Jobs to be done
Products need to be focused on solving particular problems
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Jobs to be done
I’m partial to the jobs-to-be-done theory, which posits that companies need to view products through the lens of their customers and what their needs are. Basically, a customer hires a product to do a job. This is a useful lens when building publishing products.
What job does the product do for the audience?
What job does it do for clients?
What job does it do for the business?
What job does it do for the brand?
This gets complex because you always need to make trade-offs. It’s rare that products do important jobs well in all quadrants. The reality of publishing is sometimes you have to hit the brand ATM in the name of revenue for the business, but you can’t do that too often. Being clear on the job to be done is critical in order to understand the trade-offs you’ll make and whether they’re worth the trouble. Playing pretend that a product has no trade-offs is a recipe for disaster that I’ve seen too many times.
The further consideration is, as Troy Young recently laid out, what is your major. Publishers love to lie to themselves, and one of the key lies is that they’re great at many things. Publishers tend to have a major in content, distribution or monetization. They’ll often add a minor in one of these categories and muddle through the rest. I like to dabble in economics, but I majored in history so there’s a limit to how much ground I can cover when I try my hand at being a Twitter expert in quantitative easing and its impact on inflation.
When publishing products go wrong, they’re typically trying to do too many jobs, and taking on jobs that aren’t a good fit for their major. There was a great “In Living Color” skit in the 1990s called “Hey Mon,” where a West Indian family patriarch lectures his lazy son with only four jobs that he has 15 jobs. Publishers have taken the “Hey Mon” approach. There’s the inability to prioritize, often due to competing factions with different goals that leave the product group playing hostage negotiator. There is a tendency for all of us to want everything. We want a great apartment at a reasonable price in a great part of town, with ample sunlight, and easy access to shopping, restaurants and parks. Oh, and it needs to be both in New York City and Miami Beach. Well, good luck for most of us unless you sold your crypto at the top. Instead, you need to understand what’s the most important job to be done and live with the imperfection of the rest.
Rather than keep it theoretical, I’m going to get into a time machine to revisit the jobs done by different products during my time at Digiday, along with the tradeoffs. In a subsequent newsletter, I’ll address how this changes in a lean media approach geared to primary engagement publishing because I believe the path to a better model involves cutting down on the number of jobs to be done.
Job (audience): Information
Job (business): Exposure, some monetization (display and spon con), marketing (events/awards).
Majors: Distribution, monetization
Tradeoffs: Content often comes last because sites need to churn pageviews. You end up doing articles for algorithms to catch a bunch of fly-by-night traffic.
Job (audience): What they need to know to do their jobs
Job (company): Habit, user data, monetization
Majors: Content, distribution
Trade-offs: Email works. Send an email, people buy stuff. Ads are straightforward. But monetization is capped by limited surface area. That causes publishers to hit the brand ATM by sending ever more emails and shoving in more ads. The data always tells you to send more email, leading to an email queue resembling the line of cars looking to squeeze through the Holland Tunnel at 4:30pm on a Friday.
Job (audience): Access to leaders’ thinking
Job (company): Habit, influence
Trade-offs: Podcasts for most publishers rarely have the same reach as written content. Discovery is hard; slow growth is the only option. Monetization is adequate.
Job (audience): Networking, sales, validation
Job (company): Monetization
Trade-offs: Publishers are seduced by the ability of events to produce a good chunk of revenue at high margins. But they’re not scalable, and events can easily overwhelm an organization.
Job (audience): Casual read
Job (company): Brand
Majors: Content (design + writing)
Trade-offs: Magazines are a long walk for a small beer if you’re looking for an efficient way to make money. Spiraling paper costs aren’t helping. But they still have an important role to play elevating brands as a curated bundle that shows tangibly what the brand stands for.
Applying the jobs to be done framework can help you avoid investing in products that aren’t doing a clear job. Take video. We never prioritized it because the job to be done wasn’t clear. Business information is easier to consume through text, and video requires technical expertise we didn’t have and resources (money) that could be better spent on other jobs. Podcasts, on the other hand, played to a core major we had developed through events programming and regular text journalism.
