Understanding the Role of Product in Media Companies and Tech Companies

I enumerated the role of product management in my earlier article titled The Many Hats of Product Managers: Their Indispensable Hands-On Roles as Individual Contributors. I described the Roles and Responsibilities for Digital Product Development Teams to discuss the interplay of product management, software engineering, design & user research, data, and technology operations. One of my most popular blog posts so far, Activities, Outputs, and Outcomes — A framework for your job describes work in the context of what you do, what deliverables you produce, and what the results are.

In this post, I write about product leadership and management in media companies and what makes it different from the role at tech companies.

While the role of product teams at tech companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google, and Microsoft (“FAANG” or “MAMAA”) have many similarities with the role of product teams at media companies, there also are a number of important distinctions.

I’ve seen product experts with excellent track records at tech companies join media companies and struggle to achieve their previous levels of success. I’ve seen product managers and leaders from media companies join tech companies and tell me how different the roles, responsibilities, and goals of product teams there are from those at media companies. I’ve hired dozens of engineers from FAANG companies, and a number of former engineer colleagues of mine work at FAANG companies. The engineering folks have had seamless transitions and do not face the same challenges that product people do.

In this blog post, I explore the difference between the role of product between tech and media companies and describe the four areas of product in media companies.

Navigating the Tech-Media Landscape: Decoding Differences in Product Teams

The digital revolution has blurred the lines between modern tech and traditional media companies, but we must not overlook the fact that the product landscapes of these two industry types are remarkably distinct. Having worked on both sides of the fence, I’ve gained valuable insights into the unique challenges and rewards each brings.

The differences in the product landscape can be ascribed to three primary factors: the nature of the product itself, the dynamics of the user base, and the underlying business model.

Nature of Product

In a tech company like those in the FAANG or MAMAA group, product teams often focus on developing platforms or services that either solve a particular problem or improve user productivity. These products, more often than not, are technology-centric and intended to leverage advances in tech to provide improved functionality. The success of these products largely hinges on the effectiveness of their technical innovation.

In contrast, product teams at media companies build products around content. Here, the challenge is twofold: create a platform that can deliver rich, engaging content and ensure that the content itself is relevant and appealing to the target audience. Hence, the expertise required in media product teams extends beyond tech and includes content curation, media consumer behavior, and understanding media company business models.

User Dynamics

Product teams at tech companies and media companies face different challenges due to the unique dynamics of their user base. At tech companies, products are often designed for a broad audience with diverse use-cases. Facebook, for instance, serves billions of users globally, each with unique needs and behaviors.

I have been an investor in and have been advising a leading artificial intelligence technology company, You.com since its founding. The role of product there exemplifies how Silicon Valley companies develop innovative products for scale.

YouPro, a subscription product of you.com, a leading artificial intelligence company.

On the other hand, in my experience working there, media companies tend to cater to a more specific demographic. A product team at a media company, like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, has a more targeted user base. This specificity demands a deep understanding of user personas and an ability to create personalized experiences. Even at media conglomerates like News Corp, Conde Nast, and Hearst that own a diverse slate of media brands, the audiences’ exceptions and use cases are significantly different from those at tech companies including tech media companies.

The New York Times on digital platforms

Business Models

A pivotal difference lies in the business models. Tech companies often rely on a variety of revenue streams, including selling products or services, subscription models, and advertising. The goals and metrics of success for their product teams would typically align with these business models.

Media companies, traditionally, rely heavily on advertising and subscription revenues. The product’s success is directly tied to its ability to drive user engagement and retention, which in turn drives ad impressions and subscription conversions. As a result, media product teams need to strike a delicate balance between user experience and monetization.

The product landscapes at tech and media companies, while sharing some common ground, also have distinctive features that make each unique. As product leaders traverse these landscapes, a deep understanding of these nuances is crucial for success. It’s much like a chess game, where understanding the rules is just the beginning, and the real challenge lies in understanding the strategy that fits the board in front of you.

Stakeholders: Decoding the Internal Ecosystem

The most complex distinction between tech and media companies lies in the varied landscape of internal stakeholders. Understanding these differences is critical as these stakeholders often influence the direction, execution, and success of a product.

In tech companies, stakeholders typically include engineers, data scientists, designers, and often, business development or sales teams. The focus here is on technical capabilities, scalability, user experience, and in some cases, the potential for partnerships or sales opportunities. Each stakeholder plays a unique role in shaping the product – engineers and data scientists focus on feasibility and innovation, designers on user experience, and business development teams on monetization and partnership strategies.

