We have learned so much about product this year

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Hi there. We’re a year into the INMA Product Initiative and have come a long way. We spent a lot of time learning about how companies organise around product, on which we wrote a report (here). We’ve run Webinars on many things, including goals and metrics and prioritising around a roadmap to name just two, talked about the — sometimes tense — relationship between product and editorial, and solution-driven questions, changing mindsets to encourage innovation, and much more on the Product Initiative blog. Although we haven’t quite wrapped up for the year, I wanted to take time to reflect on some of the learnings.

We’ve also quietly set up an advisory council of product leaders from around the globe to help shape the programme. Next week, I’ll tell you a little more about this wonderful group of experts and some of the areas they are focused on. 

All the best, Jodie.

What is product? 

The Reuters Institute annual trends and predictions report found that 93% of leaders felt product was important but less than half felt that the product role was well understood. This is emblematic of the product problem: It’s not a single thing that can easily be defined.

I came into this initiative with a view of product that hasn’t so much changed as has morphed and clarified slightly. Here is how we’ve been defining product: 

“A cross-organisation function, working closely with editorial and technology, which balances the consumer experience with business objectives.” 

The four categories of product in news.
The four categories of product in news.

So what does that actually mean? Here are some explanations of terms that I have found helpful.

Product thinking puts a focus on designing and building for the customer. The “product” should solve a real world problem such as “I want to stay informed,” “I want to be entertained,” “Tell me what I need to know,” or, more specifically, “What is most important in my local area?” or “I want to share this with a friend.” To be truly successful, product thinking needs to be infused within the culture of the entire organisation: Everyone needs to be working towards making the best customer experience possible. 

The content experience means that consumers can access our journalism is the quickest, more intuitive way possible. The rule of thumb is that product leads the experience and the newsroom leads the content, but there is some nuance to this — especially when the content could be delivered in multiple formats (text, video, graphics, audio etc). 

Product is a process. It is a structured methodology from solving customer problems and identifying user needs, through to forming hypotheses, testing and iterating, and — if successful — launching them. There are slight variations on a product process; each organisation must tweak to suit their own culture, structure, and skill sets. 

Ultimately, we want our customers to love our apps, Web sites, newsletters, and any way they interact with us. That’s product’s job. As Gibson Biddle, former VP of Netflix, puts it: Delight customers with a hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing product.

My biggest learnings this year

My biggest lesson of the year is this: Clearly articulated goals and objectives are everything. Without this, nothing else comes together. 

Not only do they need to be clear, but they need to be easy to understand and available to all. This transparency, and being able to point to joint objectives, solves many internal issues. 

Clear objectives make it easier to give teams autonomy. Once people know the big goals, they can use their expertise to pull their relevant levers. Lucy Butler, chief analytics officer at the Financial Times in London, laid this out nicely. I still find myself referring to this slide: 

Lucy Butler, chief analytics officer at the Financial Times, explains the importance of clear objectives in product strategy.
Lucy Butler, chief analytics officer at the Financial Times, explains the importance of clear objectives in product strategy.

It’s not just the goals; it’s articulating them clearly. Communication is key to success. Strong product leaders usually start any part of decision-making process by reminding people of the goals. Caroline Carruthers, author of The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook, told us you do not have to be a data scientist to be a leader in data, but you do have to use data to tell stories focusing on outcomes that people can understand. Katharine Bailey, global head of product and design at Condé Nast, used this process to define her “big bets” for the upcoming year. With that she found her colleagues and peers were much more receptive and therefore able to grasp and contribute to these major projects.  

Road mapping is as important for communication and storytelling as it is for planning purposes. Lippe Oosterhof, Yahoo’s head of product for news, entertainment, and lifestyle, told us that much of the value of using goal setting frameworks such as OKRs (objectives and key results) comes from the process itself.

When we articulate goals to colleagues, we need to remember that it’s not just the business goals we should be focusing on. Listening to user needs came out high on many speaker’s lists from Dmitry Shishkin, who is ex BBC and Culture Trip, to John Pipino, consultant at Doblin. It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on business goals. What we really need to do is look at where the business goals and the user needs align. 

Solving problems according to user needs is important. Solving the right problems is essential. This can only happen with goals. Gibson Biddle told us: “I can do anything but I can’t do everything.” Again, we can only prioritise if we know the big objectives.

And finally — you’ve heard me say this before, but I’ll say it again — multi-disciplinary teams are essential. Product teams are the customer advocates. We balance user needs with business needs: These are the goals. Which means that every other department is looking at one or both of these, too. They have insights and views that may be different — and this isn’t only healthy, it’s necessary. We must find a way of working together that brings all know-how and data points together in a productive manner. 

Most-shared presentation

We’ve had some incredible presentations through all the programming, such as the product Webinars, the Product and Data Summit, the Product Master Class, the World Congress (where Cait O‘Riordan achieved one of the highest rated presentation talking about “How the FT Aligns Its News Business Around Product to Achieve Growth”), as well as various regional events. 

There was so much to learn from all our speakers. But if we have to choose what we think is the most shared, it is this: Ben Hayood, director of product at Nine, Australia, and his excellent articulation of how editorial and product can work together. How he summarised years of hard work into such on points principles, I will never know. You can download his presentation “Five principles for an effective partnership between product and editorial” here

Dates for the diary: December 9 and 16: Product Master Class 

It’s not too late to join us for the Product Master Class. If you sign up now, you can watch Session 1 on demand, where we saw Julian Delany of Newscorp Australia give an incredible keynote taking us through their incredibly successful “project bob” from start to end. We also saw enjoyed Product Thinking 101, a Schibsted case study on user needs, and Jason Jedlinksi’s frameworks for building roadmaps that delight customers AND stakeholders. 

On Thursday, we have EVP Jeff Moriarty giving practical, and inexpensive, examples to demonstrate the value of early prototyping to get customer feedback; Katie Bloor, product director/experimentation at Dow Jones, explaining how to run experiments within a busy product road map; Ilana Westerman, head of user experience research and consumer insights at Yahoo Inc.; and VMing Chew from SPH.

Sign up here

Tweet of the week

A friendly reminder that we always need to connect the dots.

Recommended reading

Here are the top five product blog posts as read by the INMA community this year:

  1. Product teams should know 5 truths about a user-centric content strategy
  2. What is Clubhouse and why should media companies care?
  3. INMA Product Initiative highlights 4 early lessons
  4. Media companies share ways product teams work with tech
  5. How MediaNews Group creates strategies and buy-in for product teams

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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