What’s wrong with subscription product managers?

By Grzegorz Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Hi! Is it your last business read before Christmas?

This is Readers First, a monthly newsletter for INMA members reader revenue innovation. I am the researcher-in-residence at INMA. E-mail me or let’s meet on our Slack channel (sign up here).

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1. SUBSCRIPTION PRODUCT MANAGEMENT. Why publishers should highlight business acumen over technical skills 

The insight: The subscription product management’s focus should be on experimentation and optimisation to the customers’ response, adapting the paywall’s model accordingly. There is no single magical model that will last forever.

“Build it and they will come.” It might have worked for Noah’s Ark; it apparently doesn’t work for paywalls. A flexible approach to segmentation is key to commercial success of digital subscriptions, finds my studies of growth of Aftenposten, The New York Times, and others. 

The solution: The continuous development may be overseen by a subscription product manager, a “mini-CEO,” who ensures her product meets not only editorial and technical, but also commercial goals.

  • Context: In a past few years, product managers have become must-have new hire for news media. Digital products get more complex and their development requires cross-functional teams. For example, The Washington Post tripled the number of product managers in the past two years.
  • Elsewhere: There are three common profiles of product managers in Silicon Valley: technologists, generalists, and business-oriented managers. In general, according to McKinsey, B2C companies tend to hire the business-oriented or generalist ones, as their focus is to delight customers and deliver on business objectives.

The challenge: When hiring new product managers, publishers seem to focus much more on technical skills rather than business acumen of candidates, my analysis of 150 job postings by media companies shows:

  • I have analysed all positions labeled “product management” in publishing, online media, and marketing industries worldwide available on LinkedIn last week (December 12-14).
  • A detailed analysis of 24 positions dealing directly with media subscriptions revealed the majority listed technical skills, customer experience grounding, and soft skills among the requirements — not business acumen, nor market orientation.
  • Similarly, descriptions of the key responsibilities of subscription product managers listed “collaborating with technical, design functions” twice as often as “researching market or competition” or “optimising pricing or packaging.”

Varia: Based on the job ads, ideal product managers need to be kind of supermen or superwomen. They need “strong” analytical skills while being “exceptional” communicators. They must be both “team players” and “self-starters.” Although “strategic leaders,” they cannot be “afraid to get hands dirty” — the “mentors” ready to “step in and act as individual contributors.” 

Recommended readings:

2. CART ABANDONMENT. How Tages Anzeiger simplified its checkout page

The case study: From 15 data points required from subscribers at the purchase to just six, here’s how Swiss publisher Tamedia revised its checkout page to improve conversions.

Tages Anzeiger used to ask digital customers for: their title and a full postal address — whether it’s a private address or a company’s one, whether it’s a gift subscription. Now it asks only for an e-mail, country of residence, and credit card details if one chooses this as a payment method.

Tamedia’s Head of Digital Sales Development Marc Isler explained: “Our traditional checkout process was built originally for print subscriptions. After usability tests and user interviews, we found out that it does not fulfill the expectations of users buying a digital subscription or, even worse, a ‘day pass’ for just CHF 2.”

Marc told me he looked at the media subscription leaders such as the Washington Post, Netflix, Spotify, and Zattoo (Swiss-based TV streaming service) for inspiration on how to simplify the checkout page.

The new page was rolled out in early December on Tages-Anzeiger.ch for the “day pass” customers. Other brands of Tamedia will follow in January. In the end, all checkout pages, including the ones of subscription products, will be revised.

After the first week, the conversion rate improved 8 percentage points (from 22% to 30%) without any further optimisations of texts, labels, or layout. 

Background: My ethnographic study of 30 customer journeys to the leading nationwide publications in Australia, United Kingdom, and United States found the checkout pages required between 8 to 17 (sic!) data points:

  • The longest checkout form is from Financial Times, which wanted to know, for example, what is the subscriber’s job position and a job responsibility. The Times of London required a customer to choose a nickname and share a date of birth.
  • Based on the Baymard Institute’s 2018 study, 69% of e-commerce shoppers worldwide abandon the purchase. Among the top reasons are: “the site wanted me to create an account” (34%) and “check-out process was too long or too complicated” (26%).

Do you have a case study to share with your peers who read this newsletter? Do you have a question to them? E-mail me or join our daily exchange on Slack.