In media companies, the stakeholder ecosystem extends beyond the aforementioned roles to include journalists, editors, content creators, and often, marketing and ad sales teams. The interplay here is far more complex due to the content-driven nature of media products. For instance, editors and journalists bring their content expertise and audience understanding to the table. They are vital to ensuring the product is not only technically sound but also delivers content that resonates with the target audience.

Moreover, given the significant role of ad revenues and brand partnerships in media companies, marketing and ad sales teams have a critical say in product decisions. They bring insights on ad strategies, sponsor requirements, and help navigate the fine balance between user experience and ad placements.

A common challenge for product managers in media companies is managing this wide array of stakeholders, each with distinct expectations and metrics for success. The product strategy needs to align with not only user needs but also the business goals of these different teams. Therefore, a successful product leader in a media company often excels in stakeholder management and is adept at aligning diverse teams towards a shared vision.

The stakeholder landscape in tech and media companies adds another layer of complexity to the already nuanced product landscape. It underscores the need for adaptable leadership and excellent collaboration skills, whether one is building the next cutting-edge tech solution or a content platform that shapes public discourse.

Navigating Legacy Systems and Businesses in Media Companies

Print edition of The New York Times where, as CTO I led the the development of The NY Times’ digital products and services for four years.

A critical factor that distinguishes media companies from tech companies is the presence of legacy systems and businesses. Media companies often have a long history with established business models and operations that have been successful in the past but may not be well-suited to today’s digital landscape. These legacy structures can create additional complexity for product teams, who must manage the existing business while simultaneously driving innovation.

Legacy systems often have deeply embedded processes and a strong culture resistant to change. Product teams can find themselves bound by these constraints, reducing their ability to innovate or adopt more agile methodologies. Balancing the demands of the legacy business with the need to evolve can be a significant challenge, often requiring delicate internal negotiation and diplomacy.

The Interplay of Content, Product, and Company Strategy

In tech companies, the product strategy often drives the company’s overall strategy. The product is the primary interface with the customer, and its success directly influences the company’s growth and profitability. As such, tech companies are often structured around their products, with the product teams playing a pivotal role in setting the company’s direction.

On the other hand, in media companies, the equation is more complex. The product, content, and company strategies must all be aligned for the business to succeed. The content – whether it’s news, TV shows, movies, or podcasts – plays a significant role in attracting and retaining users. The product’s role is to deliver this content in the most engaging, user-friendly manner. And all this must support the company’s broader business goals.

This interplay often creates a complex dynamic that isn’t as prevalent in tech companies. Aligning these three strategies can be a daunting task, given the different stakeholders, each with their unique perspectives and goals. Product teams in media companies need to be adept at cross-functional collaboration and influencing without authority to ensure alignment.

This complexity can also explain why product teams in media companies sometimes take on more of a project management role. With multiple strategies to align and various stakeholders to manage, the role can quickly shift from strategic to operational.

However, when the stars align, and content, product, and company strategies synchronize, the result can be incredibly powerful. We’ve all experienced those magical moments when engaging content is perfectly packaged within a user-friendly, innovative product, backed by a company that understands and nurtures this symbiotic relationship. Those are the moments that media companies, and their product teams, continually strive to create.

The Empowered Product Teams Model vs. The Project Management Model: Two Different Worlds

One of the most significant distinctions between tech companies and media companies manifests in how product teams are structured and operate. This can be best understood by contrasting the Empowered Product Teams model, popularized by Marty Cagan and prevalent in FAANG companies, with the more traditional Project Management model often observed in media companies.

The Empowered Product Teams model, rooted in Silicon Valley, champions the idea of product teams acting as mini-startups within the larger organization. These teams, composed of product managers, designers, and engineers, are given significant autonomy and are empowered to solve the most valuable problems for the company. Instead of being told what to build, they focus on why the problem is essential to solve, drawing from a deep understanding of customer needs, market trends, and the company’s strategic direction.

Under this model, a product manager’s role transcends simply coordinating and executing tasks. They are expected to be true leaders, inspiring their teams and providing strategic direction. They work closely with their designers and engineers, encouraging them to take ownership, explore innovative solutions, and iterate based on user feedback and data.

In stark contrast, in many media companies, product teams often function more like traditional project management units. Their primary responsibility is to deliver what’s on a list of requests from various internal stakeholders. This model emphasizes execution, with the product teams mainly ensuring that the engineering department delivers the requested features or enhancements within a stipulated timeframe.

