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How The Wall Street Journal uses a focused approach to build product thinking

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How The Wall Street Journal uses a focused approach to build product thinking

2021-07-02. The culture of working in silos has often been a major stumbling block for traditional news media houses in their digital transition process.

The changing times demand collaborative work of multiple departments converging to a single goal. The Wall Street Journal has made this possible through its MACU-focused approach.

MACU stands for Members, Audiences, Customers and Users. For the WSJ team, MACU is not just semantics, it is an approach that helps them to develop a product culture in the newsroom.

“MACU is both about what you focus on and how you work together,” said Louise Story, Chief News Strategist and Chief Product and Technology Officer at The Wall Street Journal to the participants of the recent WAN-IFRA Newsroom Summit. It brings together several disciplines including the newsroom, customer service, product design and technology and membership, all driven by a common purpose.

Why? Because we need out-of-the-box answers. We need to do things differently and when you bring different disciplines together, it really helps, says Story.

Driven by a common goal

Companies are working in a more ground-up iterative fashion today, Story says.

“If you want to do that, your teams at every level have to understand what you are driving towards and why. Part of what MACU-focused thinking allows you to do is to give real clarity that everyone in all these different teams is working towards the same thing,” she says.

One of the biggest questions any media company has to align around, Story says, is “What are we doing here? Are we just trying to get our stuff going somewhere, or are we serving the audience’s needs?”

Internal alignment of different departments is particularly important for publishers that face resource scarcity.

“When you don’t have resources to do what everyone wants to do, you need to come together and agree on how you are going to use them,” she says.

After joining WSJ in 2018, Story worked with the previous Chief Product and Technology Officer to come up with a common roadmapping process across the main stakeholders. Two central goals were agreed on: increasing engagement and increasing unique visitors per month.

“We created a grid in which you can plot everything you have done and how it’s done on either of the two dimensions,” she says. “Some things do well in one dimension, some do well in both dimensions. When we want to do something new, we’ll look at it and we’ll work with our data scientists and think together.”

Building a structure around MACU-focused thinking

Instilling MACU-focused thinking required the company to have an organisational structure designed around it too. So, five main pillars or groups with people from different disciplines in each were set up. These were:

  1. Audience insights, which deal with user research data
  2. Audience touchpoints that look at the subscriber journey (paywall, onboarding, etc.)
  3. Content experience, which looks at editorial tools and the CMS, article template, the storytelling page and so on, essentially focusing on the front end experience
  4. Community audience team that focus on everything from newsletters to virtual events to Q&A to comments
  5. Programming strategy teams that have SEO experts and strategy editors embedded in them.

“There are developers, data scientists and designers working with all these groups. They report to managers in their respective disciplines but are embedded in work in these groups,” Story says.

User research is vital

It is no easy task to align every department in a media house around a common goal given how differently each of them functions. At WSJ this was handled with the help of user research.

“Any new thing requires some kind of product experience change, sometimes even major technology changes in the backend and some new form of content. We have done pretty much everything out of user research, and sharing that with people has really helped,” Story says.

In 2019, the team did extensive surveys on what people were interested in around the elections. Among other things, a particularly interesting finding was that a number of people told them they like forming new habits.

On seeing such a result, one’s immediate instinct would be to look for ways to make people develop the habit of reading their publication. But at The Wall Street Journal, the team gave it further thought. After all, the people didn’t say they want to make a habit of WSJ. So they did further research on what kind of habits people liked to make and found it was around fitness, money and so on.

“Then we said if we help them with the things they want to make habits on, the spin-out effect will be that they will make a habit of us,” Story says.

Putting user needs first

One of the strategies that have helped the team significantly to bring in audiences, as well as to convert them, is to produce content that guides people around things like personal finance and careers, Story says.

The special subscription pack for college and university students is another product that has done well. The key is to understand the user’s needs and to let them guide every action of yours.

“This kind of thinking applies everywhere. The product and tech you are building, the stories you write, the stories you market more, advertising,” she says.

One of the things The Wall Street Journal has been focusing on is helping people make decisions.

“You’re going to design and build things differently if you are thinking ‘We want to help people make a decision’ instead of ‘we want to just update them,’” Story notes.

A successful feature that WSJ rolled out this year is “Read to me,” which is essentially reading the stories back to the user. It was initially built on a very small scale. But seeing the reception it received, the team was convinced they should commit more resources to it and it turned out to be a hugely engaging feature, says Story.

“We knew very clearly what percentage of length they were sticking with it, how long they listened to it, what percent of completion was there,” she adds. “We also look at things like when people do things, what does it do to their cohort. Do they come back more often compared to other people who didn’t take that action?”

Story, who started off her career as a journalist, draws some parallels between journalism and product building.

“In both, you need to listen. User research in product thinking is like reporting in journalism. You need to look at the data, you need to have an open mind and not let what is it that you want to build drive it. Go out and listen. Be an empirical thinker,” she says.

Source – https://wan-ifra.org/2021/07/how-the-wall-street-journal-uses-a-focused-approach-to-build-product-thinking/

Written by – Elizabeth Shilpa

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