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Focus your 2022 product planning around these 4 themes

By Jodie Hopperton

INMA

Los Angeles, California, United States

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A lot of the discussion I have with product leaders is around strategy, operations, and process. It is clear product is still finding its place within many news organisations while becoming more and more important in the quest for businesses to delight customers while driving business goals. There is still a lot of work to do around merging systems, updating legacy platforms, and ensuring we have the internal tools and skill sets to deliver great products. And delivering great products is what is happening. We’re seeing the fundamentals of growing subscribers and improving engagement being honed to a fine art. And we’re seeing some exciting new products being developed. 

Here are four big themes going into 2022 that I have taken primarily from discussions within the INMA Product Advisory Council meetings.  

1. Driving subscriptions and diversifying revenue are key business goals

For many, there is a continued evolution from ad-based to subscriber-based product experience and business. This means that much focus is on engagement, which of course also benefits advertisers. One advisor noted that they have massively grown their reach and audience, but that success hasn’t been reflected in their subscriptions. 2022 will mean re-examining and experimenting with subscription packages. 

For another advisor, they are looking at moving beyond the core products and features, experimenting to find the things that customers will pay and stay for. Anecdotally, I hear about a move to utilities that customers come back for day after day. 

E-commerce, like that done by BuzzFeed, is one way media companies can diversify their revenue.
E-commerce, like that done by BuzzFeed, is one way media companies can diversify their revenue.

Balancing the business portfolio is on people’s minds, and for some this involves dipping their toes into e-commerce. Others are more advanced in their offerings and spoke about using deep tech and personalisation to diversify this further. (We wrote about the opportunities of e-commerce on the product blog here.)

Last, but far from least, there is discussion around partnerships and bundling. An advisory spoke about collaborations that serve, including those outside of the industry.

2. Culture is more important than ever

In 2021, we saw a lot of labour movement, particularly in product. It’s tough to keep good people when other companies, particularly in the tech sector, are offering much more lucrative salaries. We wrote about some ways to combat that in the Product Blog here, and many on the Advisory Council see mission and culture as key ways to help retain and acquire great talent.

The right culture is key to keeping key employees.
The right culture is key to keeping key employees.

Supporting this is creating a healthy environment by establishing or improving storytelling capabilities of both product and technology teams. As we saw in both the Product and Data Summit and the Product Master Class recently, we can build a great culture by ensuring communication and securing buy-in at every level. 

We also see that using rigorous analytics, testing, and a commitment to data-informed decisions make for a strong culture that works on facts and driving towards common goals, not individual ones — or to use a new acronym I learned in 2021, HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion).

3. Data is instrumental to everything product does

Something that has struck me in conversations about product is that data comes into everything — goal setting, prioritising, developing hypotheses, testing, staying on track. Yet sometimes”‘data” sits on a pedestal, making it feel complicated and thus slightly out of reach to us mere mortals. But using data doesn’t have to be complicated. Data scientists aren’t needed for everything. 

The importance of data is well understood. Now, media companies must think about the accessibility of data.
The importance of data is well understood. Now, media companies must think about the accessibility of data.

One of the key things echoed by many in my Product Advisory Council is making it accessible. We’re seeing people invest in data literacy for all to enable product teams and others around the business to extract information and power insights. This means getting the right insights to make decisions. I often hear the phrases “empower teams” with data and “democratise data.” (INMA has a report coming out this week on the topic, actually. Check here on Thursday to find it.) 

Of course there is a much more complicated layer of data where data scientists are invaluable. For many, that includes connecting sources into one, usable data pool, or lake; growing and maintaining first-party data as a strategic investment and user benefit; using data for personalisation; and in-depth data interrogation. 

External research and data is vital to our strategies, too. To have foresight, we need to look not only at what current customers are doing within our products, but also try and get an understanding of what else they spend time on. Where can we help them? What do our customers enjoy. Or, perhaps it is better to think of them as “potential customers.” Having robust customer and market research is essential to improve and develop new products. As one advisory member says, this gives us a strategic fishing pool for new ideas, features, and products.

4. Getting creative: developing new products and features

One of the joys of working in product is solving problems for users. For me, a prime example of this was overcoming the frustration of wanting to share an article with someone but not knowing if they were a subscriber. One friend was so sure I’d love an article in her local title she gave me her login details (thank you R!). This, of course, isn’t an ideal or sustainable workaround. So being able to “gift” paid articles has been extremely helpful.  

This year, I am excited to hear about more new products and features being developed. Here are a few of the themes I am hearing about, which I will be following closely. 

  • How to aim products at light users as well as heavy users. My INMA colleague Greg Piechota, who heads up the Readers First Initiative, told me that based on research by The Wall Street Journal, stories that appeal to the light readers usually appeal to the heavy readers, too. But the stories that appeal to the heavy readers less often appeal to the light readers. He pointed to the tepid response of light versions of full products (such as Economist Expresso and NYT Now). Yet news products aimed at light readers sold as part of the all-access bundles thrive – New York Times’ Morning Briefing e-mail has 5 million active readers every week.

  • Guiding users within products to improve engagement. What is the next action you want a user to take? What is going to keep them around for longer? 2022 will see a rise in AI for personalisation and a lot of multi-variant testing working with our design and UX colleagues. 

  • Building audio into great user journeys. As audio becomes a more integral part of our day (or perhaps it’s more of a resurgence), how can we make great audio products that complement our existing products and enhance a user experience? One example of this is linking narrated articles so users can pick up a written story through audio part way through or vice versa. This means less of a reliance on screens and brings a new dimension into our relationship with readers.   

  • Ad-free and ad-lite products are being discussed more and more. The consumer demand is clear, and as one Advisory Council member told me: You’d have to have blinkers on to not consider this consumer trend. And, interestingly, one publisher has created an ad-free product to make data compliance easier because it was getting so complicated with many different ad cookies. In essence, you either agree to their cookie and privacy policies or you pay a subscription to get an ad-free product.  

  • Development of utilities or non-news products. Some publishers are looking to non-news for growth amongst certain reader cohorts or around life stage. There are numerous case studies of these from stock trackers to cooking, to e-commerce, to sports. We’ll be looking at more of these examples throughout the year. 

What are you working on this year? I’d love to hear. Drop me a line at jodie.hopperton@inma.org.

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Jodie Hopperton

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