The product manager, in this setting, is often expected to act more as a project manager. They coordinate between different teams, align resources, and manage timelines, but are rarely involved in the strategic aspects of product decision-making. This model relies heavily on internal requests rather than customer needs, market trends, or a broader strategic vision.

This fundamental difference in how product teams operate can significantly impact their effectiveness and the kind of products they build. The Empowered Product Teams model fosters innovation, agility, and customer-centricity. On the other hand, the Project Management model, while possibly being more predictable and controlled, might lack in terms of innovation and responsiveness to customer needs and market trends.

It’s also worth noting that these models represent two ends of a spectrum, and companies can fall anywhere in between. Some media companies are adopting aspects of the Empowered Product Teams model, fostering more autonomy and encouraging teams to take more ownership of their products. Conversely, not all tech companies strictly adhere to this model and might incorporate elements of more traditional project management, particularly in more mature products or highly regulated areas.

Therefore, product managers transitioning between tech and media companies need to be aware of these differences and adapt their approach accordingly. Recognizing these differences is the first step in ensuring that product teams, regardless of the industry, are set up for success.

Who is the Product Team’s Customer?

A key distinction between tech and media companies is who the product team perceives as their primary customer. In both tech and media companies, the product team is responsible for the product experience and focuses on the end-user. However, the understanding and execution of this focus significantly differ across these industries.

In a tech company, the product team’s customers are the end-users (or enterprise clients, in the case of B2B products). The product team has a singular focus on deeply understanding user needs, preferences, and pain points through user research, data analysis, user testing, and then delivering solutions that best serve those needs. Their north star is improving the lives of users through their product.

Contrarily, in traditional media companies, the product team’s role is complicated. At best, they co-own the product with internal stakeholders, especially the Content/Editorial team. These stakeholders often see their own role as understanding and directing what should be done for end-users, perceiving the product team’s role primarily as project management and “IT delivery” working in service of the stakeholders. This starkly contrasts the empowered product teams at tech companies, where there’s a singular focus on the end-user.

The resulting dynamic often means the product team is pulled in two directions – keeping users happy and delivering on stakeholder requests. Stakeholders who perceive the product teams as working for them as project managers often maintain wish lists of feature requests. They judge the product and tech team’s performance based on the delivery of such feature wish lists, which often aren’t based on systematic research but copies of features implemented by competitors or ideas based on intuition or emotions that appeal to stakeholders.

This makes the job of product managers in traditional media companies challenging as they must balance doing real product leadership and product management with maintaining relationships with internal stakeholders, almost acting like account managers of an internal vendor.

To overcome these challenges and enable media product teams to better align with the end-user, several solutions should be evaluated and implemented:

  1. Institute a User-Centric Culture: Foster a culture that prioritizes the needs and preferences of end-users. All teams should rally around the user and understand the importance of user research and data-driven decision-making.
  2. Educate Stakeholders: Provide training and resources to stakeholders about the role of product management and the importance of expertise in delivering exceptional user experiences. Stakeholders should be shown clear and concise explanations of the product management process and the benefits of working with a product team. Helping stakeholders understand the value of user research and evidence-based decision-making can align their expectations with the goals of the product team.
  3. Align Stakeholders around a Common Vision: It’s crucial for product teams to work with stakeholders to develop a common vision for the product. This vision should be based on understanding the needs of the end-user and the organization’s goals, making decision-making about features and prioritization work easier.
  4. Leverage Data and Analytics: Supplement qualitative insights with data to make decisions about the product. This could come from user research, analytics, A/B testing, and other sources. Data-driven decision-making ensures the product meets the needs of the end-user.
  5. Promote Transparency: Transparency builds trust with stakeholders and makes it more likely they’ll support the product team’s decisions. Communicate the rationale behind decisions and their impact on the product.
  6. Establish Collaborative Practices: Encourage open communication, regular feedback loops, and cross-functional collaboration. Stakeholders should be directly involved in research studies and given visibility into user feedback.
  7. Empower Product Teams: Allow product teams the autonomy and authority to make decisions based on user feedback and research. They should lead the product development process, advocate for the needs of end-users, and be enabled to push back on feature requests not grounded in research.

By implementing these solutions, traditional media companies can recalibrate to make the end-user the undisputed primary customer for their product teams. This clarity of purpose can unlock innovation, create delightful experiences for audiences, satisfy the goals of internal stakeholders, and lead to products that better meet the needs and expectations of end-users.

