Think Tank

Ana Bakalinova says ‘Having a product vision and aligning the teams on that vision is actually what a product manager does‘

Ana Bakalinova, Head of Product at dmg media, UK

Ana is Head of Product at dmg media UK. She is a senior strategic thinker at the intersection of editorial, technology and product development and is an experienced and entrepreneurial manager of people and digital products. A finalist in Women in Product Management in 2019, her expertise extends from digital product management to content syndication, and newsroom platforms to broadcast media. She started out by studying journalism, but then got caught up in the whirl that was technology in the 90s, before working for AOL, the Mirror, the BBC, and HuffPost prior to finding her way to dmg media.

What is a product manager?

“The publishing landscape is changing. A few decades ago, we would have been talking about the web, and maybe an app product. Now publishers are experimenting across ecosystems of technologies, from smart wearables to the Internet of Things. I read of news publishers trialing sending news to your internet fridge, or reading you your news while you’re making your coffee in the morning. Where once there was one advertising model (display), now everyone is trialing different business models from E-commerce shopping in content, to subscription models. Which means a lot of different product managers roles. There’s no longer a mobile product manager, or a web product manager based on platforms: it’s about taking a hard look at how you structure your teams in publishing organizations.”

So what is a product manager? What does a product manager do?

“I still get the old question of ‘what exactly do you do in publishing?’ I’m not a techie, so don’t expect me to fix bugs. I’m not a business manager. So I’m not going to drive sales.”

It’s revealing that the ease of getting a handle on what Anna Bakalinova does is directly related to the culture of the company asking the question. Where the product management role has been inherited over the years without external input, or product staff are ex journalists, she finds the least understanding of the true role of a modern product person.  So instead she turns to the words of Amazon’s founder, a man who should have an idea of both news publishing and product.

“Jeff Bezos’ definition of a product is that it’s something that has to be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details. Having that vision and aligning the teams on that vision is actually what a product manager does.”

Ana Bakalinova then took as an example a CPO role from a company where that product manager sits at the intersection between publishing, technology, design, and journalism. “The product management job here in this large organization is to take it to the board and advocate for the product function. So a C level role is advisable, because if this is not represented in the company, product development will fail.”

If the C-level sounds unlike your publishing organisation’s structure then you’re not alone, but Bakalinova’s argument is that just as publishing is changing, so too should the management structure involved in how products are developed.

Managing product management

“There’s a lot of data doing the talking, along with things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and means of monetizing customer data, especially for large organisations.  Newspapers are large organisations with large sets of data. But it’s proving hard because no one knows how to define the proper management. Editorial habits and mindsets are still very old fashioned. Technically and policy wise it’s difficult to see how we manage it – I don’t think anyone has cracked it. There are too many stakeholders, there are large teams, conflicting requirements, lack of product development process, and a shift where product teams drive the launch of new projects where editorial was used to doing that.”

“So what do I do?”

The picture of conflicted interests and confusing development is likely to be familiar to most media companies, the question, of course, is what to do about it.

“So you ask yourself what do I do? How do I drive success? It’s scary so the first thing you need to ask is why are we doing it? It’s back to ‘test before you invest’.”

Ana showed images of a brainstorming session from a recent project. “We put all the customer problems that we could find from interviews on the wall. We started brainstorming to get into the mind of the customers but also asking the ‘why?’ How do we deliver value? Why are we building this? Why is this not something else? Why at this point of time?”

“Never lose track of what your competitors are doing or stop asking ‘Why aren’t we?’”

Anna Bakalinova

Bakalinova also highlighted the risk of conventional responses to those kinds of questions; “I constantly hear ‘I know my audience – I’m the editor. Or ‘I’m the columnist, or I look at numbers every day.’ But when you launch a new vertical on your site, attracting new audiences do you really know exactly who is going to come? And from where? And how? And what works for them, or just as importantly what doesn’t?”

Moreover every product is not a simple object but a point in a flow. “The product life cycle means an idea comes through: there’s a business market analysis, research, and then off you go to UX, design, prototyping, maybe testing, validating, then launching the real product. Okay, but what about product discovery? When we have an idea, we immediately set it down as part of a journey on a map. We gather the stakeholders in a room to define the vision based on that product discovery rather than selecting a team to work on an idea and come back and present. Then we define metrics for success. I don’t mean pageviews or month by month growth. No, this is early stage thinking; it could be positive feedback from a survey, but measurement is the key to success.”

Just because something appears to show those signs of success doesn’t mean it’s ‘job done’ either: “Testing, testing, and testing; multivariate testing and product iterations is key.”

To finish with a flourish Ana produced a global study that showed that a full product manager in a news organisation results in a solid growth in profit. “Never lose track of what your competitors are doing or stop asking ‘Why aren’t we?’”

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