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Kara Chiles ‘USA Today, Sports Plus is a one stop sports experience built on authoritative sports news expert analysis’

Kara Chiles, VP Consumer Products, Gannett, USA

Head of the consumer product management team responsible for one of the largest networks of national news outlets, Kara Chiles oversees full product lifecycle, strategic development and optimization of experiences for web, video, native apps, newsletters and voice.

Kara Chiles, like The Product Doctor before her, led with the theme of constant questioning as the key to staying ahead, and in particular which questions to ask.



Questions to ask

“There are a few critical questions that we think about when we decide to launch something as a new opportunity: what is our opportunity space? Is it a right to compete? Is it the right space for a win? And what is our ‘why’?….. Why us?”  Chiles pointed out that there are many tempting possibilities, but only a limited range of resources to direct at them. “There are lots of things that we could be working on. So how are we making the determination of which ones are going to have the most value and the most impact?”

Taking the example of Sports Plus, a late beta stage project for the group, Chiles ran through the thought process: 

“We definitely felt like we had an opportunity in the sports space. But we wanted to be very intentional about the way we approached it and be honest about places where we could set ourselves up for success or for failure. So USA Today, Sports Plus is a one stop sports experience built on authoritative sports news expert analysis.” The questions driving Sports Plus included: “Is it personalized? Is it immersive? And is it holistic? By which we are thinking about our entire product portfolio, and the other places that you might experience out on the web or in native apps.”

It also meant analysing the brand, the resources, and ways of creating difference for each market. “We have a national brand in USA Today. Yes. But we also have an extensive footprint in local Metro markets across the United States. And it was this footprint that gave us the realization that we had the ability to offer something a little bit different. We had the feet on the ground to create reporting and original content that would reinforce the local perspective.” 

Pilot stage

The old adage about ‘fail to prepare; prepare to fail’ still holds true and that meant piloting on dual platforms. “Piloting this product was offered on  both platforms [app and web]: we knew there are some people who will definitely get engaged more quickly, will download an app and make it part of their daily experience. And then we also knew we needed to approach the more casual web user as well. We did a lot of research before we moved a single pixel. We did the market research with the target addressable market that we wanted to reach, and made sure that not only did we want to go in this space, but that the audience we wanted to reach felt like they were not being served by any of the existing offerings.”

Objectives and Key Results were constantly assessed; “We put together a North Star [guiding objectives] and OKR [objectives and key results] approach set at the corporate level by our executive committee. Our primary North Star was growing digital subscriber growth.”

The timeline had to take into account both technical and audience factors. 

“Our timeline had to take into account the launch phase to build this offering on wholly new experiences and design concepts. It also had to take into account the sports season building up audience anticipation. Because that was really our hard delivery date.”

Results

Talking at the beginning of November, with the NFL season well in play, Kara Chiles team is taking the first stage learnings and laying out a phase 2 roadmap; “[based on] how we’re evolving and iterating on the original product and what we’re learning from live audiences in seven pilot markets.”

The questions at this point are multiple: “How do we get people comfortable [in a way] that it is sufficiently enriched, and differentiated enough to make our proof points come to life. We knew we needed speed to learnings, we knew that we needed to see an early trajectory of how we were going to define revenue growth.” 

Bad news with the good

“We needed to really get in and understand the negative first impressions too, because we know that you’re always going to hear first from those folks who want to tell you what’s wrong with your product, more so than what’s right with your product. I’m happy to say we were able to gather both.”

Resisting the temptation to listen only to the bright side of the ledger is part of ensuring the product is sustainable. “Anything we created really was with the mindset of ‘is this long term viable? How are we going to take these learnings and apply them to our portfolio? What is good, reusable, recyclable so even if it isn’t successful here, it will be successful elsewhere.”

Internal vs External success

“We had to think about the risk management perspective as well. One of the things that we know about in the organization is momentum is reading performance and setting expectations. So part of what we thought along the hallway is; even when our numbers are small, how are we driving the message of how we are on a runway,a growth path of evolving the product experience and reaching the audience that we believe is the product fit? So with that in mind, within the organization, we also leaned on our close relationships with our colleagues to make sure that we were thinking about problem solving throughout. It’s not just enough to have a plan and a roadmap. It is all of the unseen moments and incidents that happen along the way. We worked with engineering to make sure that creating something highly personalized and robust was not going to create a huge caching nightmare. On the design side we really had to think about this not as a traditional News homepage that has a clear set hierarchy of content. Instead it would be dictated by how users chose what they wanted to see. And then on the product side, the data schema, and trade offs are all part of how we thought it through: everything has to have a longer range purpose.

The shape of success

So with short term revenue return not a realistic criteria for success how do you know how well you are doing with such a project?

“We realised what we were doing was really appealing to the hardcore fan sports enthusiast audience in these very entrenched markets.Two months in what we are seeing are positive proof points on some of our theories. So we are seeing stickiness, which is a key metric for us in terms of people coming back consistently. Are they engaging with the features that are intended to make this a personalized experience for them? Are we seeing good qualitative survey results about what sorts of features do they want more of? Yes. We’ve already introduced some things that we’ve heard them really clamor for, as well as minimize one or two that we’ve heard from them were less than desirable. So we’re thinking of this as a very long game. This is just the beginning. And as we start to harden and confirm our product market fit, we are already excited about showing some of this functional capability into other products in our news organization.”