Four Product Categories in Media Companies

One thing I’ve learned during my long journey across some of the world’s leading media companies is this: the product landscape in media is as diverse as it is exciting. Products in media organizations aren’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Rather, they span across four distinct types: Consumer Products, Ad Products, CMS Products, and Technical Products. Each category has its unique challenges, rewards, and opportunities for innovation. Let’s delve into each of these, sharing insights from my experience, and hopefully inspire some thoughts on how they shape the present and future of media.

Illustration from a related article on organizing a technology team I wrote in 2014 when I was CTO at The New York Times.

Consumer Products

First up are Consumer Products. These are the offerings that readers, viewers, listeners – you name it – interact with directly.

These are the products our audiences directly use and interact with, such as newspapers’, magazines’, or television stations’ mobile apps, websites, newsletters, and videos. The goal of consumer products is to serve and engage our audiences by delivering useful and entertaining content and experiences. The product team works closely with editors, consumer revenue folks, designers, and data analysts to build products that our readers will love and use often.

In essence, these products embody the company’s brand and mission to the outside world. I’ve been lucky to have been part of teams that have developed some groundbreaking consumer products – from acclaimed mobile and web offerings at The New York Times to innovative digital experiences at The Wall Street Journal.

The key to creating compelling consumer products lies in understanding your audience. It’s all about creating an engaging, seamless experience that keeps users coming back, whether it’s a revolutionary search feature, a user-friendly interface, or personalized content recommendations.

The recent advances in natural language generation (NLG) and Generative AI (GenAI) are enabling product innovations that weren’t feasible before. For an example, see the proof of concept at my blog post titled From Vision & Concept in 2017 to Reality in 2023: The Evolution of AI in Journalism.

Ad Products

Next up are Ad Products. Advertising, as we know, has been the lifeblood of media companies for generations. These products serve as a bridge between businesses and consumers, creating a platform where organizations can reach their target audience.

Advertising products generate revenue by connecting brands with audiences. Examples include branded content, native advertising, video sponsorships, and display ads. Ad product teams build ad products to be seamless, high-impact, and performance-driven while maintaining a great experience for readers. Ad products teams work hand-in-hand with the sales organization to meet the needs of advertisers and agency partners.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen how the right ad products can make a significant impact on a company’s bottom line. At the Wall Street Journal, we developed ad products that not only enhanced our advertisers’ visibility but also blended seamlessly into our readers’ experiences. This category demands creativity and strategic thinking, a fascinating challenge in marrying commercial objectives with consumer needs.

CMS Products

Then there are CMS (Content Management System) Products. These are the tools that allow content creators to do what they do best: tell stories.

The CMS empowers editors, designers, and content producers to create and publish content efficiently at scale. A good CMS has an intuitive interface, robust workflow management, and built-in tools for formatting text, cropping images, embedding media, and more. It aims to give content creators the flexibility and control they need to do their best work.

Earlier in my career, I co-developed Cofax, which was a leading open-source content management system used by several dozens of newspapers and media sites worldwide. It was a rewarding experience to empower journalists, editors, and creators with the tools to easily curate, edit, and publish content. Those were exciting times building this together with my then teammates Karl Martino, Sam Cohen, Toan Dang, Derek Dinh, Hung Dao, Charles Harvey, and Bobby Cherian.

CMS products may be less visible to the general public, but they are the backbone of any media organization. The goal here is to make the creative process as smooth as possible, which, in turn, brings forth engaging content that resonates with audiences.

Technical Products

Last but not least, we have Technical Products. These are the behind-the-scenes heroes that keep everything running smoothly. They include data platforms, APIs, microservices, and everything in between. The challenge here lies in building robust, scalable, and secure technologies that seamlessly power the rest of the product landscape.

In my work at media companies that owned multiple diverse brands, we, we developed technical products that provided services to a diverse range of products across several brands in the portfolio.

Developing technical products reminds me of the joy my son, Fitz Raj, and I experience during our Python programming sessions, where we unravel the magic of creating something from nothing.

In the end, it all comes down to the idea of creating something that serves a purpose, be it entertaining, informing, or simply making life a bit easier for someone. As we navigate the evolving landscape of media, these four product types will undoubtedly continue to shape the way we consume, create, and interact with content.

My journey has taught me that building products isn’t just about technology. It’s about people, the experiences we provide them, and the stories we help them tell. My life’s motto, “Victory is winning people over, not defeating others” encapsulates the essence of developing media products. Let’s keep the focus on the people we serve, the challenges we help them overcome, and the positive impacts we can make in their lives.


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