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Product Management in a Publishing context

One of the first areas Informa’s Business Intelligence division invested in as part of its strategy to return to organic growth was product management. Ian Hart, who moved from being content director to a senior product manager at the company, looks at how the function has been implemented and what challenges it has for publishers.

By Ian Hart

Travelling into London to talk about product management at the IIN’s Digital Content Strategies event in April, it suddenly struck me: what if the audience already knew everything there was to know about product management? After all, Informa’s Business Intelligence division only introduced it within the past year and while many aspects had crossover with responsibilities in my previous role as content director, I had only been in the position for six months. I put this concern aside by telling myself this was my company’s journey that would inevitably be different from others.

In the end I needn’t have worried. When I asked the audience if they had product management in their business, or had even heard of it, only one person raised their hand.

What is Product Management?

Product management is not new. The modern interpretation has its origins in fast-moving consumer goods company Procter & Gamble’s ‘Brand Men’ who looked after each brand from end to end, including, uniquely for the 1930s, basing product development on formalised customer input.

Nor is it new in B2B publishing and information businesses, with the likes of Wolters Kluwer, IHS, Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg set up this way.

Definitions of product management vary from the dry (an organisational function within a company dealing with the planning, forecasting, production, or marketing of a product throughout its lifecycle) to the overly bold (the product manager is often considered the CEO of their product).

For me, product management should be considered to be “an independent team that uses customer-led evidence to own and help execute a strategic roadmap for a product or product set. By developing, maintaining and retiring products, product management supports the commercial targets of the business.”

Implementing the new function

The first step taken by Business Intelligence was to create a team independent from its verticals (Agribusiness, Financial, Maritime, Pharma, and TMT). As such, both the heads of vertical and heads of product management report into the managing director, formally separating the day-to-day running of the verticals (including the business management, sales, marketing, client services and editorial teams) from the product management function. This was a particularly important distinction for Business Intelligence which wanted product managers to assess market opportunity, gauge client and market problems and feed back into the business uninhibited by internal viewpoints.

Business Intelligence then chose training services company Pragmatic Marketing, which is widely used by technology companies where product management principles are flourishing, for a framework and training as a foundation for the function. Pragmatic Marketing uses a 37-point framework that spans strategic factors like market problems, product roadmap and business plans through to execution such as sales process and customer support.

Florian Fischer, an experienced product manager who joined Business Intelligence’s Maritime vertical this year, noted: “As product management was introduced, a conscious evaluation of responsibilities and accountabilities took place – a useful internal process that is continuing. For customers, it has meant a more formalised interface to discuss existing and future capabilities. Then for management, it has meant recourse to analysis by a new organisational resource and with a new tool kit that is oriented towards market problems and the identification of value for the customer.”

Solving market problems

Crucially for Business Intelligence, it makes one of those 37 points the cornerstone: market problems. Solving those provides value to customers and thus improves revenue for the business.

With Informa committing through its Growth Acceleration Plan to invest up to £90m by the end of 2017 to return every part of its business to organic growth, an unprecedented number of customer visits were held by Business Intelligence to support business cases. While led by product management, these activities also included management, marketing, sales, technical and other staff.

Guided by Pragmatic Marketing’s NIHTO (Nothing Important Happens In The Office) principle, hundreds of meetings with clients and prospective clients were organised around the world. The goal in the first instance was simply to understand their role, their organisation and how they use business information.

One day for me was as varied as meeting a leading trading company based in an Antwerp castle in the morning, a food manufacturer located by the side of a motorway in the early afternoon, before ending with a group of analysts at the European Parliament’s vast library in Brussels.

Inevitably, the conversation would turn to our current products and future plans. At times, conversations were difficult as customers would vent about their worst experiences with us. Largely, though, there was a willingness to suggest ways to improve, validation of the direction of investment – these people were giving up their time to help us improve the value of our products.

