VG’s Chief Product Officer: ‘If you don’t work on user needs, you won’t succeed’

Schibsted-owned news publisher VG occupies the dominant position in Norway’s media landscape. Established as a print newspaper in 1945, the brand has grown to become the country’s No. 1 digital platform with 3 million unique visitors every day across devices.

by Brian Veseling | April 1, 2021

That’s nearly 60 percent of Norway’s total population (5.4 million) and makes them even bigger than Facebook within the country.

Listening to Ola Stenberg, VG’s Chief Product Manager during WAN-IFRA’s recent Digital Media India virtual conference, it quickly became clear that while the Norwegian brand might well be proud of its top spot, the company is intensely focussed on growing its business by meeting the needs of both its current and future users.

While noting that the brand has grown and developed along with its current user base, (VG launched its website in 1995, for example), they know their future depends on appealing to younger users, those between the ages of 15 and 24.

VG attracts an average of 200,000 younger users daily, Stenberg said, but they realise the potential is much bigger. 

“This is really important for us, both because we want to have young readers, but also because it’s important for us to really understand the next generation,” he said.

Balancing the needs of different generations

The average VG user today is a male, 47 years old, whose lifetime has been very much in sync with the shifts and developments that VG has made in terms of moving into the digital age – also a signature of the Nordic digital savviness.

As far as this average user is concerned, what VG has done is great, or at least “good enough” to keep them satisfied, Stenberg said.

However, he added, it’s not even close to good enough when it comes to the next generation, such as a modern 20-year-old female who has grown up with Facebook, YouTube, the iPhone, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and the many other platforms and devices that have launched and evolved during her lifetime.

“There is a really big difference between these two users. We have a lot of the male, 47, but we need a lot more of the younger people,” he said.

“Things are changing, and they are changing really fast, but we can’t just switch everything because the average user, the 47-year-old male, is happy. But the young people will demand a whole different set of things from us, and this is really difficult,” he added.

Ultimately though, VG is still selling newspapers, Stenberg said.

I always say that I can talk as much as I want about product strategy, but our most important product is our journalism. It always will be. That is not changing,” he said.

Moving away from silos

One major challenge in trying to adjust for the future is the need to move away from the silos that have developed in recent years as more and more products have developed.

“We are doing a lot of different things on our digital platforms. We have our front page. We have our VG Live service for sports results. We have a TV operation. We have sports. We have a news studio. We’re doing niches, podcasts. And one problem is that our readers don’t think of these as silos, they only think of all of this as VG. ‘I saw it on VG,'” he said.

“For us, it has been a fact for years that we have been working in silos. … we’re too silo-driven and that’s important to talk about right now because we need to gather internally to make a product that fits the users. And then we need to meet the digital expectations of beyond ‘man, 47’ because he is not the solution for our future.”

Understanding the needs of users

Along with increasing expectations from users, Stenberg said, there is also an increasing amount of touch points. And this, he added, is where things can get complicated because the world is evolving.

“The problem has been that we have been too full of ideas – internal ideas – from people like me, from editors, from other people in management. But it’s not up to us to define what we should do, it’s up to the users. Before you come along with great ideas, you should get together with users and understand what their needs are.”

Specifically, he said, these questions need to be asked and answered before developing any new product:

  • What problem are you solving? What’s the job to be done? (Value proposition)
  • Who does it solve a problem for? (Target group)
  • How many do we solve a problem for? What is the potential?
  • What are the alternatives for this problem? (Competitors, etc)
  • Why do we have to solve this?
  • Why now? (The right timing)
  • How is this solution going to be exposed and get users?
  • What is success? (Metrics, business model)
  • What are the most critical prerequisites to succeed?

These questions, and how they are answered, will help to open up more creativity around user needs and you will end up with more outcome, Stenberg said. “And outcome is really important because you need outcome, not output.”

Desirability, feasibility and viability

In addition, he said there are a few things that are crucial to making something happen.

“The first is desirability. Desirability is about needs. What are the user needs? If you don’t work on user needs, you won’t succeed,” he said.

“We also talk a lot about feasibility, which is the technical part of it,” he continued. “Is it technically possible to do? If your editor has a great idea, but your tech people tell you it will take seven months to solve, maybe it’s not that good of an idea.”

And then there’s viability: “Can we make money on this?”

He also stressed the importance of the cultural part of product development.

“It’s so important to have everyone around the same table. If we are to solve a problem around news, we need to have editorial at the table. We need to have product there and tech there. We need to have developers in order to understand the technical possibilities. And we have to have UX: we need to have the product designers around the table to understand the user needs,” he said.

You also have to check to see if you should do more research or if you need more data, Stenberg said. 

All of this should in turn be supported by KPIs, or OKRs (objectives and key results), or whatever you like to work with, he added.

Looking ahead: Relevance

“If you ask me what is the next big thing for VG for the next 10 years, it’s about relevance: It’s about being more relevant to the user,” he said. “If we do things that are more relevant for every user, we will create more value over time. We will succeed with loyalty, and that in the end will lead us to customer satisfaction.”

Furthermore, getting everyone on the same page is crucial for success.

“This is something we talk a lot about at VG,” he said. “Starting with empathising with the users and defining the problems with that insight. When you have done that you can start generating ideas together. And when you have done that, you can prototype it and then you take the prototype back to the user to check it again. And then you can start to build your first version of the product. This is something you have to do, and if you don’t do it, you will waste time.”

Mission Teams

For the past few months, VG has been trying something it calls “Mission Teams.”

Anyone can propose a “mission,” Stenberg said, but they have to answer the following questions first:

  • What is the problem we’re solving and for who?
  • Why is it critical to solve it right now?
  • How will this contribute to our OKRs?
  • When do we succeed, and how will we measure it?

“If you cannot answer these questions, we will not work on it because this is helping us to reduce the amount of time we waste,” he said.

He added that this process is working really well for them so far because now they can see both what will work and what will not work much earlier.

Something else they are doing is sharing insights.

“Once a month we meet up across all teams and divisions in VG to share what we’ve learned. To be able to move effectively in the same direction, we have to have a shared understanding of our insights.”

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