Digital media has experienced a near-constant evolution in consumer behavior, preferences, and expectations over the past couple of decades. And things show no sign of slowing down. Many media companies are not just at a crossroads, they are at a point of no return. How they respond now will likely shape whether they survive or not.
Of course, some media companies have adapted skillfully to these changes. It’s now possible for consumers to watch TV on half a dozen devices whenever and wherever they want (possibly all at the same time if you’re my kid). We can read the news from anywhere, and the news now often comes packaged with games, recipes, communities, podcasts, and even in-person events.
Meanwhile, advertisers can track viewers across platforms, and measure engagement on a deeper level, with more robust data than anything offered in the Nielsen era. Even the programming has changed, as media companies adapt to changing audience preferences.
As media companies continue to evolve and experiment, the challenge is to do this without potentially alienating their customer base. It requires the right mix of innovating with a product mindset to create something new: viewer experience, insights into customer wants and needs, and consumer engagement.
It all starts with product
What do companies need to consider to move the needle? They need to constantly shift with – and shift – consumer expectations. There is a cost in every decision that media companies make, and every action or inaction has consequences.
All of these decisions ladder up to the product itself. Product development never, ever stops, because if it does, it leads to stagnation (and even irrelevance). For example, media companies like National Journal have made their investments to differentiate, not just improve. Category leaders like Netflix, Instagram, and TikTok offer products that look very different today than they did a few years ago because they continued to evolve. They updated to both shift and meet consumer expectations and as a result, have remained the best at what they do.
For media companies looking to follow a similar pattern, there are three key considerations:
Insights into customer wants and needs
Developing cutting edge products requires alignment with users, because every innovation has to improve the experience. Every product must be highly-intuitive and easy to interact with. As companies push the boundaries on what’s possible, they also need to ensure that new functions work seamlessly.
If you are a consumer, there’s nothing worse than loading a new application or website area only for it to raise questions in your mind. This extends beyond the technical components to other consumer touchpoints, including user support and billing.
At the core, media companies need to design products that their customers love, and not just simply use.
Insights into customer wants and needs
The goal of every media company is to build an experience that consumers love. To do that, companies need to constantly research and design for needs. The biggest insights in media consumption habits are the rise of free ad-supported TV (FAST) channels on streaming platforms and the dominance of short-form content.
Consumers accept advertising because they know that it funds the media they are viewing, reading, or hearing.
Media companies have looked for a way to layer advertising on top of their offerings in a way where advertisers see value, and consumers understand that the ads they see are funding the media they digest. FAST channels seem to strike this balance perfectly, much to the surprise of the ad industry.
Short-form content offers another, similar opportunity. TikTok’s massive adoption shows that consumers are ingesting information at a dizzying pace. Media companies should be seeking out ways to create and capitalize on this new form of content.
The natural benefit of designing for needs is that it improves user engagement. One of the biggest learnings about the FAST adoption described above is that consumers actually use ads as a way of engagement. This creates opportunities for media companies to use these ad slots to get consumers to engage with new forms of content.
Ads are now interactive, with surveys or the ability to click to watch something new. By using data signals and programmatically serving tailored ads to customers, media companies can help drive consumers to other products and content offerings, building greater engagement.
Engagement goes much deeper than watching ads, of course. Media companies want consumers to spend time with their content, whether that’s as simple as watching a video or reading another article, or as deep as attending an event or paying for a subscription with unique benefits.
Streaming TV is largely viewed as TV in the traditional sense, but consumers don’t always engage with it on their couch in the living room. Some watch on the subway, some just run a TV show in the background and listen to it like a podcast. Media companies need to adjust their user experiences to better meet the evolving needs of these different audiences.
Learn without asking
As media companies work through the three considerations above, they need to keep one thing in mind: consumers aren’t necessarily going to tell you what they want. In fact, they may not know what they want. So if you adopt a product mindset and continue to evolve and push forward, it’s critical to analyze all of the data signals you have on consumer behavior and build something that meets the trends.
Product development never ends, and that’s especially true in the media space. A decade ago, no company would have been able to predict our current situation. It’s unlikely that any single enterprise can accurately predict the next 10 years of change, either. Regardless, evolution is key, so that media brands can remain in business and help define the next iteration of the industry.
With the rapidly changing media landscape organizations must constantly evolve or die.
In a recent BCG study, only 35% of companies achieved their digital transformation objectives.
Where are you?
Companies in the media ecosystem, including publishers, broadcasters, streaming platforms, and ad-tech providers, are under ongoing pressure to keep pace with the speed of innovation and new market demands. Many are struggling to sustain their business, which may support millions of users, while still innovating to stay ahead of the next technology wave.
This task has been exacerbated by conflicting priorities of executives, value vs velocity, which leaves CPOs and CTOs in need of a desperate alignment to build an optimal foundation for an ecosystem of digital products.
You must build for outcomes
Fortunately, the path to solving these issues is achievable, albeit one that requires a fundamental change in thinking and execution. By taking a product mindset philosophy across the entire business, media leaders are able to design for outcomes such as: changing consumer behavior, making informed decisions, and growing top- and bottom-line revenue. This holistic approach for all stakeholders helps align priorities with outcomes to achieve results.
The product mindset helps define individual product launches and conflicting stakeholder priorities. When applied to the entire enterprise, it can help media companies adapt for the future while also still serving their current customer base.
How to achieve the product mindset
Defining the product mindset
The product mindset establishes a link between product principles and company characteristics. It provides a shared experience that connects people at every level of an organization and allows them to communicate and make data-driven decisions. Central to the product mindset are three core concepts:
Digital products must be self-funded.
Digital products need to be chosen by the customer.
Digital products are never done.
Thinking about products along these lines can help a company clear away some of the roadblocks and challenges of maintaining pace with media evolution. But putting them into practice can be a challenge. The following five steps can help make the product mindset the core philosophy across a media enterprise.
1. Define the vision
Every product needs to create and communicate a clear vision that addresses a market problem, and every company needs a vision for what it aims to do. Does every product unite under a single vision that the company wants to push forward? If a product doesn’t fit the vision, then CTOs, product leads, and even CEOs need to have the discipline to say “no” to a new idea.
2. Prioritize customer needs
User-informed products solve specific problems for specific target customers. The more a business knows about its target customer, the better it can define its overall business strategy and, specifically, its product strategy. This requires careful research into questions that may seem obvious, but aren’t asked often enough in the development process. Who is the customer? What are we solving? What’s the best design to achieve the goals? Solid research ensures companies solve the right problem in the right way.
To fuel this line of inquiry, media companies must develop a strong user feedback loop that tests assumptions early, often, and regularly, through the use of analytics, UX testing, and user surveys. These are repetitive, quick, and inexpensive methods that will point the way forward for product development and revenue opportunities.
