Media companies share how they build data culture into their foundations

By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Michelle Palmer Jones

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Jessica Spiegel

INMA

Portland, Oregon, United States

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By Chandler Wieberg

INMA

Austin, Texas, United States

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By Sarah Schmidt

INMA

Brooklyn, New York, United States

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A strong, data-driven product strategy requires an organisational foundation that supports data gathering, interpretation, and application to improve products and services.

Leaders from Condé Nast, NHST Media Group, Gannett/USA Today, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and The Conversation shared with INMA members how their companies are building internal structures that facilitate the culture necessary for product success.

“Collaboration is essential — whether it’s hand-holding colleagues through the process, having owners for next steps, or building a matrixed organisation around the user,” Jodie Hopperson, INMA’s Product Initiative lead, summarised after her recent master class.

Condé Nast

As user research lead at Condé Nast, Gregg Bernstein is tasked with aligning the brands’ product, design, and editorial efforts to the people who use them. But, with so many brands under the umbrella, and so many different types of readers and messaging, there’s a lot to sort through.

“Against this backdrop, the mission of the research team is to provide a holistic understanding of audience and users on behalf of our design and product colleagues.” Bernstein said.

With so many brands under the Condé Nast umbrella, aligning team efforts with data from so many different types of users is a challenge, Gregg Bernstein, user research lead, said.
With so many brands under the Condé Nast umbrella, aligning team efforts with data from so many different types of users is a challenge, Gregg Bernstein, user research lead, said.

Finding such understanding, he said, is a matter of altitude. The company views users at three different levels of altitude to discover what they are looking for. When all the information from the three altitudes is combined, it provides “visibility across product efforts throughout the organisation,” he said: “We’re seeing how people are experiencing our different brands … we’re able to understand what’s working and what’s not.”

That allows them to make decisions about products to add, keep, or cut, and it is helping the company find the right mix: “We are aligning our work to specific company priorities and getting the right level of research for our design and product colleagues.”

NHST Media Group

Although the portfolio of publications at Norway’s NHST Media Group occupy different niche areas, editorial staff throughout across titles have been collaborating to discuss target groups that will offer more detailed insight into who their subscribers really are, Julie Lundgren, chief product and strategy officer, said.

Lundgren added that looking at all subscribers across all of the NHST brands will allow them to identify if, for example, “corporate decision makers have similar needs regardless of whether they subscribe to one of our seafood titles or one of our energy titles.”

During a company reorganisation in 2019, lessons from one NHST brand's efforts were shared across the company, Julie Lundgren, chief product and strategy officer, said.
During a company reorganisation in 2019, lessons from one NHST brand's efforts were shared across the company, Julie Lundgren, chief product and strategy officer, said.

The process began at Dagens Næringsliv (DN) during a company reorganisation in 2019, Lundgren said, during which they established a Target Group Team that focuses solely on user insight. The team is sort of “business developer meets analyst,” a group of five members with a mix of editorial and commercial backgrounds. The team has recently started to look at how they can take what they’ve learned within DN and put it to use across the entire NHST group.

For other companies looking to enact a similar project, Lundgren said to make sure someone “owns” the initiative, adding that it is especially important for this person to have an editorial background: “Getting buy-in at the highest level of editorial is important.”

Gannett/USA Today

Good ideas and planning lead to promising new products, but how do these products actually behave in the real world once they’re launched?

The data can tell us, but to be able to read data and respond effectively, product managers need a consistent, comprehensible way to view the information. Brian Butts, senior director of product management for Gannett Media/USA Today, has developed a system for doing so.

Butts is working to create a data-driven culture in an industry that has long relied on gut instinct, building a structured process based on operationalising lookbacks and roadmap planning. Work is prioritised based on impact and level of effort. Engagement and growth targets are identified up front with potential impact modeled out.

Establishing a clear system makes it easier to maintain a data-driven culture, Brian Butts, senior director of product management for Gannett Media/USA Today, said.
Establishing a clear system makes it easier to maintain a data-driven culture, Brian Butts, senior director of product management for Gannett Media/USA Today, said.

A data-driven approach and having a system in place powers clarity and efficiency. Making a plan and sticking to it also helps limit confusion and avoids the tendency to make decisions based on a feeling of panic, Butts said: “This is really operationalising what the customer is telling you and making sure you’re building in listening and you’re building in reacting based on what you’re hearing.”

F.A.Z.

One of the key objectives for Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z.) is to have 300,000 digital subscribers by 2025. So, when F.A.Z. imagined a reorganisation in early 2021, the “main question was how to organise around the customer to grow F+,” Nico Wilfer, the company’s chief product officer, said.

Organising around the customer lifecycle became the focus of the entire reorganisation. This made sense, Wilfer said, because “the customer lifecycle applies to marketing, to product development, to engagement — to everything.” The KPIs are the same, though the methods to achieve the goals are different in each department, so everyone is working toward the same goals.

F.A.Z. used a matrix model to restructure the company in terms of function-based teams (product, data, tech, etc.) with missions that are shared across all teams. Missions are based on the customer lifecycle, such as audience development, subscriptions, and engagement, and the matrix model makes it clear that every team has an impact on each mission.

F.A.Z. organised the whole company around the customer lifecycle, Nico Wilfer, the company’s chief product officer, said.
F.A.Z. organised the whole company around the customer lifecycle, Nico Wilfer, the company’s chief product officer, said.

“A product manager still has to think about making the best product for the customer,” Wilfer said, “That hasn’t changed.” What’s different now is that the product manager also needs to keep the KPIs of the whole customer lifecycle in mind, “so they’ll think about making the product better in terms of growing the audience, reducing churn, increasing engagement, etc.”

The Conversation

For The Conversation, a not-for-profit news organisation in Australia, completely revamping its research methodology has been critical to success. At first, teams utilised a “research first” approach where they’d launch a survey, ask a bunch of questions, and then compile the findings.

They soon realised this method had a big problem, Khalil Cassimally, the company’s audience project manager, said: “The issue with this approach, the research first approach, is ultimately, you’re never really sure what you’re looking for and you’re never really sure whether anything valuable will come out of it. So, it was clearly not working for us.”

So, The Conversation flipped its approach to research on its head. Now, instead of starting with research, they start with a decision. They try to determine what it is they want to do as an organisation or team.

“Those things are more aligned with our mission, our business needs, etcetera,” Cassimally said.

The team at The Conversation works together to make decisions around audience research, Khalil Cassimally, the company’s audience project manager, said.
The team at The Conversation works together to make decisions around audience research, Khalil Cassimally, the company’s audience project manager, said.

Once the decision is made, The Conversation needed to figure out what data they needed to inform that decision and what types of research they needed to get the data that would inform the decision. The benefit of this approach is its focus on actionability, and it doesnt waste the time of team members or users.

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