Can’t we bury the ‘build it and they will come’ approach? (Part 2)

2021-04-19. During our recent Asian Media Leaders eSummit, three publishers using data-driven and audience-centric decision-making shared their process for product creation.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | April 19, 2021

By Lee Kah Whye 

Corrine Podger, Director at Digital Skills Agency, Australia, moderated the session, which also featured Gaurav Sachdeva, Chief Product Officer at Singapore Press Holdings; Nicholas Sagau Tony Ngimat, Chief Product Officer at Rev Media Group and President of the Malaysia Digital Association (MDA); and Becca Aaronson, Interim Executive Director at the News Product Alliance from the U.S. For more about Aaronson’s presentation, see the first part of this post, by clicking here.) 

No magic, no secrets, product diaries

At Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), Sachdeva, said there was an acceptance that the media business is being disrupted and that it needed to transform. This is critical, as it then helped them focus the entire organisation on the end outcome.

He added that any organisation that is undergoing transformation must be very intentional about the change. It must also be strategic and systematic. In addition, employees need to be empowered, customers engaged, and operations optimised. 

Sachdeva’s background is with startups where the pace is a lot faster and where it is more product-driven. He recounted his experience at SPH, where he said he had to slow down to explain his vision of how a product-driven organisation works and the importance of listening to customers and to everyone across the organisation, whether it is with journalists, engineers, sales people, or customers,

“At SPH, we follow a simple philosophy of building products that customers love,” he said.  

Sachdeva added that to build products that customers love is a combination of being audience-centric, customer-centric, data-enabled and journalistically focused.

“To build the right product you need to focus on the who and why. Building the right focus requires you to build personas, requires you to listen to data, to listen to people,” he said.

Sachdeva said he realises that journalism puts a focus on gut instincts. Not wanting to discourage that, he suggested that, in addition, journalists should be data-informed.

This means trust your guts, but verify it.

He suggested introducing a scientific process into what journalists do.  Put metrics in place to measure if you are on the right path to succeed.  

Sachdeva also shared his product-building philosophy, which is to go to market quickly, fail early, test, learn, and repeat.

“Experimentation and course correction are the most difficult parts for media companies,” he said. “But we must learn to go to market quickly, fail fast, test, and iterate, iterate, iterate.” 

Process of creating a product

Sachdeva shared his steps for product creation, which he said are underpinned by discovery, delivery, iteration, and problem-solving.

“During discovery, you need to figure out what problems you want to solve for the customer, and you need to think holistically. Set outcomes and measure them with data and metrics. Then validate your hypothesis.”

To maximise the probability of success, he said, effort has to go in the right direction – that is, one that brings the right outcomes for the organisation.

Sachdeva went on to propose that product creators need to ask the “who” and “why” questions.

“Who is the user? Understand their needs, understand their context, understand the possibilities and limitations of their environment which would make their business succeed. At the heart of it is to spend time understanding what your customers need and want … make sure what you are building has a user need attached to it.”

Another crucial guiding principle is to first understand problems before leaping to solutions. “Identify problems to solve, set outcomes to achieve… Don’t jump to solutions. Have a hypothesis, have a problem-solving mindset. Identify assumptions in your hypothesis.”  

Next, Sachdeva said he feels that it’s important to know your “North Star” and your business model.

A “North Star” is your central guiding principle. And no matter what your business model, whether you are a subscriptions-based company or an advertising-focused one, you must focus on your key revenue activities and know what your metrics of success are.

He gave the example of how, when building the startup portal “Garage” for The Business Times at SPH, they started with the basics of creating a business plan, identifying the customer, the target segment, the competition, their value proposition and all the necessary elements of an entire blueprint – all before launch.

Be data-driven and data-informed

Sachdeva focused the final segment of his presentation on how to be a data-driven organisation.

To be data informed means to look at analytics in order to test your hypothesis to make better decisions. As before, it also means to have a North Star and business metrics. Organisations should use leading and lagging indicators to tell where they are headed and also rely on trend analysis.

Sachdeva went on to share that predictive modelling is something that is very useful. This involves listening to signals from your customers’ behaviours and pulling them into a machine learning model. From there, you can try to predict future customer behavior and move your metrics towards targets you have set for yourself.  