3. Practice a lean and agile mindset
The goal of any organization is to practice its core values to the point that the process becomes invisible. The agile mindset requires predictable development and deployment processes. When all products have to unite under the umbrella of a single vision, serve a target customer, and are built on predictable processes, then everything starts moving like clockwork.
The lean build process operates similarly. Products are built in the smallest, fastest way possible, without being tied to specific commitments. That helps spot failures early, resulting in less time lost and fewer wasted resources as companies move to evolve.
4. Excel at change
The need for the product mindset is ultimately about the need to get really good at the constant change within the media industry. The companies that will define the future can quickly reinvent themselves based on how their users and market change.
When assessing a change, ask, “does the benefit generated from change outweigh the cost?” Again, everything should be based on data and serving the end users, not chasing shiny objects. The more an organization can justify the change to match the vision, the easier the change will be.
5. Employ strong, skilled, empowered teams
The best way to apply the product mindset across an enterprise is to build cross-functional teams that open the door to wide-scale innovation. Encourage smart failure, where ideas are tested well in advance. Sometimes the data shows that a product may be needed, but the development doesn’t quite match the need. That’s OK, as long as the red flag is raised early in the process. By empowering teams, media companies make it quick and easy to change, ensuring that they can maintain their current position while building for the future.
Navigating the future at the speed of change
Media is evolving at a breakneck pace, shifting because of changes in consumer and customer behavior and needs. Even with all of the disrupting factors at work, most enterprises should be able to maintain – if not grow–their audiences in the future.
Maintaining the product mindset will help media businesses find new revenue opportunities, but also excel at change in the future, ensuring that they are ready to embrace the next evolution of media.
Warner Bros.' MultiVersus game leverages a broad range of the company's IP.
While the media and marketing worlds lose their minds over the metaverse, it’s worth bearing in mind that most of the purported benefits of that phenomenon already exist elsewhere.
The metaverse – whatever it ultimately looks like – is being built on the back of gaming audiences. From the platforms that early metaverse experiments were built on, to the community-based nature of interactions between brand and audiences on those platforms… it looks a lot like gaming with a new name. Besides, even if the metaverse actually emerges as a wholly new phenomenon, its audience will still bear a good deal of resemblance to gamers. So, products that serve this crowd are likely to bridge any eventual gap.
Either way, media companies must continuously attract new audiences to monetize in the race for subscribers and advertising spend. It also helps if those new audiences fit a particular profile that merits content development dollars as well. They need to be niche enough to have a community that is deeply invested in the topic and lucrative enough to be monetized effectively.
The largest niche on the planet
Gaming – the most lucrative entertainment medium globally – is certainly appealing in its own right. But importantly for media companies seeking new and valuable audiences, gaming offers scale characterized by numerous niches, each with the potential for product development that will attract, engage, and inform gaming communities.
Craig Levine is co-CEO at one of the largest esports organizations, ESL Gaming. He says: “There are so many niche communities within esports – and here ‘niche’ doesn’t mean small. I think ‘niche’ means focused. There are some very, very large niches in competitive gaming.”
Unsurprisingly, media companies with valuable IP continue to develop their esports plans. Warner Bros, for instance, has a hit on its hands with the platform fighter Multiversus, which sees exciting IP crossover. Meanwhile the latest Pokémon Presents on August 3rd opened not with information about its upcoming games, but the competitive scene that surrounds them. Esports titles like DOTA 2, CS:GO and Fortnite are perennially popular, with some achieving widespread brand recognition outside the gaming sphere.
Sports brands like Manchester United and the NBA have invested heavily in esports, from both grassroots and professional level. They recognize a growth industry when they see it.
According to the latest annual predictions from esports research specialist Newzoo global esports revenues will exceed $1.86bn by 2025, representing a CAGR of 13.4%. That is driven in large part by a rise in the size of the esports audience, with the global audience expected to reach 532 million by the end of 2022. The number of what Newzoo classes as “esports enthusiasts” is set to reach 261.2 million. This is this ‘niche’ that should set a fire under magazine publishers.
Charlotte Cook is MD of gaming-specialist agency Calm Consultancy. She says that the niches do exist within gaming: “When it comes to brands, advertisers, you do need to still segment them as different experiences exist on different platforms. A game on a mobile is very different from a game on a console.”
However, she states that the overall competitive gaming audience is growing. It is also broadening into demographics that advertisers are desperate to reach. Newzoo found that 74% of esports enthusiasts are full-time employees (compared to just 56% of the general online population), and around 44% fall in the high-income bracket compared to 33% of the general online population.
So, magazine companies looking to make some money around the world of esports specifically should adopt the role of bridge between brands and the community. Media companies like Future are already reaping the benefits of ecommerce based around high-value gaming audiences. The rise of esports also provides them with the ability to act as a trusted source for information related to high-value competitive gaming products.
Magazines’ core strength has always been around creating a compelling narrative. Just as with real-world sports stars, the focus of that storytelling around esports should be around the individuals within the space. Those esports stars are effective influencers within their community, which influencer-specialist marketers believe delivers the best rate of conversion on any ad spend. Moreover, since magazines are seen as a safe space for brands, it creates a new channel for the brands who seek to reach those audiences but run the risk of appearing opposite unsuitable content on the traditional esports platforms like Twitch.
Levine explains: “We’re currently in a world where players and influencers bring the power of creators, and that means a sort of this infinite distribution opportunity. The superstars of esports that come out are these incredible influencers who create tonnes of fandom around the games they focus on.”
That’s backed up by the rise of the gaming influencer, many of the most popular of whom are in the esports space. Small wonder that brands including Netflix, the NBA, and
Formula 1 have partnered with those streamers to expand their distribution channels for content among gamers.
Eyes on the prize
Much of the focus for the intersection of media and esports lies is still related to broadcasters bidding for the rights for esports competitions. Game companies like EA and Blizzard are betting the farm on esports broadcast rights, and arguably the prices commanded for those licences significantly undervalue the size of the audience.
Daniel Schnapp, esports specialist and partner at Sheppard Mullin, told Variety: “If you look at the most watched [and] consumed esports events over the last five to 10 years, they rival that – in terms of overall eyeballs and audience participation in viewership – of some of the largest sporting events that are put out by the traditional sports leagues.”
But, as with the ecosystem that has grown around traditional sports, there is space for magazine publishers to launch dedicated esports-related brands. The ecommerce opportunities related to the niche communities and ability to boost the profile of the pro players would benefit not just the magazine company, but the esports ecosystem as a whole. That virtuous circle of increased audience, attention and ad spend benefits the entire vertical – and magazines can claim a share of that pie.
For media companies, then, the question shouldn’t be “should we launch an esports title”, but “when should we?”
The U.K.’s DMG is a media heavyweight by most measures and the group’s Daily Mail ranks close to the top on any chart for online newsbrands. In terms of web traffic, it places fourth in the U.K., 10th in the U.S. and sixth globally according to the U.K.’s Press Gazette.
