By Jeremy Caplan
It’s easy to think about something you would like to create. What’s harder – and more important – is to try to stand in the shoes of those you aim to serve.
What are the challenges they face in their daily lives? What do they already read, watch or listen to? How do they access information? What do they enjoy most about the media they consume, and what do they find frustrating? What are the things they need to know about in order to make the most of each day?
When you understand your target community, you will spot gaps in the market. You might realise that in a community full of Spanish speakers, people have to rely on English-language reports for news about local schools.
It might also be that coverage of cancer research isn’t readily accessible to readers who get their news from social media platforms on their daily commute. Or that there are few podcasts for devout travellers. When you understand those you aim to serve, it is easier to address their needs.
If you are part of a community yourself, you have an advantage in that you are not starting from scratch. But to develop your understanding, it is important to interview people in the community.
These interviews should be open-ended. Think of these as opportunities to listen and learn. Ask questions about what keeps someone up at night. Ask what they are excited to wake up for in the morning. Ask what media they have consumed this week.
Pro tip: referring to “this week” or “today” in interviews ensures that people talk about their actual behaviour, not the behaviour they aspire to have.
You might learn things that surprise you. Once you have a grasp of what the present pain points are – and what is missing for the people you are aiming to serve – you are in a position to envision something that would address those gaps.
Second challenge: Settling on a clear, specific idea. Once you have identified a potential opportunity, the next step is to narrow your idea down so that it is manageable.
We often begin with big ambitions. We aim to create the next great fill-in-the-blank for a huge group of people. Even though you may dream of creating a business news service for all of Poland, for example, serving such a big market on many distinct business topics may not be feasible on day one.
Lofty aims might sound impressive, but the reality is that ventures with limited resources have to start small and narrow before they grow. It is not feasible to do many things at once when you have got a small team and minimal funding.
So your idea for a business news service for Poland may begin, instead, as a newsletter covering the financial services sector in Warsaw. In time, if readers find value in what you are creating, you can expand and add to the breadth or depth of your coverage.
Third challenge: Finding partners. Even as brilliant and capable as you are, you may not be able to do everything that your venture needs all by yourself. If you are like most successful entrepreneurs, you will need collaborators.
Identifying suitable people can be tricky, because your friends may not be suitable work partners and those you don’t yet know well may not end up being compatible.
Drafting a list of people you have worked with in the past can be a good way of identifying potential collaborators. Industry gatherings, social circles and alumni networks can also be useful.
Run through your LinkedIn connections and review other social network contacts. If there is someone who might be a good fit, see if you can collaborate on a small project to test compatibility.
Plan an event together or collaborate on an article. If friction arises or you find it difficult to make progress together, that could be a useful warning sign. If you identify someone who seems like a good fit, consider a short-term trial. That gives you the option of separating amicably if things don’t work out.
Fourth challenge: Getting the design right. Getting the look and feel of a new journalism product right is crucial. And it is hard. Not only do you have to provide accurate and engaging information, but you have to make sure your packaging and presentation is appealing as well.
People have so many information options that if something is confusing or unattractive, they will be tempted to click over to something easier on the eye.
As journalists, we may be tempted to focus exclusively on the substance of our content. But people evaluating a new product are often drawn in – or repelled – by their initial visual impressions.
Because journalists often don’t have training in user-experience design, they may not prioritise how the product looks and feels.
Here are some tips, one: if you are investing time or money on content, allocate a significant share towards images. Pictures drive first impressions.
Two: white space is crucial when people are processing complex ideas. Balance the amount of text on a page with empty space, just as you would avoid filling every inch of wall space with hangings.
Three: somewhere in your materials, state your project’s value in simple, clear terms in a large font. Consumers inevitably will ask themselves: “What’s in it for me?”
Four: simplify the initial action a customer can take. It should take just a few seconds for people to sign up for a newsletter or begin watching a video, playing a podcast episode or reading a story. Consumers who confront too many options, tabs or buttons are prone to flee.
The best way to tell if you are on the right track with your design is to silently watch someone using your product. Ask them to narrate what they are thinking and doing.
Avoid the temptation to coach them through it. Instead, watch and see where they look and what they try to do. Listen to the questions they ask along the way.
This process is standard across industries. Google tests its product testing this way as well. Listening and watching will yield strong signals about where your design choices are leading people.
Fifth challenge: Finding your 100th customer. Finding your first users beyond the circle of people you already know is a big challenge for journalism startups. Once you have a startup in development, it is usually easy to get your family and friends to try it out.
People who know you best are happy to serve as guinea pigs to lend you a hand. But when you are ready to move beyond your circle of acquaintances, you will have to take a big step forward in marketing.
If your product is a valuable one, it will do some of its own marketing, as word spreads from your friends to theirs. You will also want to extend your outreach efforts to reach new people. Some of that may entail writing personal notes, sending texts or making calls.
To engage people, you might also set up gatherings, run community events, or connect with influencers on social media. Creating content for other sites and social media platforms can also be useful as a form of content marketing. Throughout the process, focus on outreach channels that resonate with your specific community.
Sixth challenge: Finding the second value stream. Making a product useful for your primary target community isn’t always sufficient. In many cases you have to create value for a second community – those who are paying.
That might mean subscribers who pay for premium content. It could mean advertisers. Or it might mean consulting clients or those who sponsor your events.
If you are in a position to charge your consumers directly, your challenge is ensuring that the product is different enough from what is already available so that people will be willing to pay. Keep in mind that people who say they will pay in surveys may not actually pull out their wallets back at home.
If you are creating the kind of product that people expect to consume for free, your challenge will be to find third-party revenue. That may mean advertisers, foundation funders or clients who will pay for your services.
Regardless of how you plan to generate revenue, you are going to have to create and communicate a clear message about your venture’s value. Make sure you have that value in mind from day one.
Here is an example of how one successful news startup does it. In a pop-up box on its site, Morning Brew asks potential readers: “Want business news that’s actually enjoyable? Join over 1 million others and start your morning with our daily newsletter.”
The value Morning Brew promises is crystal clear, and an example of the newsletter is front and centre on the Morning Brew site for consumers to sample.
Seventh challenge: Staying committed through the inevitable slumps. Every new project encounters periods of uncertainty. In many cases, it takes far longer than entrepreneurs expect to find a match between the product they envision and its community. The challenge is to weather that period of uncertainty without giving up.
It is easy to lose courage when it seems like no one is consuming what you are producing. The temptation is to return to the familiar path – doing journalism in the same way you have done it in the past. Rather than forge ahead with something that has an uncertain future, you may feel tempted to give up and move on.
But if you have something of value to offer the community you are serving, your persistence may pay off. If you provide a valuable product or service, they will reward you with their attention. Once you have their attention, you are well along the way to developing a venture that can last.
A dispatch by the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet), a project of the Washington-based International Centre for Journalists. Jeremy Caplan is Director of Teaching and Learning at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in NYC.