Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Product mindset: What is a product manager?

As your news organisation develops its product mindset, a key employee to help you implement your strategy will be your product manager.

The role

First we should define the role. Christopher Cummings, vice president of product management at internet company Lycos, says that product managers:

  • Identify profitable opportunities that meet market needs.
  • Launch products into the market.
  • Oversee products already in the market.
  • Wind down products that no longer meet market needs.

For those unfamiliar with the role, they sometimes confuse project and product managers, says Syed Karim, Media Development Loan Fund Director of Innovation and Digital Strategies. Project managers focus on the small details and deadlines of delivering a project, but the product manager has the big picture, wholistic view of your organisation and understands how the various products fit together.

Also, a project manager isn’t responsible for the profit and loss, the business performance, of a product, but a product manager is. This means that a product manager in a news outlet should have a good understanding of the whole news organisation’s business, as well as a detailed knowledge of products themselves.

Skills required

For a digital product manager, you need someone who understands both technology and business, says Syed. Digital product managers often have a business background, and while they are usually not technical staff who are able to develop software or web applications themselves, they have a good understanding of the technical issues involved in creating and maintaining the products.

More importantly, he added, “they have a strong understanding of the users’ perspective.” Syed sees news and media organisations as “relationship engines”, and the product manager manages the “relationship between the audience that they have created and advertisers who want to access that audience.”

This echoes a point that Ross Settles, MDLF Senior Advisor for Digital Media, makes that the first key step in developing a product mindset is to have an audience-led view of the marketplace.

The product management process

Product managers sit at different places in different organisations. In well-developed digital companies some senior product leaders, such as Erik Tilleby, manager and head of development for Teknomedia, report directly to the CEO. Teknomedia is a media production company owned by regional Swedish publisher Norrköpings Tidningar Media (NTM). NTM group consists of nine newspapers and five TV stations. Teknomedia has “four legs”, working to develop the content-management systems, advertising management services, an audio-video department and web development. Teknomedia provides both NTM and external customers with content-management systems. About half of Teknomedia’s work is for NTM and half of the work is for outside companies.

While Teknomedia is clearly at a more advanced stage of development than most news businesses in emerging markets – and more developed than most in advanced markets – there are lessons that apply to all businesses that want to develop digital products.

One of the key lessons when dealing with digital products is that the development process takes time and this requires more forward planning than news businesses are used to. At Teknomedia, they are currently working on products that will be released in a year to 18 months.

New products start first with a customer need. That customer might be a news outlet within the NTM group or one of Teknomedia’s external customers. The product – see our separate article on digital products – might be a new feature for an existing product identified by a customer, or the idea can come from Teknomedia itself.

Once a new product gets approval, then the product manager works to set priorities.

“We meet with editorial staff and journalists who get the product when it’s finished. We have a brainstorm meeting. We look at different angles that we could attack the problem,” Tilleby said. Out of those meetings, the product managers decide which features are must-have and which are only nice-to-have.

However, the process is an organic one. If during development a nice-to-have feature is determined to be a must-have, then it is re-prioritised. And that is not just during the development of the product. Tilleby said:

We see all of the process as organic. New things come in. Old things go out. Even after product is released, we still do this. This part doesn’t work, and we don’t get any revenue here. So we add a new part and it’s making money now.

Product managers are key to keeping all products in review and as profitable as possible, which helps NTM to maintain its lead in the digital transition. Although they currently have a strong presence in both newspapers and television, they know that the media market is changing.

“For every news organisation that works with paper, that is a medium that is going to disappear. No one knows when it is going to happen but it is going to happen,” he said.

NTM is working on multiple platforms to spread the risk, and they are moving into the web, mobile, tablets and television. However, their product thinking is led by their market focus: local advertising and local information. That is their unique offering and the key focus of all the products that they develop.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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