At the FIPP World Media Congress in Portugal earlier this month, the U.K. news giant outlined its adoption of a “launch everyday” philosophy that, surprisingly, owes a lot to the paper’s print heritage. The result was a 300% increase in subscriber numbers in just two years.
Product director Simon Regan-Edwards was unable to travel, but Denis Haman of CMS supplier Glide stood in to explain how the Mail+ team brought a print mindset to the evolution of the Mail+ subscription product first launched in 2013.
Mail+ began by replicating the newspaper experience online. Between its launch in 2013 and 2020, Mail+ secured 40,000 subscriptions as a digital replica available across multiple devices, including Kindle and Amazon’s Alexa.
In March 2020, the decision was taken to begin building out the Mail+ offering and by June 2022 it had 120,000 subscribers in total, with 76,000 digital only subscribers. This level of growth is impressive in itself, but even more so considering the free-to-access Mail Online site sits alongside it.
Two years, nine updates
Over the two years between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2022, the Mail+ team delivered nine major updates.
These started with the introduction of briefings and newsletters and the addition of content in areas where the audience wanted to see more — TV and radio, food and health. Mail+ today incorporates Best Of sections, ListenTo functions and puzzles.
Moving through a homepage rebuild and a new storefront to improve the subscriber sign-up journey, Mail+ then made the shift to an edition-based format with three daily updates.
Additional releases have since brought author and category pages, new sections, and enhanced search functionality. More recently, the team implemented a second home page redesign to pull together a unified Mail+ offering.
“It’s been actually incredible to watch,” said Haman, “The Daily Mail team has managed to work and rework the product and reconfigure what it means to the customers. I have rarely seen a product move at such a pace and reinvent itself repeatedly.”
Haman began by exploding the misconception that a print foundation will slow digital development, arguing that print is possibly the most agile of all content channels.
“It gets destroyed and remade every single day, with the opportunity to redraw it, reshape it, rework it. And it has to hit the deadlines,” he explained. The Mail digital team brought that print mindset to the rebuilding of Mail+. That meant launching “every day, every week, every month.”
Of course, digital is not the same as print and Haman noted that there are “sensible limits” to digital development, meaning everything takes more time than you might think. Quoting Alan Hunter, former head of digital at The Times, Haman said: “This means you won’t be asking for a new product feature on a Tuesday and expecting it to be in the app by Friday.”
Crucially, the Mail digital team was given license from the very top to keep going until the right formula was found for Mail+. From that foundation and armed with audience data that suggested there was a real interest in the evolving subscription product, the team built quickly following a rigorous framework for decision making.
Ask what problem you are solving
Haman described the sweet spot for innovation between visibility, viability and desirability. He said it was important to be disciplined in asking key questions. Do customers want the features you are developing? Are they financially viable and are they technically possible with the available resources?
“It’s really important to fall back on the process,” said Haman. “If you’re under pressure you can easily find yourself jumping to conclusions.”
Data is crucial in building insight into what is building habits and why people do what they do. But Haman said it is also important to be open to new voices. He highlighted customer-service teams, sometimes overlooked, but often a powerful source of knowledge into what motivates or demotivates readers.
Data also avoids the HIPPO trap — the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Haman explained, “without data, it’s just an opinion.”
Networked teams bring together diverse groups with different perspectives and different skills, all the disciplines needed to launch a product. It’s important to give everyone access to the data to understand how it relates to revenue, engagement, and readership.
Haman emphasized the importance of giving everyone on the team a voice, and making sure that they are truly engaged in asking “What problem are we solving?” However, he took care to explain that although everyone should have a voice, “not everyone makes the decisions.”
To separate “should” from “could” and focus on priorities, the Mail+ development team used the MoSCoW methodology:
This helped the development team move faster and, crucially, get data back quickly to provide valuable insights for moving forward.
The team used digital tools across functions to “dig into” designs before development started. Haman compared this to making sure your architect’s plans are solid before starting to build; it’s considerably cheaper to revise plans than tear down half the house to make things right. Then lock designs to prevent changes at the 11th hour. “I love the fact that they would laminate designs,” he said. “It’s genuinely locked until it is released.”
The elegant exit
Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, said it is important to act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.
Data, again, provided insight to what was working and what wasn’t for The Daily Mail. And if something wasn’t working, Haman said it was important to ignore the sunk cost fallacy — that we have spent all this money and we have to make it work. He explained, “If it’s going in the wrong direction, you need to be brave enough to cut your losses, pivot, or rather elegantly exit and move to a new direction.”
Regan-Edwards made a guest appearance at the end of the session via Zoom and I asked him if he thought at the start of the project he would make nine major updates in two years? He said, “No, but I think what we learned through this whole process is don’t predict what’s coming in two years time, focus on what are we delivering for this next quarter. What makes sense in this next quarter? What do we want to do in the quarter after that?”
He also re-emphasized the importance of being led by feedback from customers. “We have a big focus on puzzles,” he said. “That’s come from the feedback of how people are using the product.”
And finally, he said, overcome the “moonshot mentality” that says, “We’re done now, let’s put it in the cupboard. Instead, get into the mentality that you want to constantly improve.”
For over 100 years, newspaper and magazine publishers made money in three basic ways: advertising, newsstand sales, and periodic payments from subscribers who awaited the latest news delivered to their doorsteps. Most innovation in the publishing space revolved around the editorial content delivered to consumers rather than how people consumed that content.
Then digital hit, and it changed everything.
News and entertainment are widely available for free online. And the emergence of programmatic ad networks and news aggregators have put immense pressure on ad revenue. This means publishers need to shift toward a subscription-based revenue model if they want to survive—and thrive.
Bringing in new subscribers and building durable relationships with them starts with revenue diversification. You need to segment the audience to focus on those subscribers that will drive higher LTV (lifetime value). And you must have a customer-first mindset.
Your north star: delivering value in unique ways across the entire subscriber journey. The path to success: innovation. Here are three ways to deliver compelling digital experiences that’ll not only drive subscriber growth, but also encourage your subscribers to stick around for the long haul.
1. Diversify your revenue streams
Publishers that offer more flexible subscription plans, innovative acquisition strategies, and hybrid offerings will win over those that only offer rigid pricing models or limited product offerings.
Offer newsletters and companion subscriptions
One way to remake subscriptions for the digital era is to provide new offerings that didn’t exist decades ago. Consider, for instance, Morning Brew, theSkimm, and the many successful Substack offerings. Well-written, targeted newsletters are an increasingly popular way to consume information. They are also a great way to drive additional revenue, be it through subscriptions or sponsorships.
You might also consider developing a companion subscription product to your content offerings. GQ, for example, recently introduced its quarterly “Best Stuff Box.” It features electronics, grooming products, and accessories geared toward the same audience that reads GQ.
