Hi, I’m starting to get back to all things product after the birth of my second son. What did I miss? Help me catch up by telling me about anything you’ve been working on or anything you’ve seen by e-mailing me at jodie.hopperton@INMA.org or contacting me on our Product Slack Channel.
Q&A with Ramin Beheshti
Many people reading this will be thinking about or in the midst of developing a product team. It’s helpful to speak with people who have been through it, especially those who have stepped away and had time to reflect.
Ramin Beheshti has done just that. As group chief product and technology officer for Dow Jones from January 2017 through February 2021, he led a staff of 650 people worldwide. He was responsible for global technology strategy, delivery, and operations across all of the company’s customer-facing products, including digital product development, software engineering, cloud infrastructure, and information security.
In our interview, I ask Ramin to outline his thinking and give some advice.
Jodie: In your experience and from what you have seen elsewhere, where do you think product is best to sit within a news organisation?
Ramin: I have spent a lot of time on this over the years. It’s less about where it sits. I think organisations have a huge overreliance on reporting lines as a way of making things happen. I’ll come on to that. With regards to products’ role in news organisations, in our industry we are slightly deluding ourselves if we do not realise that the content is a key part of the product. So the relationship between the newsroom and product is key, but there has to be respect both ways.
I see a lot of respect and deference to the news department, but too often the role of product is not understood or properly appreciated. They should be the group that helps the content connect with the audience and to monetise it effectively. In reality, this means they have to be able to work with all aspects of the company, yet because of the fixation on reporting lines (I’ve experienced) it often sits somewhere neutral. Tech is often the most logical “neutral” place (maybe I am biased), but I would argue that product should have it’s own seat at the top table of a news organisation and be recognised as its own discipline.
If you do that, you have to create the right dynamic between product and technology. Because while product should work with all departments, it’s relationship with technology is absolutely paramount to building great digital experiences. I’ve seen a number of instances where there is a lot of friction between CPO and CTO that trickles down and can really slow forward progress.
In summary, product needs to be in a neutral part of the organisation that’s either with technology or, ideally, as it’s own function with leadership at the top of the organisation — but watch for the dynamic with tech.
Jodie: Who, or which department, is best to “own” the relationship with the customer?
Ramin: Honestly ... everyone! I really think everyone in the organisation should feel a sense of obligation to understand their customers better. I appreciate that’s not practical, but as a culture or mindset it has to be true. The more people in the organisation that can look at data, hear from, meet with customers the better the products will be. So “own” the relationship should be a collective exercise.
That said, product has probably the most significant role in the relationship with the customer. They should be able to assimilate all of the different data points/feedback into a coherent understanding of the customer — developing different customer profiles and segments that the products should be targeted at and ensuring the focus of the product is equally on solving what those segments need, not just what customers say they want. This is critical in being able to develop world-class products. Often the focus is solving what the customer said they wanted, not trying to understand what needs they have and helping to solve that.
Jodie: We’ve talked a lot about goals and metrics in the product initiative. Do you have a preferred framework for aligning goals?
Ramin: It starts with clear and translatable business goals. These should be leading indicators that are business priorities. By that I mean if you achieve them, they lead to an increase in revenue. There shouldn’t be many, one maybe two.
For example, increasing the number of days per month a subscriber engages with your product is a clear goal that you can translate to all products, and if you increase, it will lead to less churn and therefore higher revenue. That’s not to say that other metrics like time spent, number of articles read are not important. But you could decide they are not AS important as that one and having ONE clear goal provides crystal clear focus for the organisation.
You can have all parts of the organisation then work towards moving that number, and each product can determine what they need to do in their product to influence that goal. You can break down that goal further to smaller goals, which ladder up to the overall goal. For example, increasing the number of days per month a specific customer segment uses a product. It then allows you to build features that are designed to drive return visits and to measure this through experimentation.
As a leader, having this consistent focus means you can get out of the team’s way, and you can bring together cross-functional teams as you are aligned around the same goal. Even better if you can align incentives around moving that one number, it becomes incredibly powerful tool.
Jodie: You’ve managed cultural shifts within news organisations. What advice can you give to INMA members when going through similar changes when implementing product as a discipline?
Ramin: A few things. First of all, define what product is and isn’t in your organisation. I’d spend time on that, as for each organisation it can be nuanced and everyone has (wrong) preconceptions. Next, if you find yourself spending most of the time debating organsational structures, it’s not going to be successful. The shift shouldn’t centre on moving teams reporting lines around. It’s disruptive and not how work (should) get done. Finally spend your time as a product leader on how you can create clear goals, enable teams to work on aligned outcomes, and then get out of there way.
Date for the Diary: July 7
At our next Product Initiative Meet-Up, we’ll be talking about the intersection of content and product with FTs CPO John Kundart. Check here for more details. We will discuss the fact that newsrooms have historically been far removed from the “business” side of news. But with digital, we understand more and more about the drivers of content and how they affect the business.
INMA Global Media Awards: the product winners
Did you see the Global Media Awards last week? It’s so inspiring to see some of the incredible work happening in our industry.
It’s obvious product is becoming more and more important. INMA CEO Earl Wilkinson recognised this, saying: “Not surprisingly, the outstanding entries in this year’s competition leaned heavily into COVID responses along with shifting priorities during a tumultuous year: product, data, and subscriptions.”
Here are a few highlights for product related awards:
Austria’s Russmedia’s VOL.AT for winning best subscription niche product and second place for the best product and tech innovation amongst regional media.
Aftenposten, Norway, “How Lockdown Generated A New Prosperous Niche Business for Aftenposten’s Loyalty Program — Digital Wine Tastings,” which won amongst national media in the same category.
PA Media, United Kingdom, “PA Explore” for best product and tech innovation in national media.
Mittelbayerische Zeitung, Germany, “DRIVE” for Best Use of Data to Drive Subscriptions, Content, Product Design.
The Daily Beast, United States, “The Daily Beast: Beast Inside” for Best Use of Data to Drive Subscriptions, Content, Product Design in national media.
Tweet of the week: centralisation vs localisation
This one is from INMA member Damon Kiesowon and a question I get asked a lot about:
The full thread is here and this is the TLDR (if that even exists on Twitter).
- Building teams while breaking silos by INMA members Jason Jedlinski and recommended in the Twitter thread above. Jason is a digital product executive at WSJ with a background in product in news media.
- Coverage of the product module from May’s INMA World Congress of News Media: my take on how product is the newest, fastest-growing team at news media companies and a summary of case studies from The New York Times, Singapore Press Holdings, and Financial Times.
- A detailed look at DRIVE, the Best in Show winner from INMA’s Global Media Awards mentioned above.
- A profile of PA Media’s “PA Explore” initiative from the Global Media Awards.
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.