Framing Your Next Product and Technology Decision

by Arvid Tchivzhel, SVP of Product

The perfect tech stack continues to be elusive for many publishers. How do publishers align their technical roadmap to growth and make the right choices in technology? 

In the early years of digital subscriptions, publishers scrambled to add paywalls on top of their website. A quick snippet of JavaScript code promised a taste of the emerging digital subscription business. 

There were many gaps in the product and UX at the time. Websites were not built for subscriptions but rather an advertising model. The checkout process left much to be desired, mostly unchanged from what was being used for print subscriptions. The user experience was an afterthought. Endless forms, myriad options for delivery frequency and term, different offers based on postal code, and in many cases, age, income, occupation, and other personal data were all required before buying a subscription.  

After that obstacle course, if someone finally did take out their credit card to subscribe, they were indeed a loyal reader! Behind the scenes, billing systems, paywalls, CRMs, reporting, and analytics were even more disjointed. 

We have come a long way as an industry. Many publishers now brag about their page weight and site speed statistics thanks to tools like Lighthouse. Publishers have trimmed their checkout process to the essentials (taking cues from leading ecommerce platforms), cleaned up their landing pages, and borrowed from behavioral economics to optimize subscription offers. Each of these improvements contributes to a frictionless user experience and better conversion rates. Slowly but surely, publishers modernized their back-end systems and continue looking for efficiency across their tech stack. 

As publishers look to the future, they must navigate new disruptions such as AI and 3rd party cookie deprecation. What insights can we gather from the past decade? How can we apply product and technology practices to help publishers make timely and informed decisions? 

There are several frameworks that can help inform technology and product decisions. This article will evaluate and analyze each framework, providing insights for publishers striving to optimize their tech stack. 

 

Good? Fast? Cheap? 

Often this tradeoff is immediately followed by a refrain of: “you can only pick two!” However, the tradeoffs between “picking two” are not as discrete as the simple phrase suggests.  

There are also unlikely combinations – is there such as thing as “cheap and good”? Has any product and technology leader said: “give me fast and cheap, I don’t need good”? And what even is “good”?  

In a 2015 interview on 60 Minutes (now only for Paramount+ subscribers), Apple’s Steve Cook famously attributed the legacy of excellence left by Steve Jobs: “…good isn’t good enough. It has to be great. Insanely great.” 

Over three decades earlier, in a 1984 interview with Steve Jobs by future Sequoia Capital Chairperson, Michael Moritz (at that time working for Time Magazine), Steve Jobs called out two key ingredients to make something really great: time and a lot of mistakes! “…it doesn’t take any more energy and rarely does it take more money, to make it really great. All it takes is a little more time…”. 

To reframe and put in context of news media, product/tech leaders should always strive for “great” but be ruthlessly pragmatic about time. Some innovations simply take longer, require more iterations, more refinement, and need real-world testing before reaching “great”. Therefore, “great” is a spectrum of small wins on a timeline. A helpful reframing is to think about “good, better, best”, which can follow a timeline of “short, medium, long”.  

A publisher is unlikely to achieve 100% of the features needed to make a “great” product in one major decision within a short timeline. However, publishers should work to break down the effort into discrete deliverables, prioritizing the most impactful and easiest. Importantly, publishers must accept the concept of “failing fast”, learning and applying the insights into the next iteration on the path to “great”. 

Publishers are under immense pressure to develop new digital business models while hitting revenue goals from both new and legacy business units. It is critical to extend the life of every legacy print dollar as long as possible. Mather Economics’ latest Q1 2024 benchmark data shows the legacy subscription business is still 75% of all subscription revenue.  

Though Mather benchmarks show the industry reached the crossover point where digital subscriptions outweigh print in Q4 2023, the revenue crossover point is still 2-3 years away by current trends. 

 

The price to pay for legacy revenue is an aging tech stack that often limits digital growth. Given the realities of the business model, it is not a surprise that many publishers favor speed while sacrificing “great.”  

When publishers implemented their first digital subscription models, most paywall vendors touted the ease of installing a few lines of JavaScript to the site and… voila! You have a paywall and a start on the digital subscription business. None of these paywall vendors touted the “greatness” of their solutions or how it would make a “great” digital subscription product for the publisher. Many of the first paywalls were clunky, easily bypassed, and not well integrated into the rest of the tech stack.  

But that is acceptable if there is a clear vision and roadmap to reach “great”, one step at a time. Practically speaking, technology decisions are never made once, and they are never a “set it and forget it” decision. Technology continues to evolve, business models continue to evolve, and the definition of “great” also evolves. Look for baby steps to improve your product/tech throughout the year and take the occasional transformational leap every 1-3 years. 

So, instead of “picking two”, publishers should look at the long-term trajectory of their business and align product and technology decisions to enable growth. The next time somebody tells you to “pick two”, tell them you prefer a path to great and a timeline.  

 

Build? Partner? Buy? 