Drive interest through events
Events are another great way to drive interest in your subscription products (and to drive revenue on their own). You could hold a live event be it free or paid, virtual or in-person. This might be an in-depth interview with a celebrity or luminary. It could also be access to your on-staff experts, or gatherings of like minded audiences. Then you can use the resulting email list to nurture and help add new subscribers to your core offerings.
2. Segment and personalize your offerings to drive LTV higher
While driving subscriber growth matters, you want to focus your efforts on those subscribers who will stay with you for the long term. Segmenting your audience into logical cohorts and targeting the most promising ones will help you both reduce your acquisition costs and ensure more sustainable growth.
Create and analyze subscriber cohorts
Start by looking at your existing subscriber base. Take a deep dive into the data to understand the characteristics of those subscribers with the highest LTV: Are they subscribed to a particular plan? Are they in a particular age range, income level, or geographic location? Perhaps they tend to take advantage of other offerings, like events or newsletters. Look at what’s working and optimize your subscription offerings appropriately for the cohorts you’ve identified.
Understand churn to boost retention
Looking at the “winners” won’t tell you the whole story. A big part of optimizing your efforts for the highest LTV is understanding who’s churning and why. Identify your “subscriber cliff, which is the point at which subscribers tend to churn. Then, work backwards to understand why they’re churning. Whether it’s due to a price increase, the expiration of a promotional introductory offer, or something else, you now have a starting point for your retention efforts.
Make increasing LTV everyone’s priority
Part of driving higher LTV is ensuring every member of your team is responsible for success across the entire customer lifecycle. Reorient people’s roles around the whole customer journey. For instance, compensate your sales reps based on your subscribers’ product adoption and retention rates, instead of just the price of the deal close.
3. Embrace a customer-first culture, even if you have to rethink your product
To effectively digitally transform your business, you need to be willing to blow up your “sacred cows.” Ignore everything you thought you knew about your product offerings. It’s time to rethink every aspect of your offerings and reorient yourself around what your subscribers demand.
Rethink your product
First, your digital subscription need not be a one-to-one remake of your physical subscription. Say you’re a newspaper: instead of forcing subscribers to pay for access to the entire paper, maybe charge a smaller fee to allow them to access only certain sections, a set number of articles per month, or particular features (just the crossword, for example). Others may not care as much about access to your current journalism but crave access to your archives.
Another way to orient your product offering around your subscribers is by partnering with a complementary brand (whether publishing or not) and offering a bundled subscription. The New York Times, for instance, partnered with Spotify a few years ago to offer a joint subscription to music lovers that was cheaper than the combined cost of both companies’ subscription plans.
Enact a cultural shift
To adopt a customer-first mindset, recognize it requires incorporating a new product culture and retraining your employees. For many publishers used to “doing things the way they were always done,” this will likely feel scary. But staying static in the way you monetize your offerings makes no sense, not when consumer expectations change so quickly or your competitors are able to move on a dime.
The pay off
The shift to digital has brought with it a tidal wave of change in consumer habits and expectations. The playbooks that served publishers so well for decades just aren’t that relevant anymore. By offering innovative bundles, unique subscription offerings, and creative merchandising models, publishers can build durable subscriber relationships and deliver value across the subscriber journey.
The road to publishing subscription success is paved with a variety of revenue streams. It requires a focus on subscribers that’ll drive high LTV. And it requires a rethink — and possible overhaul — of your product and company culture. No one said it was easy. But it is sure to be worth it.
As McKinsey reminds us, great products result when companies build bridges between technology innovation and audience preference. It is critical to deliver a holistic experience across functions and every stage of the customer journey. In media, aligning teams to develop data-informed products that engage audiences is more than a pathway to excellence. It’s essential for survival.
However, it can also be expensive to support. The record number of newsroom closures in 2020 offers unsettling proof that quality content cannot be the only draw. Organizations need to combine content and experience in new ways that decrease friction, increase satisfaction, and adapt to how consumers want to interact and where they are in the journey.
Continuing with our series of DCN video interviews, I talk to Millie Tran, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. A local news success story, the Texas Tribune has built a sustainable business, employing more than 60 journalists through a range of revenue sources, including thousands of paying members.
Drawing from her experience at the Tribune, as well as The New York Times and Buzzfeed, Tran shares how the Tribune aligns editorial with the back-end processes to adapt content and coverage to what most readers find most useful. She also reveals how her team harnesses audience data and innovative news modules and visualizations to drive a 2x increase in homepage views and keep readers coming back.
Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
Peggy Anne Salz: Product is the new marketing, but it’s not a new focus. It is gaining new significance as content companies’ perfect ways to draw from their data, to customize content and measure the results. But what are the business benefits? How can you individualize flagship products to drive views and longer sessions? How should you focus efforts and investments? Tough questions, yes, but we get the inside track here today from The Texas Tribune on Digital Content Next.
I am your host, Peggy Anne Salz, mobile analyst, content marketing consultant and frequent contributor to Digital Content Next. Of course, DCN is a trade association serving the diverse needs of high-quality digital content companies globally.
So my guest today is the chief product officer of The Texas Tribune. So it is a perfect match with our topic. That is where she leads audience, engineering, data, design, marketing, and communications and loyalty teams. Before this, she was deputy off-platform editor at The New York Times and before that global growth editor.
I am so excited to have her here today to talk about how she creates a holistic and successful product. Millie Tran, welcome to Digital Content Next. Great to have you here.
Millie Tran: Thanks for having me Peggy. I am excited to talk.
Peggy: It is a great topic. Product is so important, and I would like to start by understanding the alignment between product and the newsroom.
So, just thinking about your day-to-day routines, strategically and in practice, what does that look like?
Tran: I love this question. You know product can feel really opaque. I think traditionally we think of product as sitting in the center. But at a news organization, the news is the product.
So that alignment between product and the newsroom really manifests in the alignment with me and our editorial director Stacy-Marie Ishmael. I would say we are constantly in communication. And one of our core functions in each of our roles is just making decisions, making a call under conditions of uncertainty, conflict, complexity and increasing and sometimes unknown interdependencies.
We make a decision over here it can affect two things over there. And we are in a process of constantly anticipating those downstream effects so we can make the smartest decision based on our strategy. The balance between editorial decisions, product decisions and revenue decisions.
How I see my job. I think it is a mix of people, process and product. And I think it has to be in that order. It has to be that you understand people, their roles, their jobs, their skills, to work together most efficiently and effectively to build that product.
Salz: I love that because first of all you have people first, that resonates with me and you are thinking about not just the output, not just the articles, videos, podcasts, whatever it needs to be. You are focused on an experience. What you yourself have called a more holistic product. I would like to understand what you mean by that. I think you have also tweeted about that as well.
