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WAN IFRA – Product Thinking in Digital News

13 MAR Wednesday 14:00 Asia/Kolkata
Duration :
30 minute(s)
Wan Ifra Event
Block Pattern: Regular

WAN-IFRA hosted Digital Media India 2024, and I was asked to give a talk on Product Thinking in Digital News. This is a fairly vast topic and I have a lot to share on this topic but had to condense it into a 20-minute talk. 🤔 Therefore, in the talk, I chose to focus on product strategy (shaping the product) over all other aspects related to product management because that’s one area where news companies need to excel.


What is Product Management (in Theory)

The product organization acts as the central nervous system of the company.

The product organization within your company is a decision-making institution that is focused on identifying, digesting, and simplifying complexity so that it can optimize, if not amplify, the business impact of all other teams — Technology, Editorial, Data Science — using experiment-driven development.

When do you require a product team

Sidu Ponnappa

“Have you ever felt that nothing is really moving? Nobody knows the answer to this question. Everyone is working hard. You see people everywhere slogging diligently. But nothing is moving. No one has any answers.”

Invest in a product team when your value creators can’t deliver value to customers.

Shipping Problem: As the company becomes a behemoth, the complexity grows to a level… where you start feeling that nothing is moving

Shaping Problem: You’ve business goals or problems to solve but aren’t sure what is the best options (ideas) to consider.

How does a product team help

Its job is to provide clarity, coherence, and direction to cross-functional teams so everyone is working towards growing specific business metrics.

Frederick P. Brooks from No Silver Bullet, 1986

“I believe the hard part of building software to be the specification, design, and testing of this conceptual construct, not the labor of representing it and testing the fidelity of the representation. We still make syntax errors, to be sure; but they are fuzz compared with the conceptual errors in most systems.”

How should you structure your product team

To staff the product organization, you’ll need to hire: Chief Product Officer, Product Manager, Program Manager, Product Analytics Manager, and Product Owner.

  • A common response is that my organization doesn’t have these roles!
  • However, it is unlikely. Someone is performing these tasks, even if they are called something else. Without these functions, a modern technology operation cannot survive.
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How does it feel when Product Management works

  • Users can articulate for themselves that they are better off with your product and they don’t want to return to old ways.
  • In measurable terms, the product has improved in relevance, information, capability, things done, belief, or pleasure while reducing price, time and effort required to use it.
  • Finally, it would be great if users find it brag-worthy to boast about using it.

We struggle to employ Product Management

We run digital businesses with best practices that are ideal for offline businesses.

We divide the business into smaller, manageable, autonomous divisions, similar to how Unilever functions as a house of brands. On top of that:

  1. Each business leader operates the business through best practices or business rules (IF THEN).
  2. Each business leader brings in their own preferences of how to do things.
  3. Finally, the greater the number of divisions, the higher the cost of collaboration across divisions.

Most product teams do project management (services mindset).

Product Managers do not shape the product; instead, they focus on serving management by shipping features as quickly as possible. Over time, the codebase becomes unshapely and messy. This, in turn, makes the codebase fragile and slows down execution.

Outcome

Unlike offline businesses, highly scalable digital businesses —such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook— employ self-learning AI models because AI Surpasses Humans on Micro Decision Making At Scale.

  • These models revenue maximize the portfolio of offerings.
  • Eventually efficiencies kick in as all offerings cost optimize at portfolio level.

However, it becomes impossible to adopt such AI if the organizational structure is divisional and the code base is fragile.


Hey, hold your horses 🏇

Pessimist View

We (news) are a commoditized business. We now need to convince users to pay for a service that was previously available free of cost. In the last 20 years, we have not had any sustaining innovation. Finally, we lack the R&D capabilities to make significant changes.

Hence, it is not possible.

Think again

We (news, Email and Calendar) are a commoditized business. We now need to convince users to pay for a service that was previously available free of cost. In the last 20 years, we have not had any sustaining innovation. Finally, we lack the R&D capabilities to make significant changes.

Yet, someone broke through Gmail’s incumbency with product thinking and without R&D chops.

Hey.com is successfully completing against Gmail

It does so by employing product management to redefine Email and Calendar:

Hey.com Email supports additional categories

Hey.com Calendar supports additional categories

  • Todo Management on Calendar
  • Time Tracking
  • Habit Tracking
  • Journaling

Users are happily paying for Hey.com even though Gmail is free.


Let’s apply Product Thinking in Digital News

Ideally, I should be covering all three aspects — shaping, shipping, and tracking. However, considering the length of the talk, I’ll focus on the most important part: shaping.

Why it matters: Despite massive technological changes, news and advertising remain fundamental human needs and won’t go away. So the question is, will we be the ones serving these needs? That’s why shaping becomes critical.

