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Filling the product strategy gap

By Debbie McMahon, Product Director & Apps

When you start somewhere new as a Product Leader, particularly if it’s a new industry, how do you make an impact and support your Product Managers and by extension the product teams when inevitably you are on a steep learning curve? This was my question to myself starting at the FT several months ago.

My conclusion: double down on making sure I really understood, bought into and enhanced the product strategy, and make sure I do the same with my team and wider stakeholders.

It turned out not to be quite as simple as that. A very clear subscriptions strategy had been set out by the then CPO, reorientating the FT around pillars, and calling out different customer journeys for Enterprise users and individual users. And when I looked at the work the teams were doing it was definitely pointing in this direction.

However, it was clear there was a pretty big gap between that super high-level picture and the level teams were operating at, and they were crying out for that gap to be filled. Not least my tech director, very kindly pointing out in about week 2 that there wasn’t really a product strategy for the group and what was my plan!

So rather than doubling down on what was there as I had hoped, I set about building the next level of detail on the strategy specifically for the individual user part of the business, quickly. Not what I had anticipated doing before I started but that is half the fun isn’t it!

The process bit

I believe in starting from where you are, and working with my tech, design and delivery peers I clarified that there were five pretty clear objective areas that fitted well into the overall picture of our business: Acquisition, Retention, Experience, Maintenance and Growth. We agreed these were useful business drivers, but they were not well understood, so I now needed some help turning them into something evidenced and focused enough to build a strategy with.

I concluded I didn’t want to do this only with my Product Managers, or even only within the product discipline. If I was going to go quickly and get broad agreement I needed a wider group involved. This led to me using a representative from each key area of the FT who had a real stake in how the subscription business for individuals needed to evolve over the coming years, facilitated by our Design Director. This kept the group under 10 which was small enough for good discussion but broad enough to not feel too exclusive.

I won’t bore you with the process we went through over the course of about six weeks and four sessions, but for a newbie the conversations were invaluable and there were so many nuggets that I still refer back to from that source material several months later.

What did I learn?

That work solidified a few things. For example, we needed to much more clearly orientate the work we were doing to individual types of users (for example Enterprise users, or individual consumers), rather than the more generic ‘everyone’ audience that had been the case before. We needed to set an aspirational growth level (meaning my growth team could much more clearly focus on lower cost as the main lever for growth instead of trying to cover every base). And it really centred our technical strategy on the need for simplification to better support experimentation over the coming months and years.

There were some really clear themes; greater relevance and personalisation, product right-sizing, experimentation and expansion of our audiences that flowed through everything and really helped show visually where our strategy needed to take us.

One of the exercises we did was agree on a scale where we are and where we need to be. For example, if the scale is from ‘tailored/personalised content’ to ‘the same FT for everyone’, where are we now and where do we want to be?

Here are two examples of the useful diagrams we produced.

Diagram showing a scale. Detail in text below.

Today we are mostly focused on products for existing audiences. In 3–5 years we want to be about mid-way between products for existing audiences and products for new audiences.

Diagram showing a scale. Detail in text below.

Today we are mostly FT ‘one-to-all’ with about 30% of a user’s experience tailored to them. In 3–5 years we want to be the other way round; about 70% of a user’s experience is more personalised to them.

….well, with a slide deck… always a slide deck isn’t it! But definitely with something that was easily communicable, relatively short and — crucially — focused. I was very clear this was as much about what not to do as what to do. No matter how interesting, if something doesn’t fit, it’s not in. Below is the one page snapshot to give you an idea of what the output looks and feels like.

And now for the big reveal…

Ultimately you won’t be surprised to hear me say that as a subscription business we concluded our strategy was to continue to grow.

The more interesting bit is how. The slide above outlines a focus on widening our acquisition funnel to new audiences and markets, but crucially with new products, new product offerings or new pricing propositions to support that.

In super-simple terms finding cheaper price points and new entry points to showcase some of our exceptional content to a wider audience, in more relevant and personalised ways, than our current core offering is targeted at delivering to.

Not an uncontroversial end point for a premium proposition with relatively stable packages and small product set, as you can imagine!

This strategy then flows through both the customer experience and retention objectives very naturally. We need a more relevant and personalised experience to make that overarching strategy work, and then your retention journey then becomes about making sure we offer you the right product at the right price rather than just the right price.

So what did articulating this strategy help with?

An example of something this helped with happened straight away. The organisation, and consequently one of my teams who look after the main FT app, had been wrestling with a decision for a while: what role did the app play in the product offering? Was it just for improving the customer experience, or was there more to it?

Because of our clarification of the strategy, the decision on what to do with the app became crystal clear to me (and thankfully the team’s product manager as well). The app was a new entry route that could attract new audiences, and since that was the core of the strategy that was immediately what the team could get focused on. Thanks to the handy coincidence of the the advent of the ‘Reader app’ from Apple, getting on with that was easier than we originally thought, and we are now well underway with working on in-app purchase, turning the app into a true acquisition opportunity.

A decision that had been sitting on the table in the org for at least a couple of years became really easy when the strategy was clear.

Articulating the strategy has not only improved the quality of decision making from my PMs, it has increased clarity for our stakeholders and supported a much more joined up strategy across product and technology within our group.

So what is next?

Well, it’s now time to think about 2023, and this year I feel we can go much more bottom up. The strategy is roughly set so I am already looking forward to the conversation with my team in a couple of weeks about the three big bets they want to make next year.

Alongside that, making the 2023 version of the strategy more visual and hence more aspirational is definitely in my plans, based on feedback. The basics are there but it’s now time to lift it up a notch and really make sure it resonates across the organisation and that the data we have gotten from 6 months or so of delivery helps sharpen it and drive us forward.



A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology department.

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