This is different from the traditional approach of product creation in which new outlets copy what a competitor is doing, or they roll out a product purely based on a cool idea or maybe an available technology, often without proper planning or analysis.

Sachdeva went on to describe the challenge of being a product manager or designer in a media organisation. Someone in that role has to be patient in explaining new concepts, repeat it to various colleagues and do so with the same gusto and enthusiasm as if it’s the first time, every time.

The product manager has to be a master communicator, tailoring the message to each stakeholder and working with different divisions within the organisation.

He next showed some examples of products launched using the product-centric, data-led approach he described. Among them is a “news tablet” for readers who relish the comfort of turning pages, but albeit now on a digital device; a simplified checkout process for their subscription service; news and podcasts on the Google Home device; and a photo library service for creative use, focused on Asian images.  

Sachdeva said SPH also intentionally created so-called “habit loops,” by trying to create new habits in readers through techniques like gamification, using reward points and also a “spin the wheel” campaign. This helped to move the traffic needle and generated additional advertising revenue.

SPH also used machine learning to predict where their newspaper vendors were facing bottlenecks during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Using analytics data, they were also able to serve more targeted and personalised content by listening to over 50 behavioural signals.

Sachdeva concluded with this piece of advice: “At the heart of it is that you don’t build products just because you can. You build products because you’re listening to your customers.”

The advertising data journey

At Rev Media Group, the data journey began in 2016 when it was then known as Media Prima Digital, part of Malaysia’s mainboard-listed conglomerate, Media Prima.

They started by first identifying what data they had across their platforms. As a large organisation with 39 different brands and products, accessing the data and merging them onto a common platform was a challenge, and it took the organisation a year to complete that first project.

Once they had that data, they were able to grow their Adex yield and managed to attain an impressive yield of between 20 to 30 percent each year since. Being on the same data platform enables advertisers to target their audience better.

“We are a very content-centric company, but we try our best to work with our partners to make sure we (can) enter the market with a bit more complex product using our data,” said Rev Media Group’s Chief Product Officer Nicholas Sagau.

Rev Media has 15.1 million monthly unique users across their various platforms on both desktop and mobile. The various sites are grouped into different networks and mostly based on language. For example, there is the “English Network,” the “Malay Network,” the “Chinese Network” and a “News Network.”

Audiences are grouped based on personas for the purpose of data analysis – for example “Malay Urbanites,” “Entertainment,” “Jetsetters,” “Parenting,” and “Business.” They use these audience segments to pitch advertisers.

In the past two years, Rev Media has been gathering audience data insights on their 39 products and is able to track their audience online – where they came from and where they go.

This information has guided the team in deciding what types of content to produce, enabling them to personalise content and make content recommendations.

Last year, they were able to introduce more complex Adex products, like eCPM, and to optimise audience and network segmentation, helping advertisers better target users.

Having the audience data enables them to use their network to sell incremental reach to their clients. They can see from their data the additional sites which have similar, but not duplicated, content and sell this to advertisers – thereby increasing their reach and revenue and also boosting the value and return on investment for advertisers.  

Having more data allows them to further segment their audience.  

“It will continue to grow based on what product we want to build, what product we want to roll-out and what new solution we can offer to our clients,” Sagau said.

In the next few months, they expect to improve their audience experience with integrated data by tracking readers across all 39 products.

They also plan to implement capabilities such as cross-content recommendation based on networks and segments, page personalisation based on user patterns, and real-time audience data feedback for all five newsrooms.

Another project Rev Media Group is looking at is a “single sign on” to overcome the phasing out of third party cookies by various web browsers, including Google Chrome. They also have upcoming programmes to strengthen their collection of first-party data – that is, data that customers voluntarily provide publishers.

Sagau says they do not believe in forcing their users to sign in, but instead use incentives to encourage them to do so. Some of those benefits to users include content recommendations, rewards sign-ups, on-going rewards, and referral rewards. 

In closing, moderator Corrine Podger aptly summed up the session:

“That’s the business model canvas brought to life in a media context. None of this is new; we’ve just got to do it.”

About the author: Lee Kah Whye is Director at Project Mercury, a media business consultancy. Prior to this, he spent nearly 20 years at Reuters and was head of the news agency business for Asia. 

About the editor: Bill Poorman is an editor, writer, and media producer, living in the US. He lived in Singapore for six years up until 2020.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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