Leading to change

Some of the feedback led to rapid change, such as the following example on content strategy for Agra Europe, which monitors EU agricultural policy. We had had a hero piece of content marketing written with the help of an experienced reporter that had gone down really well with subscribers (not just prospects) but it was unclear precisely why. Internally, we also had the problem that this experienced reporter’s product content was somewhat hit or miss. During visits to Brussels, we found that while the content was timely and perceived to be of high quality, the key to its success was what was being described by clients as its ‘dossier’ format in a pdf. This saved them the pain of reformatting our long-form content into the way they are used to presenting it. Upon also finding that the experienced reporter felt he was sometimes struggling for sufficient topics to write in-depth content on, the editor of this product asked him to write fewer articles. However, what he would write would be presented in ‘dossier’ format (with links back to the same / related content on the website).

As feedback is now put into a structured format and analysed, it has had a more fundamental impact on our investment strategy. Moreover, the mind-set of the organisation has shifted. Specific views from named customers and analytical evidence has increasingly replaced generalisations or HIPPOS (highest paid people’s opinions).

At the Digital Content Strategies conference, I listed the following four statements I may have previously said but which now annoy me.

* All my contacts at the event were saying the change in the email alert was a bad thing.

* Our competitor has just started writing about a new topic. We have to do that too.

* Marketing have just had a consultant produce personas. They look great.

* We’ve got all this data. Let’s create a new section and see if people like it.

It is not that the above might not lead us in the right direction, rather that we should engage directly with those people who will ultimately pay for our products and services to establish the right response and its priority.

Hurdles to overcome

One challenge in introducing product management within a publishing business has been the interaction with a more traditional editorial and publisher set up. In the absence of a dedicated function, decisions on product development had often been driven by this group. Thus a balance between drawing on the experiences of that group (indeed, everyone in the business), direct customer feedback and analytics had to be found.

It was interesting to see how editorial staff reacted when the Pragmatic Marketing trainer provided a simplified view of where the product function sat within an organisation – connecting sales, marketing and development (see ‘triangle’ chart). Some felt that as their day-to-day activities and content strategy shaped the product, editorial staff were more akin to ‘development’ in a purer software company, whereas others felt that as they owned the strategy and had experience speaking to people in their areas of expertise they were more like ‘product’. In truth, it was just an incomplete model for our business. The debate concluded with recognition that different hats can be worn at different times but that speaking to people in the market about the market being reported on is a very different process to speaking to the same people about their job and pain points our products can address.

Ensuring feedback is structured and can have a broad impact is an ongoing process. Nicole Allen, another experienced senior product manager who joined the Agribusiness Intelligence vertical this year, noted: “I think one of the biggest opportunities is getting everyone on a centralised CRM system to better leverage customer feedback and to maximise knowledge sharing of sales from all of our customers.” Analysing that alongside the vast quantities of web, financial and other analytics is key to ensuring the customer voice is heard loudly across the organisation.

Certain skills and processes that are now ingrained to help product management in larger technology companies are yet to develop in Business Intelligence’s nascent version.

“However, the challenge to deliver the function’s benefits in a leaner set-up can help broaden skill sets of product managers,” added Mr Fischer. “Leadership through soft skills is also even more important than usual.”

Future within publishing

Product management is entering the publishing sphere primarily through B2B organisations with a data and software bias. Within Business Intelligence, it is conceivable that the function will make differing contributions to pure publishing products, data and software products, and consultancy solutions.

As Business Intelligence’s stated aim is to return organic growth, the product management function (as a group that preaches a data- and evidence-led approach itself) should expect its impact to be measured against a range of KPIs that contribute to this. This will be as true in years to come when Informa as a whole might be expected to rein back in its level of investment from that during the Growth Acceleration Plan.

Mr Fischer concluded: “In the end, product management is likely to help create value in different ways for different flavours of publishing, just like product management in engineering has evolved quite differently from product management in financial firms.”