January 12, 2021

Publishers Recognizing the Need for Better Product and User Experience


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The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released its latest report, Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2021. The entire report is a deep dive into how leaders at media companies around the world are thinking about the media business. Topics included subscriptions, government support, and the debate around platforms giving money.

A theme throughout the report was this notion that digital transformation was accelerating and that there was an increasing need for publishers to improve their product and user experiences.

We like to say that the product of a media company is the content. And in many respects, that is true. But how a visitor is served that content is important. If people can’t find the information they want or the site is impossibly slow because of bad technology or bloated ad load, we’re failing them. That can have a serious impact on long-term growth.

The culprit for this digital transformation acceleration? Covid-19. According to the report:

It has become something of a cliché to talk about Covid-19 as an accelerator but in this year’s survey, editors, CEOs, and other senior leaders have given us a practical insight into what this has meant for them. More than three-quarters of our sample (76%) say the pandemic has sped up plans for digital transformation and respondents say change breaks down into a number of areas: changes to working practices; to journalism and formats; to business models; and to the way media companies think about innovation.

This makes a lot of sense. What I’ve found interesting about this is that the energy to innovate existed at media companies all along. But it took a major disaster to really kick it into gear. What was the worst that could happen that would be worse than Covid? In April, I wrote about the need for experimentation at media companies:

When business is stable, many companies get comfortable and don’t innovate. As I said a few weeks ago, during this crisis, we have to adapt. New business models may evolve. And ultimately, we need to experiment with new ideas. You never know what might become a future line of business.

However, it’s easy to say this when there’s a crisis. The question is whether media companies will retain this innovative approach to doing work. Or, when things start getting good again, will we start to rest on our laurels? For an industry that is used to putting up a new homepage every single day, it’s pretty disastrous how slow we are with trying new things otherwise.

Going forward, publishers are going to need to invest more in people that can help connect the pieces across multiple departments. According to the report, 93% of people recognize the importance of a product role at their company.

In this respect, our survey confirms the importance of ‘translation roles’ such as the product manager – a job title imported from Silicon Valley – which takes a lead in shaping new initiatives and orchestrating agile delivery.

More than nine in ten (93%) now recognise the importance of this role, but many feel that those doing the job often lack the right skills (54%) and less than half think it is well understood (43%).

For many media companies managing innovation remains a difficult and frustrating process. Finding ways to break down silos and get the best out of multi-disciplinary teams will be critical as publishers look to add agility. Product managers help bring an evidence-based approach to the process of deciding which opportunities to pursue and a user-centred approach to delivery.

A translator is a good way to describe these people. When I was a business analyst/PM, a mentor of mine would say, “you need to know business enough to speak to executives and technology enough to speak to developers. And then you facilitate conversation between the two.”

Good PMs are able to bring together multiple participants, distill the information, and then help identify the right decision.

Another thing… there is a difference between product managers and program managers. In my podcast with Julia Beizer, she said:

A big mistake that media companies make is that they hire product managers because they need someone to “get stuff done.” But as Julia explained, “everyone can get stuff done.”

What companies are actually looking for is a project or program manager. This is a person who is very focused on the delivery of certain features or initiatives getting out the door.

Product management is more expansive. These are people that sit at the intersection of competing business interests: user needs, commercial interests, editorial vision, and resources. Product managers synthesize all of these ideas and figure out the best thing to do.

I really think this distinction is important to understand. A program manager will help you launch things. A product manager will identify what thing should be done. They’re both important, but it’s important to recognize where they are different.

What will also likely come from this is an appreciation for what the audience needs. That’s a core constituent that product managers are used to talking with that publishers forget. Too often, publishers focus only on what content they should give consumers rather than understanding how they want to consume it. According to the Reuters report:

Many of our survey respondents felt this was the year to put more emphasis on the core experience of websites and apps themselves, which increasingly lags behind consumer expectations. ‘Publishing in general has a lot of basic catching up to do on ease of use, customer service, etc.’, said one publisher that has been involved in subscriptions for many years. ‘The benchmark is Amazon and Netflix. It’s no use having AI recommendations if people can’t easily log in, pause subscriptions, or change billing details.’ Others point to poor user experience overall and the need to focus more on interaction and visual design: ‘We believe that design has great potential to improve user experience, engagement, and subscriber lifecycle’, notes Goetz Hamann, Head of Digital Editions at Die Zeit. ‘News organisations have to learn from digital pure plays and the consumer industry how to add value through design.’

Please… Please… Please. We spend so much time creating exceptional content, but then we put it out on a website that is impossible to read. I was on a website yesterday and the story continued to inch to left pixel by pixel because a 160×600 was pushing out from the left edge of the screen. Tthe ad was jittery, so the entire site suffered from it.

More publishers will hopefully take a lesson from what Dotdash has accomplished over the past few years. In my podcast with Neil Vogel, we discussed the ad strategy at the company:

We all have been to that website that causes the fans on our laptops to go into overdrive. Whether it’s popups, pre-rolls, interstitials… You name it, we’ve likely all experienced it.

Dotdash bet that by reducing the number of ads on the site—2/3rds of what their competitors might have—that the sites would load faster and that would make people happier. That, in turn, would result in people engaging with the content and ads more.

There’s a reason Google has made page speed and ad load part of the ranking factors for its algorithm. People do not want to wait around. They want to access the information quickly and then decide what to do from there. If you’re unsure where to spend your time on improving site speed, I wrote this article for you.

A good user experience is good audience development. You can spend as much time and energy as you want to try to get users to your site, but if you give them a bad experience, they’re going to bounce. If the survey respondents were honest with themselves, perhaps we’ll start to see better experiences.

Other odds and ends

The entire report is worth looking at if you have the time, but there were a few other pieces that were interesting to me:

  • Revenue diversification is becoming increasingly important. In the survey, commercial publishers cited, “on average, four different revenue streams as being important or very important to them this year.”
  • There is a belief among media companies that many of the same people that left in 2020 to launch their own newsletters will return to mainstream media because of “the pressure of having to come up with the goods day after day.” Yup.
  • There is a debate on how platforms should pay pubs… 48% of respondents say it should be based on the quality of news content with only a minority receiving money. 32% say it should be based on audience engagement on the platforms.
  • Confidence is high, which is exciting to hear. 73% of respondents say “they are confident about their company’s prospects for the year ahead.” Nearly half, though, are not confident about the future of journalism.

That last point is what I want to end on because I fundamentally believe that if we do a good job at giving users a great experience and product, our businesses will thrive. Yes, we are competing with behemoths for user attention. But we are to blame for many of our problems. If we start taking seriously the relationship with the reader, then I agree with the survey: many media businesses will thrive.