All product thinking must start with the user

By Jodie Hopperton

INMA

Los Angeles, California, United States

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Dear reader:

This week I am ranting. It was my birthday recently, and perhaps I am getting grouchy in my old age. Perhaps another year around the sun has given me some good perspective. Either way, I have a few bold things to say.

Bear with me and please feel free to rant back and share your views on all or any of these points. 

All the best, Jodie

You’re thinking about product all wrong

Q: How do you use product thinking to get people to pay for journalism? 

A: You can’t.

Why? Because this question starts with the solution, not the user. It is the antithesis of product thinking. If you find a product process that starts with the answer, not the user, I will buy you dinner. 

Product thinking starts with the user — not the end result.
Product thinking starts with the user — not the end result.

As I have been delving into all things product for the last 18 months, there has been something that doesn’t always sit right. For example, we talk about building daily habit. It’s hard to do that if we only focus on the realms of journalism because it automatically reduces our potential audience to those who want to consume a certain amount of news per day.

Yes, we saw a spike during COVID and other big news events as people were looking for news and information (so did social media), and that gave us some hope. But now it seems that people are burning out. In fact, a recent by the Reuters Institute shows an alarming number of people actively avoid the news: 38% said they often or sometimes avoid the news. What makes this number alarming is that this number is up from 29% in 2017. 

Bente Zerrahn, innovation catalyst at Axel Springer in Berlin, wrote an article for INMA.org recently about Gen Z. Bente sums up by saying: “Long story short: The kids are not alright. And one could argue that removing negative content from your life (like a 24/7 stream of bad news) is actually self-care.”

How can we build a daily habit if we know that so many people are actively avoiding it?

Fellow product people, please don’t quit your job. This is the opportunity. This is the user need: People want to stay informed, but they don’t want to be depressed. This is our challenge. This is what we need to solve for. (And this is what we are talking about at the INMA Product Iniative meet up on September 14; more here).

If you are reading this newsletter, I suspect you also read the WSj article “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?” In the article, Amanda Ripley uses the terms “hope” for what audiences need. She gives a solution that resonated, arguing for “agency” or what some would call service journalism: What are the actions our readers could take if they want to do something? We expect our readers to sit back and be informed. But that may not actually be what they want. In fact, a lot of the time we know it’s not. 

Our existing products will only get us so far. How do we expand? What can we offer that serves our users needs?

Firstly, we need to find our users’ needs. And not just our current users’ needs but our potential users’ needs. We must listen to our core readers. But if we only focus on them, we will not grow. 

Twenty years ago, publishers were in the business of information, of classifieds, of dating, of games, of puzzles, of jobs, of announcements. Yes, this was all bundled with the news in a product we called a newspaper.

The digital landscape changed that because we didn’t adapt quickly enough and our product was unbundled. But that doesn’t mean our users don’t still want some of these things. They want to have bundles of products by brands they trust.

Just look at how The New York Times has moved to be a consumer brand — not just a news brand. Journalism is still very much at its core, but they have developed cooking, games, puzzles (Wordle!), and consumer reviews. Some media organisations are known for their local knowledge, their city guides, their wine clubs. 

So, let’s think about our user needs. Let’s think about their lifestyles and how we build products that leverage our brands as this is where we can move the needle for the future of our industry.

Rant over. Thanks for listening. Feel free to argue with any of the above, I’d really love to hear some other views on this. You can reach me at jodie.hopperton@INMA.org.  

What we need to do to succeed

You may be used to opinions coming out at year end or predictions for the news industry looking ahead. But I like to do things differently, so here are a few of my takes of what we need to do to succeed. 

Personalisation is key to media company's success.
Personalisation is key to media company's success.

1. If we do not crack personalisation — including topics, formats, sequencing, and services — someone else is going to do it first and/or better. Netflix recently announced they lost 970k subscribers. That was seen as good news because it was less than the 2 million predicted, and it’s expected to put 1 million back on next quarter. It’s well under 1% of their audience, which is currently over 221.64 million.

What news organisation can point to anything like these numbers? Yet we entertain, inform, and educate. We have enough content to engage people, we just need to figure out how to get the right thing in front of the right person at the right time so they come to use for the latest news, a rounded viewpoint, for some levity, to be entertained, and all the other things we hear about in the discovery of user needs. 

2. We need to start admitting when we are wrong. We make business bets based on data. But data changes and it doesn’t give us the full story.

If you have business as usual, that business will shrink, not grow. Changing our minds doesn’t mean losing face. It’s the right thing to do — test and learn, test and learn. Question why you are pursuing certain projects. Be brave enough to close some down, even if investments have been made.

Have you come across Killed by Google? Or the Museum of Failure? We may joke about some of the crazy products that came to fruition. But you know what — the majority of these companies are still in operation and profitable precisely because they know when to go big and when to go home.

If Bic had still had their pink pen “for girls,” they would have been annihilated in the Me Too movement. And Colgate producing food, I don’t even remember that one. They created MVPs and they tested. It’s all part of the product process. When do we do that in news? 

3. We need to know when to go big. Netflix was a DVD subscription business until the CEO bet big on streaming. Luckily it worked out for them. They went big. They were right to — and as first movers stayed dominant in the market for a long time.

If you believe in something, take the risk. The most successful businesses have made big bold bets that have fundamentally changed businesses (check out Tony Faddell’s book Build).

Who is going to have a moment of making that big bet? Is that what WaPo did with ARC? Or the NYT in buying Wirecutter, the Athletic, and Wordle? As Silicon Valley would say: This is ripe for disruption. Who is it going to be?

4. If we only think about our readers, we will not grow. There is a whole generation coming up that we know nothing about, let alone started thinking about how we serve them. To many publishers, Gen Z is a mystical group of people. They shouldn’t be.

We should know them. We should think about how we can interact with them and get them to appreciate — and maybe even pay — for our brands. (Read my latest blog where I dive into this with Snap’s ex-head of editorial, who knows this generation and its consumption habits plus has roots in the news industry).

Of course it’s not just Gen Z. We’re only currently serving a small percentage of the total addressable market. 

5. If we only think about our existing products, we will not grow. What if we have maxed out on the number of people reading the news? Thinking about the article above, we can be fairly sure that the audience for pure news is shrinking.

So what are the other products that bring people to our brands? Is it weather? Sports results? Local events? Horoscopes? Games? There’s a lot we can explore that helps us reach our business goals. I believe we need to bring more “information” back to our portfolios that supports the journalism. 

What am I missing here? If you have anecdotes, views, or disagree with any of the above, please reach out. I love hearing from you. You can reach me at jodie.hopperton@INMA.org.

Date for the diary: September 14 Product Initaitive Meet-Up 

How can news media companies build products that engage current news outsiders? In this INMA members-only Webinar, we will hear about Schibsted’s work focusing on groups not consuming news today and ways in which these “news outsiders” can be engaged in the future. 

Join Agnes Stenbom and me to discuss building products for news outsiders by signing up here (free to INMA members).

Tweet of the week

From the former CPO at Tinder, this one really caught my eye. One of the major challenges product (and engineering) face is the business need to have deadlines vs. building for the customer. 

Recommended rReading

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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