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Delivering Outcomes on a new platform in the first 180 days

Reorganization
Roadmap
Strategy
Cross-Functional Collaboration

11 October, 2021

Andrew Tsui
Andrew Tsui

Director of Product at Startup

Andrew Tsui, Product Leader at Sailthru, recalls his opportunity to navigate a tricky user-and-business problem by leveraging a new platform to simultaneously optimize SEO content and sustain advertising inventory for a media business.

Problem

A few years ago, as I began working with the team at The Knot Worldwide (previously known as XO Group), I discovered a unique struggle and tension between multiple groups. On the editorial and SEO team, they were challenged by the content management system, a homegrown solution that paled in its user experience compared to solutions on the market, and its lack of syndication features. And on the display advertising business teams, their go-to tactic was "more placements." Of course, when you saturate an article with ads, one can expect a short-term boost which begets traffic declines going forward. Pretty much the opposite of the flywheel we would want.

The idea was to find a way to attract more readers and balance the needs of the ad business. We had a current method which was cumbersome - redesign our content pages every 12 to 18 months and be liberal with ad placements. We measured how this approach had an unsustainable lifespan, with a negative impact on both the SEO (measured by declining organic traffic) and readability of our content (measured by scroll depth "shrinkage" coupled with increases in bounce rates). Ads were where we made our money, but our readers funded that business. We needed to find a way to improve both.

Actions taken

Since I was new to the company, I had the luxury of asking plenty of naive questions. Don't underestimate or forget the power of earnest learning! To establish my credibility, my goal was to develop a rapport with the teams, their motivations, and their "mechanisms." This meant reaching beyond my immediate squads, and internalizing the advertising team's pain points, empathizing with the editorial team's goals and workflows, to understand how and why they did the things they did.

At the same time, we (the squad, including Engineering and Design) began to map out our options. We had many different directions we could go in, so we created a framework that would help us prioritize these various levers. One candidate was: revive the RSS feeds to serve Pinterest, Flipboard, and Pocket in order to expand our readership. While we believed it could be a great benefit to our users, we realized that this idea had low potential for ad formats (difficult if impossible to inject ad content into a third-party app and to provide placement targeting options to ad buyers) and was much lower in terms of potential traffic (discovered that RSS traffic was declining compared to peer numbers and requests for this data by apps). Since that idea regarding syndication was weak, we started to investigate other options related formats.

At the time of our realization in late 2016, Google and Facebook had both developed new formats (AMP and Instant Articles) for us to consider, with the promise of significantly expanded reach. For our purposes, these were relatively similar in effort and compatible with our current design layout. We chose Google's AMP option for two reasons: Google had a track record in pushing for any improvements in the SEO space to benefit webmasters, and AMP had a slightly more promising and thorough ad placement specification.

Within two weeks of launching our new format with Google, our company saw double-digit increases in advertising inventory. Within a year, we saw a 30% increase in ad inventory with zero declines in CPM and increased our revenue by 20% with a mix of impact between direct and programmatic placement. And to top it off, we improved the user experience (faster load times and better reading experience on mobile smartphone devices) while limiting the additional ad placements required.

Lessons learned

  • In order to build credibility, you don't have to be an expert. Instead, work to be earnest, empathetic, and authentic with your stakeholders and users.
  • Focus on the outcome and less on the immediate output. It is incredibly tempting to fall into the lure of "just this one thing" to help a stakeholder or customer. This, in turn, will lead to a never-ending backlog, that distract from the larger impact that you can make.
  • Have the courage and humility to resist the status quo. We could have spent months enhancing a platform that had no material impact on the bottom line or iterated upon the day-to-day pain points for our stakeholders. While we still had to do some of that work, it is essential to make bets and derisk aggressively. Product leadership is about bringing people along with your approach. It is most certainly not about seeking perfection or cranking out features.

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