Unlike good, fast, cheap, the decision to build, buy or partner is easier to grasp. What this framework really asks is: 

 

First, start by evaluating your internal talent. Do you have the development resources ready to deploy with the right skillset? Do you have a strong product culture to manage an external team and ensure stakeholder requirements are aligned?  

Keep in mind that if you plan to hire talent, bake in the time to recruit and onboard new employees. If they are from outside the industry, plan for a 3-6 month learning curve at a minimum. For many publishers (especially local news organizations) the challenge of finding people who can work from the office and live locally further extends timelines. Unfortunately, in the race for talent, publishers are not just competing with other publishers but every other industry and Silicon Valley. 

Product discipline and product culture are key elements to success. However, many publishers lack these roles within their organizations. Publishers must be willing to embark on a long path of culture change, breaking legacy inertia, and old habits that keep many publishers from mastering product, tech, and digital. 

Next evaluate your business trajectory and the time to deliver development projects (whether internally or by external vendors). Do realistic delivery timelines match with the runway left in print revenue, costs, and the pace needed to achieve digital revenue growth? 

It is difficult to find success with the build or partner decision for many publishers unless they can honestly answer “yes” to the requirements outlined above. For most, a buy decision with the right vendor that is committed to the industry holds the greatest ROI. 

Netflix famously built their streaming service over a long period of time, however, they still partnered with Amazon Web Services for key parts of its infrastructure. Netflix had the time and talent (being the first mover in streaming) to build something great. Others streaming platforms outsourced much of their technology. Even if the user experience is buggy, the decision was clear. There is a race to capture a finite streaming subscription market, there is a need to monetize vast libraries of content, and grow new revenue streams. The fastest path to revenue was to buy in order to catch up to Netflix.  

A key learning is that a hybrid approach is perfectly acceptable (such as Netflix partnership with Amazon Web Services). Breaking down the tech stack into modular components and making the decision to build, partner, or buy for each component allows publishers to make smart decisions and invest in the future while saving cost.  

For the vast majority of publishers, a buy decision is the right (and only) path. For larger or corporate publishers, a hybrid build, partner, buy is more justified with centralized shared services, larger budgets, and a greater return on feature customization. Only publishers with the right talent, product culture, and budget should actively pursue build/partner. 

 

Best of Breed? All in One? 

Most CTOs will tell you without blinking: always go best of breed. However, often overlooked is the integration cost to manage the various vendors and connecting each component within the tech stack. As many local publishers can attest, finding the talent and budget to integrate systems is not a viable option.  

Many vendors serving the media industry have also moved to consolidate single-function tools into a package of adjacent functions. Newspack offers a platform of tools that come pre-integrated, saving small publishers the hassle of building integrations. 

Often, vendors consolidate and verticalize their offerings or simply augment their offerings over time as publisher needs evolve. Press Plus evolved from its early days of static paywalls by merging with TinyPass and Piano, acquired Cxense, and AT Internet as well as augmenting their services with email, subscription management, and identity management to create an end-to-end subscription platform now known as Piano. Zephr, a pure-play paywall startup was acquired by Zuora to offer an all in one subscription stack. 

Even at face value, if best of breed should be the right choice, market pressure leads to all in one. Publishers want simple integrations (or none). Vendors and venture capital find efficiencies in consolidating. Naviga took a mergers+acquisitions approach to augment its position as an all in one solution. Blox (formerly TownNews) built its own all in one solution. 

Even if publishers sought to only use the best of breed, inevitably, the market pushes publishers into hybrid or all in one solutions. The market drives towards efficiency, seamless integration, and reduced costs from both sides of the publisher/vendor relationship. 

 

Putting it All Together 

So, as you plan your technology investments, you have a lot to consider:  

  1. Do you want good, fast, or cheap?  
  1. Should you build, partner, or buy?  
  1. Is best of breed or all in one the right choice for you?  

Learning #1: 

The tradeoff between good/fast/cheap is missing the bigger picture, vision, and roadmap. Go for “great” with a timeline. Instead, we suggest using a “good, better, best” approach with a timeline. 

Learning #2: 

Depending on your publisher profile, your talent, your business model, timelines, budget, and goals the answer to “build/partner/buy” and “best of breed vs. all in one” may vary. However, except for a handful of large media companies, most publishers are better off buying tools off the shelf and looking for packaged “some in one” or “all in one” solutions to reduce time and cost.  

None of these decisions are binary and components of the tech stack and product can use a hybrid approach.  

Learning #3 

Importantly, publishers should periodically audit their tech stack to ensure it is fully aligned with the product and revenue roadmap. Find a partner who can serve as a sounding board and bring their years of experience to guide in product and tech stack decisions for publishers.  

Mather Economics brings over 20 years of subscription revenue management, award-winning technology from Sophi, and fractional executives who have “sat in the chair” making critical decisions at large and small media companies. Our expertise is unmatched. Mather Economics is invested in the success of our clients and long-term sustainability of the media industry. 

 


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