Tran: Probably. Speaking of tweets, I was just reminded of this tweet that Margaret Sullivan shared the other day about how she is a big fan and supporter of local news. But the websites are so horrendous, and I think that neatly ties up with what you are asking. Holistic to me means the whole experience. All of those things you mentioned, those modules, articles, videos, podcasts. There are micro experiences to each of those things, but all of those add up to the overall user experience.
When I say holistic user experience, I also mean not just the engineering, not just the CMS, it is also the design. It is also the way we write headlines, for example. So it is organizationally something we want to provide our users. I know even the ads we consider putting on our website, are not random ads that are offensive and distracting to the journalism. If you go to our website, you will see right now the ads are very relevant to someone interested in Texas, for example.
Salz: That is very important because relevancy, as you said, it is the entire experience, and it has to fit together. What are the systems I am even interacting with or working with in the first place? It goes far beyond CMS is what I’m hearing.
Tran: It is, and I would say we have a great tech setup here, our CMS is homemade, so that is our engineering team’s biggest product, and that powers our website. We have our data visuals team who are doing one off projects that we can test and learn from.
So we have a way to experiment with new products and a nice process to build it into the broader systems to make it easier. It is this nice feedback loop of experimenting, learning, and then integrating it into how we just do our work.
So our journalists and editors can also make these things easily because that also informs the work product at the end.
Salz: I want to get back to the whole idea of delivering a product, a product is the new marketing. We said that at the top and it is a success when it either acquires audiences or deepens the connection with existing ones. What is it at The Texas Tribune? What is your audience approach? Is it acquisition or retention or maybe, something else?
Tran: That is a great question. I think it has to be both acquisition and retention.
One of our big strategic priorities right now is double and diversify. Doubling our audience and making our audience reflect Texas, be more representative of Texas.
I often think about our membership. We want to grow the number of people who are supporting us through small dollar donations. The way to increase the members is to either have more people come to your site and then you have this natural conversion flow.
A percentage of our total readers are members so there is this natural conversion flow already. So you get more members by increasing the number of people who come to you or you increase the effectiveness of converting them. So at every point, do they come back, do they potentially sign up for a newsletter? We have seen that newsletters are our most effective channel in membership conversion. So: getting a reader to donate to us. I think it is about putting both of those things into a framework that helps you understand the costs and benefits of each at every point.
So, I think it is about having all the data, putting it in a model and framework that helps you balance all of these things. I don’t think you can just choose one or the other. Having that broad view will help you make better decisions.
I said that is a quantitative framework and to loop back to what you said about product is the new marketing. I think people subscribe to things. They support organizations, they support brands for reasons that we can’t always quantify. It is really important also to understand the emotional connection that someone has to your product and your organization, your brand.
I think in addition to having that quantitative framework, you need a way to understand why people are supporting you. I think that goes back to an organization’s mission and values.
Something that I am really proud that we do is have our journalism free to publish for kind of any news organization.
When you support us, you support Texas overall having a better news ecosystem. I think people, that resonates with people. I think understanding that resonates with people is really important, even if you cannot quantify it in that model I just talked about. To your question it is balancing the acquisition and retention, but also balancing the measurables and immeasurables.
Salz: I like that because that is exactly it, it is very holistic. It is about looking at what you can measure, and we will talk about that in a moment.
There are events, there are metrics, there are things you want to optimize too, but you also want to optimize the experience. That is thinking about the people, the audience, what resonates with them, what did they appreciate?
Now I would love for you to unpack that. Maybe you can give an example, walk us through the homepage because that is where the conversions happen. That is where the conversations happen.
Tran: Yes, so let me just pull up my homepage for you. This is The Texas Tribune homepage. There are two things on here already that I can talk through that we just launched within the past year during my time at the Tribune.
So this navbar is something we launched and what you’re seeing here, by the way, these little green numbers are live audience data. We use Parse.ly for this so we can see in the last 10 minutes or whatever time period, what people are clicking on. We can see what is of interest, what is resonating with people, that will inform, not necessarily decide, what we choose to feature.
Going back to what I was saying, about our two teams, the data visuals team, which is in the newsroom and then the engineering team. This navbar was code that was in a previous, I think it was in an election page, a way for us to highlight different topics on that page. We ended up pulling that code and the engineering team made it a part of our core CMS.
So we took something that was a one-off, we learned about how people used it and then saw a need for it. There are so many coronavirus stories that we did not know how to surface all the different lines and angles. We knew that we had the code. We took it and then the engineering team built that feature into our CMS. Now editors can just choose their own topics each day and highlight the most important. I think that is a great example of the culture of experimentation, it is a culture of learning and iterating.
When the most people are on our homepage, we want to optimize for the most important things that they should see.
That was one quick way that we did that. Another way is this coronavirus in Texas model you will see here.
I think the beauty in all of this again, is the flexibility and adaptability. It’s actually not a coronavirus in Texas model. It is a model to feature any kind of series that we choose.
You can imagine this not being here. If you are scrolling through, it would take so long to see all the relevant stories in one place. This in itself is such a great product because it does a lot of things. It gives you the latest coverage in a very skimmable way. So you are not having to scroll so deep because most people don’t, and again, that is understanding the audience behavior and making it a better product, given that information. We also have feature coverage, so it is not just chronological, it is our editorial priorities.
I talked about newsletter subscribers and having that module there is really important to us because if we can get people to subscribe to our newsletters, they can become part of our email universe and therefore eventually hopefully become a member.
Salz: Absolutely. You can re-engage with them and talking about engagement you have some other modules that you were showing me in prep that I was very interested in. How you turned a news story into a module. Can you walk me through that as well?
Tran: Yes, absolutely. This is a story that we did, late last year about how Texas has made it easier and harder for people to vote in the pandemic.
You will see if you notice the order here. This was not the original order and what we did was make sure that we were tracking what people were clicking on, so we can get a sense of what people needed to know most. We ended up moving that question about when was the last day to register to vote first. And again, I think that’s just being responsive to reader needs, working with our newsroom, working with our engineering team, working with our data visuals team to really have an integrated news driven, but reader informed product. And you’ll also see here there’s fiscal support, right?
So April Hinkle who’s our chief revenue officer was able to take it to market and get funding for it. Again, this is just one way that we really tied in, the newsroom, product and revenue.
Salz: You more than doubled your views to the homepage in just one month.
So you went from 400,000 in February to more than a million in March, obviously breaking news, very important. We’re all talking about COVID, but that number is also consistent. So you keep them coming back. We talked about how that works when there’s news, breaking news, but of course it’s not a static world out there.
So I’d like to understand how you adjust to make the changes in the editorial product accordingly to keep that number as high as it is.
Tran: We found that our readers who visit the homepage are just also more engaged with us, right? They’re more loyal. They visit an average of 2.3 pages versus 1.4 of all visitors on site. They stay on the site for longer to 2 minutes, 45 seconds compared to 1 minute and 10 seconds for all visitors.