3. CONTENT THAT CONVERTS. The workshop in Miami you missed

Click below: Here’s Mark Francescutti, senior engagement manager at The Dallas Morning News, presenting ideas for content that converts based on the brainstorming session with his peers in Miami at the INMA Consumer Engagement Summit in November. 

Want to see more of what you missed in Miami? Check a report from the summit, “Unpacking the Reader-Subscriber-Lifetime Customer Journey,” free to INMA members. 

4. LETTER FROM THE ROAD: What is engagement, and how do you measure it? 

Reading through Nieman Journalism Lab’s fascinating Predictions for Journalism 2019, a common theme is: It is going to be the year of engagement.

“Editors and reporters are getting acquainted with marketing strategies and the powers of alignment,” writes Renee Kaplan of the Financial Times, “and coming awake to the merits of all these other levers of impact and engagement that they never knew they could access.” Rick Berke of the Boston Globe’s Stat predicts the year of loyalty: “Gone are the days of chasing traffic. Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all splashy marketing campaigns. Today we are learning how to build targeted relationships with readers. That means finding new ways to reach them — and to keep them coming back.”

Engagement means so many things to many people, I thought it would be useful to add some perspective. If academics have any use in business, defining problems to help clarify our thinking might be the one.

In the academic literature, user engagement is defined as: “The quality of user’s experience with a digital resource characterised by the emotional, cognitive, and behavioural depth.”

Gosh! What it means in a common language is that user engagement deals with attention of people and not their wallet.

When people buy a product or a service, they hire it to do a job for them — the value they get for their money. For a marketer, creating a customer is purpose of the business. Helping customers realise and recognise the value from a product is called value nurturing.

Metrics of success with user engagement and value nurturing are different:

  • To measure engagement of users, publishers usually look at the popularity of a Web site or an app to users, activities of users on the Web site or in an app, and their loyalty.
  • To measure engagement of customers, we use revenue metrics such as lifetime value, sales metrics such as volume, marketing metrics such as conversion rates, and service metrics such as satisfaction.

User engagement is a domain primarily of product and editorial teams, while value nurturing is what marketing and sales are usually responsible for.

We may reach our business objectives with user engagement tactics; for example, my research for the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute on news subscriber behaviours suggests that usage drives purchase most.

We may wish to supplement user engagement tactics with value nurturing: demonstrating value a customer seeks and realises, ensuring she meets her objectives (“customer success”), all marketing efforts leading to her retention and growing her business with upselling and cross-selling.

Read more on value nurturing in my new report published this December: “Nurturing Value for News Consumers,” free for INMA members.

How do you understand and measure engagement at your organisation? E-mail: grzegorz.piechota@inma.org or share on Slack

5. WHAT I AM READING. For the holidays, try Artificial Unintelligence by Meredith Broussard 

How computers misunderstand the world: Artificial Intelligence is often portrayed in the media as a relevant and competent solution to a range of business, societal, and cultural problems, write Oxford researchers in their December report about how UK media cover AI. It turns out, journalists rarely question whether AI-containing technologies are the best solutions to such problems.

If you have time to read just one book about the subject, I’d recommend Meredith Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence, where she competently, yet in a simple and entertaining way, explains how computers work and how computer programmes are constructed. She then dives into why they don’t necessarily do what we think they do.

“There’s a saying: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Computers are our hammers,” she writes. But she does not sound like a Luddite. As she appreciates the marvels of technologies that changed our lives, she also lays out the limits of what computers can do — and the limits to what perhaps we should do with technology.

Somehow in the past two decades, many of us began to assume that computers get it right and humans get it wrong. We in the media also started to believe that “popular” meant “good.” And then we all ended up with the Facebook’s algorithm as the world’s editor-in-chief and minister of truth in one. In her book, Broussard offers a sound argument for human decision-making in many areas, including journalism. 

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Grzegorz (Greg) Piechota, researcher-in-residence at INMA, based in Oxford, England. Every month, I am sharing here results of my original research, notes from visits to digital subscription leaders, reflections on talks at conferences, and my favourite readings. Previous editions are archived online: 

This newsletter is a public face of a year-long reader revenue and media subscriptions initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail me at grzegorz.piechota@inma.org with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Sign up to our Slack channel.


About Grzegorz Piechota

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