Why Publishers Need to Care About the Customer Experience

To succeed, we need to see our business as something more than just offering content to our users.


Content is king. You’ve probably heard that old saying before. But is it true? Bharat Anand, a Harvard Business School professor and author of the book ‘The Content Trap’ believes that publishers should look at other sources of income.

In an episode of Harvard Business Review’s ‘IdeaCast’ podcast he talks about how media companies should instead focus on the needs of their users, not on the content.

Make sure they’re connected

He mentions Norway’s Schibsted as an example. In 2010, when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, VG Nett (the online branch of the Norwegian newspaper VG, owned by Schibsted) discovered something interesting. What the readers needed the most wasn’t articles on how or why volcanoes erupt. Instead they wanted something more down to earth and, to them, practical.

Anand explains:

What they noticed very early on is people just posting messages on the website saying, how do I get from Oslo to Trondheim? Is anyone going? So it turns out, all air travel in Norway was disrupted. All planes canceled. And essentially, people just wanted to figure out ways to get from point A to point B. Other folks responding saying, yep, I’m driving a car. I can pick up three people at the train station at 3:00 PM.

Therefore VG acted fast and created the service/app ‘Haikesentralen’ (‘Hitchhiker’s Central’ in English) where people could arrange car-pooling and thereby help each other.

The success of the Hitchhiker’s Central has affected the way, VG cover crisis:

It gave rise to a fundamental question within the newsroom, which they now use to cover any major crisis, just how can we help readers help each other?

This is very much about connecting users.

And that is insight that you — according to Anand —won’t get to if you only view yourself as a media company or publisher whose job it is to produce content and deliver it to users. Instead it is about seeing yourself from the user’s perspective; find out why they come to you and what their needs are.

Classified information

Anand also talks about the income, newspapers have had in classifieds and the connections they create between readers/users:

It turns out, if you take a step back and you ask the question what was the impact of the internet on newspapers? The story we often instinctively might come up with is online news is faster, it’s cheaper, it has more variety, it has a rich media, it’s personalized. So online news actually really destroyed print news.
It turns out, that story is more or less wrong. By now, what we know is the main reason newspapers were destroyed had much less to do with the content they were offering, and much more to do with another revenue stream for newspapers, which was classified advertising, which accounts for about 40% of the revenue of a typical newspaper, more than half of the profits. So classifieds fundamentally, is a connected product.

(This, by the way, related to a point I’ve been trying to make for many years: That people never actually bought newspapers because of the content but because of the service the newspaper has to offer: What has happened in the world, country or community that I need to know about?)

Classifieds were discussed recently in the Danish press. Journalisten (a magazine for journalists, photographers and communicators published by The Danish Union of Journalists) ran a story on the ‘Fat Cat Syndrome’ in the Danish media/newspaper industry. In short, the syndrome is that newspapers were to slow to develop digital products and revenue streams (both new and existing) because they made good money on print and didn’t want to hurt that business.

Journalisten talked to Geir Terje Ruud (who was editor in chef of ekstrabladet.dk (where I work in the development department) from 2008 to 2012). He mentions Schibsted’s revenue in classifieds:

Last year Schibsted had a turnover of 4,6 billion Danish kroner [roughly 650 million US dollars] in classifieds online. Profit: 1,3 billion Danish kroner [180 million US dollars].
The number is so big that it hardly compares to anything in the Danish media market.
Geir Terje Ruud, former editor in chef at Ekstra Bladet and former news chief at VG, says that Schibsted show that media companies can make money online with the right strategy.
“Schibsted has understood the technological development better than others. Today there are everywhere”

Dorthe Bjerregaard-Knudsen has a different point of view. She is Executive Vice President, COO at JP/Politikens Hus which owns, among other publications, Ekstra Bladet.

Journalisten talked to her as well:

“Journalism is our core. We will never move away from it. It’s the basis on which everything else is built,” she says.

This is one of Anand’s points. That you need to be careful not to focus too much on the content, whereby you risk becoming too sender oriented. It’s about always being aware of what your users demand and need.

Focus vs. expansion

But… Aren’t you as a company suppose to be careful not to branch out over too many different things? Isn’t there a risk that the company loses its focus? The host on the HBR podcast asks Anand these questions. His answer:

[…] for a long time, the major prescription that we used to offer companies was focus on what you do best. Narrow your product focus. Think about your core competence. In a sense, that’s true, particularly in mature businesses. You want to really think about what you do well. On the other hand, when growth slows down, or in digital worlds where value can often be redistributed pretty seamlessly across parts of the ecosystem, you want to think more expansively. And so the idea of complements really cuts against that grain.

You, as an organization, doesn’t have to deliver these ‘complements’ yourself, he adds:

Again, the idea is not that I want to necessarily offer every complement by myself as an organization, but I’d like to make sure that where I can– those complements– offer to my customers. So whatever I can do to stimulate the provision of complements, I want to do that.

Closer to the users

The approach to try and see yourself from the users’s perspective isn’t new; it is something that has been practiced for years in the design and user experience (UX) field of work. And here it is worth nothing that a recent book about Danske Bank’s (the largest bank in Denmark) way out of its crises is titled ‘There is only one boss — the customer!’.

But this approach is new to media companies. I believe that one of the big reasons behind this is our background in journalism. Here you pride yourself on telling people want they need to hear instead of what they want to hear (at least that’s one of the basic ideas). This is fine for journalism but it isn’t necessarily the right way to do it for media companies.

Mads Kristensen, who previously worked for Berlingske (another big Danish media company) among others has written about the importance of looking at the user’s ‘job to be done’; meaning what it is the user needs to get done and how your product can help. Basically, it’s exactly the same as I’ve mentioned above but it’s a method that can make user involvement more tangible and easier to grasp.

Movie theaters is another of Anand’s examples. Some cinemas have started to offer babysitting while mom and dad go and see a movie.

I think the key in all these examples is really thinking hard about the customer experience, as opposed to thinking about the product. If I thought about my business as offering movies, there is simply no way I would think about babysitting services.

To stretch the metaphor a bit, you might say that we media companies need to find our babysitting services. Or our Hitchhiker’s Central.

But to get there we need to know and understand our users better. Let’s start there. Right now a lot of publishers (in Denmark and elsewhere) are learning that it’s very hard to do business solely on content.

Read more:

○ Listen to the episode of the IdeaCast podcast with Bharat Anand at Harvard Business Review: ‘How Focusing on Content Leads the Media Astray’ (also available in iTunes or where ever you find your podcasts)

The Wikipedia article on the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.

Schibsted’s annual report for VG from 2010 where you can read more about the Hitchhiker’s Central.

○ …and the Hitchhiker’s Central is still online, it appears.

○ Read Journalisten’s article on Fat Cat Syndrome in the Danish newspaper business (in Danish).

○ Journalisten’s article ‘What can Danish media learn from Schibsted?’ where Geir Terje Ruud talk about Schibsted’s profits on classifieds (in Danish).

○ Read about the book ‘There is only one boss — the customer!’ (about Danske Bank’s way out of its crisis) at Gyldendal Business.

○ Mads Kristensen’s article ‘Find the customer’s jobs-to-be-done’ about focusing on the needs of the customers (in Danish).

○ Mads Kristensens artikel ‘Find kundens Jobs-to-be-done’ om at sætte brugeren og vedkommendes behov i fokus.

○ Photo: Public Domain Pictures / Pexels


(This article first appeared in Danish on my Medieblogger blog)