April 23, 2021
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Remove Friction From The Experience

Over the past few weeks, I have been interviewing candidates for a product manager role. And I’ve been thinking about the role of product in the media company because it’s different than most other companies.

At a tech company, the product is the thing that people buy. And product managers are the people responsible for owning the business strategy of a specific product and help launch it. For example, at Twitter, there are likely multiple product managers for Spaces.

At media companies, though, the product is different. The content and journalism is the actual product. Everything else is secondary to the actual content.

What do I mean by this?

If you have horrible content, there is no amount of fancy app or website that is going to make up for it. At the end of the day, the reason people are coming to our properties is that the content is good. They either want to be entertained or learn something.

That’s why I always struggle when the very first department to see cuts is the editorial team. It’s the absolute last place you should be cutting. Other departments at the company are not as critical to your long-term success as the people that create the actual product—in this case, the content.

However, let’s assume that the content is great. You’ve got a strong team serving your audience and you’re helping your readers by contextualizing the latest news. Yet, the actual experience on the site is positively atrocious. Or, if the experience is okay, you make things difficult when the user tries to do business with you.

A good example that I was thinking about the other day is The Wall Street Journal. I don’t yet have a subscription to a general business news publication and I thought maybe the Journal would be a good idea. But a thought popped into my head as I was getting ready to subscribe. I’m not sure what the inception of it was, but I knew that if I ever wanted to unsubscribe, I would have to jump through hoops—aka, call them—to cancel my subscription.

Suddenly, I hesitated. The sign up process was going to be relatively painless. Put in some information about myself, add my credit card, and voila, I would have a subscription. And they were dangling all sorts of trials to make the first few months as inexpensive as possible. But I knew that if I didn’t want it anymore, the amount of friction I’d experience trying to cancel would be unreal.

Now compare that with subscribing to Netflix. It is just as easy—if not easier—to become a member of Netflix. And if you want to cancel, it is equally as easy. There is no phone number and there are no hoops to jump through. Instead, I am able to easily leave.

Why is this a big deal? Obviously we don’t want our customers to leave because that means there is a reduction in revenue.

It boils down to the complete customer life cycle and relationship. That starts with the subscription. And obviously, we want to keep them from churning as long as possible. However, I don’t believe the customer relationship ends when they unsubscribe. It might be paused for the time being, but there are still two possible outcomes.

The first is that they one day return to becoming a paid subscriber. This has happened here at AMO. I’ve had people unsubscribe because they changed jobs and the cost was too high to pay on their own. But when they got the chance, they signed up again.

The second is that every current and previous customer is a prospective testimonial for you even if you don’t ask them to be. It’s called word of mouth. If the customer had a good experience signing up, consuming, and then unsubscribing, they might say something. But if they had a horrible experience at some point in that life cycle, they are definitely more likely to say something. Why risk that previous reader saying something negative?

I’m obviously focusing on The Wall Street Journal’s unsubscription process, but this isn’t the only type of friction that exists in media.

One example is the actual subscription process. Have you ever visited a page and it asks for every single piece of personal information imaginable? You finally get to the end, you put your credit card in, and then the page lags out. Everything you’ve input has been lost and you have to start all over again.

A mistake that we make that eCommerce companies don’t is we don’t optimize our paywalls. More specifically, we don’t try to find ways to make it a cleaner and more optimal experience. Visit your average, legacy b2b media company and the subscription process is atrocious.

Look at the majority of SaaS products out there. It’s so seamless to sign up. How does your subscription compare? We need to make it as easy to sign up as possible. That means asking the right things, not every thing. That also means having a payment processor that works.

Another example has to do with the overall user experience. I poke fun at Forbes a lot, but for good reason. I know when I have a Forbes page up because my computer’s fans tell me. On a given page, there are a half dozen ads including outstream video, high impact push downs (that are also also sticky), plus a couple of other units. I would wager that 20% of my screen is available to the article.

I get it… they’ve got a business to run. But it is unbelievably difficult to get to the content because of this. I find myself avoiding Forbes as much as I can. Obviously, I am the exception based on the 100 million visits they get each month (according to SimilarWeb). But for many of us, we’re not Forbes. We can’t run the risk of losing a certain percentage of our audience.

Ultimately, while the content might be great and we’re pleased with what we’re creating, if we make it impossible to do business with us because of added friction, people are going to avoid it.

So what do we do?

One simple approach to determining where friction exists on your site is to be an actual customer of your own business. Role play a little. Go through the exercise of subscribing to a newsletter. Pull out your credit card and become a paying customer. Try to unsubscribe. Listen to your fans when the ads load and then try to read the article.

Write down all of the areas where you found friction. Maybe the newsletter form is slow loading or asks too many questions. Or, maybe the page subscription page lags out. You realize that you can’t actually read the article because you’ve got ads refreshing every five seconds, causing the page to jump around.

Those are the areas for improvement. That’s what you need to fix. By starting with the things that you’ve identified as problematic, you can improve the experience considerably for your readers. By reducing that friction, the business should get stronger.

A good example of this is Dotdash. The team made the controversial decision to reduce the number of ads on a given page. This helped increase the page speed, which made people happy. By fixing the user experience, they now earn more money with fewer ads.

While content is the part customers are actually showing up for, we still have a responsibility to deliver it in a clean experience. Run through your site, see how things behave, and then start removing the friction. It will result in growth to your business even if your instinct says it won’t.

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