So they are more engaged. They’re reading more, they’re staying longer. So I really want to retain this audience. If this goes down, that would be a huge red flag to me because there are people who have come to, I would say, depend on us.
So I think it’s one, meeting that editorial promise and mission. And then two, it’s about making that experience better. And that’s all the things we talked through about making the homepage, you get more information in one glance, it’s fast. Speed matters in page loads.
And going back to your very first question about alignment between news and products, that’s one way to bring together that news promise and also making the best product experience for that person looking for information.
Salz: Of course, there’s another side to this. There are the challenges, you see it everywhere. Local newsrooms are crunched, even closing down. I’d like to have an understanding about the investment and staffing necessary to achieve what you’ve been able to do.
Tran: I’ll always say that it begins like starts and ends with the journalism, but I think just as important is having the kind of architecture and infrastructure to support that journalism.
So I think it’s really important to invest just as much in the scaffolding around the journalism to enable that journalism, with a continued focus on the reader and I think it’s important to say also the revenue.
And in terms of investment, we’re hiring two people right now for our marketing team because that marketing function actually serves several parts of the organization.
It serves our republishing strategy. It serves our event strategy, which has a direct line to revenue. And it serves our membership strategy, which has a line to revenue. Thinking about all the things that make things you see at the back end possible is really important. So that’s where we’re focusing our investments for this year.
Salz: I’d like to just think about going forward in a different way. You talk about holistic product and I’m looking at this all the time, what is the next big thing? Although I have to say we have a lot of work to do on the existing products we have.
We haven’t really nailed it in apps, but we are talking about AR, we are talking about voice, both are poised for explosive growth.
So let’s talk about what other innovations you might be looking at or ways you want to make your product or plan to make your product more engaging, more accessible, and increase of course engagement retention in the process. What’s on the horizon?
Tran: You mentioned AR, that’s definitely not in my roadmap. But voice on the other hand, that is more plausible.
With voice for example we have a pretty robust suite of audio products already. We just rebooted Point of Order which is our podcast with our CEO, Evan Smith ahead of The Texas Legislature being in session again. So I think it’s about aligning what we have currently to build off on and then really sizing the opportunity for us. Again, I’m really laser focused on understanding the ROI of every investment, predicting and modeling the outcomes of that. And I think in doing that you’re balancing high risk with high reward. And I think not everything will fall into that. But you also don’t want to limit yourself in not taking those risks. So anyway, to your actual question… I’m thinking about all of it and hoping that we can make the smartest decisions that aligns with our strategy, with the information we have.
Salz: I think you will, because of course you have these very specific guidelines. You’re thinking about people, you’re thinking about process, and you’re aligning to create a holistic experience. Some of these will play a role. Some of them, of course, maybe not. But all of it will be very interesting to watch as it goes forward.
Thank you so much for sharing Millie, for speaking about what you’re doing at The Texas Tribune, showing it as well in your homepage and giving us a little peek into where your thinking is going into the future. Thanks again for being on.
Tran: Thank you so much Peggy. This was great.
Salz: Thank you. And of course, thank you for tuning in and taking the time today. In the meantime, of course, be sure to check out all the great content here on digitalcontentnext.org or join the conversation on Twitter @DCNorg.
So until next time, I’m your host Peggy Anne Salz signing off for Digital Content Next.
Remember the success of the Gameboy? It’s been 30 years since the first version came out in 1989, and Nintendo waited five years before releasing the next iteration of the product, The Super Game Boy, in 1994. This is a far cry from the pace of output of today’s Fortnite, which creates new missions on a weekly basis. Earlier this month, the release of its latest season was followed in real time around the world.
It’s the new speed of change. Facebook went from a Harvard-only site founded in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room to a million-member social network available on mobile phones within two years. The first Uber ride was given in San Francisco in 2010; by 2011, the company had launched its international presence in Paris. Instagram grew so quickly that it was bought by Facebook within two years of its release.
The pace of innovation has exploded over the past few years and shows no signs of slowing down. And this is not just change for change’s sake. This acceleration is a response to customer, market, and technology changes, and it’s an exciting time for both consumers and product developers.
Keeping up with customers
However, it also means that companies can no longer take half a decade to develop their next product. In a world of such rapid-fire change, customers have come to expect products that evolve and change along with them. This means that companies that want to stay ahead of the market not only have to move fast, but they also have to realize that the race is never over. For companies to stay relevant to their customers, they have to excel at, and embrace, rapid fire change.
Amazon is the classic example of this. Over the course of 25 years, Jeff Bezos’s trillion-dollar company evolved from being a bookstore for Seattle residents housed in a garage to our go-to online retailer and the producer of some of our most popular entertainment content. Bezos’s success lies in a certain kind of humility. He has a constant willingness to tweak his business model. He has not allowed any one path, design, product or program to be sacred. Instead, he listens to his customers and excels at creating the changes they crave, which in turn creates better business outcomes for Amazon.
Gaming the system
Back to Fortnite. Part of the reason players find Fortnite so addictive is because it renews itself a few times a year. Each new update is called a “season” and introduces a new map and new items for players to use. We couldn’t have imagined these game-changing forms of advertising a few years ago. And they only exist because the developers behind Fortnite are constantly looking for new ways to enhance the user experience. They find ways to push the boundaries of what players expect and redefine what “gaming” means.
Other tech innovators have embraced similar tactics. Netflix and Spotify, for instance, not only keep users hooked by updating their content libraries regularly, but also by generating their own content, like original shows and playlists. Delivery apps like Grubhub and Postmates keep their eye out for new restaurants to ensure that customers have access to the food they want when they want it. Apple’s ongoing revisions ensure that we buy a new iPhone every few years to keep up. Harris Teeter allows customers to shop for groceries, place catering orders and reorder prescriptions on their mobile app.
Change your mindset
So what does this mean for your company? It means you have to adopt The Product Mindset, with change becoming an integral part of the way your company operates. The most successful companies don’t fund research and development on a case-by-case basis. They incorporate it into their annual and monthly budgets, the same way they budget for sales or HR. That way, when a competitor releases a new model, or when research reveals unexpected consumer needs, a company is ready to respond. Its teams don’t need to wait for endless approvals or push forward on obsolete or ineffective initiatives.
At first, this might sound overwhelming, even exhausting. We’re wired to appreciate certainty and clarity. If the product is never done, instability and change become the new normal. But with that instability and change comes opportunity – the opportunity to deliver on consumer desires more rapidly and effectively than ever before. And the good news is that any company, no matter its size or industry, can embrace this approach. All it takes is the humility to accept that there’s always room for improvement and the courage to chase that improvement, wherever it might lead.
In today’s digital economy, all businesses are software businesses – especially content-focused businesses like digital publishing. With a wide range of apps and platforms all competing for consumer loyalty, companies that would have never called themselves tech companies are now engaging with developers and innovators to maintain customer engagement. Understanding what drives successful product development is critical to achieving growth.
