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A focus on problems, not platforms

“Most users have lost trust in the breaking news products out there, and breaking news alerts have become an annoyingly sneaky way for companies to hit short-term wins.”

A new headline emerges every day to warn against building your business on someone else’s platform. Whether it’s Facebook changing its algorithm again, concerns with Apple News monetization, another pivot-to-video failure, or faulty podcast charts — the entire news industry is consumed by these “frenemy” relationships and the ensuing issues that result in misaligned incentives. In parallel, we’re seeing yet another rush towards shiny new objects like VR, AR, blockchain, AI, and IoT, which often seems like a frenzied attempt at “innovating.”

What will continue to lead media companies astray is not being grounded in the fundamental problem they’re solving for their audience. In any industry, the companies that will succeed over time and weather change are those that are aligned on the problems they’re solving now and in the future, and invest in user-first thinking to drive them along that journey.

At theSkimm, we’re often asked what we would do if people stopped using email. It’s pretty simple — we don’t believe the Daily Skimm is an email product. The Daily Skimm solves the problem of catching you up on what’s happening in the world so you feel like a confident, informed person starting your day. Today, that problem is well suited for email — the first thing our audience does when they wake up in the morning is check their email on their phone — but tomorrow that can readily adapt into to behaviors and routines our audience moves to instead.

This problem-first approach is a great opportunity for media companies to ground themselves in what they are best suited to do as technology rapidly changes. It also forces the entire organization to align around common goals and incentives. At theSkimm, we use our version of a product-thinking checklist that applies to any new product or content initiative:

  • What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  • What is the size of that problem and how is it being solved otherwise for our audience?
  • How are we uniquely positioned to solve this problem and differentiate from the market?
  • What are our success metrics? How should a user feel?

Here are some examples of how this can be applied to news to reframe how we approach a changing industry:

  • Morning rundown: The problem of giving someone the information they need to start their day is one of the oldest in news. Before the digital age, there were morning TV shows and commuters reading newspapers on their way to work. We’ve seen a pretty big spike in email newsletters the past few years thanks to the behaviors I referenced above, but it’s still too often that I hear people saying they want to start an email newsletter before talking about the core problem they’re trying to solve. Whether the delivery shifts to IoT devices, audio, or AR on glasses or a windshield, the morning news problem will always exist and also always be changing.
  • Breaking news: This might be the most bastardized user problem today, in that it’s no longer clear why or how companies are delivering this information. If we approach this user-first, this is pretty nuanced — how might we deliver a vital piece of information that a user needs to know about in the moment, independent of their daily routine? The filter for that can be debated and varies by different types of users, and the delivery mechanism should adapt to that nuance. What is the best way to “interrupt” someone in a way that balances the urgency of the information without being annoying? We’re seeing a lot of companies play with delivery mechanisms — push notifications, messaging, Slack, email, giant red banners across TV screens, and more — but very few seem to be grounding themselves in the core problem they’re trying to solve. That results in…noise. So much noise. Most users have lost trust in the breaking news products out there, and breaking news alerts have become an annoyingly sneaky way for companies to hit short-term wins. They’re focused on driving higher engagement with their content, instead of containing themselves to what a user really needs to know and be interrupted with.
  • Live: The concept of live content has been upended now that asynchronous consumption is king and users aren’t limited to TV and radio. What that leaves us with is trying to better understand the user problem that live content can solve when it’s not the only format available. Sports is obvious — live sports is entertaining and a need, since sports fans want to know everything that’s happening instantaneously. Similar to sports, users have a strong desire to watch major stories unfold live (e.g. the Brett Kavanaugh hearing), and that’s where companies have seen the most success. Beyond that, there isn’t much that a live experience uniquely solves for users, and it’s an important note to ground ourselves in as live continues to be a shiny object on different platforms.
  • Immersive storytelling: Great storytelling has a strong foundation with a lot of opportunity to innovate. The user problem here is very different from the morning rundown or other, more utilitarian, needs — it can be an escape, it can be entertainment, and it fundamentally elicits emotion. What’s great is we can have fun with some of the new technologies out there like VR in a way that creates better experiences and solutions to the problem at hand.
  • Interactive news: We’re seeing a lot of testing and innovation on platforms like messaging and voice devices, but very little understanding of the user problem. What is the benefit to the user of being able to go through a choose-your-own-adventure journey or a back-and-forth with a bot? Is it a more efficient user experience for content than using search or browsing topics in an app? (I’m skeptical.) Is it for entertainment, à la quizzes? Or is it to build a relationship with writers of a brand — and to what end? I’m all for trying out new formats, but this can quickly turn into a distraction and churn out users without any grounding in the goal.

The good news is that content will always be important, and delivering content to users to fit different needs is a problem that will always exist. In order to successfully adapt to changing behaviors and technologies, media companies will need to challenge themselves to be nimble to the problem at hand and not be wedded to specific platforms, delivery mechanisms, and business models.

is head of product at theSkimm.

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