Six Essentials for Building Digital Products in Media, Information & Publishing

No publisher can survive in future without learning how to create successful digital products across web and mobile platforms – but this involves acquiring a whole set of new skills as well as implementing momentous cultural change.

The Information Industry Network (IIN) brought together some digital pioneers willing to share the ups and downs of their NPD journeys at their Building Digital Products mini-conference on 19 March 2015 in London.  Leaders of respected niche publishers like Sift, Apptitude, Aroq, EditorEye and TeamRock talked about their digital experiences and agencies FEB and Byte9 contributed their perspective.

Here are some of the essential skills for building successful digital products:

1. Articulating the vision

Digital products need to be sharply focussed on a carefully defined audience that has a clear information need, but the scope can be multi-media and international.

Ciarán O’Toole, Co-Founder of TeamRock, stated his vision very simply: “to power the global rock and metal community”.  He’s targeting a very specific audience of rock and metal fans, who he feels were previously underserved, but at a global scale, and across a multitude of channels, served by content from established brands like Classic Rock and Metal Hammer, and with a common taxonomy and tech platform.

Jeremy Phillips, COO of EditorEye (and co-founder of recently sold niche publisher StrategyEye) shared tips on assessing markets or industries to focus on: those with lots going on, plenty of change, lack of visibility, and people with big budgets.

2. Collaborative idea development

Andrew Leighton, Director of Product Development & Licensing at niche B2B publisher Aroq, has got some of his best NPD ideas from customer complaints. He casts the net wide for ideas, enlisting the whole company, but insists on validation from informal, exploratory customer conversations.  A winning idea is developed into a value proposition canvas, and then their in-house development team build a simple prototype, which is then tested again with customers.  Aroq may iterate and re-test prototypes two or three times before moving to full development.  And of 4 or 5 ideas that get to prototype stage only one may make it through.

Vaughan Evans, Co Founder of FEB Digital, also advised in-depth conversations with prospective users: exploring their pain points, workflow, behaviour patterns and alternative information options.  He strongly recommended mining analytical user data alongside qualitative conversations, and reviewing an organisation’s internal capabilities across technology, skills and processes when assessing the attractiveness of different opportunities.

3. Evolving business models

Publishers can select from a range of business models for new digital products, depending on their target market.

Ben Heald, CEO of Sift, has found a model of free, registered content provides greater coverage of a professional market, and as long as the audience is actively engaged, that provides opportunities for high ticket bespoke marketing solutions for blue chip advertisers.

Jeremy Phillips outlined the thinking behind a paid subscription model: identifying high value business decisions that lack good data, building strong content, structure and functionality, and then using selective free content, social and e-newsletters to develop a large database of prospective leads.

TeamRock operate more of a freemium model: they publish plenty of free content, but have developed a paid subscription, TeamRock+, which permits access to premium content from all their brands. Free content attracts casual readers and is funded by advertising; the real focus is on converting casuals to paid members.They monetise the casual reader through advertising but focus on converting casuals to members.

4. Building in-house promotion

Ciarán O’Toole believes that having excellent distribution to a target audience is even more important than good content.  TeamRock owns a radio station as well as print magazines, websites and apps, and uses this intensively to promote all their products and live events.  Their approach is underpinned by a single login system, TRid, which allows subscribers to access multiple types of content, and permits TeamRock to track their behaviour.

Marc Hartog, CEO of Apptitude Media, explained the visibility challenge on the Appstore, and how they have tackled this by building their own promotional channels, and creating an authentication tool, subsplus, which provides subscribers with a code to access British Journal of Photography apps, thereby bypassing Apple’s 30% cut.

5. Embracing agile development

Agile development methodology works well for new digital products and evolving customer needs, as working products are delivered early, then rapidly iterated according to user feedback.  Angus Phillipson, Founder and MD of Byte 9, stated that agile processes can save developing up to 30-40% of the initial requirement set if they are not valued by users.  But it is more challenging to deliver agile in publishing organisations than many realise.  It requires a wide range of expert skills, well-oiled processes, and an ability to translate requirements into development timescales.

TeamRock, Sift and Aroq have their own in-house development teams, but there are still cultural challenges getting support from editorial, marketing and commercial teams for the agile process.  The philosophy of “just barely good enough” products was at first challenging for journalists.  Angus Phillipson advocated outsourcing to medium sized developers to obtain the benefits of expert technical skills and a proven agile process.

6. Changing culture

Successfully launching digital products is as much about organisation and culture as it is about technology.  Aroq encourage the whole company to submit ideas for new products – so long as they have validated with a customer.  After two false starts, Sift had the greatest success with developing their new Drupal platform when it was fully backed by the entire publishing team.  And embracing agile means that project champions have to be prepared to see many of their ideas fail: it’s important to celebrate the “execution of a disciplined experiment” said Ben Heald, not just the financial successes.  Ciaran of Team Rock advocated simply hiring great people and enabling them to do their job backed up by good data, processes and technology.

There’s no getting away from the reality that developing digital products is hard work, in a very fast-changing environment.  But the lesson from the stories shared at the IIN event is that by having clear focus on an attractive market, engaging early with prospective customers, taking a flexible approach to business models, thinking multi-channel from the start, building in-house promotional channels, embracing agile development and creating the right culture, it is quite possible to build successful digital products in a media, information and publishing business.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has launched, acquired, grown and sold media businesses across print, digital and live events.  A co-founder of the Specialist Media Show, sold to SIIA, parent of IIN, in 2013, she has wide experience of niche publishing businesses, and advises many media owners on their digital strategy.  Follow Carolyn on twitter @carolynrmorgan or read her blog at