One of these key realities is that product management is not the same thing as project management.
Whenever 3Pillar advertises for a product manager, the majority of the resumes we receive will inevitably be from project managers. However, these are vastly different jobs. And hiring for them as if they are the same is one of the biggest mistakes a company can make.
In product development, the product manager should be responsible for the “what,” the “why” and the high-level “when.” However, the project manager should be responsible for the “who,” the “how,” and a more detailed “when.”
Building a railroad
Let’s use the analogy of a railroad: The product manager is the person responsible for deciding that a railroad is the right solution for the problem of getting people from point A to point B. The product manager also charts the course to navigate the terrain. He or she determines where the train will go and what stops it should make and the route taken including questions like whether it should go over or through the mountains.
A product manager also prioritizes the sequencing of railways between stations. Perhaps he or she determines that New York to Boston is the most critical route. Only after that’s finished and operational should the railroad build a track to San Francisco.
Project managers, on the other hand, are responsible for laying the tracks and making the trains run on time. In product development, a project manager plays this role. They are responsible for the internal operations of the train: how fast the train goes down the track, what fuel it uses and what parts need to be replaced.
Finding the best
In the big picture, product managers are responsible for maintaining the long-term product roadmap and defining the product vision, while the project manager is responsible for managing the team’s day-to-day activities.
The best product managers inherently have these four key areas of responsibility:
Product strategy: Setting the vision and determining how to get there.
Product roadmap: Managing and prioritizing the backlog of features, defining them and making associated trade-off decisions.
Product releases: Setting what features will be delivered to the customer and coordinating all aspects and interdepartmental dependencies.
Product ideation: Running the ideation process, collecting feedback and data, analyzing that data, thinking creatively, curating new ideas and promoting the most relevant ones into the backlog as features.
Product managers do each of these things (and many more) because they understand that they can’t build a product, pass it off to a project manager, and call it a day. That’s because product management – like product development – is never done.
To give a real-world example of the difference between the two, imagine we’re talking about the team behind a fitness app like Fitbit. The product manager would be responsible for deciding that users would benefit from a series of video tutorials based on the type of workout a user wanted (Fitbit users might recognize this as Fitbit Coach). Once a decision had been made to go in that direction, the project manager would be responsible for working with the team to design, implement, and test those changes in the expected timeframe.
Of course, in mature organizations with a product mentality, you won’t find a project manager on most teams. Instead, engineering managers typically take on the project management tasks that are actually applicable to the environment.
Product management and project management, working in concert, are essential.
This starts with adopting a company-wide foundational mindset that doesn’t focus on antiquated IT thinking, which separates teams by function. Instead, this modern mindset focuses on common goals and making sure all members of the company understand the “big picture.”
In today’s increasingly digital world, this means engineers, designers, marketers and finance working alongside product managers to build software that directly addresses the customer’s wants, stays ahead of the changing market, and ultimately drives revenue and profit back to the company. At 3Pillar, we call this the Product Mindset, and it drives how we approach every digital product we work on.
Great project managers are an indispensable part of a successful company. But you have to start with great product management. This is how you will be able to innovate and ultimately disrupt digital publishing markets and grow market share. Content is important — but product is king.
About the author
David DeWolf is CEO of 3Pillar Global and co-author of “The Product Mindset: Succeed in the Digital Economy by Changing the Way Your Organization Thinks.”
The fight for talent is on all over the world. Companies need more engineering, product, user experience, QA automation, and developers than they can find and incorporate in their business. In a recent 3Pillar survey, a third of global services decision makers said they used outside partners because they didn’t have the right kind of developers or that their developers didn’t have the right skills to get the job done.
More than ever, companies are bringing in outside help to serve their customers and hit their business objectives. This is a smart move. Most organizations don’t have the resources to hire and retain the talent needed to do this in-house, and it may take too long to hire a person at a time when what’s really needed is a team. The reality is that most companies will better achieve their goals by partnering with those with a diversity of experience.
No matter what “Agile process” you use, working
with a partner who understands the fundamental principles that make digital
products successful can help your company create new revenue, increase your
customer base and spur innovation.
This starts with
transitioning from an outdated “IT mindset” to a “Product Mindset.” This means
adopting a way of thinking that ensures that people at every level of an
organization are making the most effective, data-driven decisions with a shared
goal in mind. The most successful agile organizations are ones that are
applying these three core principles to make the most of their software
1.Minimize Time to Value
Most products fail
because the team runs out of money and support before the product starts to
bring in revenue or serve customers.
Value only exists in the
hands of customers. Put the smallest solution to their biggest problems in
their hands, monetize it, and learn what to do next. A successful digital
product is one that creates dollars, instead of saving pennies.
Partnering with an
external technology provider can help agile organizations create a product that
furthers learning and starts earning revenue quickly.
2.Solve for Need
Every day, consumers
choose certain digital products while failing to choose others. A company must
deliver what the customers want and need most, so that customers continually
choose to pay for what the company is offering.
Many companies are
driven by internal forces. This could mean building products based on what
management is asking for or products that reflect what they think
Co-creating with a
development partner that prioritizes solving for need can challenge a company’s
entrenched thinking and push back against “requirements.” This kind of
partnership will ultimately generate new ideas and can help companies focus on
outcomes, instead of attempting to solve challenging technical problems.
Technical problems are often an impediment to releasing a successful digital
3.Excel at Change
Great digital products
are never done. Companies must embrace changing customer needs and a changing
marketplace in order to succeed in the digital economy. Often, having an
outside partner can spur agile organizations to be more adaptable to change.
This may mean
implementing vital elements such as continuous integration/continuous
development, automated testing, and development and operations. It may also
mean adoption of new tools or new technologies, like robotic process automation
or virtual reality.
enable technology management to be more adaptable. Software leaders often tell
us that their firm’s sourcing policies and contracting rules slow them down.
They want to try out interesting software from new providers or an open source community
but must wait while their procurement colleagues argue about what are, in their
opinion, unimportant legal details. An outside partner that pushes to keep
change at the forefront, however, can play a critical role in a company’s
Partnering with a
software development company that has product-oriented and outcome-driven goals
can accelerate the successful delivery of digital products, and help agile
organizations compete and win in the digital economy.
The shift to abundance is a very well-known trend in the media industry, and something that most publishers are struggling with. But the dynamics behind this trend are not unique. As soon as you get too much choice in a market, it starts to split in in two very different directions.
The Supermarket Effect
One direction is what I call the “supermarket effect,” where you focus on building scale with content that covers people’s general needs. This works great if you are big publisher, because then you can use your size to drive revenue, even though the value per article is extremely low.
But this is also where the problem is. Because, if your editorial strategy is to be a supermarket, being small just doesn’t work. There is no market for a smaller supermarket.
