Product teams should know 5 truths about a user-centric content strategy

By Jodie Hopperton

INMA

Los Angeles, California, United States

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Editor’s note: While Jodie Hopperton, head of the INMA Product Initiative, spends quality time with her latest project — a new baby born on April 21 — she has invited Consultant Dmitry Shishkin, formerly head of the BBC World Service digital expansion and chief content officer at Culture Trip, to be a guest blogger.

User needs-centric content strategy, deeper alignment of content/product disciplines, and actionability of data have been the three hot topics of the digital news publishing sector over the last year or so. As it happens, all three themes have been inseparably connected with my career, too, in various leadership roles at the BBC first, then as chief content officer at Culture Trip, and, lately, as an independent digital consultant. I’ve been advising publishers to develop their strategy around these three topics. 

Consultant Dmitry Shishkin shares five learnings about user needs.
Consultant Dmitry Shishkin shares five learnings about user needs.

Here are five most important things you need to consider bringing back to your newsrooms: 

1. User needs are central

As digital publishers come to terms that satisfying user needs in the editorial output is as important as doing it in the product areas, it’s time to embrace user needs-based commissioning. User needs, pioneered by BBC World Service from 2016 onwards, are central to growth, engagement, and trust-building. Focusing on user needs further strengthens a notion of journalism as a service. User needs in journalism are about what your audience expects you to be to prove value to them. They are directly linked to your vision and mission, and, together with the product, they form the right product-market fit in an era of a myriad of digital niches, a concept developed by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson in “Disney and Integrators Versus Aggregators” entry. 

User needs-centric thinking has been a trend for some time. If you look at Nieman Lab’s predictions for 2021, you’ll see several entries talking about user needs. “My job, and the job of any community manager, is to facilitate the creation of content that solves a problem our readers have, not just reports on it,” according to Nico Gendron, WSJ.

That new franchise you’re building, that podcast, the video series: Who is it for? What need is it serving? What will the audience do with it? Do they really want it, need it? Or are we just trying to keep their attention long enough for the ad to serve, asks Cory Haik, Vice Media Group. Finding the right angle in digital journalism often means finding the appropriate user need to satisfy with your story.

Question to ponder: What are your audience’s user needs? Does your output satisfy them? Remember, “success is about delivering superior quality in your niche” by being focused on your audience.  

Action: Go and find your user needs. Let your audience tell you what they are and learn from your product team. 

2. A unified version of the (data) truth is needed 

As Lucy Kueng put it so directly in her fantastic Transformation Manifesto, “Data will help you create a product that offers the highest value to your most important audiences in a way that will keep their trust and loyalty.” This is as relevant to content as it is to product. Aiming at a single North Star, aligning your quarterly OKRs, referring to the same data sets — all of these are as important for your success as your ability to create content that satisfies relevant user needs. 

Data-guided unity on goals, successes, and failures across all teams is key.
Data-guided unity on goals, successes, and failures across all teams is key.

Whatever you launch or introduce — a newsletter or a podcast, a sign-in functionality or a community area, an audience segmentation or a large interactive project — make sure you agree on what constitutes success and failure, right from the very beginning, placing users and their needs at the heart. Iterate, yes, by all means. But iterate together, as one. Don’t surprise your partners from other disciplines with things that have not been agreed on.  

Question to ponder: What is the North Star of my company? Is it linked to user needs? Are we all pushing in the same direction? 

Action: Value your business intelligence and data science teams, involve them from the start, and make sure they always have a seat at the table.

3. Actionability of metrics is essential

Let’s imagine you know your user needs. Let’s assume you have an agreed North Star. 

Audience development teams, where they exist, have been instrumental in finding growth opportunities, whereas standard newsroom roles are more likely to have missed them. Your teams do get tons of data, granted. But with mental exhaustion — a real problem in newsrooms these days — do editors and journalists use the data the way that really helps rather than overwhelms?  

We read about fantastic efforts the most advanced organisations have undertaken to make data actionable (The New York Times, Financial TimesThe Wall Street Journal). But I would argue that whilst exemplary and inspirational, such processes are likely to benefit a selected few. The others need to help themselves — get your metadata in order and then demand more, smarter solutions from your analytics provider.  

Question to ponder: Does my team know how to do a “‘growth hack”’ or a “deep dive”? Do we capture “‘user needs” information to guide our algorithms? 

Action: Look at your vacancies list. Is the balance right between editorial and non-editorial roles? Empower your audience engagement representatives. They are central to your strategy.  

4. Bridge roles need to make themselves redundant (when they are done)

Digital transformation has no end, we all agree. Doing hard things is hard, no one will argue. If your alignment is not fully complete, chances are you are still employing people in “bridge roles,” and you are doing the right thing. I did lots of bridge roles between 2011 and 2018. 

However, bridge roles need to disappear. Their long-term presence should not be needed. Moreover, their job description, as Wolfgang Blau put it on Linkedin recently, is to make themselves redundant, and I completely agree (after all, when I left the BBC, for example, my job has not been replaced — not sure if it was a strategic call or savings-related, though). “Complete digital transformation is neither possible nor, even, desirable. Everyone wanting to lead must share the role of CMO, Chief Mindset Officer” (Minter Dial, Caleb Storkey, Futureproof). How about that?

Question to ponder: Is the change we brought in still supported by people who were tasked with bringing it? Has the organisation learned nimbleness? 

Action: List transformation projects you want done. Can they be delivered as “business as usual” or do you still need a bridge role to help?

5. Learn to say no, but do it right

And lastly, after you are satisfied that the company’s priorities are coherently reflected across the different areas of the organisation, once you achieved cross-department alignment by pursuing a joint prioritisation strategy, once metrics of success have been shared, recognised and pursued, and your audience user needs are central essential to all you do, you will look back and recognise one thing:

All of these things were tough. You said no a lot. And you could not have done all of that without the most important attribute leaders have — empathy. After all, as Maya Angelou famously said: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Question to ponder: When I say no to ideas and projects, how do I go about it?  

Action: Prioritise, commit, and say no to distractions. Overall, though, listen, listen more, and then listen again.   

Does your newsroom need help with any of the above? You can reach Dmitry on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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

About Jodie Hopperton

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