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Putting the user first

Product development teams, with their focus on meeting user needs, play a key role in publisher success. Liv Horner, lead product manager at Haymarket Automotive and co-chair of the AOP Product Development steering group, gives us an insight into current priorities.

By Liv Horner

Putting the user first

Q: What is the main item on the AOP Product Development group’s agenda at the moment and why is it important?

A: One of our most popular topics is Google’s algorithm; it comes up at many of our meetings and I expect it will continue to do so.

Google’s algorithm updates happen by stealth and can overnight cause traffic to drop significantly. Whilst Google releases limited details on the updates made, it often leaves publishers scrambling to work out what they need to change to get back to their previous positions - and regain their lost users.

Some publishers are equally mystified when they gain rankings from an algorithm update, unable to pinpoint what has given them an edge. This can then lead to cautious development as there’s a risk of changing something Google likes and losing their newfound users. It’s essentially become like a game of snakes and ladders where you can be steadily progressing only to fall or accelerate against competitors when Google rolls the dice.

The steering group will discuss theories on what has been rewarded or penalised which helps shape iterations, but there’s an awareness a balance is needed between building for users and building for Google bots.

Q: What, typically, are the challenges publishers face when it comes to product development?

A: Product development in its essence should be simple – understand the objectives for a brand or company, and then set out a roadmap of features and improvements to achieve them. Publishers are well established at this, however in recent years, there have been an unprecedented number of external events and changes that have required space on the prized roadmap.

The introduction of GDPR and the legal requirement for a cookie banner (IAB TCF version 1 and 2) was the start of publishers’ ambitions being knocked back. Most recently we’ve had the Core Web Vital updates from Google which (while not legally required) meant publishers felt compelled to give up large amounts of development time to improving their site speed and performance - or risk rank reduction. Publishers collectively agree improving these helps give a better user experience, however the deadline was determined by Google.

Between these two we’ve also had major changes in the country with Brexit and the pandemic - with the impact of these varying from publisher to publisher based on sector.

Whilst reacting to external factors is critical for publisher success, the challenge is that it often shunts back development tied to original aspirations.

Q: In terms of organisational structure and company culture, what are publishers trying to do to improve product development performance?

A: Product has often been guilty of being out of sight for a lot of the business, it can be inherently more dry to showcase system upgrades (for example) than new editorial copy, or a new commercial partnership. However, I think publishers now are trying to promote the product team to showcase their progress and vision to as much as the business as possible with regular progress updates and demos.

Some publishers have competitions where anyone can submit an idea to the product team for A/B testing. It’s a great example of engaging all departments and generating fresh ideas.

Q: What have been the key areas of progress that the industry has made in the area of product development over the past few years?

A: Where publishers have seen a massive opportunity has been the decline of the third party cookie. It’s made their first party data incredibly important, and publishers are beginning to harness this in a way they’ve not before.

Having invested in understanding and sorting their data, publishers can tailor their site to their users, create bespoke signed-in and marketing experiences as well as seek out new commercial opportunities with ad audiences and lead generation.

Another area of progress has been publishers coming together to create industry standards, or pooling data to learn more about users within their sectors. The publishing world has never felt so collaborative and united.

Q: What projects / challenges do you expect to come to the fore in future meetings of your steering group?

A: As we leave covid restrictions behind us, many publishers have opted to keep a hybrid model of working from home and working in the office. Whilst this is good for a work / life balance, the challenge it creates is it reduces the number of opportunities for water cooler moments (using that as a broad term to cover any in-person interaction that can spark innovation or creativity).

As product usually interacts with all departments of the business, it is hard to align ourselves to office days where we overlap with everyone. So going forward, I think we’ll look to adapt to create our own innovative environments, whether that’s virtual, in-person or a blend of the two. As understanding the ambitions and pain points of the business is critical to a successful product roadmap.

Q: Looking more widely at product development within publishers, where do you suggest publishers should be focusing their efforts?

A: Ultimately, the golden rule should always be to put the user first, understand what they want and what you can give them. From that point, you can leverage this in whatever direction your publication wants to go in (subscription / ads / apps).

More specifically, I’d suggest investing in a good development team; their skills are in high demand at the moment and hiring them is becoming a stumbling block for many. A good dev team is often the secret behind publisher success as they’re able to build inline with the publisher’s ethos rather than having an out of the box solution shoehorned to fit.

Lastly, focus should be given to ensuring all departments know what the publisher’s vision is for their future; this will help align requirements and make prioritisation easy.

About us

Formed in 2002, the Association of Online Publishers [AOP] is a UK industry body representing digital publishing companies. We champion the interests of media owners from diverse backgrounds including newspaper and magazine publishing, TV and radio broadcasting, and pure online media.

Our steering groups are the life blood of the AOP and help build networking ties across the industry. Member organisations can input into the agenda, drive discussion, share learnings, and send key staff members to represent them in the meetings. Our current steering groups include: Commercial, Ad Ops, Research, Product Development, B2B, Audience Development, HR and JAB [Journalism Advisory Board].



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