Digital Publishing Top Stories
6 mins read

Six ways publishers can develop successful digital products

Digital product development is an increasingly important part of a publisher’s everyday processes, especially as the emphasis grows on creating value for readers over and above the competition. But it can be a challenging area, especially for businesses who may not be au fait with development methodologies outside of the publishing world.

At Making Publishing Pay, Immediate Media’s Product Director Laura Jenner explored what publishers need to do to successfully develop digital products. From focusing on the customer to defining the right success metrics, here are her tips.

1: Be clear about WHY

Before starting any project or developing a product, it’s crucial to ask two questions. The first is simply to ask why this is being developed. 

Why are we doing this? What is the outcome we’re trying to achieve? And by outcome, I mean a change in human behaviour that delivers business value,” Jener explained. “What is the thing that you want human beings to do that will deliver value for your company?”

Whether that’s returning to the site every day, purchasing something, downloading a new app or buying a subscription, it’s important to keep that goal in mind for the product as something that will enable this change in behaviour. 

The second question is around why are we doing this? “You need to ask yourself how you got to the point that we’ve decided that this is the step to take towards the outcome we’re trying to achieve,” Jenner said. It may well be, that with reflection, a product is not necessarily the answer to the particular issue or question.

2: Focus on the customer

But it’s not all about driving value for the business. Jenner has developed both print and digital products during her career, and for her, the biggest difference between the two is the focus on the customer. 

“One of the joys of writing for a print magazine is that you don’t actually know if anyone read your column, but you know that it was in a magazine” she explained. “Now with digital, you can know pretty much everything about everything that happens with the products that you build. And so it’s very, very important to focus in on those customers; what they’re doing and why.”

3: Prioritise the discovery phase

This focus on the customer should drive everything about product development, and Jenner recommends prioritising this early on in the discovery phase of a project, before any work is done.

“Discovery is about building the right thing. It’s not just on one person…it’s often data, UX, product design, marketing, editorial and more working together in what should be quite a fast, iterative process,” she outlined. “Some key themes for discovery are around who is the audience for this? Who is the customer? Who are the people that will come back every day? Who’s the target audience? What are their pains and needs?”

“There’s a big piece of discovery around the actual audience themselves and what they’re trying to do…it helps you stop falling in love with your solution, with the focus being on the research of the problem, not the solution.”

4: Be flexible with delivery dates

Setting a date for the delivery of a digital product is a very natural business thing to do, but Jenner warns that this seemingly straightforward act is at the heart of a lot of issues with product development. Missed delivery dates for digital products are something many publishers may have already come across, and this is often due to a lack of understanding at the start about how complex software delivery actually is.

“A date based on an arbitrary decision – such as ‘we need an app by Christmas’ – is setting yourself up to fail, because those dates are based on guesstimating the work involved in testing things and the size of the project,” said Jenner. If publishers are building something genuinely new, then much of the work involved will be tough to estimate.

Instead, Jenner recommends an iterative approach to delivery, focusing on the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and either extending the timelines, or reducing the scope to meet deadlines. “Airbnb didn’t launch in 14 countries; it started with just three apartments,” she said to illustrate her point. “If you’re willing to go a bit more rough-and-ready, then the time can be shorter, but that will compromise a bit on the quality and the scope.”

5: Communicate at all levels

As with most things in business, communication is vital to the success of digital product development. There are three groups likely to be involved in this kind of communication: stakeholders, teams and customers.

When it comes to communication with stakeholders, Jenner highlights the need to convey a genuine understanding of the problem that exists. “You don’t get buy-in in one meeting,” she emphasised. “Do [the stakeholders] genuinely understand the problem that you’re saying exists, and the solutions you’re proposing? And do they believe that what you’re saying is true?”

It’s easy to tell when this has happened as stakeholders begin advocating in favour of the product or project independently, and making decisions in support of it, whether that be budgets, resources or other considerations.

The second group it’s vital to communicate well with are the teams. This goes beyond just being told to build a feature or product, and instead relies on involving and empowering individuals. “These are some of the most creative minds in your organisation,” Jenner said. “They all understand different pieces of the puzzle, and if you let them help you address the problem, you might well end up with a much better solution.”

Team members need to be kept informed about the goal, and how their work fits into it, rather than just simply building features in isolation.

The final group who need to be involved in communications are the customers, which may sound counter-productive if there isn’t yet a product. “But if you know who your target market is because you did discovery, then you can do feasibility and usability research all the way through, from when you’ve just got something on paper, to beta tests and beyond,” said Jenner.

6: Define success metrics early on

Metrics are one of the key indicators of an output-driven process, and Jenner emphasised the need for tangible metrics, not just ‘a better product’. “Whatever outcome you’re working towards, you should have defined metrics for success that you can measure,” she said. “You should have the analytics in place from day one, that you’re tracking every single event that you need to track, or every pageview.”

But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that a product and the process to develop it may not hit the bullseye every time, and certainly not the first time. “It’s always useful to remember that if you can do it in some kind of iterative way, you can avoid the business catastrophe of missing the target the first time,” Jenner said. 

She also suggested using parallel launches or betas, where two products are being run alongside each other to measure the differences in user behaviour and satisfaction. 

Jenner gave the example of her work at Radio Times when they relaunched their listings product in beta and received complaints from some users. “We received [this feedback] in the beta, so by the time it went to launch, we had flipped the feedback to a point where it was 80% positive,” she explained. “We felt much more confident putting it out to the world than if we hadn’t done that parallel beta.”

For Jenner, these aspects all combine when developing digital products for customers, especially when looking to get value out of them. “A focus on that holistic discovery process up front, which leads you to lots of potential solutions to the problems you’ve identified can really pay dividends, if the customer is at the centre of everything you do,” she concluded.