Case Study: Leading the Digital Transformation of a 250-year-old UK media institution

Brand:
JPIMedia Ltd
Role:
Director of Digital Product and Innovation
Project:
Digital Transformation strategy and implementation - at scale and with the meter running
Team:
"It takes a village to raise a child" - all credits at the end of the case study

Context:

In a time when we celebrate unprofitable digital start-ups, it is important to tell the stories of mature businesses that embrace digital transformation and profitable change. This is also a story of how an existing team can adapt their working practices in order to deliver a more rapid form of innovation than they had previously been used to. All in a time when the business around them was up for sale and uncertainty was high.

Acting as Director of Digital Product for JPIMedia, CurveFinder® Founder, Steven Thomas, was entrusted with leading a multi-disciplined team on a 15-month digital transformation programme. It was a chance to unshackle an important regional media business from years of tech-debt. With demanding new VC owners looking to realise their investment, the pressure was on to deliver quickly. With no extra investment and an ambitious (slightly crazy) deadline, an agile programme of rapid digital transformation was designed and delivered.

Problem statements

  1. Our current product-set and supporting tech infrastructure makes it difficult for us to adapt quickly enough to user needs.
  2. Our websites need to provide a better mobile experience for our users at scale.
  3. We need to diversify and improve how we currently monetise our content.
  4. Smaller projects have shown we can be agile, adaptive and produce modern digital products but we haven’t done this at scale.

In a time when we celebrate unprofitable start-ups, it is important to recognise the mature businesses who deliver digital change and profit.

Tech-debt

The digital publishing stack had become laden with technical debt built up over many years.  It was clear that the product team was hampered by legacy systems and was unable to adapt such a large portfolio quickly enough to meet internal or external customer needs.   Data analysis showed that c80% of customers' demand was on mobile and yet the existing UX had become outdated. The data also showed that there were gains to be had in Google search performance by utilising Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) technology better. Improving both of these areas would also allow for further diversification of the commercial model.

Becoming a more responsive organisation

Other smaller projects in the same business had benefited from a more agile approach to problem-solving and delivery but this had yet to scale across the company.

Previously the most basic of product updates had taken months due to poor tech but also laborious working practices in the wider team. It was clear that team culture had to shift along with the tech to one of agile problem solving and continuous improvement. With the core team distributed across four cities in the UK, this would also need to be a programme delivered virtually. To empower such a cultural shift we built our daily practice around:

  • Leading with high-function/high-trust
  • Changing the collective focus to problem solving and continuous improvement
  • Getting comfortable with prototyping, quick decision making and rapid improvement
  • Working as a small multi-disciplined agile team
  • Accepting a higher level of risk
  • Setting uncomfortable deadlines but not being afraid to adapt these where needed

Choose your partners wisely

Creating such scale of change in a short space of time required scouting and partnering with the right tech-businesses. These had to be businesses who themselves had the future-focused tech required but who could also integrate with the existing team and drive productivity. Without this type of partner breakthroughs don’t happen.

  • BrightSites brought with them a customisable common platform built using AMP technology and a willingness to work at a scale they hadn’t before.
  • Kaldor Group had a market-ready range of news apps that could be adapted to individual brands that offered a differentiated user experience. 
  • Microsoft Azure powered the creation of a secure, cloud-based, content store and API allowing for fast flexible content delivery.
  • Semetrical laser focused on search demand analysis and the optimisation of each new site and its content plan.

The project also encompassed the integration of a new analytics platform and data warehouse (GA), Content Delivery Network, Video on Demand Player and Ad-tag manager.

A lighter, simpler faster user experience

Focusing on consumer demands on mobile and the requirement for ease of use, the mantra ‘lighter, simpler, faster’ was used to guide each design decision. On-site UX evolved by subtracting elements of design and commercial features that previously added noise and clutter. 

From MVP to a continuously evolving platform

After successfully launching an MVP on The Sheffield Star in May 2019, we replatformed 141 local websites that were soon serving 40m+ monthly users. 

The UK’s fastest-growing national news site, inews.co.uk, was given its own evolved design and within three months reached new heights with 14.5m monthly users. Going on to be awarded Digital News-site of the Year with the judges recognising a smooth, mobile-first UX.

At the same time, we diversified the business model developing a subscription pilot on 5 of the largest websites including The Scotsman.  

inews.co.uk shortlisted as "News Site of the Year" 2020

This is a story of a group realising their talent and delivering meaningful change in a time when the business around them was up for sale

A lighter, simpler, faster mobile experience

Results

The result is a modern digital portfolio that is future-focused. Built around a flexible, mobile-first, common platform and a cloud-based content API housing 5 million+ articles - enabling any future content delivery needs, at scale. 

The changes add up:

  • New Editorial Content Store & API holding 5m+ articles
  • 141 regionals and inews.co.uk migrated to an AMP-based common platform in 18 months
  • New analytics platform and data warehouse
  • 11 apps migrated to PugPig
  • 7 Sites live with Subscriptions
  • inews voted news site of the year - Drum Awards
  • AOP Digital Product Team of the Year
  • 36% audience growth year on year across the network
  • +28% Organic search growth on the network and +25% on inews
  • 13% growth in digital revenue

Credits:

Networks beat siloes and it took just that to achieve what we did. 

Dom Bradshaw (Head of Ops and Dev), Sam Forrest (Head of Product), Richard Kendall (Editorial Product), Rob Butler (Subs and Newsletter Product), Mark Dallimore (Project Management), Chris Pye (Commercial Product), Ross Perth (Video Product), Santosh Dhanjal (Apps Product), Andrew Cunning (Creative Director), Andy Morris (Digital Architect), Teona Dima (Development), Bill Mullholand (Development), Steve Chisholm (Head of Audience), Mark Thompson (Head of Audience), Nick Mitchell (Head of Audience), Dan Bird (Head of Audience), Martin Little (Director of Digital Content), Brian Alford, Raul Jaramillo and the team at Brightsites.

Finally, huge thanks to Nigel Leigh (Chief Digital Officer and defender of the team) for the trust and support.

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