Público implements 3-step digital innovation process, shares 5 lessons learned

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


Conversations about digital innovation typically revolve around technology, but during Wednesday’s INMA Webinar, the main focus was on people. Guida Marques Pinto, digital innovation director at Público, took INMA members through a three-part story to show how people have been central to the company’s digital transformation.

As one of the leading media companies in Portugal, Público has more than 200 employees and boasts 7 million users per month. And, since the first quarter of this year, it has been a leader in digital subscriptions. Pinto’s presentation was a roadmap of how it reached that position.

Chapter 1: The tidy up

Público launched its metred paywall in 2012 and introduced a hybrid paywall in May of 2019. The company saw immediate growth in traffic and in subscriptions but also discovered tremendous operational pressure, Pinto said. By the end of the year, “It was starting to hold us back. So, we paused and listened.”

Público began its journey with deciding to tidy up its organisation and create more alignment between departments.
Público began its journey with deciding to tidy up its organisation and create more alignment between departments.

Taking an assessment of the obstacles, Pinto said the team began looking at how to create alignment between departments.

“If you read the [most recent] Reuters report, you will find that 41% of the surveyed news publishers actually found some sort of a misalignment between the departments — the editorial, marketing, commercial innovation, technology — and that this lack of alignment was a major roadblock for innovation,” she said. “That was pretty much what we were feeling by the end of 2019.”

To address the challenges, Público developed a new governance model, with new processes and methods for teamwork. It started having a weekly 90-minute meeting with a multidisciplinary team to discuss new ideas and review the status of the development pipeline. It divides projects into three categories — small demands, small projects, and long projects — which supports better prioritisation of tasks.

“Anyone in the company can come with an idea to solve a user need or an operational need,” Pinto said. All the ideas are considered. And the ones that are accepted are put on a list, where they are evaluated by value, risk, capacity, and ROI.

This framework’s March implementation coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company saw dramatic results. By the end of the year, it had done 40 projects and 300 initiatives and had reduced the time to market to just 3.2 weeks from idea to implementation.

“This meant we were going in the right direction,” Pinto said.

Chapter 2: The build up

Now that it had its house in order, Público needed to find a way to sustain growth. In 2020, the growth was very much driven by COVID-19, and by January 2021 it knew it needed a more strategic outlook of where it should go.

“We called this the build up; how are we going to build up from here?”

It started by creating a multidisciplinary executive team to work with FT Strategies and implemented its North Star framework methodology. It made subscriptions its North Star and divided that into three areas: acquisition, lifetime value, and culture.

“The third one was very important to us,” she said. “We wanted to continue this transformation of driving Público to be a more customer-centric organisation. So [we had] to optimise the operational model and make sure that we all were informed with customer data in our daily decisions.”

The new structure included created multidisciplinary squads at every level.
The new structure included created multidisciplinary squads at every level.

It started working in what it called “squads” — multidisciplinary teams at the operational level all the way to the executive level. Departmental functional teams also continue working as they have previously. Together, Pinto said, this allows the company to align in a long-term strategy with a growth mindset.  

Chapter 3: The master up

The final chapter of Público’s story is what Pinto called “the master up.” Once the governance model was aligned with its long-term digital strategy, Público focused on listening to its external clients to better understand their needs. It launched a Reader’s Lab, which combines quantitative and qualitative data.

Público's Reader's Lab allows it to listen to its audience and learn what could be done better.
Público's Reader's Lab allows it to listen to its audience and learn what could be done better.

“Now we are more focused on the data that matters,” she said. The Web site asks for feedback in different sections, asking readers how they feel about things like the content, the design, and even the name of the section. It also runs focus groups to interview the readers, which she said has had a surprise effect.

“[We’re] listening and seeing our readers and kind of falling in love with our readers, which frequently happens because we know the names, we know their story. It’s very interesting how transformative it can be.”

Público also is reaching out to some of the universities to help it work through some of its challenges with students and academic bodies and has created a Young Reader Squad to promote growth among readers in the 18-to-24 and the 25-to-35-year-old demographics. The insights it has gained have led it to review tactics to bolster engagement and subscriptions in different channels such as audio, newsletters, and video.

The follow up: 5 key learnings 

As the journey for Público continues, Pinto shared five key learnings from this experience:

1. Flexibility: “Innovation needs discipline, but it needs breakthrough moments. So we have improved our governance model to allow for both.”

2. Talent: “I don’t think we were looking enough at our operational staff and how rich can be their involvement to solve user problems. So we have increased their participation with fantastic results.”

3. Standards: “We all feel safer with standards; we know what’s happening, we know what to do. We don’t lose time reinventing the wheel, but … we need to go back and review and do retrospectives of the standards to make sure of their continuous relevance.”

4. Teams: Multidisciplinary teams break silos and are more efficient, she said, but they are also hard to balance with functional teams. “It’s hard. It takes time. But it works better with time.”

5. User research: Pinto called user research “the worst-kept secret in innovation” and noted that it’s important to use your own people to do the research — and to do it with a multidisciplinary team. “For us, it worked to do that with people with different seniority within the company.”

About Paula Felps

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