This is the problem we now see in the media. Most publishers have traditionally been centered around creating “packages of random content,” which, fundamentally, means the they are designed to be a supermarket of content. This worked great for a while. But in today’s world of abundance, it puts a lot of pressure on smaller publishers.
The Local Papers
We see this very clearly when we look at local newspapers (especially outside the larger US cities). Think of it like this: A local newspaper is like a small grocery store with a little bit of everything for the local community. And for many years, it was the go to place for everyone in its community. But imagine what happens when, one day, Amazon opens a Whole Foods store next door.
The answer is obvious, the smaller local store is outcompeted.
Being local is no longer viable, because you can’t compete with Amazon’s many advantages of being able to offer more items, at lower prices, with bigger marketing budgets, Amazon Prime, and a hugely scalable back-end logistic system.
We can see this in play when with companies like Meredith acquire Time Inc. Their strategy is to become a bigger supermarket by consolidating not just how many publications their own, but also how they work. And, as a strategy, this is a good approach if they can build up enough scale.
The Selective Approach
But this isn’t the only way to win the future. Another way is to become the opposite of a supermarket of content … which is to “get picked.”
People use supermarkets when they are just filling their daily needs without really thinking too much. So, the opposite of this is to get people to think and to choose to spend time with you. To do this we have to change the way we exist as publishers. Instead of focusing our editorial strategies around creating packages of content, we must start to build publishing products that people can (and will) pick.
Let me give you an example.
Most traditional magazines do reviews, but they are not designed for people who have a specific need. Instead, they are just published like any other article. This is not what people want when they are looking for a review. There is a very big difference between people who just sit down and flip through pages (or randomly come across links on Facebook), and people who are actually looking for answers. So, what we see now are companies like The WireCutter, which was created in 2011 by Brian Lam, to be a new type of review site that only focused on bringing you very high-end and very detailed reviews.
And look at what has happened. Because The Wirecutter designed itself around people when they need a review, they have become the destination for people to go to when they want to figure out what products to buy.
This is the difference between just having a “supermarket” editorial focus where the reviews are just another random story and having a “product” editorial focus where the content is designed to solve a specific need.
Product Makes Perfect
And this also applies to many other things. For instance, a traditional fitness magazine often has a wide-ranging selection of stories about health, nutrition, and exercise, but there is no real goal or structure to them.
Then look at the digital native publishers. They are not creating random articles. Instead, they are building fitness publishing products. They offer you actual training, they create meal plans for you, and they actively help you achieve your health goals.
Consider business publications: Are you just giving business people random news? Or are you helping them do their job better? Are you providing them with content, data, and insights that they can put to work?
On YouTube, for instance, YouTube itself is the “supermarket of random videos.” And, because of this, every single YouTuber knows that the only way to be successful on YouTube is to instead do something that people will specifically pick. So, every YouTube channel is defined around a very narrow focus, because you need that to create something for people to connect with.
YouTubers know that you can’t be a supermarket within a supermarket. Meaning, you can’t just give people a little bit of everything in a place where there is already a lot of everything.
This is now the reality of the media.
A few larger publishers will attempt to become the modern supermarkets of publishing and they may succeed. But next to this is another marketplace, where individual publishers create publishing “products” that are designed to be picked. The kind of specialty places that they turn to when they have a more defined moment and want something specific.
This is your challenge for the future. What will you do to get picked?
Thomas Baekdal is a media analyst and publisher of Baekdal Plus.
Want people to pay for your content? It’s simple: Get to know their needs, and create content experiences that meet them. That may sound simple but as Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) success shows, it takes a lot of work to get it right.
Josh Macht, Harvard Business Review Group Publisher, describes their process as an on-going conversation with customers. These days, that means finding multiple ways to interact with not only HBR’s 285,500 paying subscribers, but also the 5 million people in its database. These interactions take place through live events, in-depth querying of the 19k members of its advisory group, and a significant investment in analytics. Macht says HBR has become “increasingly scientific with data and analytics on the backend” but that all of these approaches in tandem are what provides them with the ability to design products users not only want—but are willing to pay for.
Vice President of Marketing Sarah McConville describes it as a Venn diagram where the ideal subscription offer is conceived of at the intersection of content, format and audience. “Obviously, it all starts with producing high quality content that our readers find valuable and we are always thinking about how we can continue to stay on the cutting edge of business research and thought,” she says. McConville also points out the many ways that HBR has expanded their format over the past five years—from its redesigned website, to a magazine redesign that’s in the works, as well as its print and ebooks, digital tools and events. Emphasizing the role that audience understanding plays in the company’s subscription strategy, she also notes HBR’s “significant investment in understanding our readers through audience research, website and social behavior analytics, and targeted discrete research.”
The clearest example of both the product development and subscription strategy emerging from this process is HBR’s Visual Library, which made its official debut in June. It allows paid subscribers to access a continually expanding collection of HBR’s charts, infographics, and fully customizable slide decks. The product came about after customer research revealed how many users rely on HBR information for their own presentations and the value of making that process easier for them. Both the research and new offering have paid off: On the day the Visual Library was announced (via its 5-million strong database), it became the second most trafficked page on the site, almost immediately triggering renewals by a slew of previous subscribers who had not yet re-upped. And the Visual Library generated more than buzz and renewals; it brought in new subscribers at an increased subscription price.
“What we’re trying to do is not take the approach of ‘add more, pay more,’” says McConville. “Instead, we try to find the right combination of elements that justifies a higher price.” She points out that as the print-to-digital migration has evolved, we’ve seen readers go from a wiliness to pay for, say, a tablet edition in addition to print to “merging the value of digital and print together.” To charge a premium, she says today’s content consumers demand more than format, they need tools that allow them to leverage the content in ways that “save them time and gives them confidence.”
Macht recognizes that, given the media industry’s increasing concern over the volatility of the advertising market, a wide range of publications are considering subscription offerings. However he also identifies a significant hurdle standing in the way of their success: “Though they say they want to get into the subscription business, they are still in the ad business. A dual focus is really difficult to support.” Unfortunately, many of the underlying requirements in driving the views necessary to support an ad-supported model run counter to those of developing a robust subscription business.
Macht knows firsthand how challenging these internal cultural shifts can be, pointing out that “way back when I first joined, we needed to open up the funnel, but the DNA of the organization was ‘we sell everything so we can’t give it away.’ But we didn’t have a pulse on the web.” Years later HBR is flourishing online both at its site, which boasts 5 million visitors a month, and through its 6 million social media fans and followers. This year’s new website design was accompanied by a redesigned freemium model. Now anonymous users can access five free articles a month, and if they register—making them a more highly addressable audience—they can access up to 15. HBR has also opened up the site content and toolset to those registered users for July and August, which has already doubled the daily average of people registering.
Then the process of getting to know these recently registered people to subscribe begins in earnest. And that, as Macht and McConville will affirm, is not just about conversion, it’s about an ongoing conversation.