The complexity arises when you drill down in these products. Take the site. Different aspects of the site have different jobs to be done, as with different types of content. An investigative piece uncovering a scandal isn’t doing the same work as an SEO article about how to see who viewed your TikTok profile. The former elevates the brand and its influence, although it’s impossible to justify the needed inputs to uncover wrongdoing based on the limited monetization the piece will generate in isolation – this is why I’m not fond of the unit-economics approach to publishing – while the latter is an efficient way to monetize that influence indirectly by glomming off the search authority accrued to the publisher. Different jobs to be done.
Simplification is powerful leverage. It allows you internally to understand clearly what you’re trying to accomplish rather than working at cross purposes and confusing, even infuriating, your audience.
The Substack alternative
Yes, this newsletter is published through Substack, but hear me out. Beehiiv is a Substack alternative – I have a small investment in it through The Rebooting Capital aka my checking account – founded by former Morning Brew senior product lead Tyler Denk. What I think Beehiiv is getting right is its focus on giving newsletter publishers the no-code tools they need to evaluate their performance and grow faster, like through an integrated referral program – and it’s not forcing newsletters into one business model. I’ve been impressed by how such a small team is pushing out updates and new features so often. Beehiiv is powering newsletters like ExecSum, Payload and The Publish Press. Check out Beehiiv, and if you’re interested in learning more about how easy it is to switch over, get in touch with Tyler directly.
For as long as podcasts have been around, they still are very immature. The metrics stink, distribution is tough and business models are rudimentary. As a form of personal engagement media, podcasts should, in theory, be ideal for subscription models. There’s starting to be movement on that front. My former colleague John McDermott upbraided me recently when I made an offhand remark that most podcasts rely on ads, bringing the receipts of Patreon’s top creator chart littered with podcasts. Publishers are catching on, with The Economist mulling an “audio paywall” and companies like Tortoise Media putting podcasts at the center of membership models. (On the latter, I’ll be interviewing Tortoise publisher Katie Vanneck-Smith at the FIPP World Congress next week.)
The sheen is off growth-at-all-costs “narratives” as the easy money era ends and a downturn looms. Alex Kantrowitz sees a vibe shift – are we still doing that? – to “sustainable, slow growth” approaches. The pendulum always swings back and forth, and it’s undeniably going to focus more on solid fundamentals during tight times. In publishing, lean media, fueled by slow growth, is far better positioned than bloated models.
The first rule of Substack is you talk about Substack… a lot. To be fair, I think Substack is a consequential company in a particular phase of the unbundling and subsequent rebundling of publishing. It has proven out the power of simplified business models, establishing trust and connection to individuals, and a path to growth that isn’t about gaming algorithms. Whether that makes for a good business, I have no idea. I’m partial to Casey Newton’s take that Substack’s failure to push through another big funding round at a sky-high valuation, on the back of just $9 million in revenue, is probably a good thing because it will force Substack to do more to help writers grow their businesses – and many, like Eric Newcomer, are quite nicely – instead of pursuing grand platform dreams of replacing Twitter.
The short-lived SPAC era of digital publishing was the CFO equivalent of the pivot to video. A few publishers got through to the other side, but all in all, SPACs turned out to be yet another mirage for publishers. BuzzFeed’s stock is now down 33% and the company is valued at under $500 million, barely a third of what its SPAC promised. Forbes is pulling the plug on its SPAC, following in the footsteps of Vice Media, which looks set for a breakup in parts. I don’t think we’ll hear much about that supposed Bustle Media Group public offering.
The unthinkable often suddenly becomes thinkable. The sheer number of legal assaults on Google across the world raise the distinct possibility that it could be forced to spin off, in some way, its advertising technology business. Not many bills get bipartisan support, so it’s noteworthy a bill to force Google to cleave off its ads business. This would have a massive impact on the digital advertising market. Google’s purchase of DoubleClick in 2007 was arguably the most consequential transaction for digital publishing, setting Google on course to dominate the digital ad market. To his credit, Jason Kint has beat the drum about the duopoly for years.
Thanks for reading. Next week, I’ll be in Cascais, Portugal, for the FIPP World Media Congress. Get in touch if you’ll be there and would like to meet up – and come to my talk about primary-engagement publishing, Q&A with Katie and the email newsletter workshop I’m leading.