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4 ways to define the ROI on a media company’s product team

By Jodie Hopperton

INMA

Los Angeles, California, United States

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Hi there, I hope you’re having a good week. I recently got to follow up with CJ Jacobs, head of product and technology at MediaNews Group, who, after seeing my question about tracking product value, explained how she had drawn up a virtual P&L. And in my second post, I talk about reframing “no” (a concept dear to my heart with a 2-year-old constantly getting into mischief).

As always, you can reach me at jodie.hopperton@INMA.org or on the Product Slack channel.

Showing value: A virtual product P&L

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the challenges of showing value as a product department, particularly showing the direct revenue results. In a follow up conversation to this interview with CJ Jacobs this week, she told me that she’s recently spent some time doing exactly this to coincide with their fiscal year planning. She told me that overall, “it’s about value delivered: supporting the needs of the business and being responsive … . but I found that this is a useful mechanism to bridge the gap and prove that value creation in the language of finance.” 

CJ Jacobs, head of product and technology at MediaNews Group, shares four ways to define ROI on a product team's work.
CJ Jacobs, head of product and technology at MediaNews Group, shares four ways to define ROI on a product team's work.

Specifically, here are four ways they attributed dollar amounts to the work CJ and her team have been doing over the past year.

  1. Revenue from advertising and subscriptions: “I worked with business owners to talk about strategic initiatives that my team delivered and the revenue that was generated as a result. And we tried to do some sort of fair accounting … of the initiatives that my team delivered, how much of the revenue should be attributed and oriented back to product development, versus marketing activities or things on the side of the teams of the business owners.” Ultimately they agreed a percentage or portion of revenue that could directly be tracked back to product. 

  2. Revenue from pre-agreed metrics and outcomes: At the beginning of the year they had set up “a certain set of metrics and a certain set of outcomes associated to those metrics. Page load speed was a big one, for example, [and] we always have our set of engagement metrics, we always have our set of metrics that trace back to the revenue streams as well.” As this was already in process, being able to show outcomes against these benchmark is part of normal monthly reporting.  

  3. Directly attributable costs savings: These are straightforward to calculate as everything is owned within the product team. For example, if the product team built something in-house that the company was previously paying a vendor for, the difference in cost is easily calculable.

  4. Evaluating time saved: It’s also possible to evaluate time saved by certain activities. For example, a CMS system may save journalist time or having fewer systems to work across means engineers save time developing coding variations. These can then be equated to a dollar value by using a blended hourly rate. These improvements can also have the benefit of improving time to market, but is often more qualitative than quantitative. However there is a challenge on this point: Time saved and becoming more efficient can also be an opportunity to reduce resource if those resources aren’t required for new development and growth initiatives . 

In this example, we don’t see a full P&L, but it’s certainly a big step closer and the start of a methodology that can be built on to show the dollar value of product work. As CJ puts it: “It’s meeting people at their level, being flexible, and being highly business literate to explain value in terms of the language they are most comfortable in, which is often the language of finance.” 

Date for the diary: September 15, 2021

In our next Meet-Up, we’re going to discuss apps vs. mobile Web. AMP and Instant Articles have made browsing quicker and easier, which has helped discovery on the mobile Web. Should the content and experience be different for an app? 

How do consumers use each? And what do they want from each? It’s an effort to find, download, and regularly use an app, which means that those using it are usually the most loyal or at least the heaviest users. How much should the app differentiate from the mobile Web experience? Should an app be for subscribers only? And can they be used as a utility for consumers? I’ll be joined by Aron Pilhofer, director of newscatalyst who recently launched Tiny News and has been invested in mobile in his roles at both The Guardian and The New York Times. 

You can sign up to join the discussion here

Reframing “no” 

In a forward-thinking organisation, ideas come from all levels and departments. That’s a wonderful thing. Some of these ideas solve a known problem, some ideas need some work, and some ideas should never see the light of day. Instinctively, you may know which ideas you want to carry forward. But when you see a terrible idea, how do you explain that to a colleague while keeping your relationship intact? And how can you stop yourself from forever saying “no” when projects don’t quite fit? 

Try asking questions that enable the person to answer for themselves. Ultimately a project shouldn’t be decided by a single person (not even the CEO). They should be judged on merit against company goals. 

I often find myself referencing this slide from Lucy Butler, director of analytics at the Financial Times. All decisions need to roll up to their North Star engagement metric using one of the levers indicated. She included some specific product questions underneath each column.   

Lucy Butler, director of analytics at the Financial Times, shared this North Star engagement metric.
Lucy Butler, director of analytics at the Financial Times, shared this North Star engagement metric.

For non-product people — which is where most ideas come from — questions can still be more generalised. Not only does it help colleagues get to a yes/no on their idea, it also helps people understand the framework for product decision making as a whole. 

If you ask one question it should be this: How does this idea help us meet our company objective? (Or, if you have multiple objectives: Which company objective does this help us meet? How?)

Below are a few more questions that help move from an ad hoc idea into a thought out product idea. I’ve heard of companies using online forms to field these ideas, but they work just as well — perhaps even better when beginning the product journey — in a conversation or via e-mail. 

  • Which customer segment(s) is this for?  

  • What is the expected longevity?

  • What is the expected return on investment (ROI)?

  • Which departments should be involved in this?

  • How much maintenance is this likely to need? 

Invariably, not all answers will be available — a journalist may have no visibility into likely ROI, a marketeer may not have the technical know-how to estimate maintenance — so be sure to ask questions that can be answered by the intended audience or enable resources to help people answer those questions. This shouldn’t be a barrier to surfacing ideas. This should be seen as part of the process to give a go/no go and to prioritise in line with current and future workloads.

By asking these questions, you can reframe the conversation into what will be worked on and when, avoiding a barrage of “no.”

Tweet of the week: Reflecting on product in news

Alex Watson is leaving the BBC to take up a product role at Spotify. He wrote a Twitter thread that has a lot of wisdom. I picked out my top three but I’d read the whole thread, which you can find here.

Recommended reading

How The New York Times assesses, tests, and prepares for the (un)expected news event by New York Times staffers on Nieman Lab goes through preparing systems for big news stories. 

And looking to the future:

  • Gannett did it’s first NFT. Perhaps the first in the news industry? More about that on Press Gazette here
  • The Verge spoke to Mark Zuckerberg about his plans to take Facebook into the metaverse. You can find the interview here.

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Jodie Hopperton, based in Los Angeles and lead for the INMA Product Initiative. Jodie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media product.

This newsletter is a public face of the Product Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Jodie at jodie.hopperton@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.

About Jodie Hopperton

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