7 Jobs in journey towards Subscription

Provide more value

  • Break news first
  • Increase supply of content
  • Show only relevant content
  • Sell audiences for advertising granularly

Efficiently 

  • Reduce TIME to consume News
  • Reduce EFFORT to consume News

And then capture some value

Warning: Below are just ideas to demonstrate strategy shaping. Exact answers will vary for your organization.


1. Provide more value to users

1.1 Break news FIRST

What we do:

Since 2004, most news first breaks on the Internet and then trickles down to news websites. For example, approximately 69% of U.S. 🇺🇸 Twitter users get their news from Twitter.

What we should or could do:

Double down on investment in news gathering, including reporting, networks, UGC (user-generated content), etc.

1.2 Increase supply of VALUABLE CONTENT

What we do:

We operate in news category and publish content that was written or approved by our editorial teams.

What we should or could do:

News is a subset of Content. It is important that we shift categories to tap into new avenues of growth. To do this, we’ll have to invest in UGC and technology that speeds up verification of content.

Why shift categories?

  • Growth won’t come from news as a category. Assuming that NYT is pinnacle of success in news. NYT’s revenue is ~$2 billion. Adjusted for 🇮🇳 PPP, India revenue is $556 million =~ ₹5000 crore.
  • In comparison, content platforms like Twitter & YouTube have revenue of $3.3 billion and $31 billion.

Why invest in verification?

1.3 But serve only Relevant Content

What we do:

We continue to manually set homepages and serve the same homepage to everyone.

What we should or could do:

The internet has moved to algorithmic distribution, at scale, that maximizes revenue across a portfolio of offerings. The ROI of this is visible in the average time spent on site.

  • Twitter Avg. Time on Site 🇮🇳: 20 min
  • Instagram Avg. Time on Site 🇮🇳: 29 min
  • YouTube Avg. Time on Site 🇮🇳: 19 min
  • News Avg. Time on Site: Couple of minutes

Fun Fact: Amazon changes prices 2.5 million times a day!

1.4 Sell GRANULAR slices of audience to advertisers

What we do:

Most direct sales is a blocker display ad.

What we should or could do:

Inability to monetize advertisements as effectively as Google and Facebook is forcing the many businesses to consider Subscriptions as a business model.

However, advertisements is the bigger and market:

  • Largest Internet company that only charges subscription is Netflix with an ARR of $33 billion.
  • Google’s ad revenue is $237 billion and most of Meta’s revenue is from ads at $134 billion.

Given that, we should speed up data collection and sell granular slices of  audience. 


2. Provide more value to users Efficiently

2.1 Reduce user’s TIME to consume news

What we do:

In the last 20 years, most editorial product innovation resulted in us producing:

  • More stories
  • More data stories
  • More NYT-like immersive
  • Longer pieces

These have made it SLOWER to consume news

What we should or could do:

All evidence points to the direction that short-form content is winning online:

  • Axios, a news firm that focuses on Smart Brevity, was acquired for $525 million.
  • YouTube earns $31 billion in revenue, yet it is pushing Shorts.

Here’s why: One can derive gratification from purchasing collectible teapots, shoes, and clothes. However, to gain gratification from any media—be it OTT, theme parks, news, or books—one needs to invest both money and time to consume it. To expedite gratification, content should be in short form.

2.2 Reduce user’s EFFORT to consume news

What we do:

News products don’t hide read stories, forcing users to expend cognitive effort to go through read headlines again.

What we do:

We write one article for everyone. However, in real life, would you narrate a story to a close friend, an office colleague, and a child in the same way?

What we should or could do:

Today, personalization is labeled ‘For You.’ In the future, personalization will be ‘Written For You.’ Here’s how:

  • Just as a Google Sheet is a CSV with formatting, we should encourage editorial teams to write stories in a flat tone (focusing solely on information, without style or format).
  • Let LLMs (Large Language Models) rewrite them for each user.

What we do:

News stories are written in the time continuum, i.e., a story loses its utility after 0.5 – 2 days. The next update is filed as another story.

  • This approach made sense in the newspaper era because each day’s newspaper was thrown away by the end of the day.
  • However, online the older stories remain

Because of this, we aren’t able to provide a coherent digest of everything that happened without redundancy.

What we should or could do:

Collapse news stories into a Wikipedia style digest (space continuum, also called map) aiding knowledge assimilation. In some situations, they can be organized in space-time continuum, much like Wardley diagrams.

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What we do:

We continue to have widget-based interfaces. If they are poorly designed, they add a ton of cognitive load on the user.

If they are well-designed, the cognitive load decreases but isn’t eliminated.

What we should or could do:

In comparison, most online content platforms have adopted a dead-simple UX—feed and search—where the heavy lifting is done by algorithms.

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GIF Credits: Ralph Ammer


Thanks

  1. Use “Product Thinking” to differentiate.
  2. Run digital businesses with digital best practices. Use AI to optimize portfolio of offerings while cost optimizing.