilize the capabilities of the tool we had in place. So, right now and moving forward, we'll be tracking the end-to-end time and effort it takes to create an asset, from building a brief to going live. We’ll also have some softer KPIs on colleague satisfaction.

From the customer experience and business value point of view, we've already seen with the small amounts of content we've transitioned already. One of the measures we've been looking at really closely is core web vitals, lighthouse metrics, and how that content performs in terms of its index ability and findability, we've seen a media uplift in that moving us from a failing to a succeeding score within some of those areas.

How can companies prepare themselves for future success despite all the unknowns?

James: No matter what industry you’re in, one thing is certain — there will be constant change. For a brand to make it, they will need to produce and deliver what attracts consumers even if that customer base evolves over time. The fundamental goal to move faster still stands. Any progress organizations can make towards setting themselves up to deliver incremental value is good investment. It sets them up to respond to unexpected customer needs — which do come along as we saw with the pandemic. We found that we needed to pivot quickly towards delivering an ecommerce experience with remote care options but we weren’t very far into composable content at that point, which slowed our ability to provide those offerings at the start. 

Investing in headless, composable technology is a must. It prepares your content to be reused across a number of experiences and can pull in a lot of different sources. Take imagery as an example. It’s extremely important that customers can see what they look like before purchasing our eyewear. With composable content, we can use different technology solutions to build a virtual try-on experience and get closer to selecting a frame they are happy with. 

Similarly, the open nature of these tools allows users to pull in deeper product information and make more informed business decisions. And the whole range of information that flows from our master product data through these solutions and into content records that are then aggregated together by these different systems certainly gives us much more flexibility.

Charlie: I always like to point out that headless is a side effect of the way we’ve architected the Contentful Platform. It's not a feature that's bolted on with extra APIs so we can label ourselves as headless and say, “We're now headless” or, even worse “hybrid headless.” Content is the oxygen of digital experiences and our platform makes it possible to help it flow freely no matter where it is stored.  

See what else was covered during the webinar

While this wrap-up includes a lot of the key takeaways from my one-on-one with James, we also talked a good deal about Specsavers approach to replatforming and modernizing at the peak of the pandemic. For insight on this topic and answers from our closing live Q&A session, watch the complete webinar recording.

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